By Karen Billing
The physical scars from Horst Cahn’s three years spent surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust remain visible, all these years later.
A scar runs across his calf where a German soldier shot him. There’s a scar behind his ear where he was struck by the butt of a rifle, and there are his prisoner numbers, a faded tattoo on his forearm.
Cahn, 88, doesn’t need the scars to help remember the horrors he faced in the camp but he uses his story of survival to share with others, to ensure that no one ever forgets.
“It’s important for you to remember about the Holocaust because I don’t want you to experience what I did,” Cahn told a standing-room only audience at Canyon Crest Academy recently. “I want to protect you from the evil I went through.”
Cahn was one of several guest speakers during CCA’s No Place For Hate Week, held Feb. 10-13. The event was presented by the school’s SLATE Club, Students Learning Acceptance Through Education. The week is in its third year, in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, and included speakers on topics such as civil rights and diversity.
Cahn’s viewpoint on hatred fit right in with the message the week intended to share.
“I don’t like anybody to use the word ‘hate’…Eliminate that word,” Cahn said.
He said that whenever the words “I hate” are used, it stirs up an angry attitude. If people can say, “I don’t like” instead, he said at least the words form a smile on your lips.
Cahn took to the stage at Canyon Crest with a suitcase that he said was full of stories and welcomed questions about what he went through.
Cahn was 16 when he was brought to Auschwitz with his parents. His sister had already been killed. His parents were sent to the gas chambers right away. It was devastating but, in a way, Cahn said he was grateful they didn’t have to endure the camp.
“I felt content because they didn’t have to suffer in the camp, they wouldn’t have been able to survive,” Cahn said.
Cahn doesn’t know why or how he survived, but it might have had something to do with his mischievous spirit, his spunk and his admittedly “big mouth.”
“I always had to use my head a little and try to trick somebody else in order to stay alive,” Cahn said.
He volunteered to work as an electrician and when part of his job involved changing dead light bulbs, he would screw the dead ones into other sockets so he would be sure to have a job to do the next day.
When he was shot in the leg that time, he threw a screwdriver at the soldier who shot him. “I threw it very nicely,” he said. “I felt very sorry about it.”
At times he felt sick and tired, at times he felt hope desert him. But he was not afraid.
“People are always afraid of dying. If you’re dead you’re dead, you can only die once,” Cahn said.
After three years, when Cahn’s Buna/Monowitz concentration camp was evacuated, he was forced to take part in a death march to a camp near the Czech border. The sick and too tired to walk were killed and Cahn recalls carrying one ill man along with him during the march. The man was determined to live longer than Hitler.
When they arrived at the new camp they received word that Hitler had committed suicide and Cahn said the man he carried died the next day and he could’ve sworn he had a smile on his face.
“The will to live is almost half the battle,” Cahn said.
Although Cahn had marched to that new camp alongside 4,000 others, when the war was over there was only about 100 of those people left alive, as many had died from illnesses caused by being so undernourished. Cahn calls himself a “fossil” as he was recently informed by Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum that he is likely the only person left from that entire group.
In Czechoslovakia, Cahn was liberated by the Russians and after the war he married and moved to America where he became a chef; he ran a deli in Encinitas.
With his playful sense of humor and mischievous demeanor, Cahn loves speaking to people. He doesn’t exactly like being called a “survivor” as he thinks we all survive, every day. He doesn’t like to talk about bad things all the time because he is a happy man. He doesn’t want to be sad because he enjoys laughter too much.
“Never forget, being angry doesn’t help you. I’m in a good mood because I’m alive,” Cahn said, before adding one of his favorite lines of advice: “The way you shout into the woods, the echo comes back. It’s up to you to be pleasant.”
Cahn is the author of the book “Loss, liberty and love: My Journey from Essen to Auschwitz to the United States.” It is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.