An Interview with Boris Chartan

By Reema Saghvi
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York

Mr. Boris Chartan, Holocaust survivor, is president of the Holocaust Memorial and Educational Center of Nassau County at Glen Cove, New York.

[ Matt and Boris Chartan ]

Matt & Boris Chartan

Can you tell us where you were born?

I was born in a small town in Poland; the name of it is Podkamien, near the big city of Lwow. I was born in 1926, November 17. My grandfather lived there, my great grandparents, my father, and my mother. I went to school there. It was a public school. Even though I was in Poland, the majority of the population was Ukrainian in that part of the country. The smallest part, of course, was the Jewish part. I started all my schooling there.

What do you remember about your childhood there, school, and games played?

It was very difficult even in those days to go to school. And being Jewish, the intolerance was there. But it wasn't as bad as it developed through time. Because we were blamed for everything that went wrong, really the Jewish community was powerless there. We had no power; we held no offices or anything, but the blame was always there. We had prayer in school. The majority of the students were Christian. We'd stand up and talk about Jesus. We were little kids, and that was what we feared, and we were singled out for that. And that in itself caused a problem because the divisiveness was there right at the beginning of school. Just as you arrived at school, there was already a problem. You were already segregated. And this is why I believe that prayer in school is not the way to go. It's alright to stand up and pledge allegiance to the flag because we have to be faithful to the country we live in. But our religious practices should be left for home, churches, synagogues; then there's no problem. I have no problem going to a Christian church. There are many, many things that I am comfortable with, just like in my own religion. In the orthodox synagogue and the reform synagogue, all pray differently; that does not bother me. There you're not singled out, but when you single out people, then the intolerance becomes greater. The hate that it breeds is terrible. Prayer in school will do nothing but divide us. Yes, we are different, and we should be different, but not in school.

How large was your family before the Holocaust?

We had a large family, but I was an only child. I never had any brothers or sisters. My father had four brothers; my mom had three sisters. I had grandparents, cousins.

What was the first thing that happened to you as a result of government repression?

In the repression before the Nazis, in that separation the school created, there is one incident that stands out. I must have been about twelve years old, 1938 or so. We'd go out and play during recess at school. In those days the boys and girls played separately, and the game was that we stood around in a circle and a kid would take off his belt and we held our hands behind our back, and one kid kept the belt and he'd have to run around and hit us. A kind of crazy game. What happened was that the Jewish kids would get really beaten up because of the intolerance. We couldn't rebel; we were a minority. How could we rebel? We just took our lickings and went back to class.

One day, when we went home and started complaining, my schoolmate's brother, who was just coming out of the service, couldn't believe this, so he came and stood near the school grounds and watched us. He couldn't believe how we were getting beaten up, and he interceded on our behalf. He was arrested and we were all brought in to court to testify to what happened, how the teacher had allowed that to happen. It stopped for a while.

The real antisemitism came in 1939, when the war broke out and the Nazis came storming in. They did not come into our town right away because we had made a pact with the Russians when the Russians had moved in to protect that part of the Ukraine. They held onto it for two years; for two years we were under Russian dominance, 1939-1941. After that, the Germans moved against the Russians, and in 1941, the Germans came marching into my town.

I recall the first thing that happened was that they rounded up elders of the town, one of them being my dad, and they were laid out in the ravine. They put machine guns over their heads. They did not kill them that day, but they held them like that for a good twelve hours. In the meantime, Germans burned down our synagogues, our houses of worship. They did a lot of damage. At midnight, they let my father and the others go. As a young boy, I was quite aware; I was already fifteen.

Did the Nazis come in as a surprise, or had there been other incidences before that?

That was the first Nazi incident. It wasn't surprising because of what had happened since '36 and '37. As a young boy I remember when people, Czechoslovakian people and people from Austria, were running away from the Nazis and came to our town. They told us of these horrors. It was like a story someone was telling us; we really couldn't get close to it. It didn't affect us.

Did anyone try to protect you and your family?

