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Survivors reflect on time escaping Nazis on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Holocaust survivors visited the former Auschwitz concentration camp on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Bernd Thissen
Picture Alliance via Getty Image
Holocaust survivors visited the former Auschwitz concentration camp on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

As a toddler Greg Shershnevsky’s life was saved by someone who refused to be a bystander during one of the darkest moments of human history. He hopes his story can strengthen that same resolve in others.

“My message is not about horrors of concentration camps,” Shershnevsky said. “My story is about people who refuse to be a bystander and my message mostly to schools: Don't be bystanders because [you] can change someone else's life.”

Shershnevsky was born in Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius in 1941, then one of the Republics of the Soviet Union. Three months later Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union occupying Vilnius and hording the Jewish families in the area into two separate ghettos.

This is when the killing began.

Holocaust survivor Stan “Greg” Shershnevsky at his home Tuesday, March 7, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)
Holocaust survivor Stan “Greg” Shershnevsky at his home Tuesday, March 7, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“Right away, they established killing fields in the nearby forest which is called Paneriai,” he said. “So, they started murdering Jews right away, grabbing them on the streets, terrible places, businesses, homes and so on.”

Living in the ghetto and only a few months old, Shershnevsky was marked for death. A network of connections led to him being smuggled out of the ghetto and into the nearby basement apartment of a Polish woman who adopted him and changed his name to a Polish Catholic name. After the end of occupation Shershnevsky was reunited with his father but his mother was killed trying to escape the Vilnius ghetto after word got out of its planned liquidation.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a day to keep alive the message to fight back against hatred. Through the work of the Holocaust Research Center of Buffalo Shernevsky and other survivors living in Western New York have been sharing their stories in classrooms and boardrooms since the 1980’s.

Holocaust Research Center of Buffalo Director Elizabeth Schram estimates there are around 40 Holocaust and pogrom survivors still living in the region.

“We're really lucky in Western New York because so many communities around the U.S. and around the world, they've lost all of their survivors,” she said. “And we have between 30 and 40 survivors in the Western New York area. And to have those survivors here is incredible.”

Dr. Gerhard Falk escaped Germany as a teen in 1939 and said if it was not for a sponsor in the United States, he would not be alive to tell his story. The author and retired SUNY Buffalo Criminology and Sociology professor said the plight of Jews in pre-World War II Europe should be a lesson for any oppressed people to fight back.

“The first thing I learned was that you must never be defenseless because what happened to the Jews in Europe was that they had no weapons and couldn't defend themselves they could be murdered as well because they couldn't shoot back,” Falk said.

Mark Mulville, Buffalo News

Two notable acts of antisemitic violence in the United States come to mind: The 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburg and earlier this month the hostage situation at a congregation in Texas. When asked if those attacks harken back to the early Nazi era, Falk said he is dismayed, but there is an important distinction between those acts and what happened in Europe.

“The big difference is that in Europe the government's did this. The government had all the power," Falk said. "Here there are individuals who rush into synagogues.”

State-sanctioned or not, Shershnvesky worries about escalating antisemitism and where it may lead.

“In every country when situation gets worse,” he said. “And antisemitism is on the rise and with economic situation getting worse with inflation and everything, low-educated people need to blame someone and for centuries people always blamed Jews for any problem.”

He also implored people to be alert and vigilant against all hate.

“Every decent human being has to fight hatred because as one of Holocaust survivors stated hatred may kill your enemy but it will destroy yourself,” Shershnevsky said.

According to an October 2021 report by the American Jewish Committee, nearly one out of every four Jew in the United States say they have been the subject of antisemitism over the last year.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.
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