Holocaust survival: Aiken couple reunites man with the family that saved him
A local couple has a remarkable story to share about simple acts of courage that can change the course of people’s lives.
Jan and Zuzana Peer moved from Tennessee to Woodside Plantation a little over two years ago. They are originally from the Slovak region of what was formally Czechoslovakia in Europe.
“When we drove into Aiken, we said, ‘This is it,’” said Jan.
Jan’s arrival to the U.S. in 1968 occurred under less charming circumstances than the couple’s first trip to Aiken. Jan immigrated after fleeing the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. When he arrived in the U.S. he had no money, didn’t speak a word of English, and had to move in with an uncle he’d never met.
The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, officially known as Operation Danube, was a joint invasion of Czechoslovakia by five Warsaw Pact countries – the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria, East Germany and Hungary – on the night of 20–21 August 1968, according to Wikipedia.
In spite of a turbulent start, Jan fell in love with his new home. He celebrated his 50th anniversary of becoming a U.S. citizen on Dec. 20.
“I’m a die-hard American,” Jan said. “I would bleed for this country.”
Zuzana came to the U.S. 12 years ago. She shares her husband’s intense love for Aiken, especially for their home in Woodside.
Zuzana kept in touch with Slovak friends who are Holocaust survivors. Earlier this year, these friends put her in touch with Paul Kessler, a Texas man who was hoping to find the people who saved him from German soldiers as a child.
Kessler’s story is one of tragedy and perseverance. He was born in March 1939 in the village of Vranov in Czechoslovakia, the same month when German soldiers invaded the country.
Many of Kessler’s relatives were killed in the Holocaust. When Paul was a child, he moved to the village of Zemianske Sady with what was left of his family. They worked on a tobacco farm because a rumor had circulated claiming the farm’s workforce would be spared.
The rumor was wrong.
On Sept. 9, 1944, German soldiers flooded into the village and seized the Jews, loading them into trucks to be taken to concentration camps. Kessler and his mother, Berta, narrowly escaped by fleeing into the woods, were they scavenged for food to survive.
The Hajdak family, who lived in Zemianske Sady and had previously rented a room to the Kesslers, became their saving grace.
Anna and Michal Hajdak took Paul and Berta into their home. They hid them in a small hole dug into the ground in a storage area.
The story of the Kesslers survival is remarkable, not only due to the risks the Hajdaks took to protect them, but also because German soldiers were occupying the same house, just one room over from where the small Jewish family was hiding.
For seven months, the Kesslers stayed in the tiny storage area without light or heat.
If the Kessler’s were discovered, they, along with the entire Hajdak family, could have been executed by firing squad.
“You have to admire the bravery of these people who risked everything to save the lives of strangers,” Jan said.
After the village was liberated, Kessler and his mother moved to Texas, where they created a new life for themselves.
Kessler was the only Jewish child from Vranov who survived the Holocaust.
More than 70 years after the traumatic ordeal, Kessler contacted Zuzana and asked her to help him find his saviors, whose names he didn’t even know.
“I asked why he didn’t do it sooner,” Zuzana said. “And he said ‘I just couldn’t talk about it.’”
The task was daunting. Zuzana said she “didn’t even know where to start,” but she didn’t think twice about trying to help Kessler.
Zuzana traced Kessler’s story back to Zemianske Sady and requested the mayor’s help. He put her in contact with a local villager named Pavlina, who had played with Kessler in secret as a child, and the Hajdak’s granddaughter, Eva, who had been told stories about the Jewish family her grandparents had saved.
When their story matched what Kessler remembered, Zuzana knew she had found the right family.
“They knew so many of the details,” Zuzana said. “You cannot just create all those things.”
In May 2018, Kessler traveled to Zemianske Sady. Zuzana and Jan, who each speak several languages, traveled with him and acted as translators.
Kessler reunited with Pavlina and met Eva for the first time. According to Zuzana, there “wasn’t a dry eye anywhere.”
Paul visited the graves of Michal, Anna and Matilda Hajdak. Among the gifts he left were a thank you plaque and pebbles from Texas – a Jewish custom.
“One person can change the world and do the right thing, no matter the circumstances,” Kessler told the Aiken Standard in an email. ”…I want people to learn some of the many lessons of the Holocaust. For me, the most important lesson is to stand against hate and prejudice.”
Zuzana said the idea of the Holocaust – which some people claim never happened – can seem abstract until stories like Kessler’s are told. She still remembers visiting Auschwitz as a 15-year-old and feeling the profound impact the site still holds.
Zuzana said Kessler’s story must be told so it won’t happen again.
“We have to talk about it,” Zuzana said. “Because when people aren’t talking…”
″…They forget,” said Jan.
Kessler now shares his story with students in Texas.