PRAGUE, Czech Republic — For a group of high school students visting here from New Jersey, talking with 89-year-old Pavel Stransky was like having a character from a history book step off the page to recall a love story that collided with the darkest days of the Holocaust.
The scene was the winter of 1943 and after two years in the Terezin concentration camp Stransky, who was then a 22-year-old Jew from Prague, was facing deportation to Auschwitz. He was also deeply in love.
He had met the girl of his dreams — a striking brunette named Vera Stadler — five years earlier.
It was a riveting tale of remembrance. And the students were mesmerized as Stransky calmly unfolded his tale of war and love at a time in history that seems almost impossible to fathom, but which the trip’s organizers deeply believe needs to be remembered.
Remembrance is the goal of the Holocaust Study Tour 2010, which brought 11 American high school students to the Czech Republic to reach back 70 years into the past.
Stransky continued his story of survival as the students listened at a gathering in a hotel here over the weekend.
“We met during summer holiday in 1938,” he said. “I was 17, she was 16, and she was beautiful. It was love at first sight.”
But now he had a one-way ticket to Auschwitz. The young lovers couldn't bear to be separated, but the only way she could go with him was if she was his wife.
“So the day before [my departure] we got married; and we spent our wedding night in front of 2,500 unhappy prisoners,” he said. “And our honeymoon was to the greatest extermination camp — Birkenau.”
Colleen Tambuscio, who teaches a course on the Holocaust and Genocide at New Milford High School in New Jersey, is the trip's chief organizer.
She said the idea to bring students to the land where the Holocaust happened occurred to her after she took a similar trip for teachers in 1997.
“My feeling after I went on that trip was — 'if you are going to do this for anybody you should do it for students,'” Tambuscio said.
This is her 10th trip, and 120 students have accompanied her so far. But this type of hands on history doesn't come cheaply. The trip costs $5,500 per student. A mix of private donations from individuals, foundations and corporations make the trip possible, she said.
But Tambuscio doesn't want the students to merely touch history. She wants them to apply it to the world they live in.
“I hope they take away a better understanding of the history,” Tambuscio said, “but more importantly I hope they take away a sense of responsibility for heeding the warnings of genocide in our society; and not only in America but around the world.”
The students began their trip last week in Berlin, and this week they'll visit other parts of the Czech Republic and then travel to Auschwitz before returning home.
Rebecca McCarten, a sophomore at New Milford High School, said the trip has given her a whole new perspective.
“A different view on life and to appreciate what I have more,” she said. “I can't stop a genocide from happening but ... I can give my views on it, and keep passing the word on.”
Back before the students, Stransky calmly recalled how his father had committed suicide before the war, in order to avoid the nightmare Stransky would eventually endure. He told the students of a horrific train ride to Auschwitz in which many didn't survive. And those who did couldn't grasp the magnitude of the horror that lay before them.
“Prisoners from the main camp at Auschwitz ... whispered in our ears, 'You see the smoke and the chimneys? This is the only way out from Auschwitz — through the chimneys,'" Stransky said. “And we didn't understand what a nonsense they are talking about. Later, of course, we found out.”
Ninety percent of the 1.1 million people who perished at Auschwitz were Jews, and virtually all of them were gassed to death.
Miraculously both Stransky and his wife survived seven months in Auschwitz.
“On July 1, 1944, I was on the first transport out, and left Auschwitz alive — not through the
chimney.” But then he lost contact with his beloved Vera.
By April 1945, it was clear Germany would lose the war, but Stransky's survival hung in the balance. For him the war ended with a 19-day death march over 124 miles.
“On May 7, 1945, the SS suddenly stopped our march and went away,” he said. “And we stood free on the road. I weighed only 70 pounds. If the march had lasted another day or two I would have died.”
The students sat in stunned silence.
Nathali Arias, a junior at McNair high school in Jersey City said Stransky's tale was spectacular.
“I thought it was like a Hollywood story,” she said.
So far on this journey, she added, “We really haven't heard much happy endings. The fact that it's true, and that sparkle in his eyes when he was talking about it — I was moved. I couldn't believe it.”
Historian Shalmi Barmore gives the students perspective as they travel around the region
“What we're actually teaching them beyond the history is to look at things; to absorb things from different perspectives and to think about them,” he said. “We're not trying to give a synopsis or a one-word lesson.”
As for Stransky, he finally made his way back to Prague and slowly began to recuperate.
“Two months later, in July 1945, on the happiest day of my life, my wife rang the doorbell,” he said, his voice filled with emotion. “She stood before me as beautiful as ever. That's why I say our holocaust story was also a love story.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct where Pavel Stransky met with students. It was also updated to make a spelling correction.