Charles Middleburg is one of a dwindling population still alive today who experienced the Holocaust. For the past 25 years, he has made it his mission to speak with people of all ages and tell his story in hopes that they will not repeat the cycle of hate that led to one of the worst massacres of the past century.
On Wednesday, June 5, Middleburg paid a visit to Burlington Township Middle School to spread his message to students and staff alike.
“If we don’t learn about it, if we don’t talk about it, it’s going to happen again like every disaster that we ignore. It may not be the Holocaust, it will be for another group of people,” said Middleburg. “I don’t do this because I find a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction or joy, I am telling this so that they understand that if we ignore it, forget it, it’s going to happen again.”
Middleburg typically closes his speaking engagements with a plea for students to avoid hate groups of any kind.
“Any kind of hate, it doesn’t matter what it is, is only to do harm,” said Middleburg.
By the time they are in middle school most children have learned at least something about the Holocaust, but Middleburg believes reading about an event in history class and hearing stories from a primary source are two entirely different experiences. He hopes to bring home the reality of the events that occured by sharing his personal account.
As a child, Middleburg was a Jewish citizen living in France during the German occupation. Despite witnessing firsthand the mass incarceration of his fellow Jewish citizens, he tries to impress to his audiences that the tragedy of the Holocaust extended past his own people and the often quoted death toll of 6 million Jews who died in camps.
“Eleven million people died in concentration camps. There were 5 million other people who were not Jewish,” said Middleburg. “The Jews were an excuse to start off with, but then it kept escalating.”
In 1942, a 12-year-old Middleburg went into hiding with his family when Nazi soldiers began rounding up Jewish citizens in their home city of Paris, France. His father had already been taken to a labor camp where he used his expertise as a watch repairman to survive, fixing anything German soldiers brought to him.
The janitor of the Middleburg’s apartment building made a secret plan with the remaining members of the family in case of a raid on their building. If he was bringing German soldiers up the stairs, he would make loud noises with his peg leg as he walked, giving the Middleburgs a warning to take refuge inside one of the building’s maintenance closets that contained a trap door that led to the roof.
Using this method, they evaded capture for some time before Middleburg’s mother made arrangements for him and his brother to be taken to a goat farm in the countryside where they would be safer than they were hiding in a major city. They said goodbye to their mother, unbeknownst to them for the last time, and boarded a train to the country.
A short time after arriving on the farm, the boys received a letter from a family acquaintance informing them that their mother had been taken during a raid and offering them a place to stay should they wish to return to the city. Fearing their mother wouldn’t know where to find them on the farm if she escaped the Germans, Middleburg decided to return to Paris and stay with the woman who sent the letter.
“In retrospect it looks like stupid thinking, but bear in mind I was not very bright, all I could see was I wanted to get back to my mom,” said Middleburg.
Middleburg and his brother were christened by a Catholic priest upon their return to the city and told from then on they were to tell people they were Catholic to keep themselves safe.
They lived in this way as Catholics until Paris was liberated by Allied forces in 1944.
“Nobody was happier than my brother and I because as far as we were concerned, our nightmare was over. Mom and dad were coming back and we were going to go back to being a family just like we were before,” said Middleburg. “Well, I was very wrong.”
The war didn’t end with the liberation of Paris in 1944. Germany continued fighting until its ultimate surrender in 1945. With the war finally over, Middleburg and his brother were reunited with their father, but their joy was cut short when they discovered their mother had perished in the concentration camp where she had been interned.
“This is my story. I keep telling this story again and again,” said Middleburg. “I was one of the lucky ones, I never was in a concentration camp. I don’t know what it is to die of hunger like many of the people in those concentration camps, but I feel that it is my duty, it is something that I must tell about, because if I don’t talk about it, then all it will be is something written that everybody will forget.”