Holocaust survivor Leon Chameides, an accomplished physician, professor of medicine, and author, shared his powerful story of tragedy, courage, evil, altruism, and the endurance of the human spirit with an all-school audience gathered in the Olcott Center on Monday, December 10.
It was "miraculous," he said, that he was speaking at the convocation, considering the great odds against his surviving into adulthood simply by being born in the mid-1930s in Poland to a Jewish family.
Dr. Chameides opened his talk with a quote from the author William Faulkner, who once wrote "The past is not dead — it isn't even past." The past is not only alive, remarked Dr. Chameides, but with recent eruptions of hate speech and hate-fueled violence around the world against Jews and other groups of people, "it sometimes feels as though this is where I came in."
Until recently, Dr. Chameides did not speak publicly about his past, but as he advances in age and the number of Holocaust survivors still living dwindles, he said it is his obligation to bear witness for future generations.
Born in 1935, Dr. Chameides was a young child just before the outbreak of World War II when his family left their home in Katowice, on the Southwest border of Germany and Poland, and migrated east to the city of Lwów (now in Ukraine and called Lviv) to be near family. He projected photographs of his home and family — his German-born mother, his father, his older brother, and a beloved nanny — taken in Katowice, where his father was a respected rabbi and his family enjoyed a comfortable existence.
Lviv was occupied by Russian troops from 1939 to 1941, and Dr. Chameides's family faced hardships as everyone did, but they did not yet experience persecution for being Jewish, he said. That changed when Hitler's troops invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, which led to the pogroms — chaos, and extreme violence against Jews — beginning in July 1941. Jews, especially children and the aged, who were of no value for work, were subjected to unspeakable acts of violence, he said. By 1942, 50,000 Jewish people had been massacred. Fearing no Jews would survive the violence, Dr. Chameides's father appealed to the archbishop of St. George's Greek Catholic Church in Lviv seeking protection of sacred Torah scrolls from area synagogues and protection of his children.
The penalty for hiding Jews at that time was immediate death, and Dr. Chameides acknowledged the great personal risk accepted by the archbishop and other church members who hid him; his older brother, Herbert; and a handful of others under the cover of the church.
Dr. Chameides was 7 and his brother was 9 when they were sent to separate monasteries and given new, Christian identities. Young Leon was sent to a monastery orphanage in Univ, about 50 kilometers from Lviv. He was given a Ukrainian name, had to learn Ukrainian and the rudiments of the Christian religion; helped work the land for the church; and was warned never to reveal his true identity. He recalled being fearful and confused about his identity, and pointed to the irony of praying to Jesus and Mary to prevent him from accidentally revealing that he was a Jew.
When the Russians liberated the area from Germany in 1944, battles were fought in the wooded area around Univ, and at age 9, Dr. Chameides helped at a hospital for the wounded — removing bandages from dead people in the forest and washing them for re-use in the clinic. When the Russians later turned against the monastery, Dr. Chameides fled Univ and returned to Lviv, where he eventually reunited with his brother, and the two learned that their father and mother had perished. The systematic murder of Jews had reduced Lviv's Jewish population from around 119,000 to 150,000 in 1941 to 823 in July of 1944 —no children among them.
In 1946, the two boys migrated to England, where their maternal grandparents had been able to escape. And in 1949, Dr. Chameides immigrated to the United States, where he completed his high school and college degrees, and lives with his family today.
"I am very fortunate," Dr. Chameides said, acknowledging the tremendous courage of his parents and of the members of the Greek Catholic Church who "responded to the question, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' in the affirmative."
Dr. Chameides, who earned a medical degree at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, moved to Hartford in 1967, was founding chair of pediatric cardiology at Hartford Hospital and Connecticut Children's Medical Center for 30 years and was clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. He has written two books, Strangers in Many Lands, published in 2012, and On the Edge of the Abyss, published in 2013. The second book is based on sermons written by his father, Rabbi Kalman Chameides, for his religious community in the days leading up to the Holocaust.
During his visit to Loomis Chaffee, organized by the Norton Family Center for the Common Good, Dr. Chameides met with history students in Founders Chapel and had lunch with faculty and student leaders from the Jewish Student Union and the Biomedical Research Club.
Dr. Chameides's convocation preceded a school-wide dialogue about upholding Loomis Chaffee's core values of respect, empathy, humility, and kindness.
"We are a community of shared values," Head of School Sheila Culbert said in her remarks after Dr. Chameides's talk. These values are not associated with any one religion, she said, but rather are basic human values. Kindness in particular, she said, needs daily practice so that it becomes second nature. "So if and when you are called upon to help others, you will know what to do and when to do it," Sheila said.
Sheila reminded the students and faculty gathered for the convocation that Loomis Chaffee and other communities of learning have an obligation to "present and make welcome a multitude of tongues." She also delineated the difference between free speech and hate speech. Certain words and symbols have the power to hurt and make others feel anxious and unwelcome, Sheila said, and must not be used or tolerated.
After the convocation, students met in small groups with their advisors to continue the discussion.