Genocide Survivors Share Their Stories With Students
The Men's Club at Temple Ner Tamid and Holocaust Center hosted an evening with two genocide survivors: Stephan Lewy, a Holocaust survivor and liberator, and Jasmina Cesic, of Bosnia.
Peabody teens and their parents had the opportunity to hear the firsthand accounts this week of two people who survived wholesale efforts to wipe out their races. Stephan Lewy, a Holocaust survivor and liberator, and Jasmina Cesic of Bosnia, spoke Monday night at Temple Ner Tamid as part of a program sponsored by the Holocaust Center Boston North.
Survivor and liberator
Lewy was born on March 11, 1925 in Berlin. He opened the evening by telling his story about coming to America from Germany.
His father, Arthur Lewy, was Jewish while his birth mother, Gertrude Puls, was a Protestant. A single father and tobacco business owner who had to work illegally and secretly at night, Arthur Lewy sent his son into an orphanage at just six-years-old.
Life, already challenging for the Lewy's and other Jews, changed dramatically once Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Lewy's father was arrested and sent to a concentration camp near Berlin where he was beaten to the extreme that he suffered a heart attack and lost all his teeth.
Lewy, meanwhile, remained in an orphanage.
"A 45-minute walk to school; Jewish children were separated from the Gentile children," he explained. "The police stood by to make sure we did not defend ourselves or do anything contrary to government order. They even watched us play soccer in the backyard."
A victim of racial profiling at 10-years-old, Lewy was belt-whipped by two rows of Hitler Youth. Lawyers and doctors lost their licenses, and immediately, Lewy's name was confined to a number so everyone knew he was a Jew.
Lewy and his family eventually escaped from Germany and were reunited in New York in 1942.
The next year, he registered for the U.S. Army at 18-years-old, as he was too old to enroll in school, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the Aerodivision in Germany.
In an online dissertation posted on The Holocaust Center's website, he writes of a concentration camp in Buchenwald: "I saw mountains of human remains; living skeletons walking or sitting in a daze; and children without parents, not knowing where to go and whom to trust. This picture has followed me and will continue to follow me all my life."
Fortunately, the war ended shortly after in May 1945.
To this day, Lewy will never forget the Holocaust.
"Although I got married to Frances Silver and had two children, it follows me for the rest of my life." Lewy told the crowd. "I am most of all very appreciative of the many years I have spent with Frances. She has been a great support. She was always understanding when I had flashbacks and dreams of being chased by police."
After earning a degree from Northeastern University in Boston, Lewy worked as a public accountant and as a hotel conceirge at Sheraton and Omni hotels, where he retired in 1991 at the age of 66.
When asked why he willingly brings back these unpleasant memories, he said: "Firstly, my generation is getting older – there are fewer and fewer survivors to tell their stories. Secondly, our stories show what can happened if people do not act. Perhaps if enough people hear my story, history will not repeat itself. I only hope that the world has learned a lesson."
Persis McClennen attended the event Monday and had recently read two books about World War II.
"His story isn't unfamiliar to me," McClennen told Peabody Patch. "I always read their obits in the paper. It's moving that I met a survivor here tonight. It's unspeakably awful, but at least he lived and went on to have children."
(You can read Lewy's complete story online at the Holocaust Center's website. And his story is also told in the book, “Stephan's Journey: A Sojourn Into Freedom” by Lillian Herzberg, which can be found on www.amazon.com or from Barnes & Noble.)
Surviving the Bosnian Holocaust
Afte Lewy spoke, Jasmina Cesic, a Bosnian genocide survivor, came to the podium to share her story.
Harriet Wacks, the Executive Director of the Holocaust Center noted that one would think the world had learned its lesson after the Holocaust, but Bosnia was just one more country to experience a similar racial purging in the years to follow.
"People my age didn't think identity had anything to do with us," Cesic said, reflecting on her teenage years. "We thought Southeastern Europe was the [best] place on Earth -- my sister and I were on the swim team, which was the best in the region. But our life changed when Yugoslavia became the property of Serbia."
It was then that malls, houses and post offices were set ablaze, and there was little contact with the outside world, excluding radios.
Cesic writes in her memoir, "The River Runs Salt, Runs Sweet" (2002): "We could only hear bits and snatches between explosions, but it kept us occupied, listening to the reports of which parts of Sarajevo were taking the heaviest shelling." She added that the radio was comforting. She sought shelter in a cellar 60 miles from her hometown.
While waiting for the bus to get to work, she and her first husband and high school sweetheart, Suljo, were shot at from an armored mortar car. She had holes in her legs and was unconscious. Unable to eat or walk on her own, Cesic was in an intensive care unit for a month.
In her book, she writes: "The right side of him was missing. Oh, God, I thought, let this not be true. Let me wake up now. Let this be a horrible dream. Don't let my life with Suljo be over."
Cesic still has flashbacks of explosive moments like those.
"Thankfully, the U.S. opened a program for Bosnian refugees to seek medical treatment," she explained. "On May 30, 1993, I flew to the U.S., not knowing a word of English."
She flew generously on a free first-class ticket provided by SwissAir, and uses a prosthesis to walk.
Cesic had no idea her story would touch lives today. In the introduction to her book, Cesic writes: "If, three years before, you had told me that in 1993 I would be standing in front of a room full of people, delivering a speech in a foreign (to me) language, I'd have said you were crazy."
She is now married to Enes Dervisevic, a refugee from a small Bosnian town.
In a question and answer session afterwards, an audience member asked how she tells her young children her past, including how her brother's remains were never found.
"My daughter, who is a straight 'A' student with perfect attendance, feels sad. She draws pictures of my husband in a concentration camp. My son is in kindergarten and too young to understand. But I don't want to burden them my past," Cesic said.
When asked about living as a Muslim in the U.S., she responded she initially thought the U.S. was the best nation in the world, but after Sept. 11, 2011, her bliss changed to anger, calling the terrorists unjustifiable murderers.
Wacks closed out the evening by admitting it is difficult to follow up with a speech like that.
"Your response is to do something so this doesn't happen in other parts of the world. We're fortunate today that as we learn, we can make a difference," she said.
Wacks urged students in the audience to write to their congressmen, senators, and even the President. Equally as important, Wacks continued, is to tell teachers if they witness or are a victim of bullying or teasing.
Cesic agreed, adding that people's experiences have an effect on others, and that they should share stories with one another.
For information about the Holocaust Center Boston North, call 978-531-8288 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.