Holocaust survivor Charles Rotmil speaks to teenagers in Augusta about his experience living in Nazi-run Austria as a child in 2018. Credit: Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

Charles Rotmil knew he was being targeted for being Jewish. But he didn’t know why.

“I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me, that I had to hide,” Rotmil, 89, of Portland said. “I was too young to know that.”

Rotmil, who was made a refugee by Nazi persecution of Jews and survived the war by living with Christian families in Belgium, is one of Maine’s few remaining Holocaust survivors. For years he spoke in schools across the state about his experiences, hoping education could help prevent such an atrocity from happening again.

“I don’t live in the past,” Rotmil said. “The past lives in me.”

Amid a nationwide debate about Holocaust education, spurred by the suspension of Whoopi Goldberg from “The View” due to comments many Jewish leaders called insensitive, Rotmil and other survivors are among the most vital sources to understand the Holocaust. That debate also comes amid a significant uptick nationwide in violence against Jewish people.

There is “tremendous ignorance,” among young Americans in understanding the Holocaust, said Abraham Peck, a history professor at the University of Southern Maine who teaches courses on genocide.

A 2020 study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, a New York-based organization that seeks compensation for Holocaust victims, found significant gaps in Holocaust education among young people, including nearly two-thirds of Americans not knowing that six million Jews died in the Holocaust.

Recent notable violence against Jewish people includes the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 that killed 11 and a lengthy hostage crisis at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, last month. Assailants in both attacks were motivated by anti-Semitism.

“You can’t help but be concerned,” Peck said. “It’s elevated from simply leaflets saying Jews are the enemy … to them actually physically being killed.”

While Maine has seen no such violence, it is no stranger to anti-Semitic or far-right extremist attitudes. Peck, who wrote a book on Maine’s Jewish history, said some clubs and resorts in the state barred Jews as late as the 1970s.

Maine ranked fairly high on Holocaust education in the 2020 survey compared with other states, but didn’t mandate Holocaust education in schools statewide until last year. The Portland area has seen anti-Semitic harrassment, vandalism and advocacy in just the past few years, including the dissemination of neo-Nazi propaganda.

Goldberg’s comments that “the Holocaust isn’t about race” came from a lack of understanding about the Holocaust, Peck said. But her beliefs appeared to result from the historical trauma of being Black in the United States, he said.

He noted that he had worked with Holocaust survivors in the past who had trouble understanding other genocides because they were “overwhelmed” by the horrors put upon European Jews.  

“In a sense, she only understands the trauma that she’s gone through,” Peck said.

Rotmil had only just turned 6 years old when his family, living in Vienna at the time, were victims of the anti-Jewish pogroms of Kristallnacht in 1938. His father was beaten and arrested by Nazi troops but he and his family were able to leave for Belgium once he was released.

Rotmil’s family was again forced to leave their home after the Nazi invasion of Belgium in May 1940. They fled to France, but his mother and sister died in a train crash during the journey after reaching French borders.

His father was deported from Belgium to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943, where he quickly perished. Rotmil spent the rest of the war sheltered by Christian families, including the Luyckx family, with the help of Henri Reynders, a Catholic priest credited with saving 400 Jews.

“I acted as a Christian,” Rotmil said. “I even became an altar boy.”

Rotmil said that Goldberg’s comments hurt a lot of Jewish people in the United States, including other Holocaust survivors.

But the Black experience of slavery and the Holocaust were very different phenemonons, and Jews are not a race like Black people are, he said.

“I can understand the view that she doesn’t want the Jewish Holocaust to be compared to what happened with slavery,” Rotmil said. “Different ballpark: they both were tormented, both were unjustly attacked. But you can’t see the Jews as a race.”

Though Rotmil worries about the rise of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism nationwide, he also said he was optimistic that future generations will not forget about the tragic events, even after all its last survivors have passed.

Nearly eight decades later, he says he tries not only to remember the adverse times during the war, but the kindness that saved his life.

“I have a lot of good memories, too. The Christians who saved me were very good people. They risked their lives and the lives of their children,” Rotmil said. “I’m forever grateful.”