As a young boy, Howard Kaidanow suffered through atrocities and indignities that no human being should have to endure.
“The Nazis did all kinds of things to us,” Kaidanow remembered. “I went through it and I still can’t believe that people could do that to other people, no matter who the people are.”
A Holocaust survivor who lives in Lutherville, Kaidanow, 87, spoke earlier this week at a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) program at Towson University sponsored by the college’s Hillel and Department of Early Childhood Education. He shared his story with an audience of 75 students, faculty and community members.
Kaidanow grew up in a small town in Poland that is now part of Belarus. He recalled living a normal middle-class life with his parents and younger brother.
Their lives changed drastically in 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded his town, and again in June 1941 when Nazi forces took over.
“Life changed for the worst,” Kaidanow said. “It’s impossible for me to tell you what they did to us. People should not do that to people. Even animals don’t do that to themselves.”
One day in April 1942, the unimaginable happened to Kaidanow.
“My brother was outside,” he said. “He came running into the house and told my mother there was shooting outside. My mother hid my brother and me in a bunch of straw behind the house. About 10 minutes later, we heard a knock on the door. Nazis broke down the door, came in and asked my mother where the rest of the family was located. My mother didn’t tell them, so they beat her and shot her to death.
“That same day, my father was burned alive. They took 50 Jewish people, put them in a barn and lit the barn on fire.”
Kaidanow and his brother ran away to stay with an uncle in another small town. They hid in a secret room for a short time before fleeing to the woods.
“It was between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and it was raining cats and dogs,” Kaidanow said. ”It didn’t stop raining. We didn’t have any clothes and we didn’t have any food. We had nothing.”
In the woods, Kaidanow said he came across a group of Jewish partisan fighters. Kaidanow was given a chance to join the group, and as a partisan, he spent most of his time blowing up German trains.
“If I didn’t become a partisan, I don’t know what I would have done because I was afraid,” he said. “When you become a partisan, at least the Nazis can’t just shoot you or kill you because you have a gun and you can defend yourself.”
Kaidanow said he spent two winters in the forests
“The winters were the worst on record,” Kaidanow said. “It was so cold. But I think people are stronger then iron. We survived. I survived as a kid. But it was not easy, I can tell you that.”
Kaidanow’s brother also survived the war, along with a few other family members from their father’s side. Every family member on their mother’s side was murdered during the war.
After the defeat of the Nazis, Kaidanow spent some time in the Soviet Union, eventually making his way back to Poland and then East Germany. There, he was in a Displaced Persons camp and finished school before coming to the United States in the late 1950s.
He met his wife, Esther, also a Holocaust survivor, on a blind date in Philadelphia. They married in 1961 and moved seven years later to Baltimore, where Kaidanow worked as a businessman.
Today, the Kaidanows have a daughter, son and granddaughter, and belong to Pikesville’s Beth El Congregation.
Kaidanow is part of a dwindling group of survivors. According to Dr. Wali Gill, an adjunct professor in the Department of Early Childhood Education at Towson University, there are probably less than 400 Holocaust survivors living in the Baltimore Metropolitan area.
Noam Bento, executive director of Towson’s Hillel, said hearing survivors firsthand accounts should never be taken for granted.
“Unfortunately, the opportunities aren’t going to be there in a decade or two. That’s the reality of it,” he said. “We believe that bringing in speakers and people who can give the testimony is extremely important.”
Daniel Elice, a Towson sophomore at Towson University, agreed.
“We are fortunate there are still survivors living during the present time that are willing to share their personal stories,” he said. “We are one of the last generations to have the opportunity to meet these survivors and hear their miraculous stories.”
Kaidanow has only been sharing his story publicly for five years.
“Somebody has to tell this story,” he said. “People talk mostly about the concentration camps, which was horrible. But the Germans killed 1.5 million Jewish people without the concentration camps, just in the little towns and cities. I decided somebody had to tell the story. There weren’t too many partisans left here, so that’s what I’m doing now.”
Kaidanow said he hopes speaking about his experiences will help put an end to bigotry and hatred.
“You cannot go on hating,” he said. “If you continue hating long enough, you will hate yourself. You have to live your life. It’s not healthy for me to hate everybody. I don’t do that.
“But I remember. I don’t forget.”
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Photos by Daniel Kucin Jr.
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