NKU students and members of the community gathered at the Boone County Library on Monday night to listen to the first-hand account of a Holocaust survivor. Werner Coppel, a Cincinnati resident for more than 60 years, watched as Hitler rose to power in Germany, was persecuted for being Jewish, and spent the remaining years of World War II in Auschwitz-Buna.
Coppel was born into a middle class family in Moers, Germany in 1925, the same year Hitler re-organized the Nazi Party. He grew up in a small town in a small Jewish community.
“I was 8 years old in 1933 when the Nazi party took over the German government. Even with this beginning event, my whole lifestyle as a Jewish child changed drastically,” Coppel said.
The Nuremberg Laws, passed in 1935 was the first direct attack on individual Jews. These laws marked a sharp progression toward an irreversible anti-Semitic policy. More laws were to follow.
In 1941, Coppel was separated from his family and sent to a youth labor camp, and then later sent to Auschwitz. He marched in the infamous death march mentioned in Elie Wiesel’s memoir, “Night.” Days before Soviets arrived at Auschwitz, the police force for the Nazi party marched nearly 60,000 prisoners toward Poland.
Coppel recalled seeing six trucks filled with the dead. After days of marching, he saw his opportunity to escape in a dense forest.
“I looked to my left. I looked to my right, and just there the path made a diverge,” Coppel said. “I didn’t see a guard so I started running. I heard the bullets, but I kept on running.”
Coppel was free. Falling behind Soviet lines, Coppel returned to Berlin with the thousands of other displaced persons. It wasn’t until after the war that Coppel discovered he was the only member of his family to survive.
“I only have the family that I created,” said Coppel. “My father, a veteran of World War I, had a hard time walking. When deported, he was put on a bus. The exhaust piping was rigged and by the time the bus got to the woods he was dead.”
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Coppel found out how his brother and mother died. A documentation center in Germany with 30-50 million WWII documents opened the archives to the public.
Notice came that Coppel’s mother, and assuming his 11-year-old brother, were transported from a camp to Auschwitz in 1943.
“I know that it was the only transport in October or November 1943 and, except for a few exceptions, that transport went into the gas chambers,” Coppel said.
Before the floor opened up for questions, Sarah Weiss, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and the Executive Director of The Center for Holocaust & Humanity Education, reminded the audience the privilege it was to hear Coppel’s story first hand.
“I will remind all of us that we represent the last generations that will hear these stories of survivors of World War II veterans first hand. The next generations will only be able to read the memoirs and textbooks that we have of their accounts,“ Weiss said.
NKU students were also in attendance at the speech.
“I learned so much,” Margaret Altimier, a senior history major at NKU, said. “His story is something that everyone can learn from. His survival instinct to run away during the infamous death march is so admirable. “
A member in the audience asked Coppel how he became the happy person he is today. His role as a parent made him realize that he had to choose between the past and the present.
“When I saw that baby in the crib, I had to make up mind to be hateful, which I was, or try to live a normal life,” he said. “I made up mind and I have had a normal, happy life.”