We left Prague this morning and arrived in Olomouc, Czech Republic at 1:30 PM on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Our plans for the day included interviewing three Holocaust survivors, two of whom had never given a recorded testimony and one survivor who was instrumental in re-establishing the Jewish Community of Olomouc.
On our way to the Jewish Communtiy Center our guide gave us a brief tour of the major town square. At the center we were welcomed by Petr Papousak and leaders of the Jewish community and began setting the stage for the three interviews. The three survivors arrived, Milos Dobry, Petr Beck and Charles Wolf and after formal introductions the students began the interview process.
The student interview teams were divided into three separate rooms for the interviews and the teachers and Shalmi Barmore circulated through the rooms monitoring the process and offered clarification and support when needed. Milos Dobry was interviewed by Victoria, Libby, Matt Berner and Tim in the synagogue of the Jewish Community Center. Milos was a survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Sachenhausen and is an active speaker in the Czech schools, universities and community groups. In fact, Milos is the survivor that we first contacted a few years ago to find the rescuers of the Wolf family in Trsice. In establishing the relationship with Trsice, he has played an integral role.
The next two groups had an opportunity to interview survivors of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz both giving recorded testimony for the first time. In one group, Erin, Natalie and Nick interviewed Petr Beck and in the other group Kayla, James, Rebecca and Matt Bachman interviewed Charles Wolf.
Prior to the trip, students had been assigned to an interview group and through the use of collaborative internet tools they developed a series of questions for the interview. Last night, the students engaged in a dialogue with Shalmi who as former Director of Education at Yad Vashem had extensive experience interviewing Holocaust survivors. He was able to communicate to students that interviewing a Holocaust survivor is a unique process and requires special skills and sensitivity.
At the conclusion of the interviews, all participants shared a homemade kosher meal which included Challah, Matzoh ball soup and a chicken dish, prepared by the generous members of the Olomouc Jewish Community.
Our students recognized the magnitude of this experience, which is the result of a conversation that we had last year with Petr Papousak. We were amazed to learn from Petr that there were more than 30 Holocaust survivors in the Olomouc community whom had never told their stories publicly.
From this conversation we continued a dialogue with Petr about preserving their stories by engaging our students annually in an effort to rescue this evidence for future generations. Upon returning to the hotel, students shared their interview experiences while Shalmi and the teachers were able to help students reflect upon the different reactions of the survivors and how the telling of the survivor stories was shaped by their emotions. After this discussion, students realized that they had become a part of a rare and unique opportunity to preserve history.
Today I received the chance of a lifetime to meet a Holocaust survivor. Everyone hears about the Holocaust and to most of us it is just facts and statistics. Most people don’t understand or thoroughly comprehend what happened. It’s not until you either see it yourself or hear from someone who was there, that you can truly begin to understand. Today I can say that I have begun to understand. Before today the most I could get from learning about the Holocaust was the numbers, facts and a few theories.
Today I met Petr Beck. When Petr was 15, he, his parents and older brother were deported. Their jobs, the few friends they had, all gone. Petr told his entire story, something he hadn’t told even to his wife of almost 60 years. During his three year imprisonment in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, he told that he survived because of his profession. Having the skills of an electrician saved his life.
Petr was almost 18, had already lost his mother and older brother to the gas chambers and was almost starving to death. In a desperate attempt to save his life, after eight people in front of him were shot and killed, Petr couldn’t continue on in the death march and in a final attempt to live, he threw himself onto one of the dead bodies before him and pretended to be dead.
My group and Petr were total strangers. We had perhaps a few minutes of informal conversation and soon started the interview. There was nothing that truly obligated him to tell us his difficult story. I believe that he wanted his story to remain as his legacy …a warning to everyone.
The entire interview was surreal to me. I found it hard to believe that someone could go through all that and still sit before me in a collected manner and tell me a part of his life he had not shared with any others. I think that this was very brave of him to do this.
Victoria and Libby say:
Today we were given the wonderful opportunity to hear the story of Holocaust survivor, Milos. Upon meeting Milos, one of the first questions we asked him was “Have you changed your name?” We expected the obvious answer, “No.” Instead he answered that upon liberation he had changed his name from Gut, which is good in German, into Czech, making it Dobry. We were fascinated by this because most Jews ran from their heritage after the Holocaust; however, he embraced it. He denied his name Gut because its association to Germany. The Holocaust allowed Milos to become closer to who he was as a person, which displayed his strength.
Not only did we get to hear his story, we got to interact with history by interviewing and discovering his side of the story. We were honored to experience such a personal interaction because as we all realize today, our generation will be the last to discover for ourselves the truths of the Holocaust. As we saw the emotion on his face, we were in awe by the strength that he demonstrated while telling his story. When we asked him how he survived, he attributed his survival to “80% luck and 20% personal initiative.” We could apply this later on in life to know that we could only rely on ourselves to a certain extent. To display such resilience and to have that strength was part of the reason why he survived.