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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Holocaust survivor shares story with middle schoolers

By TINA FORBES

Staff Writer

It took 50 years for Katherine Preston to stop hating.

She lost her father and all 28 members of her Jewish extended family to Nazi genocide during the Holocaust. As decades passed, her anger began to wane as she became a mother and then a grandmother. ...

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It took 50 years for Katherine Preston to stop hating.

She lost her father and all 28 members of her Jewish extended family to Nazi genocide during the Holocaust. As decades passed, her anger began to wane as she became a mother and then a grandmother.

“When your heart is full of hating, there’s no room for love,” Preston told a group of Fairgrounds Middle School students on Tuesday, just days before the 70th anniversary of D-Day, which led to the Allied victory in Europe.

She asked the students to think of her as a survivor of the Holocaust, not a victim. At age 75, she’s had a full life – careers in fashion design and journalism, she speaks eight languages, runs a theater company and lives in a farmhouse in Barnstead.

“Having survived, I got very good energy trying to make my life count,” she said

And as Preston, a mother of four boys, saw her own family grow, she knew the legacy of Nazi genocide had failed.

“Every time I gave birth to one of these boys, it was like giving the finger to Hitler,” she said.

The eighth-graders at Fairgrounds recently read “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” and wrote research papers on the Holocaust.

This was Preston’s second visit to Fairgrounds. Language arts teacher Wanda Bushey said the students asked for Preston to return this year.

Preston said she only began speaking recently because there were fewer and fewer survivors left to share stories. Her granddaughter also asked her to speak when she realized her classmates in Manchester didn’t know much about the Holocaust.

Preston addressed Holocaust deniers as well, and encouraged students to stand up for the survivors.

“Don’t look away. It’s not just participating in something bad. Everyone has a voice, everyone can make a difference,” she said. “Genocide is still happening today...people will always try to kill somebody they consider inferior.”

Students greeted her with enthusiasm – they painted welcome signs, decorated the library, and several students and staff presented Preston with gifts.

Preston grew up in Transylvania, in an area that used to be Hungary. She described it as a “vibrant, cultured sort of community called ‘Little Budapest.’” She had a happy early childhood growing up with her Catholic mother, Jewish father and extended family.

She attended a Jewish kindergarten to learn about her roots.

“There were 52 children in my kindergarten, only two of us survived,” she said.

She said things started going bad slowly. First Jewish residents were denied access to the university, then elementary schools were segregated and eventually Jews were barred from certain public places.

“Then people started disappearing.”

A peasant milkmaid offered to hide Preston, sparing her from the ghetto. Her mother was a dressmaker, and had made the woman a wedding dress as a gift. She hid Preston to repay the kindness.

At age 5, Preston stayed undetected in a hay loft for three months, barely escaping an inspection by Hungarian soldiers. She said the soldiers came up to the barn loft and started thrusting bayonets into the hay, “One bayonet landed right by my head...I still remember the ‘twang’ as it was pulled from the wood.”

“At this point, my mother was captured and tortured,” said Preston, but her mother never gave away her hiding place. Her father was smuggled out of the ghetto but was captured trying to visit her. She later found out he died at Auschwitz.

Her mother retrieved her from the barn before the bombs fell and the Russians invaded.

“Things calmed down a little, but we were under Russian occupation.”

After the war, concentration camp survivors began returning home and her mother took people in.

“They would tell stories, and their stories were horrendous,” she said.

“That’s why I speak,” Preston said. “I don’t want anyone to die like that again.”

“Please don’t be sad,” she said in closing, “Because I’m happy.”

Tina Forbes can be reached at 594-6402 or tforbes@nashuat
elegraph.com. Also, follow Forbes on Twitter (@Telegraph_TinaF).