Holocaust Survivor Paul Kessler visited with Mason Middle School students on September 27 to share his personal story and the lessons he learned from this tragic mass genocide.
Kessler was born in September 1939 in Vroanov Nad Toplou, Czechoslovakia (Slovakia today), a small peasant village of approximately 3,000. His world was already at war.
Kessler’s father and other family members were in one of the first groups of men to be sent to Auschwitz under the guise of forcibly recruiting men for labor. He later learned, as a grown man, that his father died about three months after being shipped off. He showed students the paper that listed his father’s arrival in Auschwitz on April 17, 1942, and his death on June 10 of that same year. “I always thought the Germans came, took my father, my family,” he said. “But it was our neighbors. They shipped him to his death just because he was born Jewish.”
Kessler, his mother and extended family relocated to a nearby village where other families who sympathized with their plight took them into their homes. However, their safety was unstable. “In the middle of the night, we were awakened by yelling: ‘Run, the Germans are here,’” Kessler shared. He and his mother escaped to the forest where they lived for two to three weeks before his mother spoke with the villagers and struck some sort of deal with the conscientious peasants who were willing to risk their lives to protect them.
“My mother saw some of the people, went and spoke to them and they came and brought us back to the village,” he remembered. “Behind their house, they dug a hole in the ground, and they put us in that hole, covering it with limbs, twigs and manure.”
Kessler and his mother had a small blanket, and the kind villagers lowered cold soup and the odd piece of bread down that hole on a daily basis. He estimates that he was in that hole for eight months when he was 5 or 6 years old. “My mother often went without food because I was so hungry and cold,” he said.
On May 9, 1945, the Russians liberated the region. Kessler and his mother came out of their dungeon, weak, malnourished and unable to open their eyes in the bright sunlight. As Kessler regained some strength, he found that neighbors hid his aunt and uncle just across the street. Weeks later, they returned to Vroanov Nad Toplou. A few weeks after that, his grandmother returned home.
Severely malnourished and still weak from his confinement, Kessler spent a year bedridden before he could begin his life again. He immigrated to Los Angeles in 1951 with his mother.
“From 1933-1945, bystanders were guilty of a conspiracy of silence and indifference,” he said. But Kessler looks back on the brave acts of the villagers who protected him and his family with immense gratitude. “These people saved us. They risked their lives to save another human being they hardly knew,” he added.
He calls these brave peasants ‘upstanders,’ and he tries to teach and encourage others to stand up against hate and speak up against intolerance—to become upstanders themselves. “I only know two races: The race of the decent man and the race of the not decent man,” he said.
Now, more than 70 years after the Holocaust ended, Kessler said it seems like it happened in another world. “You never forget,” he said. “It was a nightmare. Human beings killing children in front of their parents, and parents being killed in front of their children.”
Kessler cited that six million Jews were murdered during this time period; the Nazis killed two-thirds of all Jews living in Europe. “Eleven million people total died in the Holocaust simply because they didn’t fit into the Aryan race as defined by Hitler,” he noted. “Ultimately, 50 million people perished in World War II because of a madman.”
“Never Again” is the motto of the Dallas Holocaust Museum Center for Education and Tolerance where Kessler is an education speaker. He hopes to prevent this from ever happening again by sharing his stories. He encourages students especially to not be silent, invoking an inspirational Albert Einstein quote: “The world is a dangerous place to live in. Not because of those that would do you harm but because of those who would sit and let it happen,” Kessler said. “If you see bullying, do something about it. Don’t just sit there. You have to take a stand—you have to be an ‘upstander’ not a bystander.”