The hole in the field was shaped like a grave.

It had a thatched roof that dripped icy water down the earthen walls from the melting winter snow piled on top.

In darkness, the Jewish family huddled in the grave, perched on a plank of wood with their knees drawn up to keep their feet from hanging into the icy water pooling on the dirt floor.

To sleep they took turns or lay stacked on the plank. Peter Gaspar, the littlest, was on top.

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It was December 1944.

At this moment in Gaspar's story of Holocaust survival, you could have heard a pin drop in Mount Maunganui College hall.

Yesterday, senior history students and a Year 9 class had, as social science department head Derek Boston put it, "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to hear directly from a survivor of the genocide and atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II.

The school was one of 30 that Gaspar, 80, of Melbourne, will visit during his three weeks in New Zealand, accompanied by wife Lesley.

The programme that brought him here, the Jewish Federation of New Zealand's annual Hope Project, has been running for seven years but this was the first time it had brought a speaker to Tauranga.

"The purpose of the talk is to learn from the mistakes of the past for the sake of a better future," Gaspar said.

He asked students to be "upstanders not bystanders", and to find the courage to speak out when they saw racism, intolerance, bigotry or bullying of any kind.

"Our greatest power is our voice."

Peter Gaspar's story began in June 1942 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. Aged 5 he was sent home from preschool because he was a Jew.

His father Irme Gaspar was sacked from his job because he was a Jew.

Forty of his relatives were arrested and never seen again. He later found out they were deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered because they were Jews.

His family escaped the first wave of arrests and, with the help of non-Jewish friends, went into hiding for three years. Gaspar called these people "the rescuers" and said that without them he would not have survived.

With a small suitcase between them, the trio were shunted under the cover of night between the cupboards, roof cavities and cellars of people with the courage and moral strength to realise that what the Nazis were doing was wrong.

When the city became too dangerous they moved to a village; living in garden sheds, haystacks, barns and, for one miserable week, the grave.

Gaspar became ill in the grave and the family were forced to hand themselves over to police.

They were separated. He and his mother, Jenny Gaspar, were taken by cattle train to Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. His father was taken to Sachsenhausen camp in Germany and kept as a slave worker.

They were liberated six months later and reunited in Bratislava. They discovered an uncle, Paul Weiss, had also survived. He had fainted at morning roll call at Auschwitz and was tossed on a pile of dead bodies outside the death camp. He woke up under still warm bodies and crawled out.

The Gaspars moved to Australia in 1949. His parents never really recovered from what they experienced or from leaving their home.

Gaspar adjusted better - going to school, learning English, getting a degree and a job, meeting his wife and starting a family of his own.

Later in life, he took his two children and first grandchild to visit some of the rescuers.

"I asked them one question: Why did you do it? They all gave the same answer: 'we did it because it was the right thing to do'."

Student comments

Maraingi Marsh

"It was really inspiring. It really put our lives into a new perspective."

Sharna Moffat

"We can study history and read about it but hearing it first hand really opens your mind to what it was like to live through it."

Samual Taylor

"It was deeply moving. Phenomenal. We're so lucky to tap such a raw source of information."

Niamh Priest

"It's a really prominent subject in school, Nazi Germany, but to listen to someone who experienced it was just amazing."


Bay schools Peter Gaspar is speaking at

• Otumoetai College
• Tauranga Boys' College
• Te Puke High School
• Mount Maunganui College
• Western Heights High School (Rotorua)
• John Paul College (Rotorua)