The ADL Mountain States Region is pleased to announce that the 2023 Governor’s Holocaust Remembrance Program will feature a conversation with Holocaust Survivor Paul Galan. The program will be held on Wednesday, April 19 at 5:30 pm at Temple Emanuel in Denver with a livestream option. The program will, as always, be free and open to all. Register here.
We recently sat down with Paul to learn about his experiences before, during and after the Shoah. An edited version of that conversation follows.
ADL: Your journey to survival took many twists and turns. Very briefly, can you describe what happened? What are the main points along the way of your family’s journey?
Paul Galan: I had a wonderful childhood in Slovakia until, of course, the Nazis took over the region. We were spared deportation at first because my father worked in agriculture, so he was an essential worker. The business was taken over by his non-Jewish partner, and then life became more fraught for our family. After spending a short time in a labor camp, we returned home only to be separated from each other over the last two years of the war. I was only ten years old at the time that we were on the run from the Nazis and their collaborators.
I was separated from my two older sisters pretty early on and then my mother and I became separated from my father, too. My father was captured on December 30, 1944 and taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp and my mother and I were left alone with the people who hid us. For many months, we moved in secret from village to village, hiding in the mountains with varying degrees of safety and support. We eventually got news that the other side of the mountain had been liberated by the Russians, and so we set out, but on our journey we became stuck in a blizzard, and I came very close to death. My mother kept telling me to stay awake, which saved my life. When we got to the other side, we were offered a place to stay by some Russians, but the day before we left, the soldiers sexually assaulted my mother, which was of course very traumatic for us both. We eventually made it back to my hometown, but we had no idea if the rest of our family was alive. Over time, we were miraculously reunited with both of my sisters, my father, and my aunt.
ADL: How did you and your family reunite?
PG: When my mother and I got back to our hometown, a friend of our family, Mr. Weissman, came running out of his house, embracing us, crying, “You’re alive! There’s no one alive!” The Weissman family had hid in the town all throughout the war. They brought us in and gave us our first clean clothes and the ability to bathe after being lice infested. I had severe pain in the bottoms of my feet following our journey, a traumatic injury that took a long time to resolve. The war ended in May, and I remember the one fire engine in town blowing its horn and going up and down the street while people celebrated. About a month later, my sister Eva, who had been in the mountains with the partisans, and then my sister Susan, who survived Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen made their way back to us, along with one of my aunts. You can’t imagine what a miracle it was to be reunited. It was like instinct pulled us back.
ADL: How did you come to the United States and what happened after?
PG: My father and my aunt, who had American citizenship because their parents had lived in the U.S. prior to the war, were granted permission to go there. My father had the foresight to hide the proof of citizenship and other documents in the ground beneath the horse barn of our old house. My two sisters made aliya to Israel, but my mother of course wanted to go to America to be with my father. She and I had a more difficult time leaving, but eventually with the help of the Israeli government, we managed to escape Communist Czechoslovakia and cross into Austria with Israeli visas. Ultimately we were successful in emigrating, and we landed in New York in March of 1950. I was almost 16 years old. We had no money, just enough to survive. I never stopped working. I met my wife Judy in High School; we started dating and got married in 1957. I went to City College in Manhattan and got a degree in film and spent my career in that industry, including owning a production company. I’m a communicator, I have a story to tell, so I decided to write my story. I started talking at schools and churches and other places. I loved working with the kids.
ADL: Do you have any message or additional thoughts for your readers?
PG: We have to believe in our faith. In Judaism, we are taught that we have an obligation to stand up. We have to inform as many young people as possible about what the world is like, what it’s like to be persecuted, what it’s like to be brutalized, what it’s like to be called a “dirty Jew.” It’s important to respect your fellow students. Whether or not you like them personally or are friends, regardless of their faith, or their ethnicity, you cannot discriminate. The most important thing that I learned, the most painful thing I learned as a child was fear. We need to educate young people while they’re still young and in school not to discriminate.
We hope you’ll join us for the 2023 Program on April 19. Register here.