On November 10th, Professor Jan Rocek visited Padua to speak to the Holocaust and Religion classes. Rocek was born in Prague and in l942, he and his parents and sister were deported to the transit camp, Terezin (Theresienstadt in German). Despite the atrocious conditions and hard labor, he eventually worked in a chemistry lab, an experience that informed his professional pursuits after the war. Terezin was a ghetto prison where intellectuals gave lectures and artists performed. It was also the place where Jan met his future wife, Eva. Nevertheless, the prisoners at Terezin faced hunger, disease, high mortality and the fear of the dreaded transports to the killing centers in Poland.
In September, l944, Jan was deported to Auschwitz. His family followed and most likely perished in the gas chambers. Jan remained in Auschwitz for a month until he volunteered to work as a metal worker in a munitions factory in Germany. He endured the harsh conditions of slave labor and danger of Allied bombings. To avoid the American advance in May, 1945, the Germans transported the workers to the German Slovak border and ultimately forced them on a grueling death march that nearly killed Jan. Completely exhausted, Jan collapsed. “I just didn’t care anymore, so I just simply didn’t get up.” He was loaded onto a cart with other near-death prisoners. “Suddenly the Germans disappeared,” he said, and the war was over. Jan was cared for by some villagers, placed in a hospital run by German nuns, and eventually recovered. After the war, he was able to find Eva and they married. Both became chemists.
Jan’s story of survival did not end there. In l960, desperate to flee Communist Czechoslovakia, Jan, Eva , their two little boys, and Eva's mother managed to sneak on board a ferry boat to Denmark. When the boat reached the harbor, Jan grabbed one son, Eva grabbed the other and all three adults jumped into the water. They were rescued by the Danish authorities. Jan spent a couple of weeks in a Danish jail and ultimately was able to secure a visa to the U.S. where he began an appointment at Harvard. His professional career took him to Catholic University and to the University of Illinois where he and Eva both taught until retirement .They moved to Wilmington to be closer to their son who teaches at the University of Delaware .
Jan’s message of survival is also a warning: “During the war I was sincerely convinced that only Germans were capable of the terrible atrocities they committed and that it must be a special trait in the German character. However, in the hospital I changed my mind and [began] to accept that inhumanity is not restricted to one nation but can appear among any group of people if the conditions are right and if people are allowed to act without being accountable for their acts.” Students who wrote thank you notes to Jan reflected on the “once in a lifetime experience” of meeting a Holocaust survivor who also fled the Communists. Junior Taylor Kozinc wrote “You wanted us to remember that we should not judge people based on their nationality but on their actions. This really resonated with me.” Senior Ky McCarthy added, “So much about your character and strength shows that you were able to feel love even in the darkest of times.”
Written by Social Studies Teacher, Mrs. Barbara Markham