‘Escape to the Tatras’ documents one child’s survival during the Holocaust
In his 88 years, Oscar “Osi” Sladek has lived many lives. He is a Holocaust survivor who fled to Israel after the war and eventually came to the United States where he moved to Denver with his wife Selma in 1960. For 22 years, he served as Executive Director of multiple Jewish congregations, most notably Temple Sinai in Denver. He worked for the JCC for 5 years and is also a community activist.
The son of a violinist, Osi was a natural musician who took up the accordion in a youth resettlement camp in Israel and later shared the stage with Judy Collins and Odetta at the 1960 Colorado Folk Festival. In Colorado, he is well-known for chairing, producing, directing, or performing at countless community events, celebrations, festivals, weddings, and more. He speaks frequently about his experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust, and he has now documented those experiences in a new book—Escape to the Tatras, A Boy, A War, and a Life Interrupted. Recently, he shared his life experiences with JEWISHcolorado.
Your book is remarkably detailed about your years living through World War II, but you were only a small child when everything was happening around you. Have these memories always stayed with you?
There was tension every day, and adults were talking about horrible things. I was an only child then, and that’s what filled my brain. It made an impression that does not leave you. Much later, after I came to Denver, I wrote down all my memories in notebooks so that when I was gone, my family would be able to know who I was.
When I turned 80, my wife Selma said, “Honey, I got you an unusual birthday gift. I commissioned Corrine Joy Brown to help you write your story.” And that’s how the book came to be. It was a birthday gift.
What was the first indication to you as a child in Prešov, Slovakia, that your life had changed?
It was 1941, and I was in Kindergarten. One day, I had to start wearing a yellow star. That is where my personal Holocaust started. We were branded like the branding of cows. Up until then, I was a child, but after that, bullies would beat me up and call me names. I would go home crying. Before then, we had freedom. Overnight, there was fascism.
How does a genocide start?
It starts with brainwashing and that leads to hatred. With brainwashing, you say the same mistruths over and over, louder and louder. I was seven years old, and I remember my grandparents had a hidden shortwave radio—hidden because it was not allowed. At night after dark, they would turn it to one of two channels—the BBC or Berlin. From the BBC, we heard truth. From Berlin, we heard lies. I heard Hitler speaking with his screaming voice and every third word was “Juden, Juden, Juden.” I was scared. I felt like he was talking directly to me.
You grew up in an Orthodox home. What do you remember from those dark days of the war?
The last Passover dinner before we left Prešov we were in hiding, but the family gathered for Seder. We had something hanging over the windows so no one could look in and see us. You could hear the boots of the Hlinka Guardists on the sidewalk. Every time we heard those boots, my mother would look at me, and I knew to run into the bedroom and hide under the bed.
When we left Prešov to escape to the mountains, my father brought his tallit and teffilin. My mother brought her Shabbat candles. She would light them, make a blessing, and then blow them out so she could use them a long time.
Your parents owned a store in Prešov so they were well connected to a lot of people in the community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In the book, you write about Judge Jozef Šolc, “a righteous Christian,” whom you call “an angel of salvation.”
In 1942, it was a very bad year because they were just taking Jewish people away. Judge Šolc was a chief judge so he had a lot of power, and my father was friends with him because they had gone to school together. We would go to their house at Christmas. He would send messages to our family telling us when to hide. He helped us get fake documentation. Today, our family is still in touch with his daughter and with his grandson.
When you were 8 years old, your parents decided to send you to live with extended family in Hungary. Your mother handed you off to a smuggler and told you that if you were found, you should say that your parents were dead.
To this day, I still don’t know how my mother trusted this man to take me to Hungary. When we got to the border, he told me to climb across the snow and through the trees. Then he vanished. I was alone in the wilderness, petrified, thinking what if he leaves me here? I just kept moving through the snow, pretending to be a bunny rabbit until I crossed the border. Eventually, we were together again, and he took me into the city where my family lived and dropped me off on the street. I can see myself now, standing there, waiting for someone to pick me up. A policeman came and asked me where my parents were. I told him I did not have parents.
Sometimes, people wonder why so many Jews were willing to follow directions that sent them to a tragic death. How do you explain that?
When I was living in Hungary, I skipped school and watched a parade of Nazis entering the city for the official transfer of power. A few days later, the Nazis called a meeting with leaders of the Jewish community. They did this in every major town. They told Jewish leaders they were there to protect them from the antisemitic local government, but they also said the Jews would have to pay for that protection. This was the Nazis’ way of keeping Jews calm. And you have to remember that people were enamored with German culture. It was an easy time for Nazis to make Jews believe that nothing wrong is going on here.
Eventually, you returned to Slovakia to your family, but when conditions became too dangerous, your entire family fled to the Tatra Mountains. You were 9 years old. You found shelter with other people in a small mountain cabin during brutally cold and snowy winter conditions—until December 25, 1944.
We heard from partisans that the Nazis were coming. A few days earlier, my mother and a Polish man had found a cave in the forest not far from the cabin. On December 25, my family and another family decided to leave the cabin and go hide in the cave. Others stayed in the cabin. When we got to the cave, I used my hatchet to chop branches and cover the small entrance to the cave. We sat there together in silence overnight. We could hear noises from the cabin, shouts of “Raus, Juden.” Then, pop, pop, pop.
In Escape to the Tatras, you list 28 family members you lost in the Shoah. You have been very active in speaking about the Holocaust to any group that asks you. Why is Holocaust education so important?
Before the war, I played with my cousins and we loved each other. After the war, there was only one cousin who survived. I speak for my cousins. I tell people how human beings can turn into devils. It’s important that people understand what human beings are capable of doing to other human beings.
To live through a time when 6 million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis would challenge any person’s faith. Do you still believe there is a G-d.
I created my own G-d. My G-d helped me survive and brought me to 88 years old. I pray every morning and evening, but I don’t ask my G-d for anything. I believe in thanking G-d for my life.
There is a documented rise in antisemitism in this country in recent years. Does that make you pessimistic about the future?
When I was growing up, the Jews in Slovakia kept to themselves. My parents were different. They had friends that were different religions. I say, “Don’t isolate yourself, don’t look down on others, and accept everyone as human beings.” If you experience antisemitism, deal with it from day one. Do not sit back with your Jewish friends and say, “Oy, vey, another wave of antisemitism.”
Antisemitism is everywhere. Most of the time it stays underground. Sometimes it shows its ugly head. I have lived in the U.S. since 1958, and I have only experienced one act of antisemitism. Truly, I am not worried about the future. I have hope and faith in this country and our government.
You and Selma, your wife, have been married for 63 years. She came from a large, stable family on Denver’s west side. She has Colorado Pioneer license plates! You came from a disrupted childhood of chaos and tragedy. How does a marriage work when you are from totally different backgrounds?
That’s the answer! We come from totally different backgrounds! She makes me feel rooted and stable. She is an angel, and we support each other in all ways possible.
As you talked today, you often closed your eyes as if you were watching the events of your life unfold.
I can still close my eyes and see everything that happened to me as a child in my mind. It’s important for people to understand that I did not have a childhood.
I wish I could relive my life and be a child for a few years.
Escape To the Tatras was designed as a young adult title and is now being used by the Denver University Holocaust Awareness Institute teachers training program. The audiobook was released by Blackstone Audiobooks earlier this month. Book, e-book and audiobook are now available at Amazon.com.
“… AS DRAMATIC AND POWERFUL AN ACCOUNT OF THE HOLOCAUST ERA AS A READER IS LIKELY TO FIND.”
– Intermountain Jewish News