Harry and Me ... Then and Now
By Evan Demers-Peel
Norton, MA


"In the 1930s, Nazi Germany succeeded in enforcing social death on its Jews. Gradually but relentlessly, friends, neighbors, clients, and employers turned away from Jews, placing them beyond the pale of German social life and empathy. The social death of Jews was unswerving. The German "racial community," through its complicity in, approval of, or indifference to the persecution of these newly marked "enemies," helped pave the way toward the physical extermination of the Jews. The social death of Jews and German indifference to their increasingly horrific plight were absolute prerequisites for the "Final Solution." (Kaplan 229)

It was September 1994. A little boy happily boards his assigned school bus for the journey home. He is barely six years old. He had just finished his very first day of school. He likes his first grade teacher and has made several new friends on the playground. He can’t wait to tell his parents about his day. He couldn’t know about the impending phone calls. Angry calls from first grade parents flooded the school. The buses had safely delivered all of the students to their homes, yet the calls still came. Callers accused the school of putting their children in danger by exposing them to such a horrid situation. Others blamed the school for letting the little boy enter first grade. Children shouldn’t be exposed to that perverted family. Callers wanted their children in other classrooms. Barely six years old, what had the little boy done to trigger so much fear and hate? One of the students had asked the little boy what his daddy did for a job. The little boy responded casually, “Oh, I don’t have a daddy, I have two mommies.” The little boy was happy. Different was not bad, it was just different; that is what he had been taught.

The next day, some children were mysteriously absent from school. Others were not friendly anymore. Justin with the cobalt blue hair called the little boy’s parents “gay” and “perverts”. On the bus ride home, Gus heard about the little boy with two mommies. He kept stepping on the little boy’s new sneakers to make them dirty and punched him in the stomach. The little boy remained silent. Growing sadder, he told his parents. Choking back tears, almost vomiting, he recounted what had happened. The little boy didn’t want to go to school anymore. He didn’t know why some of his classmates hated him. The little boy asked his parents “How come?” That little boy was me.

Hitler and the adults supporting his evil grand plan focused on brainwashing the youth into believing how dangerous and disgusting Jews were. Trusting that everything adults say must be real, German children quickly responded to the Nazi propaganda. In Germany, the incidents were more widespread. Excerpts from the Fromm diary illustrate the impact that adults had on children in Nazi Germany. “‘Aunt Bella, she said, you don’t really seem so-so-fiendish. I told Herr Runge, that’s our teacher, that you weren’t like that, Aunt Bella. He said we didn’t understand how wicked you really were. (Meltzer 23) Fifty-nine years later, I experienced some of Aunt Bella’s pain. It scared me.

Harry Kagan is a wonderful man with a graying beard, a soft voice and a gentle smile. He has been like a grandfather to me since I was born. I call him Uncle Harry. Born in Latvia in 1927, he immigrated to America when he was nineteen and became an American citizen. He reached the rank of Lt. Colonel in the Air Force during Vietnam and taught high school and college mathematics. He is a husband, father, grandfather and my hero. Growing up, Harry was a happy kid. He played soccer and lived with his parents and siblings in Riga, Latvia. He was thirteen when the Nazis invaded and separated his family. Harry’s parents, sister, and one brother went to the larger Riga ghetto. Harry and another brother, David, were placed in a smaller ghetto referred to as a work camp. One sister was in America. Harry’s world was destroyed.

On December 7, 1941, Nazis rounded up the Jews in the large Riga ghetto, took them into the forests, and shot them. Harry’s parents and sister were among those Jews. His brother, Myrim, was taken in for questioning by the Gestapo and never returned. Harry and David were placed in a labor camp; a sub-camp of Buchenwald. Harry’s job was to clean the camp commandant’s home. Harry and David survived the camp horrors and came to America. Harry could have stayed bitter but chose a different path. Forever the teacher, Harry gives living testament as a Holocaust survivor in school systems where anti-Semitism is still alive and breeding. He dispels myths, tells what really happened, and gives hope for the future.

Harry’s story adds one more element to the reality of the Holocaust. Stories like Harry’s and other Holocaust survivors are the components of the broader spectrum of atrocities, bigotry and hate that was leveled on Jews and other groups in Nazi Europe. These stories and Holocaust history challenge us to recognize the signs of bigotry when the seeds are planted. A racist remark, a spray painted synagogue, banning gay marriage and the killing of Matthew Shepard are symptoms of America’s social intolerance and violent responses to human differences. This ethnocentric posturing is similar to what Hitler put into place to promote his superior Arian society.

As Americans and human beings, we have a responsibility to appreciate and protect differences. Hate crimes and other damaging propaganda will not be tolerated. Preserving the stories of the Holocaust keeps the victims real and gives future generations the tools to combat hate, reject violence, and prevent the senseless genocides of people based on race, color, religion, and sexual preferences. We must be vocal. We must educate the community by talking about the issues and leading by example. We must dispel myths and fears about differences by being active in the communities that we live in. Participating in reach out groups, peer counseling and support groups become avenues that we, as young adults, can use to educate and prevent discrimination and violence in our society. Learning more about the political system and using its laws to protect everyone is paramount. Involvement on the community level prepares us for our lifelong work against discrimination, prejudice and violence on both national and international levels. Never again should a people be quietly destroyed while the world covers its ears, closes its eyes, and turns away. We must act. Jack Mandelbaum’s words are our words to live by: “We thought that the European people would rise up out of basic decency and defend us. Some tried but not enough. We must never think the Holocaust cannot happen again.” (Warren 125)

Works Cited

Kagan, Harry. Personal Interviews. 2000-2005.

Kagan-Birkeland, Deborah. Personal Interview. 20 Apr. 2006.

Kaplan, Marion A. Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.

Meltzer, Milton. Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 1976.

Warren, Andrea. Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. New York: Scholastic, Inc. 2001.


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