By Tech. Sgt. Wes Wright
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — An eight-year-old Jewish boy stood at the edge of a clearing on the border of Czechoslovakia and Hungary with an adult friend at the beginning of World War II. He thought he was just on a cross country adventure.
“Do you know how to hop like a bunny rabbit,” the adult asked.
“Oh yes, I can do that quite well,” the boy responded gleefully.
“Good, I want you to hop like a very fast bunny rabbit across the field,” the man said. “I’ll join you when you reach the other side.”
Blissfully unaware a guide hired by his parents was helping him escape Nazi persecution, the boy, Oscar Sladek, sprinted across the field. Gunshots rang out in the distance but the bunny rabbit made it safely to the other side.
This was part of the Holocaust survival story Sladek told Airmen during the Days of Remembrance event at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Aug. 9, 2018.
Days of Remembrance is an annual period designated by the United States Congress for civic commemorations and special educational programs to help citizens remember and draw lessons from the Holocaust.
The Living History Regiment, Living History Colorado, Airman Heritage Foundation, Pike’s Peak Library District and the USO teamed up to bring a Holocaust museum to the base that included storyboards, WWII artifacts and much more.
While many objects and artifacts silently stood testament to the atrocities of the Holocaust, Sladek gave them voice.
“My Holocaust started at the age of five,” Sladek said. “Kids at school slowly started to distance themselves from me as their parents gave in to political pressure and threat of violence from the authorities.”
Sladek told of a several years long journey that saw him travel to and from his home in Czechoslovakia to Hungary. He and his family would hide out in basements in friends’ houses and in the mountains with partisans as roundups and persecution happened all around them.
During one of his trips across the border, he was hiding in a hay cart.
“The German soldiers were stabbing their bayonets into the hay, and I could hear the spears going all around me, ‘wssh, wssh, wssh,’ but I was not hit,” Sladek said.
In another near miss, Sladek and his family were hiding in a makeshift cave and could “hear the soldiers talking” and “see their boots as they walked by.”
Many in attendance were struck by Sladek’s story, including Senior Airman Adrian Ordonez, guardsman with the High Frontier Honor Guard.
“The speech Mr. Sladek gave really had the biggest impact as he was there to see the horrors that happened in the past,” Ordonez said. “He also shared that there are slivers of hope and happiness even in those trying times.”
The distinct honor of having a Holocaust survivor present at the event was a key goal for this year’s organizer, 1st Lt. Rachel Rivera, wideband global SATCOM engineer with the 4th Space Operations Squadron.
“Mr. Sladek’s openness and willingness to share presents an opportunity for all of us present to gain a deeper understanding for those who perished but equal opportunity to celebrate those like Mr. Sladek who persevered and survived against almost insurmountable odds,” Rivera said. “It is that same perseverance which is the theme of this year’s observance but also a reminder of why anyone who wears the uniform or serves this great nation should never forget why we serve.”
A video played during the event with George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Ordonez took the words to heart.
“It’s important to remember the events that happened and has reminded us of what prejudice, intolerance, and injustice can do to everyone,” he said. “It reminds us to not repeat what happened in the past. Mr. Sladek stressed the propaganda was so strong from Nazi Germany that even the best of people can turn and do the worst things.”
Sladek and Col. Brian Kehl, commander of the 50th Mission Support Group, concluded the event by releasing 17 white balloons into the sky, each symbolizing 1 million lives lost during the Holocaust.
“This base-wide event aimed to remember and educate the tragedy of the Holocaust with the interactive/educational Holocaust museum featuring WWII reenactors, static displays with WWII weapons, a Holocaust timeline and the presentation by Mr. Sladek,” Rivera said. “I think with the combination of the museum, guest speaker and symbolic balloon release, Schriever accomplished just that.”