For its fifth annual Holocaust Survivor Speaker for Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) on Monday, Towson University featured Howard Kaidanow, who as a 13-year-old joined the Partisans, a World War II resistance group, after his parents were both killed by Nazis and their collaborators.
The event was started off by Walter Gil, a Towson professor of early education, and Kaidanow was introduced by Hana Bor, a professor and graduate program director for Towson’s Department of Family Studies and Community Development who specializes in Holocaust and Israel education.
Kaidanow spoke slowly and occasionally haltingly, although his story is incredible, as is true for most survivors, and the audience of about 50 (mostly students) were captivated.
He was born in Eastern Poland in 1929. His family lived a typical middle-class life, he said, and he attended a Jewish school, where he learned Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish. In 1939, Poland was split between the Soviet Union and Germany, and Kaidanow’s town was occupied by the Soviet Union, forcing his parents to give up their business and land and forbidding any practice of religion.
“Life changed to the worse,” he said. “But it wasn’t as bad for us — for the Jews — as in 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. And then life changed to the worst.”
One day, Kaidanow’s brother, who was about 8 years old at the time, ran in from outside to tell their mother something was going on. Their mother acted quickly — she hid the boys under hay in the backyard and told them to stay there. When soldiers came to the house, she refused to tell them where the rest of the family was and was beaten to death.
The boys were able to reunite with an aunt and uncle and, upon learning their father had been among those locked in a barn and burned to death the same day their mother was killed, fled with their relatives to another town. That happened in April. Their new town was overrun just a few months later in September.
“They did all sorts of things to us,” Kaidanow said of the Nazis and their sympathizers. “It’s indescribable. I cannot describe it — I lived it and I still cannot believe the things they did to us.”
Kaidanow, his brother, aunt and uncle and a number of other Jews eventually fled into the forest, managing to escape soldiers and hunting dogs before meeting up with a group of Partisans, resistance fighters who especially used guerrilla tactics against the Nazi occupation.
Just 13, Kaidanow begged and begged the Partisans to let him join. He was consistently rebuffed until one commissar, a political position within the Partisans, agreed to give him a chance. From then on, “most of my job was dynamiting trains,” he said.
By 1944, the German army was retreating under the Soviet pressure and Soviet winters, running “faster back than they came,” Kaidanow said. From there, Kaidanow went with his brother and surviving relatives back to Poland and eventually on to Germany, where he was in an American displaced persons camp for a while before eventually going back to school in Munich.
“I had no choice, but I didn’t want to be there, to be honest,” he said about living in Germany after the war. “But I had a life to live.
“You cannot go on hating,” he went on to say. “You cannot do that. If you go on hating, you will hate yourself. You have to live your life. But I remember. I don’t forget.”
Kaidanow, who lives in the area, has now been married to his wife, Esther, who is also a survivor, for more than 50 years, and they have two grown, successful children — as much of a happy ending as can be expected from such a beginning.
“It was interesting,” said first-year graduate student Cydney Elkin. “Every year, I try to come to the Holocaust speaker because I want to hear as many stories as possible while I can.”
Jessica Rudin, also a first-year graduate student at Towson and an active member of the Towson Hillel, said that she appreciated hearing Kaidanow’s story of resistance. It just goes to show, she said, that every survivor’s story is different.
“It’s important for people, even those who are not Jewish, to hear these stories,” she said. “The more people who do, the less likely it is to happen again.”
After the event, Kaidanow told the JT that telling his story is still hard for him.
“[For a long time] I couldn’t talk about it. My wife started speaking 40 years ago. I only started five years ago,” he said. “I realized my time is not long here. And I realized no one else could tell this story.”