In order to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, Colgate graduate and Holocaust survivor Bill Donat ’60 shared his story of survival on Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. in the Ho Lecture Room. Sponsors for the event included the American Jewish Committee, Colgate Jewish Union and the Jewish Studies Department.
Associate University Chaplain and Director of Jewish Life Rabbi Dave Levy introduced Donat.
“It is impossible for any of us to ever fathom the magnitude of the loss and suffering that took place during that dark period,” Levy said. “However, it is by finding ways to learn individual stories of those who lived through that difficult time that we can gain some understanding.”
Donat shared his and his family’s experiences before, during and after the Holocaust. He discussed his time living in the ghetto of Warsaw, Poland, when he was forced to wear a white armband with the blue Star of David, and his near voyage to a concentration camp. Donat, along with his mother and seven of her colleagues, were sent to Umschlagplatz, German for “collection point” or “reloading point,” which was where Jews were gathered for deportation to the Treblinka concentration camp. Fortunately, Donat’s father contacted a Jewish policeman, who saved the group.
“150,000 children were sent to Umschlagplatz and I’m the only one who escaped,” said Donat. “150,000 children perished and now I’m here to share my story with you.”
Donat’s parents sent him to stay with a Christian couple – whom he referred to as “Auntie Maria” and “Uncle Stefan” – for the duration of the war. At one point, three Polish policemen came to the house where Donat was staying and discovered him. However, his aunt persuaded the policemen to overlook him and they agreed. On the same day, he saw the ghetto in flames in what he believes was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. His parents were waiting in a bunker, but when it caught fire, they escaped to the roof. They were prepared to take potassium cyanide tablets to commit suicide, but his mother had lost the tablets in the process of fleeing to the roof.
Donat’s parents were sent to several different extermination and work camps while Donat was placed in an orphanage outside of Auschwitz. There, he suffered from severe malnutrition, and he was sent to a farm in order to receive better nourishment. Shortly thereafter, Russian soldiers invaded the farm and he was sent back to the orphanage.
Two years after Donat arrived at the concentration camps, his mother was released and the two were reunited. She could not support him, despite her job working for a distribution center that allowed people released from concentration camps to see if their relatives were still alive. His father also survived the camps and, once the family was reunited, decided to relocate to the United States.
Ten years later, Donat was a first-year student at Colgate.
Donat answered several questions from the audience after his presentation.
When asked how he dealt with what happened once he arrived in the United States, he said that he focused obsessively on assimilation.
“I didn’t want to talk about what had happened. I wanted to be an American … I wanted to suppress it all,” he said. “There was a generation of people who had been totally traumatized and were only trying to find normalcy.”
Concerning his Jewish heritage and how he found a balance between his Jewish background and Christian upbringing, he said that his confusion leveled out after he moved to the U.S.
“My parents realized that I had been through a trauma. They let things go. In the United States, surrounded by my family, I started to identify with my Jewish heritage,” Donat said.
The lecture was Donat’s first visit to Colgate in 18 years.