Holocaust survivor recalls the child victims
While presenting a story of survival Robert Herschkowitz paused for the audience to gaze at a photo of several women and their children walking unknowingly to their death. “People will remember the scene of a photograph,” he said. “The visual impact I think is most important.”Their names are unknown, said the 70-year-old Holocaust survivor, but the when, May 1944, and the where, Auschwitz Concentration Camp, are forever engraved into the world’s memory.
“That’s the portrait of victims,” Herschkowitz said. “There were very few child survivors.”
But he was one of them, as he escaped with his family from Belgium and survived the struggles of hate. On Oct. 24, he shared the stories of the children of the Holocaust at the Second Annual Powell and Heller Family Conference in Support of Holocaust Education in the Scandinavian Cultural Center.
It’s important to hear about the lives of survivors, said Provost Patricia O’Connell Killen. It was a time and experience that has come to symbolize great courage and cruelty, she said.
“What you are today matters profoundly,” Killen told the crowd.
Re-learning history is very important, Herschkowitz said, and conferences like this keep it in the world’s consciousness.
“(Genocide) still happens,” he said. “That’s the problem.”
“If we learn one thing from history it’s we don’t learn anything,” he added.
No one knows for sure, but it is estimated that 1.5 million children were killed during the Holocaust. No more than 11 percent of children sent to concentration camps survived, while as many as one in three adults survived to liberation.
It’s because children had no value to the Nazis, Herschkowitz said. He was one of the lucky ones who survived. As a young child he escaped Belgium with both his parents to France.
Once in unoccupied France, his family hid their identity as Jews by buying fake documents and sending Herschkowitz to a Catholic school.
The time was confusing for him, because as a little boy all he wanted to do was join the French Nazi Milices because all his friends would play by pretending to be the soldiers. By 1942, his family was arrested. They went to the French work camp Riversaltes, where his father would remain. Herschkowitz and his mother would be sent to a village in the mountains.
In 1943, the French began offering to send Riversaltes prisoners to Auschwitz, portraying it as a place where they would get food and shelter. His father did not trust their offer, but his uncle took his chances with the Germans, assuming they would treat him better than the French. Upon his arrival he was killed in the gas chambers.
It was clear to Herschkowitz’s father he needed to escape. He was able to get away and reconnect with his family. They took their chances crossing the Alps into Switzerland and although they were put into a criminal camp once there, they survived.
“My story is unusual,” Herschkowitz said, “I came back with my parents.”
The effects of the Holocaust go beyond death, Herschkowitz said. Of the few children that survived, many were left alone, orphaned and without the knowledge of who they were.
“It is missing,” Herschkowitz said.
Some have lived their whole lives without knowing where they were born, when their birthday is or who their parents were.
So even though a child survived the Holocaust, their history disappeared, Herschkowitz said.