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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Nashua middle school students hear story of Holocaust survivor and told to ‘pay it forward’

Kati Preston’s childhood ended when she was only 5.

The end came one early evening when a group of Hungarian soldiers walked through the attic in which she was hiding, stabbing at piles of hay with their bayonets as they searched for her. One bayonet struck only inches from her cheek, but she kept quiet, curled up as small as she could, hiding under the straw. ...

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Kati Preston’s childhood ended when she was only 5.

The end came one early evening when a group of Hungarian soldiers walked through the attic in which she was hiding, stabbing at piles of hay with their bayonets as they searched for her. One bayonet struck only inches from her cheek, but she kept quiet, curled up as small as she could, hiding under the straw.

“They didn’t get me that night; that’s why I’m here,” Preston told a group of Fairgrounds Middle School eighth-
graders on Friday morning. “But I stopped being a child.”

Preston, 74, of Barnstead, is a survivor of the Holocaust. She visited the middle school to share her experiences growing up in what was then Transylvania, now Hungary, during Adolf Hitler’s reign over the Nazi empire.

Each year, the school’s eighth-graders learn about the Holocaust, reading “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” and doing research papers on the genocide that killed 6 million Jews living in Europe.

This was the first year Preston was invited to speak to the students, although the school has had other Holocaust survivors speak in the past.

Preston began sharing her story only a few years ago, something she said she hopes can make her survival worthwhile and can help ensure that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.

“I like to talk to middle schoolers,” she said Friday. “That’s when kids are half-angel and half-devil. I try to speak to the angels in you.”

Preston grew up the only child of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. They lived in a small town outside Budapest, and she said she was “spoiled rotten,” with all of the nice clothes and toys a child could want.

But when she was 5, things started to change. Her mother sewed a shiny gold star on her little blue coat, and when a man spit on her in the street, her mother did nothing to stop it.

People in her town started disappearing, and before she knew it, a ghetto had been set up, and all Jews were required to move there. Her family was able to hide her father, Ernest Rubin, for some time, keeping him out of the ghetto, but eventually, he had to go, along with 28 other members of her extended family.

Preston was the only Jewish survivor in her family.

Her parents gave her to a friend in town to hide her in the attic. It was in that attic that the group of soldiers searched for her unsuccessfully.

And while she remained safe, playing with the woman’s son and receiving visits from her mother occasionally, it wasn’t an easy life. She missed her father, her home, her life, and couldn’t understand why people wanted to kill her, a child.

“I didn’t think of myself as Jewish, I was just me,” she told the students, who sat silently, listening intently to her story.

As more and more people were leaving the ghetto and being sent to concentration camps, Preston’s mother tried again to smuggle her father out.

One night, he traveled to the home where Preston hid to see her one last time. He was caught along the way, however, and sent to Auschwitz, one of the most deadly concentration camps, the next day. Preston never saw him again.

As World War II began, the Russian army came and occupied her town. And while that was “no picnic,” Preston said they were more tolerant of the Jews, and she and her mother were able to return to their home.

Before long, her mother, a dressmaker, was sewing clothes for the female members of the Russian army.

As the war went on, survivors of the concentration camps began returning to town, and every night Preston and her mother would stand at the train station, holding up a picture of her father, hoping to find him or someone who knew him.

Unfortunately, all they found was an old family friend, who told them her father had been killed for stealing bread – all of his bones had been broken and he was left in a cage in the hot sun to die.

“That’s part of why I speak,” Preston said. “I don’t want anyone to ever die like that again, to be killed because they’re different.”

The man who shared the news eventually became her stepfather. Years later, when Preston was 24, he and her mother brought her to the United States.

Preston said she has tried to make the most of her life since leaving her native country, working as a journalist, fashion designer and now theater company manager and speaker, touring schools around the region.

Preston said she hoped her story would move students to do the same and to never forget what happened.

“Life is very precious,” she said. “Grab your life and make it count, but not at the expense of harming someone else. Pay it forward; you never know who is going to save your life.”

The students gathered to hear Preston’s story said it made the history of the Holocaust much more real for them.

Hunter O’Neil, 13, and Raistlin Baddock, 14, said they had learned a lot about the Holocaust in class, but that they still could hardly believe what Preston was telling them.

“It was really interesting,” Raistlin said. “Just to really be able to hear it from someone who lived through it was great.”

Hunter said Preston’s talk made him wonder whether he could have survived what she did and still be able to spread hope.

“I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like,” he said.

Preston said that while it’s hard for young students to fully grasp the horrors of the Holocaust, she hopes her time with the Fairgrounds students will help keep alive the memories of those who died and will inspire students to stand up for what they believe in.

It’s a daily fight against bullies and injustice, she said, that will keep the world safe from genocide.

“There are about 10 percent really great people in this world and about 10 percent really bad people,” Preston said. “The other 80 percent are sheep, and that’s OK. But if you decide to be a sheep, make sure you know the shepherd you follow.”

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Curtis on Twitter (@Telegraph_DC).