Holocaust survivor Paul Galan has every reason to hate the people who tormented his family during the war years. Yet, says the Suffern resident, who will speak at the JCC on the Palisades Yom HaShoah commemoration at 7 p.m. on April 16, "the concept of hate has to be eradicated."
Holocaust survivor Paul Galan will speak at the JCC on the Palisades on April 16. Marvin Baum
Sharing the program with Englewood-born Alan Moskin, who participated in the 1945 liberation of the Gunskirchen concentration camp and whom he now counts as a good friend, Galan will tell attendees about his family’s harrowing experiences but tell them also about several instances in which German soldiers showed "some humanity."
"I don’t hate all Germans," Galan told The Jewish Standard, relating how, in one case, his parents were warned privately by a German officer to flee immediately to avoid internment; and, in another, how the German officers who captured his father allowed him and his mother to escape.
Galan, who came to the United States in 1951 at the age of 10 and has enjoyed a successful career in the film industry, said his family was saved "through a variety of different means"; and the recitation of his family’s travails during the war years resembles a serialized cliffhanger.
The family hailed from a town in eastern Slovakia with about 18,000 people, including a Jewish population of some 5,000. But, said Galan, after the war, "only ’50 Jews remained." His family won an early reprieve from persecution because his father was a grain merchant, then considered a "strategic position."
"But that didn’t last long," he said, explaining that new regulations required that his father taken on a Christian as titular owner of the company. "This allowed us to buy more time," he said, but the relief was short-lived. The new owner, a former colleague of his father’s, reported to the authorities that the Jewish owner was no longer needed, and the family was rounded up to be deported. When Galan’s uncle learned of the Christian’s duplicity, "he put a pistol to his head and said he would shoot him" if he didn’t go back to the authorities and retract what he had said. He did, and the family won some more time, said Galan.
In another stopgap measure, Galan’s family became Lutherans, he said, but they were soon informed that they hadn’t converted early enough for it to do any good. The family (with the exception of one sister, whom the family was able to forewarn and who they hoped might go into hiding) was taken to a Slovakian internment camp, where they spent one year.
According to Galan, a partisan uprising in 1944 "liberated" that part of the country, and prisoners were told they were now "free to leave the camp." But after the Germans came, he said, they were forced to "head for the mountains, seeking safe havens using false documents."
Galan reports that one sister was lost during a snowstorm, and his father was captured in 1944 and sent to Buchenwald. And, he said, there was no word from the sister he hoped had escaped. In 1945, he and his mother joined the refugees crossing the mountains into liberated territories and "ended up with the Russians."
What follows almost defies belief. When, later in the year, Galan and his mother returned to their hometown, it was to enjoy an unexpected reunion with every member of his immediate family. His father survived Buchenwald; the sister lost in the snowstorm had joined the partisans and survived; and his other sister, who had been apprehended and interned in several concentration camps, made it out alive.
A graduate of New York’s City College with a bachelor’s degree in film and history, Galan began his career as a film editor for television documentaries and later became a documentary film director, working at both CBS News and ABC News. In 1968, he established his own company, Gateway Productions, winning many awards for his work, much of which concerned social issues such hunger, health care, and conditions at nursing homes. He noted that many of his films are in the archive of the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City.
Three years ago, approaching retirement, he began to realize that he could now do "what I always knew I would do," he said. He would put his talents to use "communicating and teaching about the Holocaust." As a volunteer docent and speaker at the Holocaust Museum in Spring Valley, he learned that a group of ”,000 people was preparing to participate in the ‘005 March of the Living mission to Poland and Israel.
Galan decided to join the mission, to make a film "on the effects of the trip on the group." Doing his own camera work ("I hadn’t done that before") and all of the interviews, he subsequently produced a ‘8-minute documentary, "Saying Kaddish for Six Million," a title he took from a comment made by a mission participant. The film is now part of the permanent collection of several Holocaust centers, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Galan, now at work on a second Holocaust documentary a one-hour study of children of survivors explained that he interviewed Alan Moskin extensively for his first film and the two have become good friends. He said that Moskin, who went on the March of the Living trip as a secular Jew, had a religious epiphany during the mission, culminating in his visit to the Kotel, which Galan filmed.
While Galan cautions people against hatred, he insists that "we mustn’t forget it can happen again." He said he "sees parallels [to the Holocaust] all the time."
"I saw it in Bosnia and now in Darfur," he said. "The world doesn’t care. It’s too remote, too far away."
The survivor noted that it is especially important to speak with children about the Holocaust. First, said the past president of Cong. Sons of Israel of Suffern, now the Montebello Jewish Center, it’s important to caution them against hatred. And second, "I tell them that if they hear someone saying that the Holocaust didn’t happen, they should answer that they met someone who lived through it."
The JCC Holocaust program is sponsored by the Martin Perlman and Jo-Ann Hassan Holocaust Education Institute Endowment Fund. For information, call (’01) 569-7900, ext. ’04, or visit www.jcconthepalisades.org