Holocaust survivor Charles Middleberg spoke at an April 16 Hillel-run event at Drexel University, recalling being separated from his parents after they were taken to concentration camps during World War II.
The Jewish student organization brought Middleberg to campus as part of Yom HaShoah, “Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
Middleberg, who was 9 years old at the start of World War II, now lives in Cherry Hill, N.J. and recounts his story to students around the tri-state area. Although these memories are emotional and painful, he continues to share his story as a witness to the truth about what happened during the Holocaust.
“The No. 1 reason that I [talk] is because there are people who say that [the Holocaust] never happened. It happened. I am a living witness, it happened. It happened to me, my brother, my father, my mother, to my whole family, … and if someone wants to stand in front of me and tell me I’m a myth, [that] it never happened, I can show them! I have proof it happened,” Middleberg said.
Drexel freshman Rachel Pagano is the education chair for Hillel. She participated in a “March of the Living” trip last year and traveled to Poland and Israel to visit the sites of former concentration camps. The group included Middleberg and other Holocaust survivors, who shared their stores with Pagano and other young people on the trip.
Pagano asked Middleberg to speak to help remind her fellow Jewish students and the entire Drexel community of the reality of the Holocaust to commemorate Yom HaShoah.
“As the years go on, [Holocaust] survivors get fewer and fewer. It’s kind of our job to learn through them what happened and tell our children and our children’s children. … They should know,” Pagano said. “Everyone should know. It’s not just a Jewish thing. It’s an important part of history for everyone.”
Middleberg was never taken to a concentration camp, but his mother and father were. In May 1941 his father received a slip of paper summoning to him the city hall, threatening severe punishment for those who didn’t show up. He and 9,000 other Jews were transported to a concentration camp 120 miles south of Paris.
Separated from their mother, who was eventually brought to another concentration camp where she died in a gas chamber, Middleberg and his little brother spent a brief time on a farm outside of the city. When they returned to Paris, they were able to survive by pretending to be Catholic because a Parisian woman taking care of them had them baptized. They became altar boys and attended Mass every Sunday, disguising their Jewish heritage to escape the Nazis.
“We were the best little Catholic boys from that moment on. This is the way we lived until Paris was liberated in August of 1944,” he said.
Eventually, he and his brother were reunited with their father, who spent three years in Auschwitz. Using his skills as a watchmaker to repair jewelry and watches for camp guards, he was able to barter for extra rations and avoid death. When he was released, he weighed 94 pounds and died an early death at the age of 52..
Middleberg grew up, moved to the U.S., married and started a family.
“I have four children — two sons, two daughters — and twelve grandchildren. My story does have a happy ending. It doesn’t take care of what happened, but it does have a happy ending,” he said.
Jews around the world celebrated Yom HaShoah beginning at sundown April 18. Brothers of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity marched around campus with signs pledging to remember those who were lost during the Holocaust.
“If history is forgotten, it will repeat itself. So we want to remember so nothing like that will ever happen again. We remember those that were lost, but we celebrate those who survived. It’s kind of a mourning and a celebration mixed,” Pagano said.