The Last Survivors

Decades after the Holocaust, those who lived through it share their memories — to teach others about intolerance and racism.

By Vi Landry

On Rosh Hashanah, the holiday celebrating the Jewish New Year, German soldiers walked into the kitchen of Henry Galler’s house and pointed at Henry, his father and one of his younger brothers. “You, you, and you,” they said, ordering the three men to come with them while Henry’s mother begged the soldiers to leave Henry, the eldest, to help take care of his six siblings. The soldiers kicked his mother in the stomach and hauled Henry, his father and his brother away.

They were lined up facing a wall with their hands in the air alongside two dozen other men waiting to be shot by the Nazis. But fate intervened when an officer decided the prisoners were needed to build a bridge on the edge of town.

Photo by Donn Young
Henry Galler has spent the last decade sharing his experiences of the Holocaust with teachers and schoolchildren in the South.

Henry survived years of working in forced labor camps, first in Poland, then in a Russian gulag, until he was freed in 1941 when the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany.

Henry Galler is one of the most fortunate among the unfortunate. He survived the Holocaust, losing his youth, his town, and his family to the war. But he kept his memories, and with the Southern Institute for Education and Research, Galler has been sharing his experience of the Holocaust with teachers and schoolchildren in the Deep South for almost a decade.

“You cannot tell the story of six million, but you can tell the story of one times six million,” is one of the themes of the institute, says educational director Plater Robinson, explaining that the institute believes in emphasizing the individual, and “that teaching history should be the telling of his or her story.”

In a conference room on the Tulane University campus, 18 teachers sit around tables littered with Diet Coke bottles, coffee cups, binders and notebooks, listening to a tape of Eva Galler, Henry Galler’s deceased wife, describing the entrance of the Germans into their hometown of Oleszyce in 1941.

“All the Poles and all the Ukrainians were watching like you would watch here a Mardi Gras parade. All the Jews, and they were putting the old Jews with young girls, you see, old religious Jews, and walked through the whole city. Then they brought us back to the market place, and they had put everything from synagogues, took out all the books, all the prayer books, they made a bonfire, and they told everybody should dance around, and our neighbors stood and watched and laughed,” says Eva. “That was a bigger hurt than the degrading that they did.”

“Key teaching point?” Robinson asks the teachers. “Jennifer?” he prompts a blond woman with sparkling earrings.

“Dehumanization,” she says.

“Public spectacle,” says a man with short brown hair and eyeglasses.

“If you stand around and watch while people are humiliated, you are a collaborator,” says Robinson.

IN JULY, THE SOUTHERN INSTITUTE HOST ed the seventh annual “Teaching the Holocaust” conference. Teachers from all over the South came to New Orleans to become students themselves for a few days.

Jennifer Lopez, a teacher at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, says hearing the survivors helps her teach the Holocaust to her kids. “They don’t want to just hear facts; they want to hear stories,” says Lopez.

Eva Galler was one of the first local survivors to participate in the Southern Institute’s program. After her children graduated from college and moved away, Eva, who was always interested in education, obtained a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of New Orleans. She began doing workshops with the Institute in 1994.

“The institute evolved out of the Louisiana Coalition against Racism and Nazism campaign against David Duke,” says Lance Hill, the institute’s director. “The founding members wanted to create a long-term anti-racist workshop.”

The institute, which also teaches about the history of civil rights in the United States, uses the Holocaust as a starting point to talk about racism and intolerance in the South. It takes this message to communities large and small, like Laurel, Miss., a onetime headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan.

“It’s easier to talk about human nature when it’s someone else’s human nature,” Robinson says of discussions about the Holocaust. “The teachers are enthralled” by the Holocaust workshop.

Then, on a second visit, the institute does a workshop on race and civil rights. “We say that we’re teaching tolerance, but what we’re really teaching is, ‘Know your neighbor’s history, and you’ll know it involves your own history to a great extent,'” says Robinson.

A black-and-white slide show is the only illumination in the room where the conference is taking place. Robinson pauses on the photo of a young man who stands in the forefront of the screen. A blond woman standing in a storefront behind him stares suspiciously at his back.

“Key teaching point?” Robinson asks the teachers about the slide.

“The Jews no longer own the stores?” says one of the students timidly.

“Good. What else?” asks Robinson.

The class is quiet, so Robinson explains. The young man in the photo is Robinson’s nephew during a trip to Poland. The woman doesn’t know who he is. She’s afraid he’s come to take the business she gained after the war.

“This was murder-for-profit and many people profited, including the good neighbors,” says Robinson, flipping to the next slide.

Henry Galler, wearing a white guyaberra, hands resting on a metal cane, sits below the screen, intermittently telling stories and helping Robinson explain the photos.

After he was released from the Russian gulag, Galler went to enlist in the Polish army. The officer refused to accept him until Galler said he’d made a mistake and that he wasn’t Jewish after all.