Yes. At one point my dad had a lot of business, and through the years he made a lot of good friends who happened to be Polish people. One couple owned a farm and were very nice. They didn't have any children, a husband and wife who had a lot of people working for them. So they were really the people who were responsible for our survival.

How did they help you?

When my dad and I were taken to a work camp, I was not in a concentration camp, they took my mom to their farm, and she stayed there. They communicated with us in the camp. He used to bring my dad some cigarettes and some food. He travelled about fifty or sixty miles from the camp to the farm, and it took him a long time because he had to travel by horse and wagon. At one point, when my dad and I ran away from the camp, we stayed with this family.

The sad part of it was, the week before the Russians came back and started advancing and knocking out these Germans, the Ukraine community rebelled against the Polish community, on a Sunday. I'll never forget it. At about twelve o'clock right after church services, and they killed this lady who had saved us. She was shot by the Ukrainians, not the Germans. It was wintertime, and winters were very cold there. We went home and buried her. I will always refer to her as my second mother because she was so good to me.

What is her name? Can you tell us her name?

Her name was Maria Marcheniack, and his was Yanick.

Do you have any ill feelings now towards the Ukrainians or the Germans?

I don't have ill feelings towards the younger generation. A lot of times I feel uncomfortable with people a little bit older than I am because I don't know what they did, or where they were (during the war) because at the camp where we were, we were watched by Ukrainian police, more so than Germans. They kept a minimal amount of German police at the camps so that they could free up the German Gestapo to use different tactics. They used the Ukrainians to be a part of them. So, of course, there are some ill feelings, and as you see now, the antisemitism is still there, the hate. I have no hard feelings towards the young people today, because you can't hold them accountable for the actions of generations prior to them.

How do you feel about the people in our country and other places who deny that the Holocaust ever happened?

The people who deny it are the people who have an agenda. The normal, average American doesn't deny the Holocaust. It is the hate groups that are still around here that do their propaganda that way so they can say that it never happened. Because if you say it happened, you have to do something to prevent it from happening again.

Do you feel that you were betrayed anytime by a friend, or members of your family?


Why did you start to get into education about the Holocaust? What was your life's work before this?

The survivors, for the first thirty years, couldn't talk about it. We tried to block it out; we had to. We put it aside; we probably couldn't cope with it. And in order to regroup and make a life for ourselves, we put it somewhere in the background until we realized we had a responsibility because we survived. We weren't remembering those who had died. We had to make a life for ourselves, but what about them? Why did we segregate ourselves from them? So, the only way we saw to solve this problem was through education, getting involved with the Holocaust education. It made us take all that we had stored somewhere in our brains and speak about it. I, myself, never sat down to talk to my own kids. I couldn't talk to them about it. It was not good, probably the most difficult thing. How much horror can you expect to tell somebody young and still have them grow up normally?

What are you doing now to educate others about the Holocaust?

I've committed myself to a Holocaust Education Center in Glen Cove, New York. We've been working on it for ten years. We have schools and groups that come here to hear liberators and survivors speak. We are trying to offer a program in conjunction with Yad Vashem, which is the Holocaust center in Israel, whereby teachers could attend in the summer and learn how to teach about the Holocaust in their classrooms. We are campaigning right now to raise the necessary funds to do that. In 1996, we want to send our first six to eight teachers to Yad Vashem.

Have you ever been back to Poland or that part of the world, or would you go back?

No, no, no. I've always been "yes-and-no" about the situation. My cousin, who also survived and now lives in Israel, went back a year-and-a-half-ago. There is nobody there who would remember me. There's nobody there I would recognize. There was only one lady that they found who remembered my mother and me as a little boy.

What was the saddest day that you can remember?

The day they killed my mother's sisters, my grandmother, and eleven people of the town. I witnessed it. I was there. It was done so openly that as a young boy I just couldn't understand what was happening. It was devastating just to watch it because it was all done so arbitrarily.

Have you seen the movie Schindler's List?


What do you think? Would you like to make a comment about it?

