HYDE PARK — Ninety-one-year-old retired cantor William Hauben remembers the four concentration camps he survived. Proof are the scars covering his body, his family long gone.
Just one aunt survived the Holocaust with Hauben. Liberated on May 6, 1945, he prepared to take his own life. There was nowhere to go, he said. His family was destroyed.
But in a strong moment, Hauben changed his mind. "Who would be witness?" he asked himself. He decided to make his life's work telling truths of the past.
Today, Hauben doesn't usually speak publicly of the terrors he witnessed. During speaking events, he instead gives colorful history lessons and tells overlooked stories of courage and heroism.
Hauben gave a two-hour lecture at Horizon Bay at Hyde Park on Sunday, a few blocks from where he served as cantor leading congregants in musical prayer at Rodeph Sholom before retiring.
About 100 people — young and old — filled the center's meeting space.
The lecture coincided with the beginning of the Days of Remembrance, an annual week-long commemoration of the Holocaust established by Congress.
Wearing a dark suit and tie, Hauben hunched slightly over the podium as his audience peppered him with questions.
Hauben says he isn't afraid to discuss the horrors he's witnessed. Rather, the story is just too vast to explain in one sitting.
When audiences ask Hauben for a synopsis of his personal terrors inside concentration camps, he becomes frustrated.
"When people ask me questions, 'how many times did you have meat in the camp? How many times did you have fresh fruit, how many times did you have hamburgers?' I don't answer those questions," he says. "They cannot understand. There was not such a thing, food. I ate from the trees. I had to survive."
Besides, he says, "it did not happen overnight."
Hauben's years witnessing genocide would take weeks to explain, or perhaps an entire book. He wrote his first, From the Flames: Miracles and Wonders of Survival, to relay his account of the Holocaust.
Hauben holds tightly to every document related to his captivity, including his liberation card. He's collected related artifacts and safeguards these historical papers in his Bayshore Boulevard apartment, which he considers a museum.
Hauben himself might be considered a walking museum — in addition to his historical memories, he's met with foreign dignitaries and ambassadors, lived in Poland, Germany, and Italy, knows multiple languages and sings in Hebrew and Italian. When an audience member asked him to sing in Italian, Hauben complied, demonstrating his talent with a wide-open mouth and the energy of a man perhaps years younger.
The cantor attributes his own survival to his trade. A cousin taught him about electricity, understanding that if you had a skill the Nazis needed you might be kept alive. When asked how he found the will to keep living each day, Hauben answers by raising his hands high above his head and looking upward, silently.
Despite obvious personal tragedy Hauben is quick to tell a joke, sometimes with the intention of changing topics.
One audience member began a question, "When you were a young man—"
"I am still young!" the cantor interjected to quick laughter from the audience.
When speaking, Hauben makes a point of sharing facts about the Holocaust. He is especially adamant about one.
"People are under the impression that the concentration camps were exclusively for Jews," Hauben said to the Horizon Bay audience. "This is a lie."
Six million Jews died due to Nazi genocide. But Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, Nazi political enemies, dissenting Christian clergy, communists and those with physical or mental disabilities were also murdered — millions of them at the hands of the Nazis as well.
Nearly anyone the Nazis deemed undesirable was sent to labor camps or killed.
"People don't know that," Hauben says. "It was a secret."
He explained how in one concentration camp with roughly 45,000 people, only he and a few others were Jewish.
Hauben, like other survivors, became aware after his ordeal that many citizens risked their lives to save others. His second book tells the stories of a few nations that told Hitler "no." No, they would not let the Nazis take their country's Jewish citizens.
Light: Courage and Hope, researched by Bill Sefekar, Hauben's executive assistant and longtime friend, details the helpful actions of Albania, Bulgaria, China, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, the United States, and, later, Israel.
"Elie Wiesel talks about night, I talk about light," Hauben said in reference to his second book, which describes the courage and kindness of these countries leaders and citizens.
Norway, for example, refused to deport its Jewish residents, resulting in the deaths of many Norwegians. About 1,100 Norwegian teachers were also arrested after refusing to teach Nazi ideology in schools.
Sweden, neutral during the war, used its position to provide refugees with food, shelter, and medicine at no cost. Hauben's aunt, Regina, spent a year in a Swedish hospital after her liberation, making a complete recovery.
Hauben repeats these stories out of gratitude and out of hope. He thanks those who had the courage to stand by their principles, and hopes to encourage future generations to act with kindness and bravery. Courage, Hauben demonstrates, is not always easy.
Bay area residents who came to hear Hauben speak were moved by his testimonial.
Traci Lindhart admired the cantor's willingness to speak about the topic.
"For him to continue is a very brave thing," she said. "I was very surprised to know that it was not all Jews. I knew that there were other religions, nationalities, but not to the extent of what he was saying."
Kathy Tedrowe hoped her children could find lessons in Hauben's message.
"They're always asking me questions," she said. "I wanted my teenage kids to hear someone who had actually lived through it. There's not too many around anymore."
Reactions similar to these let Hauben know he's doing his job — educating others.
This is his purpose, he says. This is why he survived.