People & Places

Escaping Holocaust inspired a life of activism for speaker appearing in Cedar Rapids

Children wave goodbye in a recreated scene from “Nicky’s Family,” a documentary about Nicholas Winton’s efforts to save Jewish children by ferrying them to the United Kingdom.
Children wave goodbye in a recreated scene from “Nicky’s Family,” a documentary about Nicholas Winton’s efforts to save Jewish children by ferrying them to the United Kingdom.
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It can’t happen here.

That’s what everyone thinks before their country descends into war. It’s what everyone thinks until their neighbors are being rounded up, branded, killed. It’s what everyone thinks until formerly peaceful citizens begin perpetuating atrocities against each other.

Ivan Backer knows this all too well. In his book, “My Train to Freedom: A Jewish Boy’s Journey from Nazi Europe to a Life of Activism,” he describes an idyllic childhood in Czechoslovakia, where he lived in Prague with his parents and older brother, Frank. Born in 1929, his memories include the Czech language lessons his mother taught to German speakers, his father napping in the living room after a big lunch of soup and dumplings and taking the train for country vacations with his grandparents, where he went sledding and pet bunnies at the market.

He was a fourth-grader, walking to school on March 15, 1939, when armored trucks with black swastikas rolled down the streets. Czechoslovakia had fallen, and the lives of all Jewish people there were at risk.

Now 88 years old and living in Hartsford, Conn., Backer will visit Cedar Rapids Wednesday to share his story at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. He said speaking out is more important than ever today when neo-Nazis boldly march in the streets again.

“What happened in Charlottesville was just shocking,” he said. “And to not condemn it was just awful.”

He was referring to President Donald Trump’s remarks that there was “blame on both sides” for violence in Charlottesville, where activist Heather Heyer was killed when a car plowed through a crowd protesting a white supremacist rally in August.

“I’m afraid it could happen again. And that’s why we must all be so vigilant, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We must speak up,” Backer said. “People in Germany in the 1930s also couldn’t believe it was happening, but it did.”

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The grandparents he visited in the country as a child were later sent to Terezin concentration camp. Other members of his extended family also were rounded up, and many were murdered.

His mother, Alice, meanwhile, acted with great foresight and managed to shepherd her immediate family, one by one, to safety out of the country. His father, Benno, left first on a prearranged business trip; Alice insisted he take extra clothes and then insisted he not return. His older brother Frank had already been accepted at Margate College in England, but suddenly leaving Czechoslovakia had become much more difficult. Alice brought him food as he waited in line for 24 hours at the Gestapo office to get his passport stamped. She also later narrowly escaped to the United Kingdom with a work permit.

Before that, however, she found a way for Ivan to get out. In May 1939, he left Czechoslovakia on a Kindertransport train organized by British businessman Nicholas Winton. Winton was later credited with saving 669 Jewish children by arranging transport for them to the United Kingdom, where they were placed in English homes.

“The journey itself was a big adventure, and I wasn’t really afraid. I didn’t realize until later what an upheaval it was on my life,” Backer said.

Though his father was already in England, he lived in a one-room flat, so Ivan stayed with a British family, the Millers, who knew his brother Frank. Later, when the British government evacuated all children from London to escape the Blitzkrieg, another family took him in. The train of children out of London dropped a group of about 10 off in North Hampton, and the adult with them knocked on doors until she had found a home for every child.

“She would say, these are children from London, how many can you take? And they took them,” Backer said. “That summarizes the spirit of the British people. They just responded incredibly.”

Backer said those British families, and the knowledge of how they saved him, influenced the rest of his life. After attending a Christian school, he converted to Christianity and later, after immigrating to the United States in 1944 with his parents, became an Episcopalian priest. During the 1960s, he became active in the Civil Rights movement and protested the Vietnam War. It’s work he wants the next generation to continue.

“Looking back, its amazing to me how what we thought were permanent gains in the 1960s and the 1970s have been eroded so much already and continually need to be defended,” he said.

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He said he doesn’t like to call himself a Holocaust survivor, yet his experiences deeply impacted him.

“I didn’t suffer, I didn’t go to a concentration camp, I escaped all that. Other than knowing many of my relatives perished, I wasn’t really scarred. But the way it affected my life is very, very significant,” he said. “At every turn, when I thought about my career or a job change, I asked myself, why was I saved? Why was I spared during the war? In the end it motivated me to work for peace and justice.”

That’s also what motivated him to write the book, and to speak out and share his story.

“People must understand and remain cognizant of what happened, especially young people ... They can’t take anything for granted,” he said. “We must understand history, because we keep making the same mistakes over and over again,” he said. “And hopefully people understand that you can’t take for granted that history won’t repeat itself.”

If you go

• What: My Train To Freedom: A Jewish Boy’s Journey from Nazi Europe to a Life of Activism

• When: 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday (9/27)

• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids

• Cost: Free

• RSVP required: (319) 362-8500, ncsml.org/event/train-freedom-jewish-boys-journey-nazi-europe-life-activism

l Comments: (319) 398-8434; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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