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
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
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.