On the night before his seventh birthday, Peter Ney lived through the infamous Kristallnacht. On November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, or the “Night of broken glass,” his home was ransacked. It was the night his father realized that things were not going to change.
Monday night at the Lory Student Center, the 11th annual survivors panel gave students the rare opportunity to hear stories of holocaust survivors from the survivors themselves. Speakers Osi Sladek, Peter Ney and Lillian Gewirtzman shared their tales before opening the floor for questions from the audience.
“I think they should get the message that these things start small and innocuous and snowball until people are getting killed,” said Ney, a Nuremburg survivor. “You should be sensitive to when racial, religious or ethnic hatred starts to show and stamp it out then rather than wait until it is too late.”
Students for Holocaust Awareness, a committee within Hillel, organized the event as part of Holocaust awareness week. The week’s message, “Do not stand idly by” comes from the Jewish scripture Leviticus 19:16 which reads, “Thou shalt not stand idly by when a human life is in danger.”
“In order to prevent it happening today, we need to know what happened in the past,” said Molly Zwerdlinger, a freshman political science major and member of Students for Holocaust Awareness.
First to share her story was Lillian Gewirtzman. After spending three years recording survivor stories for the Spielberg Foundation, Gewirtzman says her own story was “the best scenario.”
When she was six, her Polish family was deported to a Russian labor camp in European Siberia, where she was politically “brainwashed” by friendly women with cookies in what the Russians called “proper education.”
“In one year I had forgotten being a little loved princess at home,” she said.
Gewirtzman recalls trying to escape with her family across a river. Her mother used her own body as a shield to protect her children from bullets falling from the sky.
“Little kids don’t really care who is throwing fire from the sky,” Gewirtzman said. “We just don’t want to die when we are little kids.”
But children did die. Many refugees died of diphtheria and scarlet fever while waiting for the chance to return home.
For Gewirtzman, there was no home to go back to. Her family was taken to a German displaced person’s camp where she described her stay at the camp as “a time of regeneration.”
Osi Sladek spoke second.
“I am probably one of the youngest survivors among the survivors of the world,” Sladek said. At one time, Sladek thought his youth made his story unworthy of being told, but as fewer and fewer survivors remain, now more than ever, his story needs to be told.
“A pandemic of hate spread my country,” he said. “.The kind of hate the world did not see before.”
Sladek recounted being beat up at school, punished by teachers and called names for being a Jew until, finally, Jews were no longer allowed to attend school.
“My personal Holocaust started with a yellow star,” he said.
In 1942, all young Jewish people were shipped to work camps.
“The Germans were masters of deceit,” Sladek said. “That was the greatest tragedy that fell on the Jewish people. You begin to lose faith in humanity.”
As Jews were being taken to camps in Poland, a soldier warned Sladek’s mother to make sure her family wasn’t taken. Sladek considers the soldier as an angel, a “Righteous Gentile.”
For his protection, Sladek’s parents sent him to Hungary, but he soon returned, as he didn’t want to leave his family. He and his parents eventually took shelter in a cave in the mountains. After joining a band of partisans, his family was taken by Russian soldiers back to their home- their city had been liberated.
“I believe there is a God because I always prayed to God in hiding,” Sladek said. Ney was last to speak. He told of his Kristallnacht birthday and of his father wisely placing him in the British “Kinder Transport program.” Ney said that of the 10,000 children who escaped to England, only 1,000 ever saw their parents again. He was one of the fortunate few.
Attending were about 40 students from Turning Point Center for Youth and Family Development, 1644 S. College Ave.
“We just finished the novel, ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel,” said Turning Point English teacher Josh Richey. “I’m trying to create a connection.”
Hedy Berman, director of Hillel said she hoped that people would not only hear the stories but also pass them on.
“There is no innocent bystander when it comes to opposing hate.”