Abraham Peck was only 14 years old when Nazi soldiers invaded his small Polish village and stockaded its Jewish population in a brutish ghetto bound by barbed-wire, commencing what would become six harrowing years of captivity.
The now-88-year-old Holocaust survivor shared stories with Saddle Brook High School students last week about what his life was like at their age.
"Every day living in a camp, every hour was like an eternity," Peck said. "If the guard man didn’t like the way you looked at him, he would tell you, 'Get me the [gun],' and he would shoot you. We were not human."
SBHS english teachers Nicole Blesing and Nicholas Millan invited Peck, who has been speaking to school children about his experience during the Holocaust since the late 1960s, to supplement their students' understanding of a recent unit on genocide.
"We read Elie Wiesel’s book 'Night,' and the kids were really intrigued by it," Blesing said. "So I got in touch with the Department of Education, and they gave me a list of Holocaust survivors in Bergen County. I saw one that was local (Peck) and I called him because he actually was in the same camps (Auschwitz and Buchenwald) as the author of 'Night.'"
Peck, who has lived in Fair Lawn since 1956, spent two years in a crowded Polish labor camp before being shuttled between Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and a number of their subcamps until 1945, when he was liberated by American troops at Allach, a subcamp of Dachau.
"After the liberation, we got together and we wanted to look for our families," said Peck, who estimated he had about 100 relatives between his parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. "From all these people, seven were left. Six and me."
None of Peck's immediate family survived. His only six surviving relatives were cousins.
"I didn’t find anybody," he said. "Not my brother, not my sister. Everybody was killed by the Nazis."
Of all the unspeakable atrocities he witnessed in the camps, Peck said having to watch helplessly as guards hauled his dead father's body away to a mass grave outside a Polish work camp might have been the most terrible.
"When they took out my father, I asked the SS men, 'Please let me go help bury my father,' Peck said, begging and crying. "He hit me with the barrel of his gun and I had to go to work. Until today, I don’t know where my father is buried."
Peck, who went on to own and operate a custom upholstery corporation in Paterson after the war, said he speaks to children about his concentration camp experiences because he thinks they should know the truth.
“I feel very strong that the young generation should know that there was an evil that killed 6 million people and that it can happen again," he said.
While his faith in god was seriously shaken after the war, Peck said he believes the experience made him a better human being.
“What I learned from my terrible ordeal is not ever to give up hope," Peck wrote in a statement that Millan read to the high school students. "It is up to all of us to speak up when we encounter injustice. Do not allow yourself to become a victim or a bystander. We must love and respect our fellow human beings regardless of differences in religion, nationality or color. With hope, let each of us take responsibility to build a better world. One life at a time. One day at a time."
A book chronicling Peck's life by local author and attorney Felicia Farber is due out in the next few months.