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 May 14, 2010

Observance

Survivor tells of World War II horrors, beginning new life in U.S.

Remembering the Holocaust isn’t only about honoring and recognizing the people who died. Many survivors have their own harrowing stories to tell about the horrors of war and how they picked up the pieces to begin a new life. Those people included the guest speaker at Fort McCoy’s Holocaust: Days of Remembrance event April 21.

Even though Agate Nesaule, a retired professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, doesn’t feel her story is as important as the people who were direct victims of the Holocaust, she is asked to be a guest speaker at many places, including Fort McCoy.
PHOTO: Agate Nesaule, a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, speaks about her experiences of ethnic persecution during World War II during a Fort McCoy Holocaust: Days of Remembrance observance. Photo by Allan Harding
Agate Nesaule, a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, speaks about her experiences of ethnic persecution during World War II during a Fort McCoy Holocaust: Days of Remembrance observance. Photo by Allan Harding

Nesaule brings the perspective of what the war was like for non-Jewish people who suffered ethnic persecution and how the war affected them. For many of the people of that time, American Soldiers are seen as liberators.

Nesaule’s story began in her native homeland of Latvia during World War II. At that time, Latvia was known as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).

The Russian army was advancing to Latvia and rounding up people and sending them to Siberia. Nesaule and her family escaped by going to Germany. By this time, the Russian army had separated all the men and boys from the women. Nesaule, her older sister and her mother found themselves in an orphanage.

“The Russian soldiers took us outside, and we thought we were going to be shot and executed,” Nesaule said. “A soldier put his hands on my neck and demonstrated strangling motions. Because my mother could speak Russian (as she grew up in Russia) the soldier told her to translate.”

Under a tree was Nesaule’s friend, Heidi, who sat next to her in school. Heidi’s mother was nearby, a rag tied across her eyes and a dark hole in her cheek and several dark holes in her chest. Both were dead and from the state of decomposition of their bodies they appeared to have been dead for a while, Nesaule said.

Heidi’s mother had strangled her daughter and then tried to kill herself. Before she could kill herself, the Russian soldiers intervened. They then killed Heidi’s mother to serve as an example of what would happen if anybody tried to kill themselves, Nesaule said. The soldiers told the people in the group that if anyone else tried to kill themselves everyone in the group would be killed.

“My mother’s voice trembled as she told me what the soldiers were saying,” Nesaule said. “My mother tried to cover my eyes so I wouldn’t see it (the bodies of Heidi and her mother) and I let her.”

But the vision of Heidi and her mother as well as other dead people she was to see stayed with Nesaule. Another harsh vision of the war that stayed with her was the starvation she experienced. It was especially humiliating when other people were given food, she said.

Nesaule, her mother and sister also spent time in a concentration camp. But since they were not Jewish, they were released. At that time, she said she didn’t have the whole picture of what was going on in the camps.

Eventually, they found their way to the British sector of Berlin and were reunited with her father. American and British troops also shared their food with the refugees — even though their food was rationed — and liberated many people at the end of the war.

From Germany, Nesaule made her way to the United States in 1950 and began preparing for school. Because she didn’t speak English, she began to learn the language by reading the book “Gone with the Wind.” She had read the first chapters of the book in Latvian so she used that as a basis and an English/Latvian and Latvian/English dictionary to translate the rest as she learned English.

In high school, an English teacher gave her a copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and Nesaule read it. This was the first time she was aware of the enormity of what had happened during the Holocaust, she said.

“Although I thought my story was very insignificant in comparison (to Frank’s), my teacher convinced me to write it down and add my voice to what happened,” Nesaule said. “After all that came to light about the Holocaust, no one at the end of the war believed it could happen again.”

But starvation and ethnic-directed violence has continued, in places like Serbia, Darfur, Somalia, and the Sudan, she said. Nesaule said she hoped that all the people who are sharing their stories and the mass writings about the Holocaust and other atrocities of World II, including starvation, will help prevent or serve as a reminder of why these things should never happen again.

For more information about ethnic observances in the Fort McCoy community, call 608-388-3246.

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