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Holocaust survivor recounts survival and urges Spokane to lead with kindness

UPDATED: Tue., June 12, 2018

Nissan Krakinowski waves as he arrives to recount his survival of the Holocaust during a Monday speech in Spokane. (Will Campbell / The Spokesman-Review)
Nissan Krakinowski waves as he arrives to recount his survival of the Holocaust during a Monday speech in Spokane. (Will Campbell / The Spokesman-Review)

For 91-year-old Nissan Krakinowski, to describe his story of living through the Holocaust in a concentration camp is something that, “God forbid it,” no one in the audience will experience.

For audience members like Leeann Willy, hearing the story in person means “You can imagine it more clearly.”

A crowd of about 900 packed a room at the Spokane Convention Center Monday night and listened to Krakinowski recount his growing up in a Jewish ghetto of Kaunas, Lithuania. When Nazi Germany overtook the area, he was sent to the infamous Dachau concentration camp.

He and his brother were the only ones in their family of more than 100 to survive. After liberation he migrated to the United States.

His speech Monday was hosted by Rabbi Yisroel Hahn of the Chabad of Spokane.

Among Krakinowski’s messages: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s very very important to be nice.”

His teenage years were met with the horrors of Nazism. His family was first torn from their houses and separated.

“I didn’t understand what I did in my life to deserve this,” he said.

Just before Nazis separated him from his mother, she gave him one piece of advice that would be the difference between living and dying: Stay with your brother. If you’re going to die, die together.

Krakinowski said at one point a Nazi guard knocked him in the head with a metal object and he fell into the mud with blood pooling around him. The guard thought he was dead.

Nissan and his brother lived off moldy bread and were forced to carry paper bags of concrete through the ghettos. Krakinowski said when it rained, “the concrete would dissolve and stick to my body,” and the pain was unbearable.

“Time was very hard to describe,” he said. “Every day was like a year.”

Krakinowski spoke with energy, underscoring his deepest messages by whispering them multiple times.

In the concentration camp, just before it was evacuated, Krakinowski heard the Nazis were placing dynamite in it, but his brother was too sick to leave, so Krakinowski stayed. He thought they would both die but that act led both of them to escape.

“If I wouldn’t have listened to my mother, I would have died,” he said.

He migrated to the U.S. in 1949, married and had two daughters. His brother and wife died, but more recently, both his daughters died within the last few years, leaving Nissan with no living relatives.

Nissan also survived cancer, and after living through that, he said it was the third time he was born; the first was his birthday, and the second was after enduring the concentration camp.

Rabbi Hahn said that the terrorist capabilities of the Nazis still exist within us. However, he said, just a little bit of light will drive away the darkness. Hahn urged each person to fight hatred by performing a good deed, and he had the audience vote via a website poll on a good deed they would do within 72 hours.

Samantha Willy came to the speech with her mom Leeann. She said she’s read the books, but to hear someone’s firsthand account of the Holocaust was a different, deeper experience.

“These events aren’t going to be around for much longer,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on June 12, 2018 to correct the name of the concentration camp Krakinowski was sent.

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