Gans was 15 years old in 1943 when his family, in hiding, was arrested by the Nazis.
"You're becoming a witness to a witness, because your children will never have a chance to speak with a Holocaust survivor," Phil Gans told an audience at Buena Vista University. Out of 21 members of his father's side of the family who entered the Nazi concentration camps, Gans (numbered prisoner 139755) was the only one to survive the war.
Gans talked to students at BVU and area schools the week of Oct. 19 about his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz III and Flossenburg. Then a citizen of the Netherlands of Jewish heritage, he spent 21 months in the concentration camps from 1943 to 1945 following the country's occupation by Nazi Germany. Gans' visit to northwest Iowa was part of BVU's year of Holocaust Studies.
"It's only the last ten years I really started talking about it," says Gans. "I worked at an oil refinery for 25 years and nobody knew I was a Holocaust survivor. It's very emotional, but the letters I get help me through. I do not get paid for these presentations. I tell the students I talk to - write a letter about what you thought of the presentation, and that's enough for me."
BVU's year of Holocaust Studies is a special emphasis of academic courses and visiting speakers. Among the program's offerings are classes on the history of the Holocaust, films about the Holocaust, and plays about the Holocaust. On Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. in Room 126 of the Estelle Siebens Science Center, Gideon Frieder - currently the A. James Clark Professor of Engineering at The George Washington University - will speak on campus about his life and experiences in hiding during World War II. In January, students and professors will take an academic trip to visit Holocaust-related sites in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Israel.
"One of the most lasting impressions that students get is to meet a Holocaust survivor," says Dr. Peter Steinfeld, professor of philosophy and religion. "For students to hear the stories and to witness the tattoos on survivors' arms makes a lasting impression about the reality of the extermination camps."
"When I talk to school kids, I say ‘when you go home tonight, go to the dictionary and cross out the word hate'," Gans said to his audience at BVU. Later in the evening, he read a letter from a Sioux City student who had done exactly that. "What I tell people is don't give up hope. Don't be a bystander, especially this day and age with so many kids being bullied. Fight for your freedom."
The Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 until the end of the war. Gans was 15 years old in 1943 when his family, in hiding, was arrested by the Nazis. "When Germany invaded Poland, I remember my grandmother saying, ‘this is far from my bed'," says Gans. "It wasn't long after that that we were invaded. The war in Holland was only five days. You talk about war, you talk about fighting. In a place like Afghanistan, it lasts years and years. We didn't have a lot of that; we surrendered."
"When the Germans took over, they put laws into effect little by little," continues Gans, who says he did not feel discriminated against in his home country until the occupation. "Within a year Jews were prohibited to go to public places like beaches, cinemas, and libraries. Different days you would find out what foods had been rationed. One day it might be bread, one day it might be meat. In order to buy a new tube of toothpaste you had to turn in the old one, because the Germans needed the lead the tubes were made of."
Prior to the occupation, Gans' family ran a business out of their three-storey home making ladies' fashion wear. In the summer of 1942, the Gans family went into hiding in separate locations. Gans hid in the north of the country on a farm. "There I had freedom," says Gans. "I helped out the farmer who grew potatoes. I took classes through a teacher by mail who I later found out it was my brother. After that, I said to heck with it and never did the homework again."
After hiding in several other locations, Gans' family - his parents, older brother and sister, and grandmother - reunited and lived under false identities. On July 24, 1943, the night of Gans' father's birthday, the family was arrested. "The Nazis came and took us to the police station," says Gans. "They wanted to know where we got the ration cards. Of course, we weren't registered, because we were hiding. We had to buy our ration cards on the black market."
On arrival at Auschwitz, Gans' mother and sister were immediately executed in the gas chambers. His brother, ill from blood poisoning, was sent to the gas chambers in 1944. His father died in April 1945. Gans spent most of his time in the labor camp Auschwitz III, also known as Monowitz.
"One night we had to take a shower," says Gans. "There was no hot water and it was cold outside. Here's a bunch of guys standing naked and no one wanted to go in. What did the Nazis do? They took a fire hose and hosed us down like dominos. There was no respect for human life."
"What was your motivation for surviving?" asked a BVU student when Gans spoke at a class on the history of the Holocaust taught by Dr. Dixee Bartholomew Feis, professor of history.
"Well, do you want to die?" said Gans.
"No," replied the student.
"Neither did I," said Gans to the class, which laughed. "A student asked me once, did you ever try to escape? Heck no. How could I escape with no hair, a prison uniform, and the fact that I didn't speak Polish?"
"The main topics of conversation at the camps were always ‘how do we get out of here,' and food - we were always hungry," says Gans. "Of course, I was 15 years old. In Europe at that time, at that age, you didn't speak unless you're spoken to. Sixty-five years later, today's youth are much more informed - I won't say smarter - than we were at age 15. I remember talking to my dad, and he said on certain things, ‘we'll talk about it when we get home.' I never figured I was going to die, even though people died around us all the time."
"I'm still hoping to collect a million dollars out of the lottery," joked Gans on his optimism, which prompted more laughter from the class.
"I think jokes are good, when I tell my story," says Gans. "This one woman I listened to tell about the Holocaust - she was never in a concentration camp, but it was all so morbid. If you can imagine the camps as ten times worse than what I'm telling you will still - even then - not understand them. But if when someone speak it's all bad, bad, bad, bad, the kids don't want to listen."
In 1945, closer to the end of the war, as the Americans advanced from the west and the Russians from the east, Gans was moved by the Nazis through several camps. Gans was liberated by the Americans while on a death march from Flossenburg, located in the Bavaria region of Germany.
"What was the first thing you wanted to do after you were freed?" asked another student in Bartholomew-Feis' class.
"Eat," said Gans. "We walked straight into a church, and they fed us. I thought it was cake, but a piece of white bread tasted like cake to me. The American army gave us their rations, but they were too rich for our bodies. A lot of people died of dysentery."
"When you speak German, does that bring back memories?" asked a student.
"I have so many presentations, I live with it practically every day," replied Gans, who estimates he has told his story to 50,000 students across the country.
Having picked up the German language in the camps and some English from the American soldiers, Gans worked five months after liberation as a translator for the American army. Following that, he briefly returned to the Netherlands, where he learned through a stash of postcards and telegrams saved during the war that his mother's sister was safe in Aruba. Gans subsequently went to work for her. "My aunt had a retail store," says Gans. "You name it, they sold it. Even if you needed a dentist, they got you a dentist."
Gans' aunt herself would save many of the photographs and materials that Gans uses in his presentations. She died in 1999.
Gans immigrated to America in 1950. After several forays into business, he worked for 25 years as an operator at an oil refinery, retiring in 1986. Gans has spoken annually the last five years in the Sioux City area at events sponsored by the Gerald L Weiner and Kathleen A Weiner Foundation.