Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive

David Kahan - August 14, 1995

Reflections on the Holocaust

Um, let me just shift the focus a...again. When you came to the United States, did you want to talk then? Did you want to tell people about it?

No. Uh, the, the, the tragedy of the Holocaust was, was, was buried deep in our hearts and minds. When I came to the United States, uh, most of the Holocaust survivors including myself, we got jobs uh, we started to work, we wanted to rebuild our lives. Uh, I got married in 1953. And, and uh, then when my sons were born I, we were always, I was always afraid. I didn't want to traumatize them with my experiences in the Holocaust, because I was afraid that they will be emotionally uh, you know, they might get disturbed uh, about what it was like to be a Jew, what their father went through, that their grandparents were killed because they were Jews. So I really didn't talk about that. My children didn't hardly knew, they knew--that I was a Holocaust survivor, but until they saw uh, uh, on television uh, some newsreels from the Warsaw ghetto, real newsreels taken by the Germans and they saw how the Jews were dying in the streets uh, that's how they asked me some questions about it, but I was always afraid to talk to my children and we were not able to talk to the general public about the Holocaust. Uh, uh, I started to talk, like many of us, many, many years later, after there was a, a television program where NBC, The Holocaust and uh, the American public knew a little bit more about it. We were getting older. A lot of us felt that if we don't speak up, this horrible disaster, the greatest disaster that has befallen the Jewish people in their history, will, will be forgotten and will be denied. Uh, I recall one of the things which got us upset and incensed, that in, in, in, in Chicago, I, I think it was the University of Chicago or Northwest University, a professor by the name of Butz wrote a book that the Holocaust was a Jewish Zionist uh, fabrication that wasn't true, it never happened. I think after I heard about that, many of us felt it's time to speak out while we're still alive. The horrors were so great. When I, when I spoke to schools many times or churches, the people I know they believe me, but they can't imagine hundreds of thousands of children and women being thrown in a gas chamber and gassed. It's just unbelievable for a civilized mind. But these things really happened. We realized that if we don't speak up while we're alive, these things could be denied by, by today's Nazis.

It's a good place to pause. [long pause] Uh, let me return to the uh, earlier question about um, speaking when you got to the United States. Um, did anyone ask you questions?

Yes, yes. I remember when I worked in the shop uh, in a shop before I got into the real estate business, the people asked me where I was from and, the workers and I told them yes, that I was from Romania, from Transylvania, Hungary and that I was in a concentration camp when my family was murdered. So casually, people used to ask me that. They, you know...I mean, when I lived in Dexter Avenue, when I came to, to the Jewish neighborhood, all the other people used to say, "Where are you from? What happened?" So I used to tell them that, yes, I, I was in Auschwitz and other camps and, and casual conversation, lasting a minute or two. But not at depth. And, and definitely always kept it away from my family. But we didn't talk too much about it. We usually answered the questions we were asked and let it go at that.

So this was your decision, not...

Yes, it was, yeah, yeah. I, I, we just uh, I think somehow...it's hard to explain psychologically. Uh, it's almost, it was such a terrible period of our history, that maybe we wanted to perhaps forget it? I, I'm not sure. It just was too horrible to, to think about or talk about.

Did you think about it?

Oh yes. There is no question about that. I, I, I, I believe that, speaking for myself and probably for every survivor, the Holocaust is with me day and night. I still have my re-occurring nightmares about the Holocaust and about the camps and, and, and uh, whenever you have, to give you an example, a Simcha uh, my children's Bar Mitzvahs. I mean, they were happy occasions but, at my table, at the family table there was no one except me, my wife and my children. Other Bar Mitzvahs have got dozens of relatives. So it, even at a happy occasion it was right there, "Where are my parents?" The kids don't have any grandparents there.

Did they ever ask you where, about their grandparents?

