Vladmir Munk and Ita Bullard survived the Holocaust, and they visited Plattsburgh State last Friday in the Champlain Valley Hall Commons to talk about their experiences with English professor Elizabeth Cohen’s Holocaust literature class.
The class of about 25 students, who have been reading Holocaust literature, listened to the survivors as they told their stories, both different but equally as honorable and memorable.
As German forces slowly occupied Czech lands during the beginning of World War II, Munk and his family, along with six million other Jewish people, began to view life differently.
“I am 95-years-old, which is very, very old,” Munk said. “At 95 years, you spend 146 months in your life. What I will talk about is 26 months of being in concentration camps, which is about 2.6% of my life. Should I talk about my [entire] life, [it] would total 40 hours.”
At 17, Munk was sent to Terezin, or Theresienstadt, a ghetto camp in Czech Republic, in 1942, where he was forced to work as a locksmith. He eventually met his future wife, Kitty Lowi, in Terezin before curfew on a walk along the main streets with his friends.
“We never agreed on who called whom,” Munk said. “I claim that she called on me, she claims that I called on her, but the fact is that we just met, started to walk together, we were holding hands and [when] we were looking for some privacy, there was none.”
The young couple was together for as long as they could be. Two years later, Munk and his parents were transferred to Auschwitz. That was the last time he saw them alive.
“You could see black smoke, you could smell in the air something like burning meat,” Munk said. “I was standing there next to prisoners older than me. I asked them, ‘Do you know what happened to my father? He was sent to the other side.’ He said, ‘Do you see the smoke? There he is.”
Munk was again sent to a subcamp of Auschwitz called Gleiwitz. He endured more forced labor, depression and loneliness.
“I couldn’t sleep because I was so cold,” he said. “[There was] hunger, and a lack of communication, because I was the only one who spoke Czech, so I had no one to talk to. When you go one or two weeks without saying a word, it gets to you.”
At this time, Russian troops began closing in, and the Nazis attempted to destroy the camps they had built to cover up their crimes. They marched all prisoners west to Blechhammer, another concentration camp, for the night. The next day, as the Nazis prepared to move the prisoners once again, Munk slept through it, and they simply left him there.
“I just fell into an empty bed somewhere, and that’s all I remember,” he said. “When I woke up, the camp was empty. They forgot me.”
A few days later, Munk and another survivor began their escape. They were questioned by two German soldiers, who apparently didn’t discover their true identities. Munk was finally free.
“They waved us to go away, we went and my back was so tight,” he said. “We were [thinking] we would feel something. We were so afraid they were going to shoot us. But that was it. That was how I was liberated.”
He reunited with Lowi, eventually getting married and starting a family. With the war over, he finished his high school and college education, receiving a Ph.D. in biochemistry and microbiology in 1953. In 1969, he accepted a faculty position at PSU as a microbiology professor, retiring after 21 years of teaching.
Bullard, on the other hand, had a different story. She and her family, her father a Polish Jew, were hidden from Nazi soldiers in Paris by a non-Jewish family. Bullard said she owes them her life.
When the war was over, Bullard said their family had lost everything. They had to start over. Learning English and packing a bag, she emigrated from France to the United States.
Eventually, Bullard settled in New York City, where she worked multiple jobs but ultimately became an artist, raising a family with her second husband for more than 30 years before moving to the North Country in 2007. She continues to paint and tell her story, and a playwright is currently working with Bullard to produce a screenplay about her life.
“To this day, I know the grandchildren of these people,” Bullard said. “They were the ones that really took it upon themselves to hide four people and take a chance on being killed too. I was born Jewish, but I don’t follow anything. I respect the Christians that saved us. I wear a cross for them.”
At the end of January, Munk and his friend and biographer Julie Canepa traveled to Krakow, Poland, for the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation invited more than 100 survivors to Poland for the anniversary. While the travel and event was successful, Munk said being there only made the memories come flooding back.
Email Emma Vallelunga at email@example.com