Holocaust survivor Frank Shatz said he has an obligation to speak up about the horrors he experienced under Nazi control, and more than 200 people packed an auditorium to listen.
“I can say I was there, I witnessed it. Once my generation is gone, there will be movies, books, but no one who can say I was there,” Shatz said. “I feel it’s my duty to speak up.”
Shatz is a writer, a Virginia Gazette columnist and frequent lecturer at the College of William and Mary, but the event at the college’s Tucker Hall Wednesday was his first public talk.
“Let me tell you my story,” Shatz began.
He detailed his journey from his home in Czechoslovakia through a slave labor camp in Romania, his escape and his work for the underground anti-Nazi movement in Hungary.
“I was seized by the Nazis and transported in a cattle car to Transylvania,” Shatz said. “Surviving under those conditions was very difficult. People were suffering, many of them dying all around me.”
His task was to build a railroad line for the German Army. Barely 18-years-old, he knew he couldn’t survive this back-breaking work. He convinced his commander to let him groom the horses.
He escaped to Budapest six months later during a bombing.
“We heard through the grapevine we would be transported out and not to a good place. My choice was to stay and take the chance or escape,” Shatz said. “My responsibility became to help other Jews survive.”
Shatz worked in the anti-Nazi underground movement before he and his wife found refuge in the United States in 1958. Shatz’s mother, sister and more than a dozen family members perished in the Holocaust.
“You have to have an instinct for survival. You have very little choices, it was really mostly luck,” Shatz said. “In my case, you had to make the decision in the moment because no one will do it for you… I never give up.”
Attendee Caroline Wilson said she went to a Holocaust symposium when she was in the 10th grade and it was the most profound experience she ever had. Shatz’s talk was the first time she was able to hear from a Holocaust survivor as an adult.
“It was just the chance to be enriched, to support, to honor,” Wilson said. “Somebody who has experienced what he did, just by surviving he has so much to share. But by sharing that story he’s changing the future; it’s humbling. ”
The event was organized by Daisy Garner, a student who reached out to Shatz after studying the Holocaust as part of her German studies at the college. She hopes to plan a similar event next semester.
“I definitely was surprised with the turnout,” Garner said. “I’m really happy that everybody came. I think there’s a lot of important messages.”
Students and people of all ages asked questions about Shatz’s history and perseverance.
“It is the lesson of history. I try to speak my mind and safeguard democracy. Talk to your neighbors, write letters to the editor, vote not in just presidential elections but every election,” Shatz said.
Shatz always followed his gut, he said, and with a mixture of luck and courage, he is able to tell his story today.
“It is an instinct, you don’t know why but you do the right thing. I did what my conscience told me to do, and I am here,” Shatz said. “I survived.”
Martin can be reached at (757)-243-3685, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SaraRoseMartin.