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Posted: October 6, 2009 4:57 p.m.

Keeping the faith

Holocaust survivor speaks to Newton High school freshman

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Survivor: Andre Kessler, born in 1940 in Romania, lost 80 percent of his family during the Holocaust.

"I never lost my faith," said Andre Kessler to a large group of Newton High School freshman. "I am still an observant and very proud Jew."

And although his faith is still strong, it certainly has been tested in the past. Kessler, who was born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1940, is a survivor of the Holocaust, the systematic extermination of approximately six million Jews.

"I have a distinction of being both the child of a holocaust survivor and a holocaust survivor," Kessler said to the students who had the honor of hearing Kessler speak. A member of The Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum of Atlanta, Kessler has been speaking about his experiences for more than 30 years. He visited NHS to help students who have been reading "Night," the memoir by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, which tells of his own experience in the death camps.

"Romania is an interesting country," Kessler said of the place of his birth. "It took her over 60 years to admit finally she was responsible for the murder of between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews and over 760,000 Gypsies or Romanians."

When Kessler was 2 years old his father was taken away to a slave labor camp. From December of 1942 until August of 1945 he labored in the camps doing whatever he was told to do, undoubtedly in fear for his life if he refused.

"My father was 6-foot-4-inches and weighed 246 pounds when he was arrested," said Kessler. "When he was released he was still 6-foot-4-inches but he weighed 132 pounds. They almost literally worked him to death."

And while his father worked, Kessler and his mother went into hiding in their own apartment. He credits both the superintendent of that apartment building, who lied to troops and told them the apartment had been cleared in order to keep the occupants safe, and his mother.

"Mother was a very stubborn woman," he said, and told the students how his mother had refused to sew the yellow Star of David on their clothing. "If the patrols would have stopped us, questioned us and found out that we were Jewish, they would have most likely murdered me in front of her eyes and then killed her."

The thing that kept Kessler and his mother from catching the eye of Gestapo? His mother had blonde hair and blue eyes and didn't look like "a typical Jew."

Kessler and his mother stayed in their apartment hiding for 18-months with the windows blacked out and sheets shoved under the doors. "I was about 5-years-old before I knew what a glass of milk was," he said, remembering very lean months with little if anything at all to eat.

After his father returned ,he opened some factories in Romania, but the trouble didn't end there for the Kessler family. When Romania became a communist dictatorship, the government came to Kessler's father one morning and informed him that his two factories had been nationalized and though Kessler was still required to run them he would no longer own them.

After learning of this, a plan was hatched and it was decided that Kessler and his mother would escape Romania. The duo went from Romania to Hungary and from there to Austria. When they reached the Romanian/Hungarian border and met the people there who knew where the gaps in the barbed wire were located and when the best time to cross would be, but they faced yet another problem.

Although Kessler's father had paid for his wife and son to cross, when those people saw that Kessler was just 8-years-old they balked, scared that a child would make noise and give them all away. So in the end, Kessler's mother took off what jewelry she wore and gave it to them so that she and her son could pass.

"To this day I still remember the sounds of the guards, the smell of their cigarette smoke and the barking of their dogs," he said.

When Kessler and his mother were safely in Vienna, they spoke to his father who decided to escape as well, but not before setting a timer in his factories.

When the Romanian's got to Kessler's factories the next morning they found nothing but rubble - he had blown them to bits. Kessler's father fled to France where he had two brothers. It would be 14 years before father and son saw one another again.

Kessler said he saw his parents' divorce as just another casualty of the holocaust, and his family suffered many casualties.

According to Kessler, he lost 80 percent of his family in the holocaust - roughly 122 people.

"Mother was one of six and my father was one of 13. I should have a lot of first cousins, but I don't," he said.

Most of his family perished in concentration camps, specifically Auschwitz in Poland. They were rounded up and separated by gender into cattle cars.

"When they were arrested, my grandfather raised such a ruckus that they took him out, beat him to death and then put his body back in with my grandmother," he said. "There were 80-100 people [per car], no food, water or toilet facilities. If you died, there was no room for you to fall down."
 In 1951 Kessler and his mother came to the United States and settled in New York. After enlisting in the military, he attended New York University where he graduated in 1963 and from there the 6-foot-5-inch Kessler went on to play professional basketball for the Philadelphia Warriors.

"I know you've never heard of me, but I know you've heard of my roommate. He was a young man by the name of Wilt Chamberlain."

In 1965 he married a Savannah woman and he has two children, ages 33 and 31 and a brand new grandson, 15-month-old Samuel. In 1969 he visited Auschwitz and told the students about his experience walking into the notorious gas chambers of the death camp.

"I noticed some marks at the top of the wall in the gas chambers and I asked the guide what they were. He explained that the human will to live was so great that the more able-bodied had climbed on the weaker in an attempt to get out.

"And who are weaker and lower," he asked, "the children. We lost a million and a half innocent children in the holocaust. Those marks I saw where made by the fingernails of people trying to escape."

As Kessler brought his speech to a close, he urged students not to become bystanders, telling them the majority of those who saw atrocities during the holocaust just stood by a let it happen. He told the students of the genocide in Darfur that was happening currently and gave examples of more than 60 Web sites that deny the holocaust ever happened.

"Someone much smarter than I once said that if we ever forget history, we are doomed to repeat it. So don't forget, and please do not be a bystander," he said. "If you see something wrong speak up. I'm getting older but you young people are our future. If you let it, it can happen in this wonderful country of ours just like it did in Nazi Germany."


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