I escaped being gassed at the extermination camp, Sobibor

Fred Kahn at 4 1/2 years old, with Aunt Rosa Kahn Nassauer and Uncle Siegfried Nassauer.
Fred Kahn at 4 1/2 years old, with Aunt Rosa Kahn Nassauer and Uncle Siegfried Nassauer.

Monday marked the 75th anniversary of the Munich Pact, which was supposed to bring peace in Europe. Eleven months later it would lead to the beginning of World War II. On the day following the signing of the Munich Agreement, I, a young boy just short of 6 years old, was whisked from my native Germany to Belgium. Had I remained with my foster parents in Germany, I would have likely shared their fate. They were gassed in the extermination camp of Sobibor mid-June 1942.

I was born in Wiesbaden, Germany. When I was about a year old, my parents left me in the care of a childless aunt and uncle. My parents went to Belgium, hoping that Hitler and the Nazis would not last long and they could return and retrieve me. I lived with my Aunt Rosa and Uncle Siegfried, thinking they were my father and mother. I called my aunt “Mama.”

I recall my German friend Walter, very well. I remember sleigh rides in the winter. And each day around noon, I recall walking my grandmother Adelheid from my Aunt Selma’s house to the house where I lived. I remember the horse Bella, a retired race horse that belonged to my uncle. I recall a hunchback, Jacob who lived with us.

Above all, I recall the night I witnessed the burial of a pine box in a landfill. The pine box contained the Torah and other religious relics of the nearby synagogue. (Six weeks later, the synagogue would be burned in Kristallnacht.) The day after the Munich Pact, 75 years ago, my uncle, who I thought until then was my father, took me on on a train trip to Aachen. There he gave me to Maria Goar, a Christian German lady. She took me by streetcar to the Belgium border of Germany. Once we arrived, she told me that I should go straight ahead and that she would have to get back to her home. I walked straight through the block of the no man’s land separating Belgium from Germany.


When I reached the Belgian side a custom official spoke to me in French, a language that I did not understand. On the nearby side at the border fence, a man was yelling loudly in a language I did not understand. It was my biological father who was yelling in French “C’est mon fils!” [It is my son!] After some discussion, which seemed to me to last an eternity but was probably no longer than 30 minutes, telephone calls were made and I was let into Belgium as a refugee. Later in the evening, after I arrived at the apartment in Verviers, Belgium, where my biological parents lived, I recall like yesterday that I spoke on a black telephone in the living room to my aunt crying and calling her “Mama.” Four years later she and my uncle Siegfried were deported from Frankfurt, Germany, and allegedly gassed on arrival on June 15, 1942, at the extermination camp of Sobibor. Had I remained with them, I would have shared their fate.

Instead, in 1942, my family, having obtained false identity cards, went into hiding under the false name of Lejeune. It was decided earlier that I would learn Catholic prayers to pass as a Catholic boy if need be.

We went in what was known in Belgium as occultation or obscurity. We moved every few months so as not to arouse any suspicion since we did not wear the obligatory identifying yellow Star of David sign. I did not attend school and led a solitary life without any friends or contacts with peers. My task was to remain all the time with a grandmother who spoke only German.

We listened at night to the British radio BBC in its French edition. That was the hope that someday all the horror would end. I recall that I often sat in the woods of rural Southeast Belgium, creating my own games such as looking through the water in the woods and pretending that I was prospecting for minerals. We lived two years in hiding. We were liberated after a battle in the village of Oneux-Theux on Sept. 9, 1944. A little more than three months later, the Germans counterattacked in what became known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” That was very dangerous since we had recovered our real name. We trekked in the snow to Liege to stay with friends, mostly in their basement. After the end of the war in Europe, I resumed schooling, finishing first in the citywide sixth grade examination. I would then create a soccer club for youth 18 years old and unde. We won the championship of Belgium in 1948 (I still have the championship trophy cup).

I immigrated to the U.S. alone in 1952 and was inducted into the U.S. Army a year later on March 17, 1953. That was 60 years ago. I became a naturalized U.S. citizen on Nov. 24, 1953, at Fort Bragg, N.C., while in the 82nd Airborne Division. I returned to occupied Germany in March 1954 as an American soldier.

After my honorable discharge from the army in 1955, I attended the University of Maryland. There I proposed the idea of presidential debates, a novel idea then. I asked and received the personal endorsement of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady, as well as other notables. In 1958, as an employee of the U.S. Department of State at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, I met with Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson, who had been the Democrat Party candidate for the presidency in 1952 and 1956. He also endorsed my idea for presidential debates.

On Sept. 26, 1960, the first presidential debates occurred. Last year I was given credit for having pioneered the debates in numerous media, including NPR’s All Things Considered and television station WUSA (Channel 9) in the District.

Further, I manage the worldwide listserv/group Remember_The_Holocaust, which has 306 members worldwide from all five continents. I continue giving speeches to young people on the Holocaust. And I was interviewed for three hours on the video of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute, as well as the oral history archives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The latter can be accessed online. I talk to high school and university students to promote tolerance, education and human rights in memory of Holocaust victims, notably my Aunt Rosa and Uncle Siegfried, who were parents to me from 1933 till Oct. 1, 1938.

I have served for three years, 2005-2008, appointed by Governor of Maryland Ehrlich, Jr., on the State of Maryland’s task force to implement Holocaust, genocide, human rights and tolerance education in the University of Maryland system. I had a political economist’s career of almost 30 years in the executive branch of the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. During that time I was also elected to the national council of the American Society of Public Administration, served on the board of directors of the Society of Government Economists, and was on the editorial board of the Public Administration Review, a distinguished scholarly publication.

Finally, I was awarded the distinguished career service award by the U.S. secretary of labor.

During my public service, I had a stint at the Harvard University JFK School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. I have a B.A. with honors from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from the (Nitze) School of Advanced International Studies of The Johns Hopkins University. I was selected as a Woodrow Wilson National Fellow and taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C. I am the author of many articles in several publications in the U.S., Belgium and Germany. I am fluent in four languages.

In conclusion, I can genuinely write that throughout my life since surviving the Holocaust by “passing” in hiding in Belgium, I have pursued tolerance education in transmitting the memory of what I experienced as a youth to those who were not there. In transmitting my memories, I hope that I educate the current generation in my message that one ought not to pick up a gun because a person is different. In summary, I have done my best, in a small way, to engender a better world . The Nazis considered a Jew’s life worthless. I proved them wrong in memory of my foster parents deported and gassed in the extermination camp of Sobibor. At 80 years old, I continue to lead a worthwhile life.

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