My name is Charlie Cole and I was one of the 10 Stories that Live Fellows for Fall of 2017. I was paired with a man named Dr. John Spitzer who is originally from a town in southern Hungary called Boja. He was an only child and despite being raised Jewish, he attended a Catholic school because it offered the best academic route, a world he enjoyed and excelled in. Since Hungary was an ally of the Nazis during the war, for years, the SS stayed out of Hungary and he lived a relatively good life. Tragically, his father did pass away during the early years of the war however it was due to complications with a surgery, not because of any action from the Nazis. The German neutrality in Hungary almost instantaneously shifted in 1944 when ghettos were instantly set up, Dr. Spitzer was forced to wear the Star of David, and within six weeks nearly hundreds of thousands of Jews, including Dr. Spitzer’s mother and grandmother, were shipped to Auschwitz and murdered upon arrival. Fortunately for Dr. Spitzer he was of a physically fit age and was allowed to stay in his hometown carrying boxes of munitions and other supplies from cargo trucks into storage facilities and back onto trucks. In essence, he was forced into slave labor under the SS. When I asked him how he was treated he made a big point to say that he was treated “well” insofar as he was not killed. Since his work came towards the end of the war, after a few months the Russians began advancing from the East and Dr. Spitzer fled West with this SS troop. Eventually the Russians advanced all the way up to his troop. It was this moment that was most decisive in Dr. Spitzer’s life. Either the Nazis would kill him or they would abandon them, thus allowing them to live. Fortunately, yet again, they did not kill him and he was able to survive. In the years after Dr. Spitzer obtained his medical degree and immigrated to Canada and shortly after to the United States and his new life as a doctor in America.
The opportunity to work with and befriend Dr. Spitzer has been one that I would not exchange for anything else in the world. I had heard several Holocaust survivors present there stories in public settings before but being able to interact with Dr. Spitzer and engage with his story has given me an understanding of the Holocaust I never would of had otherwise. Understanding that Holocaust survivors are more than just their story and are also human beings with thoughts and ideas not at all related to the Holocaust seems like it should be obvious but I think until getting to know Dr. Spitzer I viewed survivors through just that lens. Stories that Live has presented me with the opportunity to expand that view of survivors and what it means to go on living a “normal life” after such a tragedy scarred your life.
In reflection of my time during this fellowship this is what I think I got out of it. Going in to it, I knew I would find a greater understanding of the Holocaust and what it means to survive it. But what I didn’t expect to learn was to view Dr. Spitzer as just a human being (similar to my grandfather) who loves discussing medicine and history and Israel and Judaism. And at the intersection of these two takeaways is the crux of what the Stories that Live fellowship offers. Understanding the Holocaust as a not just words in a book but actual events that occurred to human beings just like me showed me this tragedy in a new light that I will forever be grateful for and will certainly never forget.