Holocaust survivor shares story of endurance
May 31, 2011
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - A former Aberdeen Proving Ground Soldier returned to the installation as the guest speaker for the Days of Remembrance Observance of the Holocaust at
the Post Theater May3.
Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, commander of APG and the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, welcomed Holocaust survivor Nicholas Attias, a Yugoslavian Jew who
spent the war years as a child in Italy, hidden by strangers in small towns and farms.
Audience members included children and youth from area schools and cadets from the Free State ChalleNGe Academy.
“Today you will get to hear a living history that challenges our values and blessings,” Justice told the audience. “Through the lighting of these candles, open your minds to learn this history so we will never repeat those sad events.”
About 6 million European Jews are believed to have perished throughout Nazi-occupied territory as a result of the systematic state-sponsored Holocaust.
Some scholars maintain that the definition of the Holocaust should also include the Nazis’ genocide of millions of people in other groups, including Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet civilians, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other political and religious opponents. Using this definition, the total number of Holocaust victims is
estimated at 11 to 17 million people.
As Justice welcomed Attias back to the installation as the guest speaker for the APG’s annual Holocaust remembrance ceremony, he shared with the audience a brief history.
He noted that Attias came to the United States by steamship in 1950 at age 15. He spoke Yugoslav and Italian, and very little English. His family settled into a small apartment in New York City where he enrolled in high school, eventually working his way through college before being drafted into the Army and assigned to Edgewood.
“He retired here in Maryland and remains here in this community,” Justice said. “I welcome you to our stage today.”
Attias began by telling the audience how life for his and millions of families changed in 1940 and 1941. He said his father was a store owner and his mother worked alongside him “until the Germans came through.
“They started rounding up Jews from their homes and pretty soon everyone had to wear a badge identifying themselves as Jews.”
He recalled his father being beaten by German soldiers for refusing to wear a badge and not much later how his mother led him to a train bound for Italy.
“This is not the story of a hero; it’s just the story of a lucky kid and many of my incredible experiences,” Attias said.
For nine years, even after being separated and reunited with his family, Attias was hidden from the Nazis by farmers, store keepers and dozens of other Samaritans protecting Jews from the Nazis.
“We were always silent, and it seems like we were always looking for food,” he said. “Most of us were very thin but we were also very lucky because we met good people who took extraordinary
He added that while people think of Italy today as a place for fun and good food it was not so during that time.
“The truth of the matter is the USA lost 50,000 Soldiers in Italy and about 15,000 Italian-born Jews were deported to Germany,” he said. We were in constant danger.
He said that when the Germans finally retreated after the Allied invasion and the Americans arrived, “you can’t imagine the happiness.”
“I was one of the barefoot kids running after GIs for candy bars,” he said. “The ability to just walk around again was overwhelming. Still, there was no instant fix. Schools had to be rebuilt,
homes had to be rebuilt and lives had to be rebuilt.”
Arriving in New York was like arriving on another planet, Attias said.
“I didn’t talk because I stuttered, I didn’t know the language and I didn’t have any friends,” he said.
Still he worked hard to learn English, and get through high school and college.
“One of the proudest moments of my life was when I was sworn into the Army,” he said. “Can you imagine just a few years earlier I was a kid running after jeeps?”
Attias encouraged guests to view his mementos, which included the badge he was forced to wear and photos of his parents and the ship that carried him and his family to America.
The message to his story was simple, he said.
“Be tolerant and understanding of others,” he urged. “Be aware and learn because ignorance is dangerous.”
Larry Burton of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory served as the program’s master of ceremonies. Rabbi Ruskin of the Harford Jewish Center offered the invocation and benediction
and led the candlelight ceremony which was performed by home-schooled students of the Sovereign Grace Home School in Joppa.