|Eric Cahn will be speaking on the Holocaust Survivor's Panel tonight at 7 p.m. in the Main Ballroom of the Lory Student Center.|
Eric Cahn was only 2 years old when Nazis knocked on the door of his family's home in Mannheim, Germany. They arrived to relocate the Jewish family to a detention camp.
Cahn, along with his 4-month-old sister and his parents, was transported by truck to a nearby railroad station. There they were deposited onto a freight train with hundreds of other Jews to be hauled like animals to a detention camp called Camp Gurs in the southern part of France. The date was Oct. 22, 1940.
The camp was run by the French government, of which the Nazis were in charge. Cahn said there were 12,000 men, women and children at the camp at the beginning of the winter of 1940 and 1941. By the end of the winter, more than 1,000 of them either froze to death or died of disease or starvation.
Cahn and his family survived at Camp Gurs until August 1942, when his parents made a critical decision. They were able to give him and his sister to the French resistance, by which they were rescued from the camp.
"If they had not given us up," Cahn said, "I would not be alive today to talk about it."
Less than one month later, on Sept. 16, 1942, Cahn's parents were taken from Camp Gurs and sent to Poland, where they arrived at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Of the 1,003 people on that train, only 38 remained alive when Auschwitz was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945. Cahn's father was one of them; his mother was not.
Cahn said the first thing the incoming Jews saw at Auschwitz were Nazi officers and doctors standing on the platform at the train station. As each person passed, the officers pointed either to the left or to the right. The people who went right were given a chance to survive.
The lucky ones that had skill or musical talent were allowed to become carpenters, janitors, seamstresses or band members. The others lived on one meal of watery soup and stale bread a day, were forced to dig mass graves, pull the dead out of the gas chambers and dig the bones of babies and young children out of the ovens.
The people sent to the left were not even given this chance. These unfortunates were usually under the age of 12, older than 60, looked to be in bad health or had some kind of physical handicap.
"If I or my sister would have been on that train," Cahn said, "we would have gone to the left. If you went to the left, that meant you would die that day."
Most were stripped, shaved and gassed within minutes. Others were taken to have medical experiments performed on them; the Nazis didn't bother with anesthetic.
When Cahn's parents arrived at Auschwitz, his father was directed toward the right. His mother, though, was sent to the left and died that day at the age of 29.
"She had never committed a crime," Cahn said. "She had never hurt anyone. She was killed because she was Jewish – no other reason."
Cahn and his sister were lucky.
"In addition to the brave, courageous and heroic people of the French resistance, there were also French families who took in children like me to hide them from the Nazis." Cahn said,
A French Christian family took Cahn in and risked their lives to save his. He lived in the family's basement from August 1942 to the spring 1944. His first memories are of living in that basement.
"I very seldom got to go outside," Cahn said. "My rescue family took very good care of me. They fed me very well, and they spent as much time as they could in the basement with me. They had to be very careful not to raise suspicions from the Nazis outside. They took tremendous risks and saved my life."
In spring 1944, when the Nazis no longer occupied that part of France, Cahn was reunited with his sister. The people of the French resistance had tracked which children were taken where, and were able to take Cahn and his sister to the same orphanage outside of Paris. They lived at the orphanage until fall 1946.
Cahn's father had searched for his children since Auschwitz was liberated and finally found them at the orphanage that fall.
"He had survived Auschwitz," Cahn said. "Physically he was OK, but as a person he lost an awful lot. He never spoke about his experience or what he had done to survive."
Because of what he had gone through, Cahn's father felt he was not able to be the father he wanted to be. He made plans to send Cahn and his sister to the United States to live with their grandparents, and they arrived in Colorado in spring 1950.
Cahn eventually graduated from CU-Boulder, married and had children of his own. He and his sister lost contact with their father over the years, but on a trip to Europe in 1970 Cahn was able to find him and spend one evening with him. His father died of natural causes in 1975.
Cahn has searched over the years for the French Christian family that took him in and saved his life, but has never been able to locate them. He considers it a real loss in his life that he has never been able to thank the family that saved him.
"I was very, very fortunate that I had very good people who took risks that most of us would never take," Cahn said. "I've had a very good life here in America, and I'm very thankful for what has happened to me."
Kristen Majors can be reached at email@example.com