Nathan Offen, an 88-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, brought his memories to life in the Bush Auditorium Nov. 16, giving a formal presentation to students and faculty members on his experience in concentration and forced labor camps.
Offen grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in the heart of Krakow, Poland, and spent most of his time playing soccer with the other neighborhood kids to pass the time. He attended public school and Hebrew school from a very early age. As a teenager, he was proactive and handy around the neighborhood. His voice trembled slightly as he talked about the transition from his childhood to the German invasion. He said, “I heard shooting. I ran home. I wanted to see my mother. I saw the [Germans] herding the people in the train. I saw my mother and sister in the crowd. That was the last time I saw them.” There was a sympathetic silence in the room as he spoke in detail about the loss of his family, the labor in the camps and the liberation.
However, there was warmth in his eyes when he spoke about the moment he knew he was going to survive. “I look through the window and I see tanks approaching. Tanks with white stars on it. ‘A star?’ I thought. ‘This must be the Russians’. But it was the Americans that came in. The Americans came and they took me from the barracks, and I was holding onto that piece of stale bread and I wouldn’t let it go.”
Weighing barely 60 pounds, he was immediately taken to a tent hospital and put on a bed with clean sheets, where he was pumped with glucose and the nurse brought him chocolate. Offen smiled faintly during this recollection, exclaiming, “Chocolate!” Still holding the chocolate in his hand, he fell into a deep sleep, which he described as euphoric. He continued, “I felt so good. But, when I woke up, 90 percent of the people [who were also in the tent hospital] died. I strongly believed that I would survive.”
Offen shared that the American captain who saved him became his lifelong best friend, and he later honored Offen as an honorable member of the 11th Armored Division. The two traveled together for many years, speaking out about their experiences. His best friend passed away recently.
Offen also emphasized his feelings of hope for future generations. “I like talking to young people. You are the future. I don’t like talking to old people because they think they know everything,” he said.
Offen’s memoir, To Life!: A Story of Survival, features a colorful and vibrant illustration on the cover. The colors in his paintings continue to be very important as they serve as a deeper metaphor for his outlook on his life. Students and faculty members were deeply touched by Offen’s presentation and stayed after to thank and meet the survivor.
Erin Brioso ‘14 is one of the students who was affected by Offen’s story. “It was incredible but in a terrifying way. I just couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how anyone would be able to go through watching people drag your mother and sister away,” she said. “I had never seen or met a Holocaust survivor before this event, and honestly it just made the experience that much more real to me. It has always been this distant shadow on the world’s history, and it didn’t really have a relation to my life personally. However, after seeing him, I just feel like I’ll never forget anything that he said or his life specifically.”