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Studying the Holocaust requires more than just learning history

PRAGUE — Holocaust survival stories are, by definition, remarkable because so few survived. But even by that remarkable standard, Pavel Stransky's story stands out.

Terezin was not an extermination camp but rather a transit camp, where Jews and other prisoners were generally held until being sent to other camps, most often extermination camps, to the east. But more than 30,000 prisoners died at Terezin as a result of appalling hygienic conditions, a shear dearth of food and water, hard, manual, labor and simply sadistic, random, killings by the Nazi guards.

One way or anther, no one was supposed to stay in Terezin for very long. That Stransky survived there for two years is remarkable; and that his beloved Vera managed to stay with him virtually all of that time (she arrived later) makes it all the more unusual. Then they both went to Auschwitz, and even more miraculously Pavel survived seven months there; and Vera longer.

As he recounts in the story, up to that point no prisoner had ever left Auschwitz by any means other than through the chimneys of crematoriums. But in the summer of 1944 Pavel found himself on the first transport train out of Auschwitz. (His by-then wife Vera survived there even longer.) And then those death marches at the end of the war — as the name implies — killed so many more. Yet, again, Pavel survived. And that Vera survived it all too, makes it a truly remarkable story.

I have visited Terezin many times over the years but my first trip in autumn 1992 was transformative. It was with a group of university students, and we were accompanied by Holocaust survivor and RAF (Royal Air Force) pilot Jan Weiner. Jan's mother perished at Terezin and he was with his father in the former Yugoslavia when his father decided he couldn't run from the Nazis anymore, and took his own life. Before the Nazis had seized Czechoslovakia in 1940, anti-Semitic tensions were already growing. At one point Jews had to declare each article of clothing when traveling by train or bus, and Jan wanted to get away. The customs officer refused him a few articles of clothing and then saw Jan had packed six pairs of shoes.

“Dirty Jew,” he sneered, “you won't live long enough to wear out one pair of shoes,” as Jan retells the story. He was denied five pairs of shoes. After the war Jan walked into the office of this bureaucrat, who vaguely remembered him. Jan reminded the man that he once thought Jan wouldn't live long enough to wear out a pair of shoes, and pulled out his revolver and pointed it at the man. As Jan tells it, 'the man's face cleared with recognition; his voice trembled, “Please don't, I have family.'” And with that Jan put his revolver away and walked out.

I had been in then Czechoslovakia about two months before my first trip to Terezin. By then the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution were nearly three years in the past. But the collapse of the Soviet Union had occurred less than a year earlier, and one didn't need to have read Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History" to feel as though Western liberal democracy had finally won the last ideological political battle.

So on a brilliant autumn day a tour guide showed us around the squalid confines of the Terezin camp; and Jan interjected his real life recollections from the past, which included showing us where his mother had died.

After the morning tour of the camp the group stepped into a restaurant for lunch. Somehow I was the first one finished eating (I'm usually the last) and the beautiful day beckoned me outside. I walked around the square and by happenstance I met Jan at a sun-drenched corner. The image of that moment is seared into my memory. The amber leaves danced in the light autumn breeze. The sun was deliciously warm. The square was deserted. Jan, 72, still had a firm jaw, pure white hair, an elegant mustache and wore a tweed jacket. He put his hands in his pocket, looked around, soaked in the peace and tranquility of that brilliant autumn day and casually declared, “It will all be back.”

Nothing more needed to be said — I knew exactly what he meant: ethnic hatred, war, genocide. Jan wasn't making a political statement; he was making a sociological observation — and I never looked at the world the same way again.

The day I spent with the young American students this past weekend had many striking moments — the rapt attention with which they listened to Pavel Stransky's story; the shocked looks on their faces as they walked through parts of the Terezin camp and the solemnity of the moment when they all assembled in front of a monument of 82 children who were gassed to death by the Nazis in what was the village of Lidice.

I was also struck by the various comments from the students and the adults. But when New Milford High School teacher Colleen Tambuscio said of the students, “I hope they take away a sense of responsibility for heading the warnings of genocide in our society; and not only in America but around the world,” I was reminded of the moment Jan Weiner changed my world view.