Elon University / Today in Elon / Nathan Spiewak shares his experience of surviving the Holocaust

Spiewak recounted his childhood trip to Europe during World War II with the Elon community.

“I was a happy kid with no cares in the world,” Nathan Spiewak told the crowd gathered at McKinnon Hall on Wednesday, March 30.

Spiewak grew up in Paris in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and at the event in Elon he talked about walking a mile and a half to school, playing with his friends, and mischievous things he would get into.

But at age nine, that normal childhood was turned upside down. He was separated from his parents during World War II and spent three years fleeing the Nazis while his parents were sent to different concentration camps.

Spiewak, now 88 and the grandparent of Elon student Adina Speak ’24, told his harrowing account of surviving the Holocaust. He doesn’t remember being scared at the time, but now, looking back, he is well aware of the seriousness of the situation, as more and more survivors are dying and some people mistakenly doubt that the Holocaust has even took place.

“Every year there are fewer and fewer survivors to tell this story,” Spiewak said. Therefore, he was so adamant about sharing his experience, even being one of the 52,000 interviewees director Steven Spielberg spoke to for his film “Schindler’s List.”

Spiewak showing his yellow star to the audience inside McKinnon Hall during his speech.

The Nazis invaded France in 1940, but Spiewak didn’t immediately realize things had changed. It wasn’t until almost two years later that all Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing.

It was then that Jews were prohibited from eating in restaurants and enjoying entertainment events and outdoor spaces. There was also an imposed curfew from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“One evening I arrived home after playing in the street with my friend 10 minutes after curfew. I received the first spanking that my father gave me. At that time, I didn’t understand why it was so important,” Spiewak said.

Even at school he was ostracized for wearing the yellow star. The children he initially thought were his friends no longer played with him. “I used to come home crying to my parents. I told them I didn’t want to wear the yellow star. My father explained that I should be proud of it and that I was special,” he said.

The race for Spiewak began on July 16, 1942, when he and his mother were arrested by French police during the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel d’Hiv) roundup. Her father worked two shifts and slept at his workplace. Packed like sardines into a bus with other women and children, Spiewak and his mother were sent to Vel d’Hiv.

At age 10, Spiewak remembers having a great team that ate and played with other Jewish children during his detention at the Vel d’Hiv. Although he and his mother were luckier than most to only have five days there, as his father went to the president of the company he worked for and got them released.

However, a month later, the police came back to his home and told them to each prepare a suitcase before being transported. Spiewak recalls the officer telling them they had sent “to be with our kind”.

On the way to the police station, her father intentionally dropped a suitcase to distract the officers, and her mother told her to run.

“I wasn’t a fast runner, but I was lucky to get away,” Spiewak said. After escaping, he traveled for miles before finally getting to a family friend’s apartment. When they were released from the Velodrome, it was a precautionary plan.

Spiewak spent a week with the family friend hiding in a small closet under the stairs when they were able to make contact with his cousins ​​living in Italian-occupied Nice. At the end of 1942, his cousins ​​came to bring him back to Nice, took away his yellow star and gave him a new name.

For a time Spiewak lived with his cousins ​​and spent some time in Italy after the Americans invaded Sicily. They eventually returned to France after a close call with German tanks arresting Jews.

He ended up living with a non-Jewish family for the rest of the war. His uncle came back to take him back to Paris. Remembering the night he saw his father again, Spiewak was overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing a man who looked just like he remembered.

“One evening I asked my father, ‘Why was there no mutiny against the Nazis when there was such a large group?’ He told me everyone believed they would survive,” Spiewak said.

After his discussion, Spiewak answered questions from the audience. A student stood up and took the floor, not to ask a question but to tell Spiewak how much he is an inspiration to all Jewish people.

“If you were moved tonight to ignite a flame of hope where there is despair, if you were inspired to bring peace into your life, to mend a broken relationship,…motivated to live prouder of your faith and your heritage and your beautiful practices – so tonight was, by all accounts, a resounding success,” said Elon Chabad Community affiliate Mendy Minkowitz.

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