By DEREK PRALL
HARDYSTON — The elderly Gina Lanceter frankly related to a rapt audience at Wallkill Valley Regional High School one of the images she distinctly remembers from her childhood. She described to her listeners in grim detail the days when “the ground would move.” The dead and dying Jews from the Polish Ghetto where she grew up were piled into mass graves and covered with thin layers of dirt. Those who had not yet expired, but were too infirm or wounded to dig themselves out caused the earth to undulate as they writhed and moaned, suffocating beneath the layers of soil and decay.
Lanceter, along with fellow Holocoaust survivor Dr. Karl Dubovy, spoke at the high school recently in association with The Holocaust Council of Metro West, an organization based in Whippany, dedicated to Holocaust commemoration and education.
The Holocaust refers to the time from 1933 to 1945 in Europe when the Nazis, led by Adolph Hitler, attempted to exterminate the Jewish people, as well as countless other “undesirables” such as the mentally and physically handicapped, homosexuals, political dissenters and the Romani (Gypsies).
Millions were killed during this time, and the reverberations of the violence, hatred and fear are still felt to this day.
Dubovy and Lanceter know firsthand the brutality inflicted on people by the Nazis during that time.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Dubovy was 6 years old when the Nazis came to his small town of 1,500. Eleven Jewish families were immediately sent away, presumably to concentration camps.
For reasons Dubovy still doesn’t quite understand, his family was allowed to remain, but under house arrest. Dubovy wasn’t permitted to go to school, and on the few occasions he was allowed to leave his house, he was forced to wear the now infamous six-pointed yellow star, which identified him as “Juden,” or German for “Jew.”
His family was constantly antagonized and hassled by the German forces in their town; the most vivid memory of these occasions for Dubovy being when German troops took his father from their home for “interrogation.”
This wasn’t anything new to Dubovy, but when his father had been gone far longer than he was used to, against his mother’s will he sneaked out of his house and made his way to the German
Climbing a tree to see inside of a window, he saw a German soldier holding a revolver to his father’s temple, attempting to draw out a confession. Although his father was not killed that night, the experience changed the young Dubovy fundamentally.
In May of 1942, Dubovy and his family were forced out of their home and into a newly built camp. The only reason his family was able to stay together was by the extreme courage of his father, who, after being commissioned to build the floor for the commanding officer’s office, stated that he would refuse to work unless his family, who were slated to be transferred to Auschwitz, the infamous death camp, could remain with him.
They lived in the camp until Slovak rebels retook the town where they were imprisoned, and one morning found the gates unlocked.
The family fled to the mountains where they lived for some time before being captured yet again, this time being put on a train directly to Auschwitz. However, again for inexplicable reasons, upon arriving at Auschwitz on Christmas Eve after a long, grueling trip in disgusting conditions, the train reversed direction, taking the family back to Czechoslovakia where they remained until the Russian liberation and end of the war.
Dubovy can only guess as to why his family was saved from the furnaces of Auschwitz on Christmas Eve.
The evening’s moderator, Dina Cohen, a volunteer for The Holocaust Council, said her understanding of the situation was quite bleak. She stated that at this point in the war, it was clear that Hitler could not succeed, but he was trying to exterminate as many people as possible before his inevitable defeat. The death machinery at Auschwitz simply could not exterminate people quickly enough; trains were becoming backlogged, and were getting sent back to their original towns.
Lanceter was born in South East Poland to a large family and lived a comfortable life until 1941, when all of the Jews in her town were asked to register with the state. The 250 or so who did were immediately taken out into the woods and shot.
Throughout the subsequent years, the remaining Jews, including Lanceter and her family were corralled into a ghetto. On the conditions of the ghetto, Lanceter explained, “There were 9,000 people crammed into an area where maybe 1,000 could live… they didn’t treat us like human beings.”
The situation in her town continued to deteriorate, and her family was forced into hiding. They were eventually caught by Nazi forces while hiding underneath the floorboards of a sympathetic household and put on a train to the death camps.
Knowing her fate if she stayed on the train, her father tried to force her through the boxcar’s small window. Not being able to squeeze through at first, her father admonished her, “You must do it. You must jump. You must tell people what happened to us so we did not die in vain.”
Lanceter contorted her body, managing to free herself from the train, but when she woke up the next morning with a gash in her head and a bullet wound in her side from the solders seated on the roofs of the boxcars, shooting those like her who had either pried open doors or slipped through windows, her situation was bleak.
A railroad man found the battered Lanceter and helped her that night. Not knowing what else to do, the next morning she set to the task of walking the more than 124 miles back to her ghetto.
On the fourth day, when she could go no further, Lanceter found a small town and went to pray in the church. The local priest took her in and gave her a Christian birth certificate that helped her through the rest of her arduous journey.
Cohen told the members of the audience, “You are the last generation that will be able to hear this history directly from survivors… it is a history you can not forget.” She went on to add that although the Nazi-led Holocaust is one of the most well known, there have been similar genocidal events in other parts of the world approximately every decade since — in places like Africa, Turkey and South Asia, which similar to the holocaust, people still deny occurred, or are occurring. “Education is the best weapon against these atrocities,” she said.
Before the question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation, Lanceter, although frail in form, demanded powerfully that the young members of the audience “Don’t be passive. Remain vigilant. You are the ambassadors of the future,” and when questioned if during her experience she ever lost hope, she stated simply, “you have to have hope to survive.”