For decades, Dr. Harold Kasimow kept his Holocaust survival story largely to himself. He didn't feel he had the right to tell it.
"I always felt that, you know, it should be told by people who were much older than me. Because I was just a child. I was just 3 1/2 years old when the German army occupied our village," Kasimow said.
Now 83, Kasimow's outlook has changed over the past decade or so, as older survivors of the Holocaust are dying, or otherwise no longer able to speak about their personal experiences. He now feels an obligation to speak.
"I feel this is a really very, very important thing for people to know about, to know the depths to which people can sink, and the heights to which they can reach in risking their lives to save other people," he said.
Of the estimated 1 million Jewish children living in Poland in 1938, just 5,000 survived World War II. Kasimow and his siblings were among them.
The family lived in a tiny village about 70 miles outside of Vilnius, in what was then Poland, but today is within modern Lithuania. The German army transported most of the Jewish residents away when soldiers came to occupy the community in July 1941, but left five families behind -- Kasimow's among them.
"My father was a fisherman, and the Germans needed fish. So we were left, and we were under (the) Germans. Everybody else was taken away from the surrounding area," Kasimow said. "Now I know that thousands of the Jewish people from that area were rounded up and murdered," he said.
The five remaining Polish Jewish families continued working for the Germans until April 1942.
"A priest came and informed my father that a different group of Germans were coming in, and everybody was going to be killed now. So we escaped," he said.
Over the next few years, the family was hidden by a network of acquaintances of Kasimow's father. Even today, Kasimow remembers the 19 months and five days he, his parents, and his two older sisters lived in a hole underground beneath a cow barn, in what is today a region of Belarus.
That experience likely had long-term physical impacts, as well as mental and emotional. Kasimow said he is significantly shorter than the other men in his family due to malnutrition.
"It was difficult years of healing after the war. I was still very weak, I lost my voice, and so on," he said.
It was rare for entire families to stick together and survive during the Holocaust. Kasimow said many people told his father he was "crazy" to try to save his entire family, but his father refused to leave anyone behind.
Saving an entire family also came with risks for the families that hid the Kasimows.
"The Polish farmer who allowed us to stay there, of course, risked his life. Because if we had been discovered, he and his family would have been killed immediately. There's a possibility that we might have been taken to a death camp, or concentration camp of some sort," Kasimow said.
The Vilnius region was liberated by the Soviet Red Army in July 1944. But even after the war ended, anti-Semitic sentiment continued in the region. Kasimow said his family were nearly killed at one point following the liberation.
In 1949, the family emigrated to the United States. But they didn't talk about the Holocaust. Kasimow went on to become a professor of religious studies at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, but mostly maintained his silence about those experiences for many years.
But the rise in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in the U.S., combined with the dwindling numbers of people able to tell of their first-hand experiences of the Holocaust, compelled him to change his mind.
"I think we all do have an obligation to tell people. I know that there are a lot of young people, especially, who can't name one death camp," Kasimow said. "You have to know that beside the approximately 6 million Jews, there were another 5 to 6 million non-Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Maybe as many as 3 million Polish Catholics. I find that it's hard to believe. Actually, I realized that it's hard to believe."
Kasimow hopes telling his story makes it real for them -- and imparts some lessons to learn from.
"What I want them to take away is don't hate. Love life. Welcome the stranger. Defend people of all faiths. Never give up. Hope that peace will come," he said.
Kasimow is the keynote speaker at Wednesday evening's Peoria Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Day of Remembrance, hosted by the Jewish Federation of Peoria.
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