By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
It’s a tangible piece of a terrible history. During a talk Wednesday at Everett Community College, Holocaust survivor Robert Herschkowitz passed around a mustard-yellow cloth Star of David. It is stamped with the letter J.
Framed in a small case, it doesn’t look as old as it is. Like millions of other Jewish people in Europe, his grandmother was forced by the Nazis to wear the yellow badge more than 70 years ago.
Herschkowitz was a child from Belgium during World War II. To survive, his family fled their homeland. Their odyssey took them through France, into a Nazi-run camp and eventually through the Alps on foot to safety in Switzerland.
The Bellevue man has told his story before, at EvCC and to other groups around the region. Now 76, he continues to share his memories so that others will never forget.
His talk Wednesday was part of the annual EvCC “Surviving the Holocaust” speaker series, now in its 15th year. Humanities instructor Joyce Walker brings Holocaust survivors to campus for her Humanities 150D class. The talks are open to the public.
“It’s always an honor to listen to him,” Walker said. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to hear the direct stories.” The first two speakers in this spring’s series were descendants of people who lived through the Holocaust.
Herschkowitz, a Boeing Co. retiree, is one of about 15 active members of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center’s speakers bureau. He believes he is the youngest survivor now speaking for the Seattle-based center. Along with survivors’ descendants, the speakers bureau includes U.S. military veterans who were liberators during World War II.
In EvCC’s Henry M. Jackson Conference Center, students born after the Persian Gulf War listened in silence as Herschkowitz talked about the plight of Europe’s Jewish children during the Holocaust. He showed pictures of tiny tots begging for food and being taken away to camps.
The Nazis, he said, killed 1.5 million Jewish children — almost 90 percent of all European Jews younger than 16. Showing a photo of a happy little boy, Herschowitz said, “That’s me.”
He was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1938. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium. It was occupied until late 1944, when Allied forces liberated Herschkowitz’s homeland. His family left the day Nazis invaded, and crossed the border into France along with thousands of refugees.
German Stuka bombers were overhead as his family made their way along a road. “My father would drop me in a ditch, with my mother on top of me. My father was on top of her, under a suitcase made of cardboard for protection,” he said.
They traveled from northern France, which was occupied by the Nazis, south to Marseilles. At one point, they were arrested but escaped through a bathroom. Marseilles was a free city. Herschkowitz, with false baptism documents, attended a Catholic kindergarten. Family pictures from that time look like vacation scenes, with little Robert on a Marseilles beach. Soon, though, the French were detaining Jews.
In November of 1940, the family was sent to a French internment and transit camp, Rivesaltes, which held Jews and other refugees. When his mother Irene became pregnant in 1942, the family was separated. Herschkowitz and his mother were taken to another camp, called Gras, which was just one farmhouse. On April 7, 1943, his brother Danny was born.
His father Max was still in Rivesaltes, forced to work on a dam project. By then, the French government was sending Jews in Rivesaltes to Drancy, a camp in a Paris suburb. From Drancy, nearly 70,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz and other death camps.
To avoid Drancy, Herschkowitz’s father planned an escape. He tried to get his younger brother to flee, but Feibush Herschkowitz wouldn’t go when Max Herschkowitz slid down a rope and ran. His brother was gassed by the Nazis.
Saved by a Basque family along the border between France and Spain, Herschkowitz’s father was reunited with his wife and children. They were helped to escape by the French resistance.
In the summer of 1943, they made a three-night trek through the Alps to Switzerland. They were briefly held by Swiss police, but because they had Swiss relatives were allowed to stay.
When the war ended in 1945, the Swiss sent all Belgian Jews home by train. Herschkowitz went on to serve in Belgium’s navy before coming to the United States to work for Boeing. Here, he joined the U.S. Navy Reserve and became a commander.
His immediate family lived through the Holocaust, but so many did not. His mother’s younger sister, Elsa Schnabel, was a teacher. She died at Auschwitz.
In the audience Wednesday were students from Cedar River Academy, a private elementary and middle school in Enumclaw. Teachers brought them to Everett to hear about the Holocaust. Jared McKenzie, a teacher at the school, said one person’s memories are powerful pieces of a horror story that killed millions.
Herschkowitz has one son, Stephen, a senior deputy prosecutor in King County. Someday, Stephen Herschkowitz will be the one to tell this story.
The final image Robert Herschkowitz showed on a screen Wednesday was a message: “It will never end.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; email@example.com.
Holocaust film, speaker at EvCC
The Everett Community College Humanities Center will show the documentary “The Boys of Terezin,” about a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, at 12:20 p.m. Wednesday in Baker Hall, Room 120. The film will be introduced by Mina Miller, artistic director of Music of Remembrance, a group dedicated to remembering Holocaust musicians.
Stephen Adler, born in Berlin in 1930, will talk about going to England as part of the Kindertransport that saved Jewish children during the Holocaust at 12:20 p.m. May 21 at EvCC’s Henry M. Jackson Conference Center, Room 101. It’s part of a “Surviving the Holocaust” humanities class but is open to the public. The campus is at 2000 Tower St., Everett.