Inheriting a Parent’s Story of Surviving the Holocaust

What follows is a statement given by CHGS Outreach Coordinator, Demetrios Vital at the 2017 Twin Cities Jewish Community Yom HaShoah Commemoration, coordinated by the Jewish Community Relations Council, and hosted at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.

Demetrios spoke as a son of a survivor on the process of transferring memory across generations. Following his statements, he read the text of his father’s testimony as published in the 25th anniversary edition of Witnesses to the Holocaust, a book containing the testimony of Minnesota Holocaust survivors and liberators produced by the JCRC. That text is included below.

*****

I am deeply honored to be here with you all tonight. Thank you for having me and my father here.

I am the youngest son of Victor Vital. I am one of three children along with Rachel Vital Davis and Joseph Vital, and stand generationally between Victor and three grandchildren.

Victor Vital survived the Holocaust.

I’m one of many here who are children of survivors, or have family who survived, or who didn’t, and indeed even if we’re not directly related to those who experienced the Holocaust, we might all find access to stories and truly feel the impact of this history.

I’m not unique, but I am privileged to be here as a participant in transferring memory. I remember that my father came to my eighth grade geography class to tell his story, my first clear memory of his public speaking as a survivor. Even then, and to this day, my father’s educational testimony that he presents to students takes exactly 55 minutes, and it has three components to it. First, he addresses the history of the Holocaust on a larger level. Then, he details the history of the Holocaust in Greece. Finally, after that context, Victor shares aspects of his and his family’s experience as Greek Jews in their flight from the Nazi military. Following that, he invites questions.

This order is of explicit importance to Victor. His story is always last, preceded by very large numbers, including how many Jews were killed or survived in various countries (60-70,000 were killed in Greece, with maybe 4,000 surviving, and with variability in those estimates). Victor is intentional in placing his Holocaust experience as a Greek Jew last and within a much larger context.

Fortunately, his testimony, along with others’, is accessible through the “Transfer of Memory” exhibit, and is included in the JCRC’s publication Witnesses to the Holocaust. Those are Victor’s words, and I will read them shortly.

As one of his children, we hope his story will be accessible through us, as well. That story looms in my family, influences our behavior, and it’s there in my psyche, and work, and thoughts. But I am not driven to weigh its magnitude relative to its worth, because I don’t share my father’s survivor’s guilt. I didn’t survive. I don’t stare down at the millions who didn’t make it, or feel, nightly, those experiences, like others who survived, in camps, or as partisans, or however. But I’ve known that I’m only here because Victor survived. I have learned from my father the imperative of educating about the Holocaust, and to me that’s a vocation, and not a need that comes from starving in a forest in 1944.

I didn’t live through the Holocaust, but Victor’s story lives in me.

The experience of the Holocaust as the child of a survivor isn’t the last third of my testimony. It’s the beginning of my own life. Inheriting that experience happens in subtle ways . . .  For example, at the dinner table: as a kid, I didn’t know that it wasn’t completely normal to regularly talk about genocide at Shabbat dinner.

Or in experiencing behaviors and fears and guilt and empathy manifested at any moment, often by surprise. When I heard the news of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I was on the phone with my father. He said, “It’s terrible what happened. They have cholera, because they have no plumbing now. I had to live for two years with no bathrooms. It’s not a human life.” To go from deep suffering and trauma to an empathy manifested off-handedly like that is something beyond my comprehension.

I can not really tell Victor’s story. His story is big, and sudden, and lived in. I can try to tell the story of being my father’s son, of being a kid in Minnesota with the Holocaust on his mind. What I can transfer isn’t his story in its magnitude, framed against what he lost, but I can share what he told me, and maybe tell some of the lessons that came unplanned.

