Holocaust survivor and partisan fighter speaks at York JCC
The German invasion of Poland didn't shake Howard Kaidanow's faith in the innate goodness of humanity, nor did the severe restrictions and inhumane treatment that came along when the Nazis invaded his town in 1941.
It happened in one irrevocable moment, when Kaidanow learned he had become an orphan at the hands of the brutal Nazi regime and would have to fend for himself in a country overtaken by men who wanted to kill him, simply because he was a Jew.
Kaidanow told his story of horror, heroism, survival and hope during the Yom HaShoah Observance at the York Jewish Community Center, 2000 Hollywood Drive, on Wednesday, April 11. Yom HaShoah also is known as Holocaust Remembrance Day.
A changed life: It was the week of Passover in 1942, the annual holiday where Jews celebrate the liberation of their people from slavery, when Kaidanow, then 13 and living in Krivichi, Belarus, came face to face with the absolute depth of cruelty that one man can commit against another.
That day, his younger brother ran in from the street to tell his family that the Nazis were shooting people, and Kaidanow's mother immediately hid the two boys under hay and straw at the back of their farmhouse. Then she returned to meet the Nazis, refusing to reveal the whereabouts of her family.
"She wouldn't tell them, so they beat her. They beat her almost to death, then they shot her," Kaidanow said.
"We heard everything," he said.
When the boys came out, they saw a sight that would forever be imprinted on their minds.
"My mother was lying there in a pool of blood, dead," he said.
Then, his thoughts turned to his father, who was working that day at a slave labor camp.
"I thought maybe my father survived, but no," he said. "On the same day, my father was burned alive."
That day, Kaidanow went from being a helpless "little Jewish boy” to a self-described "angry little Jewish boy," one who would do whatever it took to fight back and protect the people he loved.
A story that must be told: When Kaidanow took the stage at the York JCC, he thanked the audience for coming out to hear his story.
"It is not a happy one, but it has to be told," he told the crowd in heavily accented English.
It was 1941 when life became terrible, he said, after the Nazis invaded. Kaidanow's family had already fled from another city when it was invaded by the Soviets.
However, when the Nazis arrived, they brought with them the "Einszatzengruppen," squads that frequently rounded up Jews in the area to kill them.
Jewish citizens could no longer own businesses or pursue an education, and they would be threatened with death if they failed to immediately give up anything they were asked for, he said.
"They always kept their word, and that's how they got everything from us. We hardly had anything left. They took our dignity, they took what made us human," he said.
Going into hiding: After the death of their parents in 1942, the brothers went into hiding with their uncle and aunt in another city. In the middle of the home was a room that was blocked out, he said, making it difficult to determine if it existed or not.
Inside the room, there was a hole people could crawl into to hide from the Nazis.
Twenty-five people hid in that room, he said, and one person would be designated to stay by the window to keep watch.
Kaidanow said that the Nazis loved to arrest and murder Jewish people "before, during and after" their sacred holidays, but it was still a surprise when, during the Jewish New Year, his uncle ran in and said the Nazis were there.
Almost everyone hid in the room and survived, except for one man who couldn't join the group because he was suffering from a bad cough.
"We couldn't let him come in with us. He would have given us away," he said.
He was shot and killed, Kaidanow said, while his daughter listened inside the hiding place.
On the run: The group escaped from the home, crawling on their bellies as they proceeded farther into the woods, fearing that the moonlit night would reveal their presence.
They then came across a group of 80 partisan soldiers who were also hiding in the woods. Partisan soldiers were part of a resistance movement that fought against the Nazis and their collaborators, Kaidanow explained. His uncle and cousin joined the partisan soldiers, and they left the area, leaving behind two men who had defected from the group.
Kaidanow wanted to join the movement, but when he applied to its commander, he was laughed at.
"He said, 'First of all, you haven't got a gun. Secondly, you are a little boy," he said.
"But I said, 'Look, I'm gonna fight because I'm an angry boy. I'm going to fight just as well as the grownups," Kaidanow said.
He was denied, but then he came up with a plan to get a gun.
He observed the schedules of the guards at a nearby grease factory, and with the help of one of the partisan defectors, he went to the factory and waited until a guard came out.
"I got my slingshot and I hit him right on the head. He fell off the bicycle," he said.
His friend took a gun from the guard and gave Kaidanow his own gun.
Joining the resistance: A couple of weeks later, Kaidanow encountered the commissar of the brigade and reiterated his interest in fighting.
He was then used as a spy who was sent to the city to get news from Nazi collaborators and bring it back to the partisan soldiers.
Soon, he started doing everything the adults did, including assisting with dynamiting trains that delivered soldiers, ammunition and other supplies.
Kaidanow continued serving as a fighter for the partisan movement in Belarus until the Soviets liberated the region in 1944.
By then, he and his fellow soldiers had faced gunfire from the Nazis and one of the coldest winters on record.
"But we survived," he said.
What he fought for: When World War II ended, Kaidanow traveled through Eastern Europe, studying and working various jobs before he joined his brother in the United States in 1957. In 1959, he met his wife, Esther, also a Holocaust survivor, while on a blind date in Philadelphia.
The two married in 1961 and have two children, he said.
When asked how he has endured the emotional trauma of living through one of the most brutal regimes in history, he has a standard answer.
"It's not easy to do. Nonetheless, you got to have some sort of a life," he said.
"I didn't fight for nothing. I fought because I wanted to win, and somehow I won, I believe," he said.
He said that while his life hasn't been perfect, it's been pretty good.
"I have a nice wife, beautiful children, accomplished children. So, you know, I fought for something," he said.