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‘Peace on Earth’: Holocaust survivor recounts WWII memories from the Balkans

By Staff | Dec 13, 2019

From right, Cheryl Pullen, of Shepherdstown, talks with Holocaust survivor Theodora Klayman, following her speech in the Robert C. Byrd Center auditorium on Dec. 2. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14 King James Version).

While this verse, spoken by an angel to a group of shepherds in the Christmas story, was about the birth of Jesus, many people connect its joyful message with the Christmas season.

On Dec. 2, Shepherd University’s Department of International Affairs took inspiration from the verse, to feature a speaker with a personal perspective on the need for world peace.

“In the Department of International Affairs, we decided to use this time to focus on peace on earth, so we thought, ‘What better way to do that, than to have a Holocaust survivor speak?'” said Director of International Affairs Lois Jarman. “It is my great pleasure this afternoon, to introduce Miss Theodora Klayman.”

Today, Klayman translates French manuscripts for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where her story is archived, and speaks about her experience growing up as World War II broke out, leading to the invasion and dissolution of her home country, the Czech Republic.

According to Klayman, the Czech Republic’s WWII experience is often overlooked, even though it was equally affected by the socialist movement.

“In 1938, before World War II, was the Night of Kristallnacht — the beginning of great persecution for Jews,” Klayman said, mentioned this happened when she was 10 months old. “When Germany attacked Yugoslavia in 1941, the country fell apart.”

Luckily for Klayman, she had been sent to live with her grandparents in Ludbreg, Croatia right before the attack occurred. The fascist Ustaa regime was then given governing control over Croatia by the Nazi party, and required all Jews to be registered. But since the local residents didn’t know exactly who Klayman was, she was not registered and slipped under the radar.

As the war progressed, Klayman, and later, her younger brother, ended up becoming the wards of a Catholic uncle who had married into the family. He successfully hid them throughout the war, even as his own wife and the rest of the family were sent to work camps, prison of war camps and concentration camps. Only three of Klayman’s relatives returned from the camps.

Although World War II ended at the same time in the Balkans as it did in the rest of Europe, the healing that needed to occur throughout Europe never reached the Balkans, because the area was under communist control.

“There was no reconciliation that happened with what had happened,” Klayman said, explaining that peace does not come from ignoring an issue. “Just keeping the lid down doesn’t work. Those of us who grew up in a communist world were fed that hope, that ‘everything would be fine.’ But everything fell apart again, which was a really sad story.

“What makes me angry, are those countries that are becoming fascist countries and intolerant or anti-semitic. It’s the current rise of anti-semitism that angers me, rather than that which happened 60 years ago,” Klayman said. “Cherish our democracy.”