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Holocaust Escapee Inspires Students at Hartford Magnet School

Apr 18, 2016

Backer said his experience has influenced every choice he's made since.

Ivan Backer narrowly escaped the Holocaust, and for the last 70-plus years, he's been trying to give back.

So he spent a cold April morning speaking with students at Hartford's Classical Magnet School about his life, hoping to inspire the next generation of activists and volunteers.

As he spoke, it became quite clear that he did indeed inspire.

"I mean we could read his book and we would get like probably the same amount of information, but it's really like, it's really very touching to have him here," said sophomore Linda Shewokis.

Backer published an autobiography earlier this year, called My Train to Freedom. It's dedicated to stock broker Nicholas Winton, a man known as Britain's Oskar Schindler.

Each year, students at Classical work on a project around a central theme. This year's theme is "Crimes Against Humanity," and is centered on the events surrounding the Nazi Holocaust.

Backer talked with students after they had watched a documentary about Winton's efforts to save 669 children before the start of World War II. Most of them took trains from Prague through Germany before hopping a boat to London. It was called a kindertransport.

Watch this video of CPBN's Media Lab interviewing Backer in 2014:

Unlike most kids on the transport, Backer was united with his family soon after he arrived in England. One Classical student asked him about it.

"Did you ever feel that you were lucky because most of the kids in the kindertransport weren't able to have their families with them?"

"Very much, yes. I was the exception," Backer replied. "Because so many of them -- and I heard stories -- who went back after the war, to Prague, to Czechoslovakia, and looked for their parents, and of course didn't find them."

Backer was ten years old when Winton put him on a train with about 200 other kids. He shared some of his story in 2014 with WNPR.

"I remember the train went north from Prague, and then through Germany all night," he said. "And I vividly remember that I felt, here I am in the heart of my enemy’s country. And it was not exactly fear, but it was an awareness that there was danger lurking all around. But on the trip as a whole, I just thought it was a great adventure to go on a train and go to a new country, just like a 10 year old kid would, I think."

Listen below to Backer share a poem he wrote about his experience: 

Backer said that experience has influenced every choice he's made since. A sense of gratitude and responsibility drives him. He's worked as a parish priest, protested wars, stood up for civil rights, and even participated in the Occupy Hartford movement.

At Classical Magnet, most of the students left to go back to class, but a few hung around to spend more time with Backer. Everything he told them seemed colored by his humility, and sometimes a sort of melancholy self-questioning. He could have done more, he said.

But student Anastasia Foster was quick to assure the Holocaust escapee that's he has done more than enough in his lifetime.

"Anything that you've done since the Holocaust or the kindertransport is a big enough change for the world, and I think that if Nicholas could see you now, he'd be amazingly proud at the person he helped," Foster said.

Students listen to Ivan Backer speak at Classical Magnet School in Hartford.
Credit John Hill / Classical Magnet School

Students with Ivan Backer at Classical Magnet School in Hartford.
Credit John Hill / Classical Magnet School

Nicholas Winton died last year at 106 years old. Ivan Backer is 86, and has lived in Hartford for over 50 years.

Backer talked about the importance of history -- how understanding it can prevent us from repeating it.

When asked if he's hopeful for the future, he was skeptical.

"I tend to be more pessimistic these days because we rely on weaponry and war and not diplomacy," Backer said. "The room for compromise has been so lessened. This whole terrorism war -- we call it a war, but you don't fight ideas by weapons, and we've got to fight it by bringing understanding."

But students like Maggie Moran were more hopeful.

"Fighting ideas with ideas is something that we as a human race need to work on," Moran said. "And places like Classical are places where they're educating young people to, you know, use words and interact like that, interact face to face."

Other students shared their optimism and credited Ivan Backer for energizing their desire to give back. A smile spread across his face. When it was time to go, it seemed as if some of his pessimism was already gone.