Kedem shares story of `the culture of death' with all ages
Associate News Editor
In the middle of a standing room-only crowd in the Hesburgh Library Auditorium Wednesday night, a six-year-old blond boy stood on his vinyl chair and raised his hand.
"What did the gas in the chambers do?"
Zev Kedem, Holocaust survivor and guest lecturer, nodded to the boy. Kedem then turned to the audience and explained that he was no older than the child when German troops invaded his native Poland decades ago.
Then patiently and honestly, as he had for more than an hour, Kedem told another story about growing up in a concentration camp.
"I don't remember much about it because I was lucky enough to miss [the gas chamber]," Kedem told the boy. He explained that the chamber was about half the size of the auditorium and resembled a shower. The Nazis dropped pellets into the room that produced gas. Because there was no air, the people passed away, Kedem said.
Kedem was five years old when his mother told the family that German troops had reached their country. The family abandoned a vacation and headed to Kedem's grandparent's home in Krakow.
"It was dark and, as a five-year-old, I was fairly afraid," Kedem said. "Little did I know then that this darkness that surrounded me would surround me for six years."
Within a year, Kedem's family was living in a Krakow ghetto with 30,000 other Jews. Barbed wire surrounded their world. In the spring of 1943, the final deportation of Jews from Krakow began. Kedem, his older sister and their grandparents hid in a padlocked pigeon coup as Germans inspected the abandoned ghetto.
"It was a very panicky situation," he said. "As an eight-year-old, I understood very well that unless I was silent, we would be killed. There were no illusions."
German officers did not find Kedem that day. His mother, who was working in a nearby concentration camp, arranged for Kedem to be smuggled into the camp with a load of furniture from the ghetto. Kedem was nine then, and camp laws allowed no one under 13. So he hid among the older boys, working in a brush factory were he sat on a box at the worktable to appear taller than he was.
"I soon became quite competitive and made more brushes than anyone else," Kedem said. "That was my only defense — that I was as productive as a grown-up person."
Kedem passed through several more concentration camps and was later rescued by Oskar Schindler. He was in Schindler's Czechoslovakian factory for only one day before a German officer detected his age. The German sent Kedem to Auschwitz on Nov. 3, 1944. Kedem was certain he would die there.
Unknown to Kedem and Germans in Czechoslovakia Adolf Hitler's assistant had ordered the destruction of the Auschwitz gas chambers on Nov. 2. Russian troops were advancing and the Germans wanted no evidence of the chambers.
Kedem and the nine others with him escaped death by one day.
"Once again we've beaten the culture of death," Kedem said. "I didn't know then why that was. I didn't care."
Kedem was liberated by American troops in May 1944. He graduated from Oxford University, moved to Israel and began making documentary films. He assisted with the making of "Schindler's List," but said he could not talk about his own experience of the Holocaust until the premier of the film.
"That film had such profound power over me … that I broke my silence," he said. "That changed basically the quality of my own life."
Kedem said he struggled with his own survival, in light of the 6.5 million who died in the Holocaust. He began public speaking to honor their memories.
Kedem's message was not lost on the blond six-year-old struggling to understand the gas chambers. Charles Logue, a South Bend first-grader, attended Kedem's lecture with his mother, Julie Logue. She wants her son to grow up with an understanding of the Holocaust.
"The Holocaust is about when the Jews were captured and they had to work in the concentration camps," Charles said. "It was like a war."
Kedem's presentation was sponsored by the Student Union Board. A portion of proceeds from the event will go to a Holocaust charity honoring survivors and victims in hopes to educate other children like Charles.
All News Stories for Thursday, September 30, 1999