By Mary O’KEEFE
Last weekend the event Every Person Has a Name was held on the steps of Pasadena City Hall. For 24 hours, the names were read of those who perished during the Holocaust during WWII.
The event coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
A poll taken of individuals in the U.S. from Dec. 2 to Dec. 5 by The Economist/YouGov found that 20% of 18-to-29 year olds polled thought the Holocaust was a myth. Maybe the most telling, however, was that 30% of that age group neither agreed nor disagreed that the Holocaust was a myth. That apathy is worrisome to those who know the danger of history repeating itself.
Paul Kester was a young Jewish child in Germany in the 1930s and was able to escape the Holocaust, but left behind his grandmother and parents and most of the rest of his family. For years he shared his story with audiences to add his voice as a witness to this horrific history – but he had kept quiet a part of his life. A part of his family’s story was hidden in a box, a tangible pain that took him back to those years during the Nazi regime.
“It started with [Adolf] Hitler coming to power in1933,” Paul Kester said. “At that time I was 7 years old.”
Kester is Jewish. He said at first, at his age, the Hitler policies didn’t affect him but he knew this government’s purpose was to fight and destroy the Jewish minority.
“I could read the signs in town declaring that the Jews were criminals, they were the ‘misfortune of Germany’ and slogans like that,” he said.
When he went to school, the only Jewish boy in a class of 35, he was not singled out in any negative way and that attitude continued when he advanced in grades.
“We were then two Jewish boys in 1935,” he said.
He said he could easily compete with the other kids, both academically and in sports.
“It was the adults [who] had to contend with growing restrictions and laws that made their lives difficult and not comfortable,” he said.
His family had yet to be transferred to a ghetto, a section of Nazi controlled cities where German authorities would place the local Jewish population. Establishing ghettos began in November 1938, which restricted German Jews from many areas.
“By that time I could no longer attend school,” he said, “and the men were sent to concentration camps.”
Kester’s grandmother used to go to her store every morning and would wave and share greetings with her neighboring businesses; however, that changed right after Hitler came to power. Her neighbors she had known for years no longer greeted her and in fact the store was vandalized and ultimately destroyed.
“It was the beginning of the end of Jewish life in Germany,” Kester said. “At that moment everybody wanted to get out [of Germany]. Getting out was no problem but getting admitted to another country [was a problem]. The borders were closed. Then some European countries declared their willingness to accept children. England took 10,000 and Sweden was willing to take 500 Jewish children from Germany. Through the initiative of a distant relative in Sweden I became one of the 500.”
The program to relocate children was called Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) and it ran from late 1938 to 1940. Thousands of refugee children, most of them Jewish, were transported.
“Two months after the start of the program in 1939 I bid my family goodbye, got on a train and traveled alone,” he said.
The train stopped in Berlin where Kester picked up his permits to enter Sweden. He had one older sister who was 14 at the time. Relatives in New York had agreed to sponsor her – but only her. So she traveled alone to New York while Kester went to Sweden. He left behind his parents, grandmother and other members of his family.
Once in Sweden he was first placed in a German Jewish boarding school, then into another children’s home. At the age of 16 there were no longer any funds for him to continue his education so he moved from the small village he had been in to Stockholm and got a job.
“I continued night school for the next three years,” he said. “I had a nice circle of friends and felt comfortable. For me I was content, positive, ambitious and tried to create a normal life for myself.”
But normal was not easily attained by Kester because there was always the worry of what his family was going through back in Germany. He and his family continued to stay in touch by writing letters back and forth.
“Sweden was a neutral country. I was able to receive letters from them every week. I wrote to them every week for the next three or four years until the summer of 1942,” he said.
His parents, and family, stayed in their apartment in Germany under extreme conditions. They could not travel, they could not use public transportation, and had to buy food in special stores, along with other hardships they had to endure, he said.
“In late 1941 the deportations started. The [Nazis] started taking the German Jews to camps in Eastern Europe, which was under German occupation. My parents wrote to me in August 1942 that it was now their turn. They were forced to leave their home,” he said.
The family was sent to Theresienstadt’s ghetto camp where they were held for about five months.
He was able to send two more letters and continue communication for a while.
“They sent 150,000 Jews, mainly from Germany, [to the ghetto] – 90,000 were sent after a certain period of time to the death camps in Poland; 40,000 died and 20,000 survived,” he said.
His parents, he later discovered, were part of a transport to Auschwitz in January 1943.
“I did not know then what had happened to them,” he said. “I sent a letter from Sweden registered mail. The Germans were very observant of postal regulations with a neutral country. They returned my letter with a stamp [stating] the persons who it was addressed to were no longer there.”
During that time, he said, no one really knew about the death camps and he didn’t think his family knew the type of exterminations, like the gas chamber, that awaited them.
“There had been rumors from those [who] had escaped,” he said.
But the atrocities committed by the Nazis had not been widely known at the time. The first time Kester heard about these methods of murder was after the Soviet Union had marched into Poland in July 1944.
He found out what actually happened in the death camps when he was in a theater and saw a “movie newsreel” on how the “death factories operated,” he said.
“I knew the chance of seeing any of my relatives again was unlikely,” he said after viewing the movie.
It wasn’t until 1982 that he was able to travel to Theresienstadt and found records that confirmed his parents, and family, were among the 2,000 that traveled to Auschwitz and were murdered in the chambers.
After the war Kester traveled to the U.S. and made his home in California. Throughout the years he has spoken to audiences about his experiences during the Holocaust but had not shared the letters written between him and his family.
“I had those letters. I brought them along from Sweden and kept them. I never read them again but, as I approached the age of 98 (he is now 97), I knew I had to do something with them,” he said.
Kester, who now resides at Belmont Village Senior Living – Westwood, organized and translated the letters. Last week he shared the letters during a presentation to an audience at the Village.
He is on a speaker list with the Museum of Tolerance and Holocaust Museum and continues to speak to audiences, especially young students, about his story as a youth in Germany and Sweden.
“I am somewhat disturbed and disappointed of what is happening now with the rise of antisemitism, not only by some confused individuals but that it exists again in all levels of society and … among the intellectual elite and some of the best universities,” he said.
He will continue to share his story, and now those letters from his past, because he has a message that he wants to make clear.
“Remember that the unimaginable can happen. It did happen in my youth. A free society has to be aware there is always a danger that some of our freedoms become limited,” he said. “Don’t tolerate any hate or limitation of freedom.”