Tales of Terror: Students hear stories of bigotry from Holocaust survivor Stephen Nasser

An emotional Holocaust survivor Stephen Nasser talks about the horrific events of his youth during his speech at Buena High School last week. Nasser was the only survivor of his family. (ED HONDA/Wick Communications)

A Holocaust survivor issued a challenge to students at several schools last week.

If a family member asks for some small favor or task, don't ignore it, said Stephen "Pista" Nasser, whose entire family was wiped out by the Nazis. How he wishes he could be troubled by their trivial requests today.

"Unfortunately, I cannot," the Hungarian native said. "They're all dead."

"Believe me, take an opportunity. Life is much more important than a little bickering."

Willcox High School and seventh and eighth graders from the middle school packed the auditorium last Tuesday to hear his message.

Thursday, the Buena Performing Arts Center was packed with Buena High School students, plus all the eighth-graders from the two middle schools.

And Valley Union High School and Pearce Elementary School also heard Nassar speak. He also spoke Friday at the Sunsites Community Center.

Nasser urged everyone in the audience to go home and give their family two hugs, including "one for Mr. Nasser."

At Buena, there were gasps, sobs and some laughter at Nasser's stories of survival from the death camps. Mostly the students were silent and just listened as the 77-year-old man spoke without notes. After the presentation, Nasser received handshakes and hugs from a number of students.

He spoke to the students about racism and bigotry.

No matter the color of one's skin or religion, "it does not feel good when someone treats you that way," he said.

"These bigots, you cannot talk to them until they realize what is happening," he said, commenting that they are on a path to hell.

Nasser's visit to the area was made possible by the Cochise Stronghold Lions Club of Sunsites. Some members of that club, Charlie and Mary Appel of Pearce-Sunsites, met Nasser during a cruise on the Danube River in Hungary last year. He was giving an impromptu talk on the boat and was so spellbinding that the Appels wanted to bring the Las Vegas man to Cochise County as one of their yearly Lions projects.

Nasser described to the students how he watched three of his family members being brutally killed by sadistic men. He prompted laughter when he told how he smuggled in a knife, which helped him gain extra rations of food and other supplies.

Nasser was only 13 when he and his family were whisked away from their home in Budapest and sent to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Muhldorf.

"Do you think of freedom, here in this auditorium?" Nasser asked. "I think about freedom every morning."

But it was different one morning when he awoke soon after his family was seized. He was in a holding area, about the size of two football fields, surrounded by barbed wire. There were thousands of Jews contained in the pen. There was no roof, no bed, no blankets. With only the frozen ground to sleep on, he snuggled with his older brother, Andris, and their uncle.

The uncle snored loudly. This apparently bothered a camp guard, who fired a pistol shot into the ground beside the sleeping uncle's head. The uncle rose up and grabbed the guard by the throat. The guard kneed the uncle in the groin and then killed him with gunfire.

"I never before saw anyone killed," Nasser said. He watched as his uncle's body was dragged out of the camp by his feet.

Later, the Jews were loaded onto a train for a long journey to Auschwitz. Nasser remembers a single bucket served as a toilet, stinking and sloshing as it was passed around the cramped rail car.

When they arrived at Auschwitz, he saw Nazis in white jackets sorting the Jews as they disembarked from the train. He did not understand at the time that they were deciding who would live and die.

As he and his family awaited selection, his aunt pretended to breastfeed her baby in a futile attempt to save the child. A Nazi guard ripped it from her arms and threw the child over his shoulder while another guard restrained the mother.

Nasser said his aunt tore loose from the second guard and was instantly and ferociously on the guard who carted away her baby.

"She embedded her fingernails into his skull," Nasser said.

A guard bashed the mother's head open with the butt of a pistol. "Everything came out," Nasser said, but the horribly injured woman was still on her knees crying out for her baby when the guard bashed its brains out against a wagon wheel.

"I could not get rid of that sight for years," Nasser told the Sierra Vista students, some of whom sobbed at the story.

Nasser said he and the others were stripped naked and had to pass through an inspection line.

He had a small pen knife that he held in his hand. He said he was a Boy Scout before and after the Holocaust, and this training instilled in him a determination to take that knife into the camp.

At first he thought that he would hide the knife in his mouth. But then he noticed that the guards were looking inside the prisoners' mouths. They were looking for gold.

"And I shoved it up where the sun don't shine," Nasser said.

But that knife would later enable him to keep a diary and get extra food.

He carved a horse's head out of a chunk of sandstone. A sympathetic soldier from the Wehrmacht (German army) liked the carving so much that he asked for more of them. Nasser bargained to get extra food and some pencils.

The prisoners carried bags of cement, and Nasser scavenged empty bags to make jackets and shoes. He also trimmed pieces to serve as pages of a journal that he would secretly keep.

As Nasser told his story, a Buena teen sat in the front row, sketching in a wire-bound notebook, engrossed by the message.

Nasser's brother Andris became very ill and was housed in the death barracks. Nasser snuck in and held his brother in his arms.

The brother made him promise to "Keep up your attitude."

The war was nearly over. Artillery approached from the distance. Nasser kept talking to his brother, and eventually realized he was talking to a corpse.

Nasser and others were loaded into a rail car.

There is a photograph of American GIs from Gen. George Patton's Third Army finding him amid the corpses. More than once, Nasser gave thanks for America and its 430,000 service members who sacrificed their lives during World War II.

When the GIs pulled him out of the train, his journal was underneath his unconscious body. It became lost.

Later Nasser discovered this.

"I cried out, 'Where is my diary?' "

Nasser nonetheless reconstructed the journal. It is a book, titled "My Brother's Voice," published in 2003.

After the Americans nursed him back to strength, the youth disobeyed a general and left his rescuers. He wanted to see his mother.

"I swam through dark rivers and crossed all kinds of borders."

But it was too late. When he got back to Budapest, he learned that she too had perished in the camps. In 1948, the Canadian Jewish Congress brought him to Canada, and he and his wife, Francoise, came to the United States in 1958.

For more information, send e-mail to mybrothersvoice@aol.com

Herald/Review City Editor Ted Morris can be reached at 520-515-4614 or by e-mail at cityeditor@svherald.com.

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