The students were respectful and attentive as Spitz described how, as a child, he was forced to hide out in the woods in a make-shift shelter for seven months during World War II. He talked about many hardships he endured throughout his lifetime, including losing many family members, being cold and hungry while hiding in the woods, and struggling to return to normal life after the war ended when he had only $10 to his name.
Spitz shared how he grew up in a small town in Slovakia, which at that time was part of Czechoslovakia. As a young boy, he said that he had enjoyed living under democratic rule, going to school, playing games, and listening to music. But in 1933, Spitz’s life changed dramatically when Adolf Hitler became Germany’s Chancellor and set into motion his vision of creating a so-called “master race.”
At age 10, Spitz was prevented from attending school and was required to wear a yellow star, which identified him as being Jewish. That same year, his nation’s government negotiated with Nazi Germany for the mass deportation of Jews to German-occupied Poland to so-called “labor camps.” Spitz’s family had heard, however, that these camps were not for labor, but were rather “factories” for murdering people. Spitz, along with his family, had to make a harrowing life-or-death decision: “Be passive and be killed; stand up and revolt and eventually be killed; or try to survive by all means.” They decided to fight to survive.
Spitz and his family fled their home to hide in the woods. There, they built an underground shelter out of tree limbs and rocks. They remained inside this shelter for seven months, existing on berries and mushrooms they gathered under the cloak of night and in winter from under the snow and ice.
They managed to survive through April of 1945, when Allied troops liberated the survivors of the camps. He said he was lucky to have found safety in the woods and to avoid capture, but this pain would not stop in this post-war era. “We made it out alive, but the government did not want us to remember it,” he said. “We were not allowed to publicly mourn any Holocaust victims, or to talk about what happened.”
Spitz did return to school and was recruited to take up chemical engineering. Later the Soviet Union-dominated government of Czechoslovakia sent Spitz to Cuba on a work assignment. It was not easy work. He later escaped there to live in Canada and then relocated to the United States, eventually settling in Kingston, New York.
At age 68, Spitz began creating artwork to help him cope with the horrors he had witnessed and tried to suppress. His Holocaust artwork has been showcased in museums around the world. “We weren’t allowed to grieve. We had to just move on and embrace life however we could do it, whether it was through music, art, hope, or love,” Spitz said. “I can’t be angry or resentful because that will become like baggage and weigh me down, and besides, I am alive, and that is what I must be thankful for.”
Grade 8 teacher Justyna Leverich commented, “Tibor’s life makes you realize that everyone has the power to overcome hardship and tragedy and how we handle those difficulties is what makes all the difference.”
At the conclusion of Spitz’s talk, the students had the opportunity to ask him
questions, which ranged from “What did you do while you were in hiding?” to “Did you
ever come face-to-face with a Nazi?” to “How did your experience during the Holocaust
impact you later in life?”
Afterwards, Grade 8 student Ella Maxwell asked if she could have her picture taken with Spitz. “He is such an inspiration,” said Maxwell. “I feel so bad for everything he went through, yet he is so strong. It’s amazing!”
Grade 8 teacher Katharine Squires said that she is grateful these students were given this opportunity. “As Holocaust survivors continue to age, students are losing access to this firsthand knowledge,” she observed.