Holocaust survivor David Schaecter to screen new documentary in Aspen
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘A Call to Remember’ screening
Where: Aspen Jewish Community Center (435 W. Main St.)
When: Thursday, July 12, 5:30 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: The film’s subject, David Schaecter, and co-producers Dennis Scholl and Michael Berenbaum will be on-hand for a post-screening conversation; jccaspen.com
Holocaust survivor David Schaecter has grown exasperated with the country that welcomed him in 1950 and gave him a new life after he was orphaned in Nazi concentration camps.
Asked about the recent rise of white supremacist actions in the U.S. and the refusal by the government to accept refugees, Schaecter said: “Hasn’t the world learned any lessons? This country is beyond expression, it’s a godsend, like nothing else on Earth. Why is it we tolerate this ugliness? I don’t know. It really bothers me. It torments me. I’m angry.”
Schaecter, a robust 88, has made it his life’s mission to share his story and to keep alive the memories of the 6 million Jews murdered in Nazi concentration camps. He is bringing that mission to Aspen this week. The new film “A Call to Remember,” recounting his experiences, will screen Thursday at the Jewish Community Center. After the free screening, Schaecter will discuss the film and his life.
A boy of just 11 when he was sent to Auschwitz, his three siblings and parents died during the Holocaust. As the number of survivors has dwindled in recent years, Schaecter said, he considers his extraordinary vigor a gift that allows him to continue telling his story to a new generation of young people.
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“I look in their eyes and tell them three things: No. 1, they need to hear me; No. 2, they need to understand; and No. 3, the most important, I need them to be my mouthpiece when I am no longer here,” Schaecter said last week during an interview in the lobby bar of the Limelight Hotel.
The film, running 31 minutes, mixes historical footage with Schaecter speaking directly to the camera about his experience through the horrors of the Holocaust. His is the only voice in the film.
“We wanted to make sure it was David’s voice, not us massaging some facts for an audience,” explained co-producer Dennis Scholl, who splits his time between Miami and Aspen and who has known Schaecter for 35 years. “It’s just one man telling his story.”
“A Call to Remember” premiered in Miami and has had just a handful of screenings — in Zagreb, Toronto and elsewhere — and it is booked to play some 30 film festivals this year. After that, it’ll have a public television run on PBS affiliates around the U.S.
Schaecter has been working to educate young people about the horrors and losses of the Holocaust since the 1960s. In the film, he stresses the murder of 1.5 million children younger than 12 in the camps.
“Try to reflect on that million-and-a-half children,” he says in the film, “what they could have accomplished, what they could have contributed to the humanities, the world of art, of music, of medicine, had they been given a chance to live.”
Schaecter was born on a farm in the Slovakian wine country, one of four children. After the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, he and his family were deported and eventually taken by cattle car to Auschwitz.
“I remember my mother was holding onto my two sisters, and she wouldn’t let go,” Schaecter recalls of their arrival at the concentration camp.
His older brother, Jacob, served as his protector in Auschwitz and later Buchenwald, where Jacob died. The pair worked cleaning the human waste and feces out of train cars that brought prisoners to the camps.
In the film, Schaecter shares the story of his harrowing escape to safety as the Allied powers liberated Poland and his trek home to Slovakia, where he faced Nazi holdouts killing the returning survivors.
Schaecter’s parents, siblings and nearly his entire extended family were killed in the camps. (He didn’t learn of his father’s fate until the late 1970s, when the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal told Schaecter the story of his father’s death.) After the war, he found a cousin in Prague, who was soon killed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
“That was a blow I never thought I’d recover from,” he says in the film.
Orphaned and alone at 20, he fled to the U.S. and began a new life. He settled first in Boulder, studying engineering at the University of Colorado for two years.
“It’s very much like where you come from,” he recalls being told. “It’s mountainous, there’s lots of skiing, lots of ice, lots of snow.”
From there he went to the University of California–Los Angeles, where he met and married his wife and started a family, and then in 1955 settled in Miami, where he embarked on a successful business career. He’s lived in Miami ever since.
When Schaecter arrived in Florida he was among some 15,000 Holocaust survivors in the Miami area. Today, he said, there are fewer than 600 left.
“We’re a dying breed,” he said in the interview. “There are so few of us left.”
Not coincidentally, Schaecter noted, the loss of his generation has coincided with rising rates of Holocaust denial and ignorance. A heavily publicized survey released in April, he noted, found that 31 percent of Americans and 41 percent of millennial Americans believe substantially fewer than 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and nearly half of Americans cannot name one Nazi concentration camp.
But Schaecter has built a legacy of remembrance. Along with speaking regularly and sharing his story in this film, Schaecter spearheaded the creation of the Holocaust memorial in Miami Beach — opened in 1989 — and still regularly travels to Europe with schoolchildren through the nonprofit March of the Living, to lead tours of the concentration camps where he was imprisoned.
“David makes sure that it’s more than just a statistic,” Scholl said. “He’s a human being and he survived this.”
Schaecter said he began sharing his story as he made a new life in the U.S.
“It really began after I finished my education, when I experienced that humanity is not that bad,” he said. “At times I didn’t like the guy upstairs. … And there’s nothing that’s exceptional about me. But I feel that I was destined. And if it was destined, then I want to live and make sure that the children know.”
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