Robert Mendler, Holocaust Survior

Robert Mendler, Holocaust SurviorLiteracy Weblog)

I recently heard Holocaust survivor Robert Mendler, a resident of nearby Latrobe, Pennsylvania, who spent six or seven years in 10 different concentration camps. Mr. Mendler is a regular speaker here at Seton Hill and in the region; I attended his visit to a youth group at Our Lady of Grace church this past Sunday.

I had met Mr. Mendler and his charming wife a week or so ago, when Yaacov Lozovic came to campus last week to speak on his book, Right to Exist. (I took extensive notes on that speech and have been meaning to blog it for some time, but that will have to wait.) I had originally planned to go to the SHU trip to The Mattress Factory (an art museum) instead, but my wife really wanted to see Mr. Mendler. His presentation was low-key, I think because he was speaking to teens and kids, but it was still extremely powerful. Out of a family of 70 relatives, he was the only one who survived. To think that Israel today is the home of about 6 million, but that another 6 million were killed by Hitler’s forces… shocking. As a young boy, Mendler was first sent to work as unpaid slave labor; he was sent home to his family one day a week, but this was before the Nazis started moving so aggressively against Jews.

As it happened, he he worked in the home of the S.S. chief in his village. And six or ten years later (I was walking my one-year-old in the lobby outside the meeting hall for most of the speech, so I missed quite a bit), after Allied forces had liberated the concentration camps and saved the lives of those who weren’t already dead or dying, Mendler emigrated to the U.S. Who do you suppose he saw on the boat but the same man who had been local chief of the S.S., who was trying to emigrate to the U.S. to escape his war crimes. Mendler’s testimony, along with that of another man on the boat, brought this man to justice. It was a very dramatic and unexpected turn to his speech. He says that after so many years in concentration camps he had given up on God, but when he helped capture the man who had brutalized him so as a young boy, he says he knew there was a God.

I do wish I could have heard more of his story, but I did get to speak to him before and afterwards, and I’m sure I’ll see more of him at Seton Hill. His grandson Max was with him, and although Max was a few years older than my son Peter, the two of them seemed to get along well.