Yeah, yeah. The kids did ask. As they got a little older, you, you know, nine, ten, eleven, they asked, "What happened to our grandparents?" And I, I tell them that they died in concentration camps. But again, I was so worried not to give them any emotional problems, no trauma about, about our experiences. So, so uh, oh I, I would say that in everything I do in my life, in my daily life, my, my, my behavior, my business or every place else, I, I always uh, I always uh...I'll give you a example which might be silly, but, you know they used to call us, the German anti-Semites all the time, that the Jews did all kinds of bad things and, "You did this and that and robbed us," like, like, like anti-Semites talk here. In, in my business dealings when I, when I have uh, uh, non-Jews sitting across the table, I want to make sure this person never has any reason to say anything bad about a Jew, because I know what they have done to us. Even so they were so lies, I just want to make sure that, that, that, that uh, that um, in, in other words I'm looking for, for good feelings towards the Jews. I, I'm still working towards to--I want to make sure that the, that the non-Jewish population feels good so that God forbid no Holocaust will ever happen again.

Are there certain times or places or moments during the days? You said every day that memories come back...


specific memories come back?

I would say, I would say that in my lifetime either I talk to my brother in Israel on the telephone or I write to him or, or, since I've been visiting Israel quite regularly and my children go there uh, it seems to be that it's interwoven. I, I read uh, uh, The Jerusalem Post every week and--or other Jewish publications and organizations that I belong to. I am involved very much with Israel and so it looks like it's a daily--I would say that, that my life is sort of uh, occupied somehow with Jewish survival. You know, every word that I read about Israel, it's always in my mind, "God forbid, could anything happen there to have another Holocaust?"

Does, does that bring specific memories back...

Well, of course it does.

any of those things you just told me about?

I, I believe uh, v...um, many times, in my daily life uh, thanks God I think that I have been fairly successful. I, I, I buy, I build a building or a project, I say to myself, "Good Lord, is this the right thing to do?" I never seem to have any cash reserves. God forbid, could there be a day that my children or grandchildren will have to leave everything behind like the, like the Jews in Europe did? I mean, these things are always in my mind. I mean, even, like I said, if I--good and I do good things and successful things, it still brings up to me, "God, is that ever possible that, that some Hitler will arise and my grandchildren will have to leave all this behind and run for their lives? Why didn't I buy a condo?" I, I, many times I, I sort of blame myself. And maybe it's not too late. "Why didn't I buy a condo in Israel in 1962 when I went to see my brother, when I could have bought it for $30,000 and now it costs $300,000?" and, "Is it possible that God forbid someday I will have to run?" Yeah. I think it's, it's with me practically every day. I, I'm a product of the Holocaust.

Do you remember what, what went through your mind when your children were born?

Oh, extremely happy, extremely happy. My, my, for me to get married was, was, was uh, was uh, the most important thing is to have a family. I knew I, I, I knew that I was a--well I didn't even know in the beginning that my brother was alive. Uh, I didn't find out that my brother was alive 'til both of my, my oldest sons were born. So it, I, I, I knew it was my, I was the only one left and it was my duty to, to, to hope. I wanted to have family, for, for the Kahan family not to be extinct, to, to, to continue.

You, you found out your brother was alive?

A few years after. I didn't go back to my hometown and I didn't uh, let me see now. Is that correct? No. I'm sorry. I found out in the displaced person camp before I left Germany from someone who went back to my hometown that my brother was alive, he had two daughters, he had no sons and I figured it was my duty, when I went to say that it was my duty to continue the Kahan family, because my brother had two daughters. I am sorry about that.

So when did you contact him?

Uh, as soon as I found out uh, in Germany in the displaced person camp. Uh, they didn't know his address. The person who told me my brother was alive didn't know his address. I wrote to the City Hall. And, and I did not receive--it was communistly ruled and I did not get a letter from my brother 'til, 'til I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota when, when someone in uh, uh, peop...a person from my hometown in Israel knew that I was in the United States. He put an ad in the paper and I read it in the News or Detroit Press that a gentleman by the name of Baela Biliner is looking for David Kahan in the Detroit area. I answered that ad, I wrote to him immediately and he wrote to--back to me and he told me that my brother is alive and well and where he lived and he gave me his address and I, I wrote to him. That was in 1950, or 1950 when I, I, I knew he was alive--but I--and that he had two girls, but I, he had never got my letter from Germany before--until I wrote him a letter from, 'til this Israeli neighbor found me. I, I wrote a letter, then my brother answered.

