Holocaust survivor speaks at library: ‘I tell them through my experience what hate can do’

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LEWISTON — The Fairview Elementary School students asked the small woman in the sharp blue suit if she had a tattoo.

She didn’t. She’d traveled with a big group to the concentration camp. There had been too many people to mark them all.

They asked if kids too little to work were killed.

“Yes, they were,” Julia Skalina said.

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Skalina, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, told her story during Lewiston’s Holocaust Days of Remembrance on Tuesday at the public library, an event that coincided with the weeklong National Days of Remembrance. Skalina, who lives in southern Maine, said she started talking to schoolchildren 10 years ago.

“I try to tell them through my experience what hate can do,” she said.

Skalina was born in Tornola, Slovakia. She grew up in a town of 4,000 people where everyone got along, she said, but as World War II approached, the community separated along religious lines. She lived in part of Slovakia annexed by the Germans and given to Hungary. People heard word of Germany invading Poland and didn’t want to believe it, she said.

“That became the tragedy of the Hungarian Jews. They didn’t do anything to flee, to hide, to save their lives,” Skalina said.

In June 1944, when police arrived to force her family from their home, an officer whispered to her mother, “‘The allied forces have landed in Europe.’ It gave us hope.”

Her father was the first person killed in town, she said. Taken away to be interrogated, he never came back. Days later, she arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

“We came out of the cattle car confused, even happy to breathe fresh air,” Skalina said.

Then 19, she was told to join the group on the right. Her mother, 41, was ordered to the group on the left, the group taken straight to a gas chamber.

“Her look said, ‘Goodbye; take care,’ and this look will stay with me forever,” Skalina said.

After nine weeks, she was moved to a labor camp, something she later learned was called “extermination through work,” assembling poisonous munitions. In March 1945 she and friends made a run for it, hiding in a barn where Americans found them. She’s been asked many times to describe that moment and all that comes is, “Relief.”

“From the 24 members of my family who lived in that town, only four of us returned,” she said.

Her talk opened and closed to standing ovations. The room was filled with students and adults.

Lewiston High School freshman Kirsty Beauchesne said she was struck by the week’s theme, “What you do matters.”

“This is the last generation that’s going to be able to meet a Holocaust survivor in person,” she said. “It’s really important to hear it from someone who’s been there.”

She and Lewiston junior Rebecca Lessard listened as part of an independent study course.

“After all these years, what made her most emotional was teaching to students,” Lessard said. “It means a lot that she’s caring so much about the future.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com

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