On April 30, 1981, two years after Congress declared April 28 and 29 to be the Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, Halina Wind Preston, a Holocaust survivor, was interviewed by Elma Andrews of WHYY-TV in Delaware.
They were at the Holocaust monument in Freedom Plaza in downtown Wilmington, where two years earlier Wind Preston had addressed a crowd of 150 people at the monument’s dedication.
During a news report, Andrews asked Wind Preston if the Shoah could happen again. Her answer, according to her son, David Lee Preston, was “chilling.”
“Absolutely,” she said.
“And what we are afraid about (is) that while there is still the blueprint for the old genocide, someone might very well use it and plan a second genocide,” she added.
“And, as I mentioned, the victims may be just about anybody,” the survivor concluded.
Wind Preston died the year after that interview. But her warning continues to motivate her son today.
David Lee Preston, a Philadelphia resident and B’nai Abraham Chabad member, spent his career at The Philadelphia Inquirer, CNN.com and other news outlets, writing and editing the first draft of history. But it is his personal story that has led to perhaps his best and most important work.
He wrote three cover stories for the Inquirer’s Sunday Magazine about his parents’ Holocaust experiences. His father, George Preston, was also a survivor, of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And Preston continues to organize a lecture series, The Halina Wind Preston Memorial Lecture on the Holocaust, which adds other Holocaust experiences to our historical memory.
The next lecture will be the first one in five years and take place on Nov. 13 at the Siegel JCC in Wilmington. Brothers David and Oscar Speace will discuss their book and play, respectively, on their mother Janka Festinger Speace’s survival story. Festinger Speace survived Auschwitz and married an American GI, Robert Speace, “whom she met in postwar Germany,” according to an event poster.
Festinger Speace did not go into detail about her story to her sons. But in 1998 after she died, Oscar Speace found a 60-page letter she had sent “from Germany to an uncle in Cleveland,” the poster added. It was all in there. The letter inspired David Speace’s book, “Janka Festinger’s Moments of Happiness: Her Holocaust Letter and More.” The book is self-published, but Preston wants to illuminate it anyway.
“It resonated with me because they only learned the full story when they got hold of a letter she had written to an uncle in Cleveland letting him know that she survived and the whole rest of the family did not,” the journalist said.
The brothers’ experience was similar to one that Preston had in recent years, too. In 2015, he was cleaning out his childhood home when he discovered four notebooks that his mother filled when she was hiding in the sewers of Lviv, a city in Ukraine, for 14 months between 1943 and ’44.
Preston had the diary translated by a Polish-American who lives in Elkins Park, and he learned “a number of things I hadn’t learned before,” he said. The notebooks revealed “intimate details” of how “10 Jews who were strangers to her before she found herself in the sewer interacted with each other under the most horrific conditions imaginable.”
Somehow, Preston said, they found a way to have “a day-to-day existence.”
Each person had different responsibilities, according to the son. They also found ways to entertain each other. And they especially looked forward to visits from the Polish Catholic sewer workers who brought them food.
Halina Wind Preston started speaking about her experience in 1949. She was one of the first survivors to do so, according to her son.
“All these years later, we’re still able to find artifacts of this type that illuminate what happened,” Preston said. “And they illuminate what could still happen.”
More recently, Preston found a letter his father wrote to an uncle in Boston. It was sent four months after George Preston’s liberation from Buchenwald, and it detailed one experience in particular. A man the father considered his best friend was killed right in front of him.
Unlike his wife, George Preston was reticent about his Holocaust story, but he started doing events after her death. Yet he never spoke about losing the man he called his best friend. Preston had never heard that man’s name until he read the letter.
“That underscores why it’s essential to preserve these materials,” the son said.
To learn about Preston’s work, visit his website at davidleepreston.com and subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. JE