Holocaust survivor shares his harrowing story of evading Nazis with Vail audience
Oscar "Osi" Sladek, a resident of Denver, speaks to a packed room at the Chabad of Vail
Oscar “Osi” Sladek, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in Denver, spoke to a full audience at the Chabad of Vail on Sunday, Aug. 13. Wearing a yellow star of David on his chest, a required badge for Jews under the Nazi regime, Sladek talked about how he repeatedly evaded the Nazis and became the only child (except a newborn infant at the end of the war) in his extended family to survive the Holocaust.
Sladek was born Oskar Staub, and was raised practicing Orthodox Judaism in Czechoslovakia, a country open to Jewish people.
“It was a wonderful place to live in that everybody, the gentiles and the Jews, lived in harmony together, and there were no problems,” Sladek said. In 1939, Slovakia declared autonomy, and became open to Nazi influence.
By 1942, the Nazi party expanded its attention to eliminating Jewish people from Slovakia.
“I was 7 years old when I first heard Adolf Hitler speak on the short-wave radio,” Sladek said. “I was already in hiding.”
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In Hungary at the time, the Jewish community was still left alone, so Sladek’s parents decided to send him illegally across the border to live with his aunt and uncle in Hungary in March 1943. They hired a smuggler to take him across the border. Sladek recounted how the border crossing was cold, and he cried — he was only 8 years old, and did not understand why his parents had sent him away. To cross the border, the smuggler told Sladek to act like a rabbit. Sladek remembered hearing shots, and said that he became scared, laid down in the snow, and thought to himself “these must be hunters, hunting for rabbits.”
Sladek made it to Hungary, where he was forced to lie to the police that his parents had been taken by the Nazis, and he had traveled to Hungary on his own. His aunt and uncle formally adopted him, and treated him as their own son. However, his luck didn’t last. In March 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary, and, terrified, Sladek begged his aunt and uncle to be permitted to return home.
In April 1944, Sladek was smuggled back to Slovakia, hidden under hay in a wagon. At the border, Nazis stabbed at the hay with bayonets, but he said he escaped untouched. Reunited with his parents, the family found an underground organization that provided them with false identification, and covertly traveled through a series of increasingly remote villages, desperate to evade the Nazis.
“My family, my friends, and I were fugitives in our own country. By doing that, I was lucky to survive without being taken to a concentration camp,” he said.
Eventually, the family landed in the Tatra Mountains, living among a small community in a cabin in the wilderness. On Christmas Day 1944, the people living at the cabin received word that the Nazis were going to make a raid. As night fell, only Sladek’s family and one other family chose to leave the cabin.
While hiding in a nearby cave, the families heard the Nazis fall upon the cabin, and the sound of gunshots. They assumed, Sladek said, that the residents of the cabin were shot. They learned later they were taken to camps, and that many survived the war. It was not until March 1945 that Sladek’s family was finally able to return to their home city.
“I didn’t start talking about (the Holocaust) until I was 40 years old,” Sladek said.
In Israel, where Sladek and his family moved after the war, the tendency was to focus on the future, not the past. It was not until he saw a film about the Holocaust at the Mayan Theater in Denver that he realized he needed to share his story.
“I saw the film, a foreign film, about a young Jewish boy in the Holocaust. In the middle of the film, I got so emotional, I started crying,” he said. “So I walked out (of the movie theater), and I was walking on the sidewalk, crying, that was the moment when I decided I had to start talking.”
Sladek, who has published a book on his experience, said that half of his more than 50-person extended family died in the Holocaust.
“You never get over it. In the back of the book, there’s a list of my family that I lost … Most of them died in camps,” he said. Out of his 15 cousins, Sladek was the only child (except the infant) to survive.
In March 1948, Sladek had his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony where a boy becomes a man.
“A lot of parents who lost their children (during the Holocaust), they came to my Bar Mitzvah. How did I feel then? I choked up, I couldn’t do my Bar Mitzvah. (I saw) adults sitting in front of me, and they were crying, and I was trying to do my Bar Mitzvah,” Sladek said. “I felt guilty for a long time; how could I survive when all those kids didn’t? It wasn’t easy, but life goes on.”
A Zionist at the age of 14, Sladek convinced his parents to move to Israel, where he attended high school, learned English, served in the Israeli Defense Forces, and started a career in music. Along the way, the family changed their last name from Staub to Sladek. From Israel, he moved to South America, then to Los Angeles, where he was set up with his wife of 63 years, Selma, on a blind date.
“I thought she was blind. She (Selma’s cousin, who set them up) called it a blind date. I spoke seven languages, there was no such thing in any language as a blind date!” he said to raucous laughter, one of many moments of levity during his talk. The couple moved to Denver, where Selma grew up, in the 1950s, and have lived there ever since.
Over the past few years, at Selma’s suggestion, Sladek worked on his book.
“I never wanted to write a book. Over the years, when I was younger, after work, I would sit down and write down my memories for my family. And I kept writing and writing and writing and writing, and finally, one day, about three years ago, my wife said to me, ‘I read the stuff, why don’t you publish it?'” he said.
Sladek’s book, “Escape to the Tatras,” was published in 2022, and can be purchased on Amazon.