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Ivan Backer ’49 stands against a pillar in the PPHAC atrium during his April 2014 visit to campus.

ABOVE: Ivan Backer ’49 returned to Bethlehem on April 10 as part of an on-campus screening of the award-winning documentary, Nicky’s Family. The film highlights the remarkable story of Sir Nicholas Winton, who is credited with saving the lives of 669 children at the outbreak of World War II. Backer was one of those children, and he shared the story of his interrupted childhood with the College’s campus community. (Photo by John Kish IV)


‘Why Was I Spared?’

Ivan Backer ’49 Recalls His Life Following Hitler’s Occupation of Czechoslovakia

By Ivan Backer ’49

A poster promoting 'Nicky's Family,' with a woman crying.

ABOVE: Nicky’s Family tells the story of Nicholas Winton, who organized the trains that took children from Czechoslovakia to England and so saved 669 Czech and Slovak children before the outbreak of World War II. (Image Courtesy of Menemsha Films)

I did not know the man who saved my life or the lives of 668 other children following Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939.

I can remember the occupation itself vividly. I was on my way to school, walking with my best friend, and suddenly we saw people in the road crying. When we came to the main street in our neighborhood, there were German troopers rolling in with their trucks and motorcycles, brandishing their rifles. We knew immediately what was happening – and it was frightening. I was not quite 10 years old.

I returned to campus this past April for the screening of Nicky’s Family, a documentary that tells the story of Nicholas Winton, who organized the trains that took children from Czechoslovakia to England and so saved 669 Czech and Slovak children before the outbreak of World War II. Personally, the film is so interesting because I never knew about who was responsible for these Kindertransports and saved so many of us.

The documentary captures the history of what led up to the Nazi occupation, which I find most important. But on a personal level, the film really helped me identify with all the children who were saved, and who helped make Nicky Winton’s story public.

My on-campus discussion following the film was similar to ones I’ve done seven or eight times before, but I always look forward to speaking with young people. It’s an opportunity to make those events more immediate and memorable. While there were consequences for me personally, I was one of the fortunate ones, later reuniting with my parents and brother.

I hope that seeing Nicky’s Family and hearing my experience will help audience members remember the
history that led to the Second World War.

As a proud Moravian alumnus, I was also excited to return to Bethlehem to represent the class of 1949 in the processional for President Grigsby’s Inauguration.

I came to Moravian in January 1946, one of about 180 enrolling students — but just one of three who were recent high school graduates. Here I was a young 16-year-old, living on the third floor of Comenius Hall with all these veterans returning home from service. These were grown men, and I was a boy wet behind the ears.

I received quite an education listening to them, but it was great for me because they were very serious students. They wanted to learn, graduate college and get on with their lives. I didn’t know what I wanted then — but eventually I realized my path.

The haunting question of my life has been, “Why was I spared when so many thousands of others perished in the Holocaust?” That question alone made me a person who wanted to do something to make my life worthwhile. That is what propelled me throughout my career and life. So I tried my best to serve the community, which included directing the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance in Hartford, Connecticut, which worked to improve the area’s neighborhoods and its residents.

My message to Moravian students, especially this year’s graduates, is to think about their purpose. All people search for some kind of meaning in their lives, but there is something more to living than simply making a living. That’s just not enough. It’s important to support your family, but it’s also important to be a member of society — a constructive and contributing member.

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