Rosalyn Kirkel was born in Lithuania, Osi Sladek in Czechoslovakia, and Jack Alder in Poland. Before they were even teenagers, all three felt the horrific power of Nazi Germany.
More than 6 million Jews were killed by Axis military powers between 1939 and 1945, a period of time known as the Holocaust. Holocaust Awareness Week, spearheaded by Hillel and the Students for Holocaust Awareness, started Monday with events that included a survivors' panel in which Alder, Sladek and Kirkel spoke about their experiences as children during the Holocaust
Kirkel lost her mother, sister and brother in ghettos and labor camps. Sladek and his parents retreated farther and farther into the forests of Slovakia until they were trapped, clinging to life in the mountains between the Russian and German army forces. Alder rescued his 9-year-old sister from extermination in Polish ghettos only to see her sent to the gas chambers two years later.
Alder remembers being shipped to a concentration and labor camp, where the Nazis separated the able-bodied from the sick, and prisoners offered chilling advice.
"They whispered to us, 'Look strong if you want to live," Alder said. "Once again, the old and the sick and the weak were asked to move to the right – my little sister, who I saved for two years."
Alder bowed his head for a moment at the memory. He is the only member of his immediate family – parents, two sisters and a brother – to survive the Holocaust. Of the more than 80 members of his extended family in Europe during World War II, only a handful survived.
Kirkel's mother had her smuggled out of the ghettos after her older brother was "vanished" by the Nazis. No records exist of her family members' deaths – they, like many others, slipped through the Nazis' record-keeping systems during a rush of prisoners sent to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
Even as the Germans were losing the war, they were sending Jewish people, homosexuals, political opponents and the mentally and physically disabled to death camps at an increasingly hurried pace. As Alder noted, if the Allies had bombed the railroads leading to Auschwitz in 1944, they would have averted the death of more than a million people.
Kirkel's mother was sent to a German camp after the Germans dissolved the Lithuanian labor camp at which she was held. It was a labor camp, Kirkel said, not an extermination camp. But that hardly matters.
"People died everywhere, just more efficiently in the extermination camps in Poland," she said.
For Sladek, there was no concentration camp – just a pact with his parents to survive the war, whatever it took. After evading periodic "sweeps," when the Nazis took Jews from their homes in the night and sent them to labor and death camps, the Sladeks finally decided to send 8-year-old Sladek to live with relatives in Hungary, where Jews were still safe. But in March 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary, and Sladek, guided by premonition, begged to return to his parents.
"If the Germans take me away, I want to be with my parents, not with my aunt and uncle," he said.
After weeks of mischief, his relatives gave in and sent Sladek back to his parents. The three spent the next few years working their way farther and farther from urban areas, occasionally protected by commandos, who liberated one of the towns the Sladeks were staying in. Finally, the family was driven into the mountains.
"That was our fate at that point," Sladek said. "We had to go to the mountains. It was the only place we could seek some shelter."
After the Sladeks survived a German raid, they had to retreat still farther into the mountains and struggle to survive, sustained by the food occasionally brought by one of the commandos.
"We had no idea what's going to happen. All we know is, 'We're going to perish if something doesn't happen very soon,'" Sladek said.
The Good In Every Soul
For Alder, Kirkel and Sladek, the Holocaust was a time of horror and trauma. But it was also a time of hope. For each story of hatred and abuse by the Nazis, there were people who offered shelter, food and love. These people, Alder said, are a reminder that no race or nationality has a monopoly on good and evil.
For Alder, that hope was a German officer who left carefully wrapped bits of food in his office stove for the near-starving boy to find as he swept the stove out each morning.
"(The officer) was a decent human being, and I'm sure there were many like him, who got caught up in something over their heads, and did not hesitate when they had a chance to do something humane," Alder said.
For Kirkel, hope was the Christian couple that named her Zulita and hid her, risking death by defying Nazi law and harboring a Jewish child. Hope was a family friend who smuggled Kirkel as a toddler out of the Lithuanian ghetto and helped her father recover his daughter when the war ended.
"She said, many years later, she told me, 'Rosalyn, I couldn't not do it,'" Kirkel said.
For Sladek there was much hope. It was a local judge who helped the family avoid the dreaded deportations and a group of gentile friends who hid them during nighttime raids.
"(The judge) would send a message to my father and say, 'Tomorrow and the day after, disappear,'" Sladek said.
Despite what they have endured, all three have built lives for themselves in the United States. They have children and grandchildren and a determination to share the memories – and messages- of the Holocaust with other generations.
For Alder, the horrific experiences of three concentration camps, two ghettos and a death march boils down to one simple lesson for the future: respect.
"Don't love me, don't like me, just respect me as a human being," he said.
Sladek warned against complacency.
"Complacency is the biggest sin there is," he said. "The world was complacent when we were experiencing our trouble. We all have to worry about something. We have no guarantees."
Audience reactions to the survivors' panel were emotionally charged, even for those who have seen it before.
"I've heard one of the speakers before and it still has a huge impact on me," said Rachel Singer, a senior psychology major and member of Hillel and Students for Holocaust Awareness.
For some residents, the event is especially poignant because, as survivors grow older and pass on, their stories are lost.
"I think all of us realize that this is that last generation that can tell us (firsthand)," said community member Shirley Payne. "I think it's important not to forget."
Mary Kay Pixley agreed. She feels so strongly, in fact, that the CSU human resource services employee brought her daughter and grandsons, wanting the boys to hear survivors' stories while the opportunity is still available.
"It just devastates me," Pixley said, nearly crying. "And I think it's so important, I just really wanted my grandsons to come."