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Holocaust survivor shares his experience

By Staff | Mar 2, 2016

Artist Myra Roberts shared a slideshow of her different works of art during the presentation. MEGHAN MCCOY

An afternoon was spent educating those in attendance about the Holocaust Wednesday at BIG ARTS Herb Strauss Theater by survivor Steen Metz and Myra Roberts.

Roberts said she has dedicated her life to social commentary art, educational art that is used as a teaching tool, to raise the consciousness through art. She said she has decided to make it a goal for the rest of her life to go to universities and schools and teach all ages through her art.

“I myself like to bury my head in the sand after interviewing hundreds of Holocaust survivors and reading hundreds of books about the Holocaust. As a Jewish woman, I feel that it is important for me to know the truth and know the details and talk about it. Also, paint it. Use my talent to send a message that will last forever,” she said.

Roberts began her journey with Anne Frank, completing 40 portraits of her in five years. She then started a series, which she is still working on, called “Angels on Earth.” Roberts interviews survivors and does portraits of them that explains their life during the Holocaust.

During her presentation she also talked about her paintings “Hidden in Trees,” using ink transfers by hand directly into the trees, again depicting scenes of the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivor Steen Metz shared his personal experience. MEGHAN MCCOY

After her presentation, Roberts introduced Metz, one of her “Angels on Earth,” who is a Holocaust survivor.

Metz began by sharing this was the second year in a row he provided a presentation at BIG ARTS before a sold out crowd.

“It indicates the kind of interest people have in the Holocaust,” he said about his passion of talking to more than 210 groups.

Metz began by sharing his personal experience of the Holocaust.

“April 9, 1940, even though I was only 5 years old, I’ll never forget it. The Germans invaded Denmark from the south,” he said. “Denmark was occupied for the next five years.”

Metz said for the first three and a half years there was “relative normal” compared to what took place in other occupied countries. He said the conditions were different because at that time there was only 7,500 Jewish people in Denmark out of the total population of 4.5 million people. Metz said Hitler spent his resources in other areas, rather than Denmark.

In the fall of 1943, the young people, mostly men and a few women, initiated an underground movement and starting sabotaging train tracks and sinking Danish ships. In other words, they tried to make it as difficult for the Germans in Denmark as possible and it became more and more difficult for the Germans to continue.

“As a result, the Danish government had resigned and the Danish administration took over,” Metz said, which turned into the roundup of Danish people and the Danish Jews. “Around 95 percent of the Danish Jews, or around 7,000 managed to escape to Sweden, just east of Copenhagen. The effort of the Danish people was absolutely amazing. In Denmark they would stand up.”

Since Metz was born in Odense, Denmark, the middle of the country, communication was quite different in those days, resulting in his family not being warned giving them the ability to escape to Sweden.

“On the morning of Oct. 2, very early, two police officers came pounding on our door. We lived in an apartment on the third floor. My father answered the door and at that time I was 8 years old. I knew what was going on. I would bicycle to school every day. I would see the soldiers with the ugly green uniforms standing in the street, on motorcycle. I knew what was going on, but I couldn’t understand why did they come to our apartment. Why didn’t they go next door? Why didn’t they go below? I didn’t know I was Jewish. Both of my parents were Jewish. My father was brought up in the Jewish faith, but my mother was not.”

Metz, his mother and father had 30 minutes to get ready. While they were packing the baker downstairs gave them a big sack of pastries and bread. They were transported in a wagon, into town, assembled in the school yard with 60 other people.

Later on they were transported to the western coast of Denmark and herded into a boxcar, where they spent three days and nights.

“It was dirty, completely dark. There was no benches, no chair, no way to lie down or sit, no food. We didn’t get anything to drink. I was frightened. The atmosphere was very tense. There was no bathroom facilities. We had to use buckets in the corner,” Metz said.

Since he was young he had the chance to lie down with a few of the other younger boys and girls, but the adults had to alternate standing and sitting for 84 hours.

“We made one stop and got some fresh air and some water to drink,” Metz said, adding that they finally made a stop about 550 miles away. “As soon as we arrived they confiscated all of our valuables.”

He and his family ended up at Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in what was called Czechoslovakia. There were 472 Danish Jews at the camp. The father went to a different area of the camp and Metz and his mother went to another.

“We spent 18 months in the camp,” Metz said. “Those were the longest 18 months that I have ever experienced.”

They slept in wooden bunk beds on straw mattresses where there was bed bugs, lice and flees.

His father, an attorney, used to working in the office, was exposed to some very heavy construction work. Metz said his father was physically abused and an officer took away his coat during the cold months of winter.

“He lost about 50 percent of his body weight. He was transferred to the infirmary. They didn’t have the supplies and medical instruments to save his life. At the young age of 40 years he passed away,” he said. “He died of manic depression, starvation. The Germans no way were going to put on the birth certificate that he died of starvation. They put that he died of pneumonia.”

Although his mother was not physically abused, she was mentally abused. His mother worked at a factory and had to meet certain quotas working long hours.

Metz was a messenger while at the camp taking documents from one office to another for a couple hours in the morning and afternoon. While he passed the cafeteria he would sneak in and take raw potatoes, putting one in each pocket.

“It was a way of making it to the next day,” Metz said. “Fortunately after six months we started getting packages from family and friends in Denmark and Sweden. The packages consisted of food, vitamins and clothing. In many cases, the guards, the Germans, the Natzis, helped themselves. I do remember one day we got a very heavy parcel and my mom was unpacking it and couldn’t understand why it was so heavy, until she opened it. Those Germans had replaced all the food with three bricks.”

Happy times found its way into the concentration camp on April 15, 1945 when the Danish Jews were liberated. Out of 472 inmates, 423 had survived at the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp.

“We were liberated by the well-known white buses from Sweden,” Metz said of the neutral country throughout the war.

They arrived in Denmark with an incredible welcome. His mother went to work and Metz went back to school. He became a United States citizen in 1962.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.