Phil Gans hands out blue bracelets stamped with a plea: "Erase Hate. Prisoner #139755."
It took more than half a century for Gans to speak about the horrors he endured during the Holocaust: The cattle cars. The slave labor. Beatings. Starvation. Piles of bodies. Gas chambers and death marches. The loss of his entire family.
But when Gans, 82, began sharing his experiences as a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, his message became distilled in the danger of a single word: Hate.
"Remove 'hate' from your vocabulary," he tells people. He even tells clergymen to quit talking about peace. "You'll never get peace until you erase the hate," he said. "Take the dictionary and cross out the word hate."
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Gans broke his lifelong silence on the Holocaust about 10 years ago, when a friend and fellow survivor began sharing his own message. It was about the same time the Florida Holocaust Museum opened in St. Petersburg, and with a lot of prodding, Gans slowly started speaking out. A few people here and there.
Now Gans, who lives in Clearwater, reaches about 9,000 people a year through presentations at the museum and elsewhere. He will share his story Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Port Richey.
Gans was 12 when the war broke out but still was able to have a bar mitzvah soon after. With a shy smile, he admits he was never really good with the Hebrew, so the rabbi helped him quite a bit.
His grandparents were religious. They kept kosher and observed Shabbat. Gans was a typical boy who liked soccer and roller-skating.
As the Nazis took over the Netherlands, several families risked their lives to protect Gans, his brother and sister, and their parents. He shows pictures of them and speaks lovingly of their care. Then, when he was 15, Gans and his family were captured.
When he got to the concentration camp, the first of several he would be in, his sister, mother and grandmother were taken and sent to the gas chambers. He was put to work with his father and brother, though they eventually died, too.
Soldiers immediately took Gans' clothes, his shoes, shaved his head.
He shows a picture of a pile of braids they cut from women, piles of glasses they took from people.
He talks about the physical and emotional abuse they endured. But here and there, he experienced glimpses of humanity: the families that helped hide his, a doctor who treated him kindly.
Still, after the war, he couldn't even think about religion.
"Where was God when 11 million people died?" he asks.
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Becky Kovar with First Presbyterian Church of Port Richey, who is helping to organize Sunday's event, said she heard about Gans from another church member and decided to bring him as a guest speaker.
"It was something I thought the community would benefit from," she said.
Several Holocaust survivors in the Tampa Bay area give such presentations to warn against the dangers of bullying — the Holocaust began with taunts and stone-throwing — and to remind people to stand up against evil, said Sandy Mermelstein with the Florida Holocaust Museum.
Gans said he just wants to educate people, so they are sensitive to even the subtle underpinnings of cruelty toward others.
"I'm not saying this for you to feel sorry for me," he said.
But his Holocaust experience still haunts him.
Recently, Gans' doctor suggested he start walking every morning. He doesn't like doing it, he said, but every morning he gets up and walks for 25 minutes.
"It gets tiresome at times," he said. "I do it because I'm supposed to, to lose weight."
But then a more powerful explanation for his resistance emerges. In Germany, he was part of the Death March, the forced migration of prisoners among concentration camps near the end of the war.
"You couldn't stop, or you'd be shot."
Gans tells people to share his story with their kids and salvage the lessons from his experience. It's not like hearing something on television or reading about it in a book.
"You actually heard it from a man who experienced it," he said.
Mindy Rubenstein can be reached at [email protected]