Where the Finger Points: a Holocaust Story of Survival and Loss

Story by Mary (Jacoby) Hastings, Colorado and Wyoming Region, Red Cross International Services Volunteer

Between 1935 and 1945, 11 million innocent men, women and children lost their lives because seven German men were determined to rid the world of all minority groups. It was a dangerous time to be Jewish, as more than six million Jewish families would discover during a decade of unspeakable atrocities known as the Holocaust.

One of Denver’s Red Cross volunteers personally experienced the Holocaust – and survived to share his story, which he did during a recent presentation at the chapter. Red Cross Mile High Chapter Transportation volunteer Eric Cahn is a German-born Jew whose life was turned upside down at the young age of four-and-a-half. As a member of the Holocaust Awareness Institute at the University of Denver, Cahn has been sharing his Holocaust story with civic groups, church groups and students for more than 25 years. His focus is primarily on middle and high school students because, as he says, “The children are the future of our country and they need to learn and know about the Holocaust.”

Born on March 29, 1938, in Manheim, Germany, Cahn would never get to experience the joys of a normal childhood. It all began four years before Cahn was born, when German President Hindenburg died in August of 1934, leaving then-German Chancellor Adolph Hitler and his Nazi Party to seize complete control and power in Germany. “It was then that people lost the right to vote, their careers, jobs, businesses and places of worship. Synagogues were fire-bombed and destroyed and people were physically attacked and beaten in the streets as the world stood by and let it happen,” Cahn explained.

“On October 22, 1940, there came the knock at the door in the middle of the night,” Cahn recalled. Without warning, he and his 4-1/2 month-old sister, mother, father and hundreds of other Jews were taken out of their homes, loaded onto trucks, then herded into freight cars like animals and shipped to southern France. Of the 12,000 men, women, children and babies held in just that one French-built holding camp, more than 1,000 died of starvation, disease or hypothermia in the first year.

In August of 1942, Cahn’s parents faced an unimaginable and difficult decision: surrender their children to rescuers with the French Resistance and not know their fate or risk worse in Nazi death camps. His parents chose to part with their children. The next month, Cahn’s parents and hundreds of others were put on another freight train to “the killing camp” at Auschwitz in Poland. Newcomers were greeted by a band of Jewish musicians ordered to perform as Nazi officers and doctors pointed to the left or right, determining the fate of each passenger. Cahn’s mother who had never committed a crime in her life was sent to the left and executed. Out of the 1,003 people arriving on the train on September 18, 1942, Eric’s father, who followed the hand pointing to the right, was one of 38 to survive Auschwitz by the time it was liberated on January 27, 1945.

Cahn and his sister remained hidden by French families during that time, ending up in foster care after the war. Eventually they were reunited with their father, who sent them to live with family in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1950. Cahn grew up in Colorado, went on to graduate from CU Boulder, got married, raised a family and worked as a Certified Public Accountant. When he retired 11 years ago, he signed on as a Red Cross volunteer. After an extensive search, Cahn was able to find the family that risked their lives to harbor his sister and a reunion was arranged in 1983. He has not yet found the French Christian family that kept him safely alive and quiet in their basement while Nazi soldiers patrolled outside from August of 1942 until the spring of 1944.

To this day, the Red Cross continues to work to reconnect people with the families they were separated from during the Holocaust. Many such cases now involve second-generation families seeking the whereabouts and final outcome of family members persecuted during the Holocaust. Perhaps with the help of international Red Cross organizations, Eric will be able to find and thank the descendants of his rescuers.

Story originally posted on the American Red Cross Colorado Chapters' Blogspot.