And when did you see him?

Oh, I had seen him the last time in 1942.

And when was the next time you saw him?

Oh, in '62.

What kind of reunion was that?

Oh, very, very beautiful, very traumatic. I, I, I just, just, that it was nice. I had another friend of mine in Detroit, Martin Davis, who came with me to visit his brother and I remember he saw my brother and I hugging each other, he started to cry, because he didn't have nobody. It was, it was my only person left from the Holocaust. I, I, as far as I know still from Sighet, that area, they all were wiped out. I still don't know any Kahan uh, from my father's extended family uh, or my mother's, that are alive. Of course it was-- I was very happy to see him, he was happy to see me. It was a very traumatic, happy occasion. I visit him every two years. I have been to Israel eleven times. And he's been here a couple times. Came to my son's Bar Mitzvah and one of my son's wedding.

And those you said were, were sort of bittersweet occasions.

Of course. Of course. He's, he's more emotional than I am and he's religious and he constantly talks about our parents and, and about his, our life at home, yes, yes. I'm afraid that uh, I'm afraid that hardly, uh...when I was in, in uh, in May visiting my brother, Friday night we sing the same uh, the same Zemirot it's called in Hebrew before we eat as we did at home. He says, "You remember when you sang with Dad the same, the same uh, each different uh, um areas have got different uh, ways of singing or saying the prayer. So my, my father headed I think uh, the Wijnitzer Hasid. It was a Wijnitzer Hasid. So we, we sang those same thing, the songs, before dinner Friday night, so immediately we talked about our parents. So it always brings it back somehow. You know, I, I, I look at my children all the time and they look like my mother and, and uh, it's, it's there. It's there all the time. I don't think it's good or bad. Uh, the Holocaust is, is uh, embodied in my, in my brain. And it's not always good either, because I am, fortunately I am, I am trying to, to uh, keep even keel and control myself. I love my sons an awful lot. I, I hug 'em to, they work with me a lot. But then my, my, I get excited easily and, you know, not as patient as I should be and that always reminds me of my experiences.

Now last April the, the town of Seeshaupt unveiled a monmou uh, a, a memorial to the Jews in the train. And you went back at their invitation.


Along with some twenty other survivors. How did that feel, going back? And living, living in a German home.

Oh. It's a very...good and very difficult question. When I received a letter from the Holocaust Memorial Building in Washington that, that they are, that in Germany this little town that I was liberated from the death train in Seeshaupt were looking for survivors, that they want to invite to the, to the anniversary, of fifty year of liberation and putting up a memorial, I, I was uh, bewildered uh, immediately. Yes I want to go there, yes I don't want to go there. Why should I go? How can I go? How can I, I, I look at that place again after, after so many have died in the train. But after I calmed down, uh, uh, somehow I felt that yes I think I, I'd like to go there, I'd like to be there. Some, somehow something inside me uh, after the immediate, immediate bewilderment or, or surprise was over, I said, "I want to see some of the survivors. I want to take a last look at the place where I was actually reborn." Because I, I wouldn't have lasted much longer. I mean, in the camps uh, I was already skin and bone, from before they even took us on this train, the starvation on the train. uh, so I, I think uh, I was at the end. So I was really reborn then that day. So the more I thought about it, I thought that I, yes, I, I'd like to go back and, and uh, my wife, I never wanted to go back to Germany to visit. Even so I did go back once to visit the camps. My wife uh, wanted to go to Germany and I always said I'm not interested, so I thought this time she could come, she could come along and it was another reason that I, I went along. So I went back, yes, to Seeshaupt. It was very traumatic.

And Mühldorf?

And Mühldorf, yes.

What was it like?

Uh, they took us. Yeah. They took us to Mühldorf to our concentration camp where we worked, yes.

To the Hauptbaustelle.

