ELLSWORTH — Charles Rotmil stood on the stage at Ellsworth High School in front of a photo on a large screen, showing him and his family almost eight decades earlier.
It is a nice family portrait — his mother and sister are smiling, while he is in the lower left corner looking like he just popped into the frame — but the photo is painful for Rotmil.
“It took me a long time to look at this photo,” he told the audience of students during a presentation at EHS on April 29.
That is because Rotmil’s family is Jewish and they lived in Europe during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and the outbreak of World War II. His mother and sister died as a result of injuries sustained while fleeing the Germans, and his father was killed at Auschwitz.
Only Rotmil and his older brother survived, kept in hiding by kind citizens during the war after their family was dead and then brought to America after the war.
Rotmil was born in France in 1932 and he said he had a lovely childhood there. His father was an art dealer, and in 1938 the family moved to Vienna, Austria — the year that country was annexed by Nazi Germany.
“And so we stepped into the mouth of the wolf,” Rotmil recalled. His father, Adolphe, was beaten up and put in prison. When he was released, the family got travel visas and went to Belgium, but had to flee again when Hitler invaded that country in 1940.
Adolphe got separated from the rest of the family, who all got on a train. It was derailed, however, by saboteurs. The damage that did has stuck with Rotmil to this day, as has having to escape from the wreckage of the train.
“I jumped off on top of a dead man,” he said. “That was the first time that I saw dead people on the ground. At that time, I was 6 years old.”
Rotmil’s sister, Henriette, died of wounds received in the derailment. His mother died later that year as a result of her injuries. Both were buried in unmarked graves.
“A lot of people, when they were running from the Germans, destroyed every piece of identification they could,” he said.
Rotmil and his brother were taken in by the wife of Belgium’s finance minister and then reunited with their father. They lived in Brussels, and Rotmil recalled his father coming home one day with yellow Stars of David that Nazis were ordering Jews to wear.
“My father refused to do it,” he recalled. “That’s probably why I’m here.”
In 1943, Adolphe was arrested and his sons never saw him again. Rotmil learned later that his father was prisoner number 779 on the 21st train from Malines prison in Belguim to Auschwitz in Poland, where it arrived on Aug. 2, 1943.
There were about 1,500 people on the train, 70 percent of whom were sent to the gas chambers — Adolphe Rotmil among them.
“The second of August is probably when my father died,” Rotmil told Ellsworth students. He has since visited Auschwitz, and described it as a “killing ground.”
Rotmil and his brother were then taken in by Father Bruno Reynders, a Benedictine monk who hid and saved an estimated 350 to 400 children during the course of the war.
“He was like an angel coming from Heaven,” said Rotmil of Reynders.
Among the advice Rotmil shared with the students was to not fall for the words of charismatic speakers such as Hitler.
“We have to be very careful of people who have a lot of charisma, because you can be taken over by charisma,” he said. “People are taken in by how they speak, not what they say.”
Rotmil’s presentation was preceded by students reading the names and brief biographies of Holocaust survivors, and lighting a memorial candle for each name they read.
“It is a simple and powerful way to remember these individuals,” said social studies teacher Heidi Omlor. “To remember these people as human beings reminds us of the dignity of each of these individuals.”
Posted from the Ellsworth American