More than a million Jewish children died in the Holocaust. When I ask myself why I survived, I look at my children. I lived for them. Here I am, fifty years after losing my parents, after losing my childhood, here I am holding my grandson – and telling my story to you. That’s what it means to survive.
– Michael Klahr, 1997
For the public opening of the Michael Klahr Center in May 2008, HHRC transformed the building’s entrance with an interactive mixed media installation called Michael’s Story. Vivid murals, archival photographs, and a short original film combine with artifacts of startling emotional resonance to tell the story of a hidden child of the Holocaust – a survivor whose legacy now touches every visitor to the splendid Center that bears his name.
My parents must have heard the stories, everybody did. Terrible stories about work camps and death camps and Nazis killing all the Jews.
One morning at dawn we packed, just a few bags, and without telling a soul we were leaving or where we were going, we boarded a train to Lyon, about four hours from Paris. We left everything behind – furniture, silver, my toys – everything we owned. The Nazis took it all.
I lived with the rabbits as a hidden child from the Winter of 1943 to the end of the war. In those three years I had no friends, I never went to school, and both of my parents were murdered.
To the day he died, he would never sneeze. If Michael felt a sneeze coming on, he’d pinch his nose – hard – until his face turned red and the veins bulged in his neck. I could see the fear in his eyes, he was afraid to make a sound. For a little Jewish boy hiding from the Nazis in the loft of a barn, the hay made it that much harder.
Michel Klahr was five years old in the winter of 1943 when his parents found a place to hide him. A rabbit farm in the village of La Tronche outside Grenoble, some five hundred kilometers from his home in Paris.
Michel lived in the hayloft because the house wasn’t safe, and he could only come down late at night – after the SS patrols. The boots, he would say, he remembered their boots. Peering down through the cracks in the floorboards, frozen stiff on his belly, he could see their tall black boots. And the dust they raised searching the barn made it hard not to sneeze. It wasn’t a game. It wasn’t like hide-and-go-seek.
Of the thirty-five thousand Jewish children living in Paris in 1941, almost all of their stories ended suddenly. Most of them never grew up.
Only a few people remember these events, but we’re all moved to care – why? Because hatred exists. Because the madness continues. Because the danger is real.
One lucky boy escaped, grew up, did well – and never forgot. What Michel gives back, this splendid Human Rights Center, isn’t just for him. Isn’t just for them, the unlucky lives we lost. It’s for you. For your grandparents and parents, your children and grandchildren. It’s for us – here, now. Hatred wears many faces – we are all survivors of something.
For all his childhood suffering, Michael Klahr was an optimist. Bad is good, he liked to say. Look closer, work harder, find the opportunity in loss. The future, Michael believed, was our strongest asset. So as we open our doors here today, let me leave you with a very old question: Why do we tell the worst stories and revisit the darkest crimes? What’s left unfinished there?