To the Hauptbaustelle? Yes, it was, it brought back a lot of memories, yeah, we took pictures there. There was uh, of course your doctor there with us and so was Alex Ehrmann and the twenty, twenty survivors of the death train. That was a very interesting...we, we, we seemed to be happy to be together. It reminded us of many things, but we were all glad to be there. Uh, uh, the German people that we stayed with was a, a younger generation of Germans. They were really helpful, they, they invited us to, we stayed at a family of a German, the home of a German family, the Müllers. They went out of the way to, to, to be kind to us. They almost seemed like they were trying to atone for their, for their parents' sins. And, and uh, those four days were, were very traumatic, interesting, exciting. Uh, I wish I would have, I wish I would have a better education or be somewhat of a poet to put it in, to put it into wo...wor...words. Perhaps you can ask me more questions in more detail.

Well, did you feel somehow you were betraying people?

Yes, I did. Yes. I, I, I said to myself, "How can you, how can you drink uh, champagne?" We were, we were invited two or three times to, to some of the other hosts that they were called for survivors where, where you were there and Alec Ehrmann were there and we were drinking and talking and having a good time and, and, and uh, constantly as--while we were going home, "What am I exactly doing? Is this right?" And one, one, one side of me says, "Well, these people haven't done nothing. It was their parents and grandparents who, who murdered six million innocent Jews," uh, "I, I can't possibly blame them for what happened during the Holocaust." And the other hand, I, I felt that Germany was, was, was spoiled, all, all, all this Jewish blood or spilled with Jewish blood and spoiled and, and that I have no business on being there and particularly having a good time. I'm, I'm afraid that, that it was, it was a pleasant visit and I'm still uh, uh, I invited our host to visit us in our home and, and, and when I came back I was wondering whether, whether they will come or not, whether it will be better if they don't come. I really don't uh, I, I, I, I, it's, it's a very, it was a--I don't know the right word. It was an interesting, exciting to see the survivors. We went back to the Hauptbaustelle, to our camp, we took our pictures which I will treasure forever and, and uh, my thoughts are still wondering whether I did the right thing or not. I don't have the right answers why I did it, why did I want to go. It's difficult.

Before we finish, is there anything in particular that you want to add?

Well, I, I believe that I, I mentioned that earlier about my feelings about the rest of the Christian world. Um, I, I lived uh, in this wonderful, wonderful United States. I, I never miss saying that, because I, I love it so dearly. It's given me new, a new home and new hope. I, I got married in 1953. I have three wonderful sons, names are uh, Douglas, Jeffrey and Michael. I have been fairly successful in the real estate business. I built a, a new life here.

Your wife's name?

My wife's name is Terry. I'm sorry. And uh, I'm fairly happy. I just, I just hope I live long enough that I uh, I have, I only have one granddaughter, I'd like to have a few more grandchildren. I'm always hoping that this tape and the times that I spoke to schools that, that uh, perhaps if just anything will be remembered by is, is, is, is, is that uh, the world will remember and those that will listen to me or to other survivors will try to make sure that no Holocaust will ever happen in the history of, of mankind of again to any reg...religion or nation or any people. That, that you have to speak up when you see uh, unjustice done. When you see it, you can't be quiet. That's what happened in Europe, where even the good, the good uh, Christians or the gentiles who, who didn't agree with Hitler or with the Arrow Cross or the Romanian Iron Guard, but they didn't speak out. And, and, and uh, and that's why the tragedy was so magnified and it was so horrible. For the people to remember that, that what we're saying is true. Maybe somebody will listen to this tape fifty years from now and they will say that, "Human beings could not do such things." And, and, it's true. It happened. I was there and hundreds of thousands of others. And I, I simply hope that, that, that uh, by listening to us that there will be a better world of, of brotherhood, of, of tolerance, no prejudice, no bigotry, that all religions can live together. And, and, I'm hoping that uh, Israel will survive and prosper. That's going to be a strong thing for the Jewish people, for the survivors. I think that's about it.

Okay. Thank you, David.

Thank you very much.

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