I think the movie tells the truth only of what happened in that one place. Was Mr. Schindler a good person? Yes. I don't believe that he truly knew that what he did was able to save so many lives. I don't think he did it for completely monetary reasons. He had to play a part.

Can you recommend some books for young people?

Maus; Sunflower; Isabella; I Never Saw Another Butterfly; and Night. I think that's important for us now to learn how to live together, to respect one another and to prevent antisemitism. Because if it flourishes, we may not see another "Holocaust" in the future, but it may happen like in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

Have your beliefs in God been influenced by what you've experienced?

I envision God as a God up there giving you direction. I believe that everyone is created in the image of God, no matter who you believe in, and we have to do things that are right and that's the kind of God I believe in. He does not have to be just and right: I have to be just and right because he is not going to direct me. I have to direct myself towards my own thinking and direction. That is the kind of God I believe in.

What effect have the events of the Holocaust had on your present outlook of world leaders and people?

I believe that this whole thing could have been prevented had the leaders of the world realized what Hitler was up to. They knew what he was up to, but they had the wrong agenda, and they misjudged it. They just thought the victims were going to be the Jews, and Jewish life was not that important then. They had nothing to gain so that was not their agenda. But then, they realized that the monster had become so great that it wasn't only the Jews. Presently, I think, the same mistakes are happening because it is not us in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, but it is us. Today our world is very small; we're very close, and leaders have to realize that we have to start thinking about it and doing something about it.

What do you think the leaders should have done to prevent Hitler from doing what he did?

I'm sure there would be no problem, if they really put their heads together, to come up with a way to stop him so he didn't become so powerful. What made him so powerful, really was Czechoslovakia because they had the most mechanized army. Everything was so sophisticated that he got all that free. If they had stopped him from going in there, he would have stopped. But as time went on, he was able to get more and more. They gave him too much time to build up his resources and power.

Would you ever consider going back to the labor camp where you were kept?

To see it? Yes, but there is nothing left there to see. A friend of mine went back a couple of years ago, and he brought back some pictures. There is nothing left.

Do you belong to a support group? If so, has it helped?


Do you believe in such groups?

Yes, for some people. Somehow or another, I was able to work things out myself. I don't know if it's good or bad; I might have worked things out better with a support group, but I never tried it.

What motivated you to keep going throughout the Holocaust?

When that happened, instead of getting weaker, most people got stronger. The desire to live got stronger. It was like a challenge to see how far you could go, to run away, to keep going and not give up. I don't think anybody gave up even though some say, "What did we do?" You did the best you could. You couldn't rise against a might like that. We weren't prepared for something like this. We had a very strong desire to live, much stronger than the desire to give up.

For the students who will be watching this video and reading this interview, what is it that you would like them to remember most?

I would like them to remember that here is somebody who went through the Holocaust with such a great desire to survive against all odds. As survivors, many of us are able to make a life for ourselves, not to dwell on the past, but to look to the future. We are here to tell the story to make the young people aware of what hate and intolerance can do to us. Be on guard all the time. When you see intolerance or injustice, speak out and do not keep silent. Silence leads to the destruction of people.

Have you visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.?


What did you think of it?

I think it will play a tremendous part in many years to come. Young people will go there. The museum presents many parts of the Holocaust, and it takes about three hours to see the whole thing. I think that students need to be taught some things about the Holocaust in school before they go there so that it is not a meaningless experience. When the idea of a monument to the six million people was presented, I didn't like it. I thought people would see the monument and walk away; they wouldn't learn anything. The greatest monument is education. If you look at history, you see that everything else has failed except the school of learning.

Do you belong to an organization of Holocaust survivors?

Yes. I belong to a non-membership group dedicated to education. We don't have dues and are not supported by the governments. We raise funds through private means. We are now writing for grants because we are going to need more money for educational aspects. We are committed to education; that is where most of our money goes.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would like to say that it was great of you to give me the opportunity to speak to you, and I hope I left you with the thought that through you, others will learn. You will make an impact on the lives of others.

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