For most of us it's a number on the clock that comes and goes daily; for Eric Blaustein, it's a moment in time that has haunted him for nearly 75 years.
That's what the clock read Nov. 9, 1938, when Gestapo officers knocked on his family's door in Chenmitz, Germany. With his mother and two sisters, Blaustein watched as his father was taken away as one of thousands of Jews sent to concentration camps on what would be known as Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass.
The image of the clock stands stark in Blaustein's memory as the moment he realized the true weight of being a 12-year-old Jewish boy in Nazi Germany.
“I'll never forget looking at that clock,” said Blaustein, now 85. “I looked at my family and said, ‘Let's get out of this hellish country.' I was no longer German.”
It was the beginning of a harrowing journey for Blaustein that included a five-month stay at Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps in Germany. He'll recount his remarkable survival tale today at Harper College in Palatine, ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 19.
Blaustein has been giving talks at schools and events for nearly a decade, hoping to educate people on the facts of the Holocaust through his experience to help prevent future atrocities.
“People need to see what a volatile group is capable of,” said Blaustein of Vernon Hills. “A Holocaust happening today is unlikely, but the only way to prevent it is to stop it before it starts.”
His story starts as a third-grader in eastern Germany, when students he had considered friends began teasing and harassing him. A teacher singled him out in class during a rant against Jews, which brought on more harassment.
“It was like there was something else to you,” Blaustein said. “Even as an 8-year-old, I could feel it wasn't right.”
The atmosphere grew more tense for Blaustein's family as the years passed. He says they were lucky to have a landlord with valuable connections to members of the German elite from the previous imperial administration who were disgusted by Hitler's Third Reich.
“He respected my father and would protect us to his last breath,” Blaustein said.
The landlord provided Blaustein with false identification papers that protected him for three years following his father's arrest. From the start of World War II in 1939 until mid-1943, Blaustein worked in a Jewish cemetery, digging graves for some of the victims of concentration camps.
“It wasn't being said out loud at the time, and maybe we didn't know the specifics, but everyone knew something bad was going on in the camps,” Blaustein said.
By the end of 1943, he was 17 and he started drawing suspicious looks for not being in the military. Forced to flee, he stayed at various safe houses in Germany with the help of his family's landlord. His luck ran out in December 1944, when a storekeeper turned him over to Nazi authorities. Because military deserters were subject to immediate death, Blaustein admitted he was Jewish and was sent to Buchenwald.
“I knew I could buy at least a few weeks of life in a camp,” he said.
Blaustein used his connections to survive Buchenwald, where at least 56,000 prisoners were killed, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. His father had given him the name of a friend who was a key part of the underground Communist faction operating in most of the camp.
“There were three keys to surviving,” Blaustein says. “An iron will to live, a lot of good luck and powerful friends.”
He was fortunate enough to possess all three. With the help of his father's connection, Eric Blaustein died in Buchenwald — at least on paper. The Communist faction altered his documentation, and Blaustein assumed the identity of a dead Italian prisoner, keeping him from almost certain death as a Jew.
“I became Luigi,” Blaustein said. “I would speak gibberish that sounded like Italian around guards to keep cover.”
Although the connections made life slightly more bearable for him, conditions in the camp were excruciating.
“Disease, malnutrition, beating, killing — it was unthinkable.”
Blaustein was lucky enough to enter the camp just months before it was liberated by American forces on April 4, 1945 — his talk at Harper College falls almost exactly 67 years to that date, another pivotal moment in his life.
After the war, Blaustein was reunited with his mother and sisters, who had taken cover at a farm in western Germany, and his father, who had been held at a sub-camp near Buchenwald. Blaustein went on to become a distinguished civil engineer, working in New York, Pittsburgh and Cleveland before settling in Vernon Hills. He makes speaking engagements every spring.
“I don't want it to be emotional, I don't want pity. I want the truth,” Blaustein said of his lectures. “It was my pain. I don't want to burden other people, I want them to consider it in looking at the world.”
Blaustein speaks at 12:30 p.m. today at Harper College's Building E, Room 106. The event is free and open to the public. He'll also speak April 18 at Elmhurst College.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.