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Holocaust Survivor’s Story to be Shared in Duquesne University Documentary

As 83-year-old Holocaust survivor Howard Chandler returned to his hometown in Poland and visited the concentration camps where he was imprisoned during World War II, a Jewish student and her Catholic professor from Duquesne University captured the story. 

Jessica Blank, a senior digital media arts major, and Dr. Dennis Woytek, assistant professor of journalism and multimedia arts, traveled this summer with Classrooms Without Borders Pittsburgh, a non-profit that connects teachers to multicultural experiences to create a global learning community.

“Our goal as a documentary film crew was to record the events, the experiences of the group and to record Howard Chandler as he again walked in his footsteps that brought so much sadness more than 67 years ago,” Woytek said.

Chandler was only 14 when he was forced into slave labor by the Nazi regime after the Nazis invaded Poland. He was later sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a concentration camp where nearly 3 million people lost their lives.

“I am fascinated by this guy’s courage,” Woytek said. “He and his brother were the only two in the family who survived. To stand in the barracks where he was imprisoned at Birkenau and watch him describing the scene and his experiences was so chilling. It was like we were transported back to 1944.”

For Blank, the experience deepened her resolve to preserve Holocaust experiences of the survivors and tell of the personal courage involved in such a dark time in history for generations to come—even as old age and death claim many of the Holocaust survivors.

“My first impression of Howard is he’s the perfect grandfather that everybody wants,” Blank said. “He’s a very, very awesome man. I can’t even imagine what it took for him to walk through Auschwitz-Birkenau. I couldn’t imagine it not being hard for him. But you couldn’t tell.

“One of the participants on the trip told me she was having trouble getting herself to walk into a gas chamber that they had opened so we could see it. Howard turned to her and said, ‘Well, are you coming in?’

“It was phenomenal to see someone with that much strength.”

Blank, whose family belongs to the Beth El Temple in Harrisburg, feels that as more Holocaust survivors are dying, recording their thoughts and experiences grows all the more critical.

“I’m the third generation from the Holocaust, and more and more Holocaust survivors are dying every day,” Blank said. “As long as they are willing to tell their stories, the more testimony we have, the more light we can bring as a community—not just as a Jewish community. Prejudice is based on general consensus. People need to have a voice, a voice that is educated about diversity, and one way to teach that is to teach it through the Holocaust.

“There’s more to the Holocaust than the Jews dying: homosexuals, those with disabilities, people who didn’t agree with the politics at the time. Telling this story brings a light. This is what happened when people stood by, and that’s what’s happening now,” Blank continued, tying history to current events of genocide and bigotry. “The important thing is to make people realize if you do nothing, it will escalate, just like it did with the Holocaust.”

Plans are to produce a video to share with teachers through Classrooms Without Borders Pittsburgh plus a feature-length documentary relating Chandler’s survivor story, including a chance meeting in a Polish town square with a friend who he hadn’t seen since 1941.

In the process, Woytek and Blank will edit more than 4,600 still photos and 26 hours of video footage to provide this first-hand information on the Holocaust, the mood of the era and context of Poland, its culture and its people.

In addition to Woytek and Blank, the group of 40 educators and students also included Duquesne professors Dr. Marie Baird of Point Breeze, associate professor of theology, and Dr. Mark Frisch of Squirrel Hill, associate professor of modern languages.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.