On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps after the Holocaust, 10th-grade students at Valencia High were given the opportunity to hear from three survivors Tuesday.
“What started as segregation and discrimination with things such as the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht, turned into the systematic killing of millions of people — a genocide,” said David Miles, assistant principal. “We’ve already discussed countless stories of history this year, but rarely, if ever, do we get the chance to meet with those who have experienced these events firsthand. Today, we are lucky to have some of the survivors of this horrific event in history here with us to share their stories.”
Though each speaker’s story differed, all three experienced hardships of their own, which they shared with the more than 900 students in attendance.
Phil Raucher was born in Czeladz, Poland, a town that bordered Germany. With the war looming in 1939, 12-year-old Raucher and his younger brother were sent to their grandfather in Wolbrom to be further from the fighting.
“It didn’t help much because the Germans came to the city where my grandfather lived … before they came to the city where I lived,” Raucher said.
After seeing the German soldiers start taking people from houses, Raucher and his brother decided to return home. Their aunt gave them a loaf of bread and some money to return.
Czeladz had been annexed to Germany by the time they got back, and it wasn’t long before the SS replaced the SA and the rules Jews had to follow began to grow. First with armbands, then with ghettos, until they began taking people away.
“We didn’t know where they were going, and after a while, they started picking up children and sick people and older people,” he said. “The only way to get away was to hide someplace where they couldn’t find you.”
Fearful, his parents hired a smuggler to return him and his brother to Wolbrom, but the smuggler could only take one at a time. As Raucher was preparing to leave, he found out his brother and grandfather had been sent to a death camp and killed.
A couple of months later, Raucher was picked up and sent to a transit camp. Knowing he was in danger, his parents smuggled a bottle of soapy water to him, assuming that if he drank it before the selection, he would be sick and they wouldn’t pick him.
“But because things were so bad, I decided I’m going to disobey my parents and I’m not going to drink the soap water, and whatever happens, happens because it couldn’t get any worse,” he said.
Raucher was quickly put to work at a labor camp with whip lashes and beatings for those who couldn’t keep up. “Either you die from hunger or (the beatings).”
He spent the next three years working various jobs in labor camps, always fighting to stay alive in between bouts of illness as more than three days in the hospital meant death.
Raucher was in the sick block recovering from a cold when the SS began evacuating the camp, mere days before the Russians arrived to liberate the camp. “And I decided that I’m not going with them, because I said, ‘Whatever’s going to happen again, is going to happen, and I’m not going.’”
Because he felt better, the SS gave him a uniform, which he proceeded to give to others in the sick block who did want to leave. Next, he needed to find a place to hide.
“I noticed there was one room that was stacked up with dead bodies,” he said. “So I figured the only place I could hide (would be) cover myself under the bodies.”
When the SS came looking, Raucher was well hidden, and he heard one say, “Forget them, they’re not going anywhere.”
Though Raucher’s journey did not end there, he said it is because of that decision that he is here today.
As Eva Trenk, a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor sent to a labor camp at just 4 years old, listened to Raucher’s story, she commented on how different but similar their stories are, yet how important both are.
“It’s very important, especially to speak to young students because they are the future,” she said. “I’m devoted and try to push myself (to continue speaking).”
Though some days it’s harder to recount her stories than others, her motivation remains education people so that this doesn’t continue happening.
Even after surviving the Holocaust, Trenk’s hardships didn’t end when the war did. In 1968, when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia, Trenk’s life once again was turned upside down.
“We closed the door, took a suitcase and left everything behind,” she said. “It’s very hard, trust me, because we had a good life.”
Trenk, her husband and son immigrated to the U.S., where they didn’t know the language or have any money. Yet, she and her family endured.
“I always said this should never have happened,” Trenk added.
Now, she, like many other survivors, are dedicating their lives to telling their stories in the hopes that things will improve.