‘I celebrate my life because I survived’: Osi Sladek’s story

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Oscar “Osi” Sladek, a Holocaust survivor, speaks in the Lory Student Center March 2. (Photo courtesy of John Eisele | Colorado State University Photography)

Serena Bettis, Content Managing Editor

Last week, the Students for Holocaust Awareness hosted a Holocaust survivor at Colorado State University for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Oscar “Osi” Sladek, who currently lives in Denver, visited campus on March 2 to share his story during CSU’s 24th Holocaust Awareness Week. The Collegian had a chance to speak with Sladek before the event and talk with him about what it means to share his story, especially in 2022. For those who missed the event, read on to learn about Sladek and his message of survival. 

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Born in March 1935 to a Jewish family in Prešov, Czechoslovakia — which is now the Slovak Republic — Sladek was 7 years old when life started to change. 

He said many times that the Holocaust did not happen overnight. First, Sladek could no longer attend school. Then, Jews had to wear yellow stars on their clothing every time they left their home, and in 1942, “roundups” of Jewish people began, Sladek said.

“Slowly but surely, they stripped us of everything. … Before we knew it, we were like people without any security,” Sladek told Rocky Mountain PBS in January. 

As the roundups reached Slovakia, Sladek said his parents grew increasingly worried and found many ways to hide from the Nazis. For a while, his father asked a friend in a Christian family to help them hide during the roundups. Sladek’s parents then paid for him to be smuggled to Hungary, where he lived with his aunt’s family for a year. As Hungary became occupied by the Nazis in March 1944, Sladek was smuggled back to his parents.

“They’re asking you to remember, but at the same time they’re asking you to be a part of a narrative that can create a kinder world that will never allow for something to happen like that again.” –Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik

Together as a family, Sladek and his parents purchased forged birth certificates that allowed them to travel further into the country (Prešov is in the northeast) near the Tatra Mountains. They found another Jewish family hiding in a cabin and stayed with them until Christmas Day, 1944, when Nazis raided the mountains. 

Sladek’s family fled the cabin and found a cave in the mountains, where they hid until the Nazis passed. Sladek told Rocky Mountain PBS that the Nazis were so close to them, he could see them, but the Nazis did not see the cave. When his family returned to the cabin, they found it destroyed; the other family was taken to a concentration camp, Sladek said.

When speaking with The Collegian, Sladek talked about how he is one of the youngest people to survive the Holocaust, but he did not start talking about it until much later. 

“One and a half million children were murdered in the Holocaust,” Sladek said. “The ones that were murdered at the beginning were the ones who were under 12 years old. … I was not in a camp. That’s why I can sit here and tell you this story.” 

“So when I talk, … I’m going to be in the company of my little cousins who had to die because they were Jewish.” –Osi Sladek, Holocaust survivor

Sladek said that for a long time he did not speak about the Holocaust because he moved to Israel from Europe, and there they did not like talking about it. It was not until he moved to the United States and went to see a movie portraying a young boy — around the same age he had been — trying to survive the Holocaust that he realized it was something he needed to do. 

“It affected me so much that I walked out of the movie, and I promised myself that I’m going to have to start talking about it,” Sladek said. 

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In a previous interview with The Collegian about Holocaust Awareness Week, faculty advisor for the Chabad Jewish Student Organization, director of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center of Northern Colorado and CSU philosophy instructor Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik said the main goal of Holocaust Awareness Week is to focus on messages of hope and resiliency.

“(Every) survivor we’ve ever brought has always been full of joy and with that message,” Gorelik said. “And I think that’s why they’ve made it their life message to share. They’re asking you to remember, but at the same time they’re asking you to be a part of a narrative that can create a kinder world that will never allow for something to happen like that again.”

Speaking more about how their citizenship and rights were taken away during the Holocaust, Sladek said it was very well organized, and it was not like people were suddenly on the streets fighting each other. He reiterated that it was a slow process.

“Physiologically, (the Nazis) were very smart doing it that way because if they would have done it fast and at the same time, maybe the Jewish people would’ve found a way to stand up and fight back,” Sladek said. “But this way, they always had hope.”

Although Sladek and his parents survived the Holocaust outside of a concentration camp, many of their extended family died.

“I lost 11 cousins; they were all taken away to camps, they all were murdered by the Nazis,” Sladek said. “So when I talk, … I’m going to be in the company of my little cousins who had to die because they were Jewish. … My whole life I’ve been missing these cousins, and I have this pain in me, and so I have to talk.”

Ultimately, Sladek looks at himself as “a very fortunate kind of a person.” 

“I’m very open with what I talk about, and I bring the truth to people,” Sladek said. “I have nothing to hide. I celebrate my life because I survived.”

Holocaust Awareness Week was presented by Students for Holocaust Awareness and co-sponsored by the Chabad Jewish Student Organization, Hillel of Colorado, Colorado State University, the Associated Students of CSU, the Lory Student Center, the Residence Hall Association, the Office of International Programs, Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi and Alpha Epsilon Pi.

Reach Serena Bettis at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @serenaroseb.