Paul Galan has vivid memories.
He remembers the numerous beatings he took in school because Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler were determined to wipe out Jews. He remembers Jewish stores being looted. He remembers Jewish families being kicked out of their homes, often put on trains bound to concentration camps.
Galan, 87, who came to the United States in 1951, was born in Czechoslovakia. He is a Holocaust survivor.
“I have vivid memories of the whole experience: The separation, the family, some really horrible experiences,” Galan said. “I just had to deal with it. I dealt with it as an adult, not as a child, and put it all into perspective.”
Today, Galan travels extensively to give pro bono presentations about antisemitism and what his family went through before somehow trickling back to their home, one by one, as World War II wound down.
Galan has been giving talks since 2006, when he retired from a career of making documentary films. He’s traveled across the U.S. — even as far as Alaska — to deliver his message.
“I’ve traveled with students to Poland and Israel six times,” Galan said.
One such talk took place on April 19 at Denver’s RedLine Contemporary Art Center. Galan spoke in front of about 170 people, a mix of students and community members.
Galan’s talk was part of the 42nd annual Governor’s Holocaust Remembrance program. The Anti-Defamation League served as program convener, its 42nd year in that role.
Amer Randell, who teaches a Holocaust history class at RiseUp Community High School, helped arrange Galan’s talk in Denver.
“As a history teacher for more than two decades, there is nothing that can parallel learning from a primary source, especially from a person who lived this horrific era in our history,” Randall said. “I hope it gave (the students) a greater sense of empathy for something that happened to a fellow human being — feeling ‘othered,’ the feeling of extreme fear and cruelty — juxtaposed with his belief that all people can be good or bad, not to hate.”
Galan told about going to a forced labor camp, and waking up one morning to the news that the camp had been liberated. He described the long journey he and his family took, on foot, into the mountains in unstable weather in attempts to escape the Nazis.
There were times when Galan’s family, desperate for a good night’s sleep and a long way from home, wound up sleeping in the same room as German soldiers who didn’t suspect that they were Jews. Somehow, they got through those times undetected.
He recalled that when his family received permission to change their last name so that they wouldn’t be suspected to be Jewish, his antisemitic teacher announced the name change in class, then turned around and stayed that way while several students beat up Galan.
“I spent my whole life recalling terrible things,” Galan said. “But I put it into perspective, with the rest of my life, that I wanted to do something useful. I decided I was going to teach young people.”
And the reactions he gets from young people, he said, “are just amazing.”