Yehudit Shendar, former Deputy Director at Yad Vashem, spoke recently at the Sabes JCC about the importance of memory working forward, rather than only reflecting backwards. That’s what we’re all here for: to move memory forward, hopefully for good. I hope to someday live up to that, and to be a part of that, with my family, and community, and with as many as will move forward with us to remembering for good. Only a few of us are Victor’s children, but even the story of one survivor is too big for any of us to transfer it alone.

*****

Victor Vital – Born: February 6, 1932 in Patra, Greece

“When I first came into the United States, I did not consider myself a survivor because I was not from the concentration camps but for two years we had very difficult times.” Victor’s family story of survival by hiding in the mountains of southern Greece began when he was twelve years old. “I’m a survivor in hiding. I was lucky not to be in the concentration camps and I owe that to my father who said when the Nazis came, ’We have to leave immediately.’”

Victor was born in Patra, a port city in southern Greece. It was an area held by the Italians and not directly threatened by German invasion until the pact between Italy and Germany collapsed and the Germans occupied the entire county. “At that time my mother’s relatives with their families, about 90 people who lived in Salonika were taken by the Germans to the concentration camps – none came out, none of these 90 people.” Word of the Salonika deportations quickly spread to the Vital family. “They sent us a notice to go away from the city and hide outside in the mountains, as far away as we could get, where no one (would) know us.”

Victor’s father, Joseph, was president of the local Jewish community and well known in the town. It was through his friend the police chief that the family got new identification papers and began preparations to go into hiding. “We took whatever we could carry in our hands and in a small car and left. There were eight people in our group: myself, my father Joseph Vital, my mother Rachel Vital, my brother Marco Vital, my sister Emily Asher and her husband Nathan and his parents Samuel and Regina Asher.”

They left Patra in the early morning and spent the night in a small bombed-out church away from the city. From there they followed a path that would lead to the village of Vallatune. The trip took three days and nights. “At night we slept on the ground in fields, always fearful of snakes and wolves.”  They eventually settled in the cellars of two small houses where they kept a couple of goats. “We slept on the dirt floor of the cellars and we were infested with lice. This is (a) terrible thing – lice. We had to go into the forest to relieve our bowls – another terrible thing.”  Food for the families was extremely scarce. “We went out in the field to gather greening. We bought cheese scrapings from the villagers. We bought wheat and ground it by hand to make bread. Our only beverage was water. We were always cold and hungry.

In November the family got word that Germans were in the mountain villages looking for Jews. “So we had to go deeper in the mountains to another village… It took us two days and nights to travel there. Again we slept on the ground under the trees in the forest. We huddled together to try to stay warm but it was November and very cold. We would not even make a fire to warm ourselves or to cook what little food we had. We had to protect ourselves from the wolves and if the Germans were close by, they would find out about us.”  The situation became so desperate that Victor’s father and brother-in-law decided to take a chance and go into the nearby village to seek help.  When they reached a bombed out church they met a Christian friend from their city who was also trying to find food for his family because it was a time of hunger and desperation for the entire Greek populace.

“He recognized my father and said, ‘what are you doing here? Go back in the mountains… the Germans are looking for you and have put a reward out for you and your families.’”  As the two men turned back to rejoin their families in hiding the friend handed them a small bag of wheat. It was all he had. “I want to tell you that, if I am here today, alive, it’s because of the people (who) protected me.

“We could not have survived much longer under these conditions. Finally when the Nazis were defeated and left Greece we returned to Patra. We were sick and hungry and we found that our home had been entirely destroyed. We had no furniture, dishes, cooking utensils or even running water. Our neighbors gave us what they could spare until my father found a job.”

Victor Vital was twelve years old when his family went into hiding.  They returned to their home two years later when Victor was fourteen. “The bad circumstances and the terrible life of those times are always in my mind. The suffering was beyond belief.”

“I feel obligated that I have to let the other Jews and generally all the people know about (the) Holocaust… we have to remember and as long as we remember we might avoid another.”
Demetrios Vital is Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. In this role he is responsible for the care and promotion of CHGS art and object collections, as well as working with the community in the development of programs, activities, and events.

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