Vail Valley locals keep Holocaust survivors’ tales alive
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado – As Holocaust survivors grow older and pass away, it’s important for their stories to live on – that’s a mission Vail resident Kim Yashek has taken to heart. Her father survived four years in a Nazi concentration camp during the 1940s, and since his death five years ago, Yashek sees it as her duty to share his experiences.
“Slowly, these survivors are dying,” Yashek said. “It’s up to us, as their children, to carry on their stories,” she said.
The Holocaust Remembrance and Awareness Committee of B’Nai Vail Congregation organized a series of speakers at Vail area schools. Yashek and other locals who have ties to the Holocaust spoke this week at Red Canyon High School in Edwards and Vail Mountain School in East Vail.
Yashek’s father, Richard J. Yashek, was among the many German Jews imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. He was sent to a camp in Latvia at the age of 12. During habitual roundups, he watched as his fellow prisoners were singled out for “selection.”
“They were told they were going to a fish market, but they were taken to a field and shot,” Yashek said.
Sadly, this was the fate for Richard Yashek’s brother and mother, who were “selected” several months into his stay at the concentration camp. His father, who became sick and deemed weak by his Nazi captors, was eventually selected as well. Finally Russian soldiers liberated the camp, and Richard Yashek escaped.
Avon resident Andre Willner also shared his father’s story Friday at Vail Mountain School.
Otto Willner discovered early on the discrimination facing Jewish families leading up to World War II. As a young child in Berlin, his teachers would point to him and another Jewish boy, saying “These are the Jews which caused the defeat of Germany,” according to Otto Willner’s memoirs. In 1923, Otto’s father was forced to resign from his job at a prestigious music conservatory simply because he was Jewish.
While telling this story to Vail Mountain School students, Andre Willner pointed out that discrimination against Jews predated World War II.
“We think of World War II and the concentration camps, but it started much earlier than that,” he said.
During much of World War II, Otto Willner lived in France. One night in August 1942, he and his wife were listening to the radio when they heard an announcement that all Jews should hide because Hitler’s Germany planned extensive roundups in Holland, Belgium and northern France.
Willner thought his family would be safe because they were staying in southern France’s unoccupied zone. But at 4 a.m., soldiers wielding rifles and bayonets came into their home to take them away as their two children slept in the next room.
“I said ‘Where are we going?’ The reply was “You’ll find out!”” Otto Willner wrote in his memoir. “I asked ‘What about our children?” Reply ‘Take ’em or leave ’em, we don’t care.'”
Hoping their children would be safer left behind with the farm manager, Willner and his wife were shuttled to a concentration camp. They very narrowly escaped after about a month.
By sharing stories from the Holocaust, the next generation hopes to shed light on the devastating effects of discrimination, in hopes of preventing anything like the Holocaust from happening again, Yashek said.
Vail Mountain School teacher Mike Beernsten has been teaching his students about World War II and the Holocaust, but stories about real survivors helped to put a human face on the lessons, he said.
For Junior Ian Reid, the message from the Holocaust talk sunk in.
“Just hearing their stories was incredible, how horrifying it was,” Reid said. “We’ve been learning about this but actually hearing it from the children of survivors was crazy.
“I think it’s really important to learn for the future so history doesn’t repeat itself.”
Along with organizing speakers at the school, the Holocaust awareness committee prepared Holocaust trunks for teachers. The trunks contain memoirs written by survivors with local ties, and other teaching materials.
Linda Dudley’s class at Red Canyon High School in Edwards currently has a trunk, and Yashek said five more trunks are available for other teachers. She encourages teachers who are interested in getting a trunk to contact B’Nai Vail at 970-477-2992.
Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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