At exhibit opening, local Holocaust survivor Kati Preston tells her story

Last modified: 6/7/2013 4:03:21 PM
Kati Preston survived the Holocaust because a peasant woman hid her in an attic.

Preston, then just 5 years old, remained in that attic while her family was killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Now a 74-year-old Barnstead resident, Preston stood before a small crowd at the New Hampshire State Library in Concord yesterday and told her father’s story.

He escaped a Nazi-controlled ghetto. But he wanted to see his young daughter one last time before fleeing to a safer place.

“He decided to come visit me in my little attic where I was hidden because he wouldn’t see me for a long time, and they caught him on that road and killed him,” she said. “I still feel guilty. It wasn’t my doing. It was his love for his child that he wanted to see that killed him.”

Preston also told her own story yesterday, as dignitaries and state officials gathered to mark the opening of a visiting exhibit at the state library about the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp.

She calls her story one of hope, not hatred.

“I have come here actually not to offer unhappiness or sadness,” she said. “I’m a voice of hope, and I survived.”

On loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, “Konzentrationslager Auschwitz” tells the story of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp. Its 30 posters show images and share the history of the camp, where Germans killed between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people during World War II.

The exhibit made its way to New Hampshire through the efforts of state Reps. John Cebrowski and Cindy Rosenwald, with the help of the Polish American Congress of New Hampshire and the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire.

Though it was just one of more than 42,000 ghettos and camps run by Nazi Germany, Auschwitz is “an example of the inhumanity that can exist,” said Marek Lesniewski-Laas, honorary consul of the Republic of Poland for New England.

“This is a story that has to be told, and retold, and retold, and retold, so that it does not happen again,” said Van McLeod, commissioner for the New Hampshire Department of Cultural Resources.

At yesterday’s reception, dignitaries representing Germany, Israel and Poland echoed McLeod’s words, expressing the need for New Hampshire students and residents to visit the library this month.

Rolf Schutte, consul general of Germany, canceled a conference in New York to be in New Hampshire yesterday. He said it was important for him to attend on behalf of his country.

“Even if we as Germans and human beings would rather like to run away and hide in shame than looking at these images of an exhibition . . . we Germans have to face this past,” Schutte said. “Especially at the time that only few survivors can give us firsthand information about the horrors they have personally experienced, an exhibit like the one here becomes even more important.”

The lone eyewitness

Just one person in the library yesterday was able to offer a firsthand account.

Walking up to the podium after sitting through several prepared speeches, Preston explained that she had not expected to speak. But standing before the crowd, she did not hesitate to share the details of the Holocaust.

Born in Hungary to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, Preston told how her family’s rights were slowly stripped away by the control of Nazi Germany.

“First you couldn’t go to school, then you couldn’t go to the doctor, then you weren’t allowed to do this, you weren’t allowed to sit on the bench, you weren’t allowed to go to university. And slowly they reduce you to nothing where you lose your self-respect and it’s much easier to herd you to a ghetto.”

That’s how she explains it to children, when she travels to schools and speaks to “anybody who will have me.”

It wasn’t always easy for Preston to tell her story. It took years of sorrow and soul-searching to accept her role as a survivor.

“And I was saved and I am here now,” she said. “But I spent my whole life trying to make some kind of sense of what happened, and it took me a good 50 years to stop hating. . . . And I still have the sorrow but I now – forgiving is not the right word – I’ve made peace with it.”

She lived in several countries before settling in the United States with her husband and four sons. It was a place to raise a family, she said, a place “where this couldn’t happen again.”

In Barnstead she made a home, served for many years on the local school board and is still a member of the town’s planning board.

“And I still keep my hand in everything because, you know, if you don’t like something, put your hand in it and change it,” she said.

She’s worked as a journalist and a fashion designer, and now runs Hampstead Stage Company, a theater company based in Barnstead that uses two-man shows to teach children lessons of compassion.

Preston said she finds hope in the Auschwitz-Birkenau exhibit’s presence in New Hampshire. She finds hope in sharing her story with children, to teach them the dangers of prejudice.

She finds the greatest hope in the face of her granddaughter.

One of Preston’s four sons is married to a woman whose father was a German soldier, and they have a daughter.

“And I’m holding this baby in my arms, and this is the result of a soldier and my father who died, and it’s a miracle because this is the perfect child,” Preston said.

“And this is what hope is. This is how we can go forward. We cannot keep mourning over time. We have to try to avoid it, not to mourn anymore.”

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

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