The grandfatherly gentleman projected on the screen in the lecture hall at New Milford High School had a story to tell. This was a story he had refused to tell for more than 40 years. The story was too painful. Even his oldest child wasn’t aware of all that he suffered during the Holocaust until she was nearly 18.
Peter Feigl was in Florida but Skype made it possible for him to be seen and heard by students in Colleen Tambuscio’s The Holocaust, Genocide and Human Behavior elective course at NMHS on Jan. 10.
The juniors and seniors enrolled in the class took their seats in the lecture hall, eagerly waiting their turn to ask Feigl their questions. Tambuscio and her students had done a great deal of preparation prior to their Skype session.
“It took us about a week and a half to read Peter's diary, study the documents associated with the diary and view his testimony,” said Tambuscio. “This was all done prior to the Skype conference.”
“Let me thank Mrs. Tambuscio for putting me on Skype,” said Feigl as the session began. “I am so pleased to be talking to you."
Tambuscio asked Feigl why it had taken him so long to tell his story.
“I had to push unpleasant things out of my mind and I suppressed these thoughts for decades, well into my sixties, before I began dredging up the past,” said Feigl.
One of the first times Feigl told his story was for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which were inspired by film director Steven Spielberg’s experience having worked on the movie Schindler’s List. The films document the stories of those who survived the Holocaust.
Feigl also appeared in Weapons of the Spirit, which documented how 5,000 Christians in the Nazi-occupied village of Le Chambon in France sheltered 5,000 Jewish people during World War II. Feigl was hidden by a family there and given false identity papers while in Le Chambon.
Tambuscio’s students had read Feigl’s diaries, which chronicled his experiences hiding from the Nazis and the difficulties he faced being separated from his family. Feigl kept two different diaries during the war one of which was lost for many years and the second he carried with him in his backpack and eventually brought with him to America.
“I expected to see my parents again and I wanted to show them what I did in their absence,” said Feigl. “I dedicated the diary to my parents to show them that I was being a good boy and I truly expected to see them three to four weeks later.” He would never see his parents alive again.
His first diary was taken away from him shortly after arriving in Le Chambon. “A man saw the diary and he said it was dangerous because if it was found a lot of people could be arrested,” Feigl said.
In a weird coincidence, the first diary came back into Feigl’s possession more than 40 years later. A collector of World War II memorabilia had purchased it in a flea market back in 1947 and assumed Feigl was dead. He even published the book in France. Years later Feigl was put in touch with the man who made him pay $265 to get his own diary back.
Tambuscio then interrupted to Feigl to share a thought with her students. “Why would someone hold onto this diary from 1947 -- Why does he hold on to it?” Tambuscio asked. “I want these students to contemplate that.”
The students were particularly interested in the matter of religion. Although Feigl was born to Jewish parents, his family never practiced the religion nor did they have any Judaica in their home. As the threat of the Nazis grew, Feigl’s father had him baptized as a Catholic and Feigl was an ardent practitioner of the religion for decades to come.
One student, Melissa, asked Feigl, ”Do you consider yourself Jewish or Catholic?”
“I am still trying to find the answers to the questions of God and religion,” Feigl replied. “Up until the 1970s I was a Catholic – I kept the pretention up until my oldest daughter was 17 or 18 and I told her my story.”
Feigl told students how he and his wife belong to a support group of children who were hidden during the war.
“We relate to each other having lived through a similar experience and those people understand why I would hide being Jewish,” said Feigl. “As part of the curriculum in our schools we were told how bad Jews were – that they were vermin and as a seven-year-old how many of you would say that you were proud to be a Jew?”
The room was quiet then as the students instantly related to the idea of not wanting to identify with something that would have labeled them so negatively with their peers.
Another student, Jeremy asked, “Do you think after all that you have been through that it has made you a better person?”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said Feigl. “It definitely caused a lot of problems in my teen years -- I came here when I was 17 and a half and I was like a fish out of water.”
Feigl talked about trying to date in post-war America after his experiences, which included the loss of his parents and other family members.
“I went on a date and took her to Central Park and she wanted to ride the merry go round and eat cotton candy,” said Feigl. “I wasn’t able to relate I didn’t understand why she would want to do that stuff.”
Students nodded with understanding as Feigl said he and the girl broke up soon after that date. Tambuscio works hard for her students to understand what it was like for victims of the Holocaust and other genocides and how in some ways they are not much different from them.
Tambuscio will once again be traveling this spring with 11 students on a Holocaust study tour to sites in Europe related to the Holocaust.
“The students apply for acceptance into the program through a process which asks them to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject matter, interest and how they will translate this experience upon return,” said Feigl. “The program is generously funded by donors and the students pay a portion of the overall cost.
The tour, like the Skype session, gives her students the hands on experience, which Tambuscio hopes will make her students fight against genocide and hate in society.
As Tambuscio said in an interview with the Global Post during last year’s trip, “I hope they take away a better understanding of the history but more importantly I hope they take away a sense of responsibility for heeding the warnings of genocide in our society; and not only in America but around the world.”