Descendants of Holocaust survivors, veterans in North Carolina reflect on 75th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- It's not just that they survived Auschwitz; their living and thriving for many more years were their enduring victories.

Defeating Hitler, however, is not the same as beating time.

"We heard a lot of stories, but never in chronological order and I never really asked a lot of questions," Craig Becher, whose paternal grandparents survived the Holocaust, said. "I listened and absorbed them. For me, it matters because I want my kids to hold on to a piece of what I have so that it doesn't get so diluted."

As the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the children and grandchildren of survivors are now being called upon to bear witness to the atrocities.

There's no official count of living Holocaust survivors in America or abroad, but the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates at least 294 veterans of World War II die every day, and most--if not all--who remain are in their 90s.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day falls on January 27, which is the same day Allied forces liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious Nazi concentration camp.

This year's observance marks 75 years since liberation.

RELATED: Holocaust survivors return to Auschwitz 75 years after liberation

"Auschwitz, the word, carries a lot of strength with it," Becher said. "I think that Auschwitz is kind of used as the stepping stone or association people have with the Holocaust."

Becher's grandmother, Martha, was captured by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz as a teenager.

"She kind of checked the boxes of the things people think about: having to go on the cattle car rides, having to jump off the cars and being separated, and there's men with dogs, the selection process, having seen people run to electrified fences."

Asked about the tattoo on her arm, Becher doesn't flinch: 37375.

"It's always there, a part of who she is, and that's kind of the way I feel about it too."

Holocaust survivors in North Carolina

Martha (Kadden) Becher died in 2018 at age 95; her husband, Claus, another German survivor, died in 2008. Their stories have been recorded, but Craig knows it's now up to him to ensure their stories are never forgotten.

"To basically prevent something like this from happening," he said. "If you don't know about it, you can't identify it if it is happening. If you have a lack of understanding or lack of education, if this is starting right now or in 10 or 20 years, you won't recognize it for you or your friends or someone to say this is happening again."

The North Carolina Council on the Holocaust, an agency of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, has itself compiled a long list of survivor narratives, among other resources, for teaching about the subject.

For decades, many survivors living in North Carolina visited middle and high schools, but the number of survivors still living and able to tell their stories are dwindling: Zev Harel, Hank Brodt, and cousins Rachel Kizhnerman and Shelly Weiner, among others.

Abe Piasek, among the most prominent and popular speakers in the Triangle, died January 15 at the age of 91. ABC11, in fact, spoke with Piasek in 2018 to mark 80 years since Kristallnacht, the night many historians consider the start of the Holocaust.

Other N.C. survivors who passed in recent years include Morris Glass, Dr. Susan Eckstein Cernyak-Spatz, Gizella Abramson, Simone Lipman, Walter Falk, and Jack Hoffman among others.

RELATED: Holocaust survivor, Abe Piasek, dies at 91 in Raleigh

World War II veterans also dying

As many as six million Jews perished in the Holocaust--including 1.5 million children--but several million more were casualties of the war in Europe.

Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in World War II, the National World War II Museum reports less than 390,000 were alive in 2019, including 9,528 in North Carolina. The Museum further estimates that the entire generation of World War II veterans will be gone within the next 10-15 years.

Robert Levin, a Jewish war veteran now living in Southern Pines, will turn 100 later this year.

"I was fighting for my country and against what was going on in Europe," Levin said. "I don't know how anyone could have not, whether they were Jewish or Protestant, wouldn't want to get in the fight."

Levin, a graduate of N.C. State University, was drafted and sent to Italy in 1943. He would soon be captured by the Nazis and sent to a Prisoner of War (POW) camp.

"I turn around and I'm looking down the barrel of a gun," Levin said. "What am I going to do? I put my hands up and got out of the foxhole."

Levin, cognizant of his name and his religion, recalled taking the advice of a British POW to lie about his heritage when checked into the camp.

"I told them I was a Christian Scientist, and I'm not sure they knew much about that at the time."

Today, Levin is a new great-grandfather and is looking to his children to protect his legacy.

"We're the last ones to have to go through this. We don't want anyone else to have to go through this. We wouldn't want another generation of people, regardless, black white Jew or Protestant, have to go through being tortured killed or put into concentration camps. I hope most civilized people would think that something like this shouldn't happen. It could happen, but I certainly wouldn't want it to happen. And if my story would help, I would certainly appreciate it."
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