Being the Son of a Survivor

An Interview with Matthew Chartan
By Brooke Estrin and Jason Marsh,
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York

Mr. Matthew Chartan, a math teacher at Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York, is the son of a Holocaust survivor. His father, Boris Chartan, escaped from a Nazi concentration camp during World War II and is now 68 and lives on Long Island. Mr. Chartan's father grew up in Podkamien, Poland, during WW II, and was eighteen years old when he was taken to a concentration camp. (Please see the interview with Boris Chartan in this issue of An End to Intolerance.)

Student Art: Prisoners
Art by Richard Estrin

We recently had the opportunity to interview Mr. Matt Chartan, who grew up on Long Island, about his views as a second-generation member, growing up as the son of a Holocaust survivor.

What were your father's experiences during the Holocaust?

He was born in Poland in 1926. Between 1944 and 1945, he was sentenced to a concentration camp with his father. He eventually got out of the camp and came to the U.S. between 1946 and 1947 and went to stay with his grandmother. My grandmother hid in a barn, and the family that hid her would feed her by taking buckets of food and water out to her everyday. The soldiers who were patrolling the area assumed that the food was for the two, huge German Shepherds that were also living in the barn.

Was your father's camp liberated, or did he escape?

He and his father escaped on their way back from work detail at night a few days before everyone in the camp was exterminated.

How did your father first tell you about his experiences with the Holocaust?

His stories came out bit by bit whenever we would go to the homes of our relatives and grandparents as we often did because we had strong links to our family. The conversation always seemed to turn to Europe. When that happened, they would inevitably discuss what they saw during the Holocaust.

How did your father tell his stories in the presence of younger children?

He always tried to tell us stories that wouldn't give us nightmares and that had happy endings.

How did you react to your father's stories?

When I was younger, I used to feel that something was wrong with me because I couldn't remember the details. Then my brother gave me a book entitled: Children of Survivors. This let me know that it was perfectly normal to block out details of the horrors that our parents went through.

What did you know of the Holocaust before you learned of your father's experiences?

I can't remember not knowing I was Jewish, and the Holocaust has always been part of that. I'm sure that I knew what the Holocaust was before I started Hebrew School.

Was the topic always open for discussion, or was it a sensitive topic?

My dad didn't talk about it openly too much. I thought that was a disservice to us kids, but what he was doing was making sure we had a Jewish education and giving us the tools we needed for the future without giving us the horror stories.

How did your perceptions of your father change after you learned of his experiences?

I always had a great deal of respect for my dad because of what he did to ensure that his kids would follow a righteous path. Lately though, my respect for him has increased because of what he's done to get involved with the Holocaust Commission of Nassau County, New York.

What has your father done to increase Holocaust awareness?

He didn't talk publicly about the Holocaust until the last 15-20 years. Since then, he has locally been at the forefront of the Holocaust awareness movement. He has been influential in establishing the Nassau County Education and Memorial Center in Glen Cove and he has become the president of the Long Island Holocaust Commission. He has reacted positively but firmly against antisemitic groups. I think seeing other people who have had similar experiences has helped him.

How has your father's past affected his outlook on present-day examples of moral injustice?

It has sensitized him to similar modern-day problems. He can't equate the Holocaust with situations like Bosnia and Somalia, but he still keeps an open mind to current dilemmas. I'm the same way. I don't really want to know the details, history, and background; I just want the suffering to end!

Were any of your friends' parents in the Holocaust?

Actually one friend, whom I have known since second grade, had parents who survived the Holocaust.

Do you ever talk about this with him?

Actually, you know what? It's funny; we never talked about it.

What did your dad do when he came to the United States?

When he came to the United States, he worked in the garment district as a button salesman. In the 1950s, he and my grandpa started a window cleaning business. After that, he came to Long Island and started a family.

What was it like growing up with him?

When I was younger, I resented my father for not being around a lot. It was only until recently that I understood that the work he was doing was not for him but for us.

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