The official end of the Holocaust was May, 1945. In the 73 years since, many of the survivors of the genocide have passed away, but some are still here and telling their stories, including some survivors in Maine, who are seeking a younger audience to keep theses stories from being forgotten.
On a recent weekday morning, Charles Rotmil sits down in front of a large, blue projector screen at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta.
He begins to recite a story he has told to thousands of students across Maine.
“I was born in Strasbourg, which is on the border of France and Germany,” Rotmil begins.
On this day, he’s speaking to just a handful of students. He shows them an image of a young girl being executed by Nazi officials.
“This girl is 16 years old. How old are you? How old are you?” he asks the students.
“Thirteen,” they respond.
“Can you imagine?” he asks.
Rotmil tells them that he’s a “witness,” a “hidden child.” A Jewish boy who grew up in Hitler’s Germany during the time of the Holocaust and who lost his mother, sister and father. As millions of Jews were taken from their homes and sent to concentration camps, Rotmil and his brother went into hiding. They found shelter with a Catholic monk, and later with a Catholic family.
But Rotmil says he still came face-to-face with death on multiple occasions: Nazi soldiers, he says, would ransack the homes of people they suspected were harboring Jews.
“The interrogation, there would be a desk with a lamp, shining in your eye,” he says. “And one-by-one, they were interrogating people. And then one-by-one, they fell into a truck that was waiting outside. Well, my turn came. And one of them says, ‘Bist du Jude?’ ‘Are you a Jew?’”
On the large projection screen, Rotmil displays newspaper headlines and the kind of hateful messages he’d see every day.
“We talk about fake news, all you had was propaganda,” Rotmil says.”You just made a practice. You don’t believe what you hear. And you half-believe what you saw in the newspaper.”
Yet it was a newspaper ad — in a German-language Jewish publication in the United States — that ultimately brought Rotmil to America. Rotmil’s aunt and uncle saw his name in a list of survivors published in the months following the end of World War II. In 1946, at the age of 14, Rotmil emigrated to the United States. But for decades, he says, he still hid his story and identity. Afraid it could make him a target, even in a new country.
“In fact, my brother was very against talking about it. He said, ‘You’re dwelling on the past,’” Rotmil says. “And I said to him, ‘Look. I don’t dwell on the past. The past dwells in me. It’s there. It’s churning.’”
About 30 years ago, with the encouragement of the former director of Maine’s Holocaust and Human Rights Center, Rotmil says he decided to tell his story publicly. It was nerve-wracking, he says, to share long-hidden details. But he soon saw the impact, as students would come up to him from the audience and share their own stories of trauma.
David Greenham is the associate director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, which later this week will bring together Rotmil and others with first-hand stories for an event looking back on the 80th anniversary of “Kristallnacht.” That was the night in 1938 when troops across Germany destroyed stores, buildings and synagogues and arrested thousands of Jewish residents.
“It’s a story of the rhetoric suddenly and, on purpose, turning to violence,” Greenham says. “And here we are, in a time of tremendous rhetoric. What are the limits of rhetoric? How far does our freedom of speech get stretched before violence happens? Before something occurs?”
Edith Pagelson, another Holocaust survivor who will also take part in the event, says she sees some of that hateful rhetoric manifesting itself currently, across the country and Western world.
“I always say, it can come here. We have to watch out,” she says. “I also say, ‘It’s a free country. But don’t abuse that (freedom).’ That’s what I’m saying.”
Pagelson says she was devastated when she heard the news late last month that 11 people were killed in a shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. The attack comes as anti-Semitic hate crimes are already on the rise.
Yet Pagelson is also encouraged by the response to the shooting, bringing together thousands of people in vigils nationwide, representing many different faiths.
“That makes me feel good. It does,” she says. “My son called me from upstate New York. He went to a service in Saratoga Springs. And he says, ‘All the churches came.’ That was a good one.”
Charles Rotmil was encouraged by the response, too. But he also says it’s important to keep telling his story so lessons aren’t forgotten, years down the road.
“People like me are disappearing,” he says. “So [students] had the opportunity to meet a witness. Like, I started my talk, that I’m not a historian. I’m a witness. I was there.”
Rotmil will tell his story again Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.
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