“Don’t I look alright?” Galler asked the recruiter.

“You look fine to me,” said the officer. “You look Polish,” he said, referring to Galler’s blond hair and tall stature.

Galler “passed” as Polish for the remainder of the war, becoming a decorated artillery officer and silently enduring the anti-Semitic comments of his compatriots while assisting other Jews in hiding every chance he could. For Galler, the slurs were inconsequential compared to his greater goals of fighting the Nazis and getting back home.

But when he returned to Oleszyce on leave during the war, Galler found no one from the once thriving Jewish community. He was convinced they were all dead.

Wanting to see the house where he grew up, he knocked on the door one afternoon. A woman answered; children were running around in the background. When Galler told the woman he wanted to look around, the woman accused him of being a Communist soldier who wanted to take her house away — a tremendous insult to Galler, who had suffered for years at the hands of the Communists. When he told the woman he was Jewish, her anger turned into anxiety. She was afraid that he would try to take his house back, but he wanted nothing; the memories were too painful.

Two years later, Galler was elated to find a friend from Oleszyce in a train station, and went AWOL to attend his friend’s wedding. At the celebration, he found his former sweetheart, Eva Vogel, looking thin and unhealthy — but alive.

Eva almost fainted when she saw him.

As a teenager, Galler met Eva while raising money to send to Israel. Though he came from a family of Messianic Jews, Galler believed in a Jewish state. Eva’s family was Zionist, and possessed a library full of literature forbidden to Galler at home. So he would borrow books from Eva, then stand outside of her first-floor window discussing them. “Eva was a born intellectual,” he says.

During the war, Eva’s family was deported to a concentration camp, but following their father’s command, the three eldest children jumped off the train.

Eva’s two siblings were shot immediately. She stepped over their bodies, took the Jewish star off her coat and walked back to her village where neighbor after neighbor refused to take her in.

Eventually, Eva found a crowd of Polish people being deported to German work camps. Like Henry, Eva assumed a Polish identity to survive. Going by the name Katharina, Eva attended mass every Sunday and hid her true origins from everyone, including her best friend, another girl working on the farm.

UNLIKE HENRY AND EVA, LILA MILLEN, another Holocaust survivor who eventually made a home in New Orleans, didn’t consciously choose to pass as a Christian during the war. Lila was only 2 years old when the war began. By the time it ended, young Lila was convinced that she really was a Catholic.

As a young man, Henry Galler hid the fact that he was a Jew and joined the Polish army so he could fight Nazis.

Lila’s father managed to smuggle the family out of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, where one-quarter of the residents died of starvation before German soldiers burned the entire settlement to the ground.

The women were hidden by sympathetic gentiles in Warsaw. But masquerading as Catholic was easier for the light-complexioned Lila and her mother than it was for her sister Ann, who had olive skin and dark, curly hair.

Although Lila often had to run and hide when there was a knock at the door, she was able to leave the apartment to go to church or shopping, while Ann was confined inside. “They said I would give away myself and my family,” says Ann. But even after years of hiding, “we were lucky because we were together,” she says. Only 1 percent of Jewish children survived the war and very few families remained intact.

It was only after the war ended and her family moved to a displaced persons camp in Germany that Lila’s father told her she was Jewish. He threw her rosary into a fire.

For a while, Lila clung to Catholicism; it was the only religion she knew.

Now devoutly Jewish, Lila exemplifies the arbitrary power of faith. Her ability to learn, then unlearn, an ideology shows that it is possible for people to unlearn the systemic racism and intolerance that causes conflict and war, whether in New Orleans, Poland or Israel.

JENAY MEYER, AN EIGHTH-GRADE TEAC-her at Fontainebleau Junior High in Mandeville who attended the conference, says she’s optimistic. “I’m finding kids today a lot more tolerant than kids when I was growing up.”

“My only contribution is knowing what it feels like to be persecuted for being Jewish; the same thing goes for black,” Ann Levy says in an interview that is archived with the Southern Institute’s oral histories. “To teach the younger people, to teach in schools, what tolerance is all about — you have to embrace, and be willing to listen to the other side. I mean, we’re all the same.”

In the teachers’ conference, Robinson emphasizes the importance of history in understanding current events in the Middle East.

In her oral history, Eva — who, though Zionist, was not a militarist — says, “I don’t have bitter feelings towards anybody because I know what a war is. A war demoralizes people; people get drawn in. I see what happens in Israel. People were moral, the highest moral standards, and now when they have to fight for their life, they’re changing. I don’t even keep a grudge against the Germans.”

The day Hurricane Katrina struck, Eva Galler awoke from a nightmare and insisted she and Henry leave. They evacuated to Dallas, where she died on the 63rd anniversary of the day she jumped off of the train. Henry was at her side.

Although he cries when talking about Eva, Henry continues to teach about the Holocaust. He is from the last generation of survivors, but thanks to the Southern Institute, his and Eva’s story will live on.