It’s not often that students get a chance to hear firsthand about the Holocaust, but those in College of William and Mary professor Henry Hart’s class did this week.
Hart, an English professor, welcomed Holocaust survivor Frank Shatz to class Thursday.
They have known each other for years. Hart calls himself a fan of Shatz’s columns in The Virginia Gazette and said he will always appreciate Shatz for helping him in a pinch some years back.
“Frank was very helpful to me when I was in charge of the college’s writers’ series,” Hart said. “We basically had no money, and he managed to help us find a donor.”
Shatz also helped secure the original endowment that helped create the college’s Reves Center for International Studies.
A native of Czechoslovakia, he escaped slave labor camps in Hungary, then Nazi and Communist regimes in Europe. One student asked Shatz if he grasped the gravity of the situation at the time.
“I knew without a doubt that I could be executed,” he said of the stakes of his escape. “Then again, being stuck in that work camp and possibly dying there didn’t sound too great either.”
Shatz moved to the United States in 1958. He did not speak about the Holocaust for more than 40 years, but said he felt impassioned once he noticed people denying the Holocaust or minimizing its historical impact and cruelty.
“It wasn’t just the people who know nothing,” he said. “You might expect that. It was academics too — they’d deny the existence of gas chambers. They said it wasn’t 6 million Jews killed, it was more like 2 million. They’d make a career out of it.”
Asked about thoughts on the resurgence of Nazi and white supremacist ideology in popular culture, Shatz said America is lucky in how it has operated over the years.
“In the U.S., the pendulum always swings back toward the center,” he said. “It usually happens during a time of economic crises, but this is not necessarily one of those times.”
American democracy is unique to many other parts of the world in that those who do not necessarily agree with the actions of the state can express those opinions without fear of being arrested or persecuted.
He encouraged the class not only to become students of history, but also to tell their ideas to friends and family.
“One of the biggest strengths of democracy is that you can freely express yourselves,” he said.
Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.