Robert Melson was 4 years old in 1941 when Adolf Hitler’s troops gained control of Poland and started rounding up the local Jews to be sent to concentration camps.
Melson and his parents escaped the Nazis by posing as the Zamojskis, a family of Polish Catholics.
“Our camouflage was assuming the identity of a Polish aristocratic family,” Melson said.
On Wednesday, Melson will share his story in lecture titled “The Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust: As Viewed Through the Extraordinary Experiences of Two Survivors Who Outwitted Their Killers” as the keynote speaker for the spring 2012 Dr. Harold Abel Endowed Lecture Series in the Study of Dictatorship, Democracy and Genocide, presented by the College of Humanites and Social and Behavioral Sciences. Melson is being paid $2,000 for the appearance, said Rae Barrett, CHSBS special events coordinator.
Melson will speak at 7 p.m. in the Bovee University Center Rotunda. The event is free and Melson will hold a book signing after the lecture.
In the lecture, Melson will compare his family’s story, which he published in 2000 in his book, “False Papers: Survival and Deception in the Holocaust,” to that of Grigoris Balakian, an Armenian who survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1918.
Balakian, whose memoir, “Armenian Golgotha,” was published in 2009, chronicles his escape from a caravan of Armenians being led to be massacred. To avoid recapture, Balakian posed as a Turk, a Jordanian soldier and a Greek farm worker, Melson said.
“I’m going to look at the larger events through the lens of specific people and try to generalize from these two specific instances,” Melson said. “I’m going to ask what motivated ordinary men to participate and become the perpetrators of these events and what accounted for these people’s survival.”
The Armenian Genocide, Melson said, is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. An estimated one million people were killed over the three-year period in the Ottoman Empire.
The Holocaust, carried out by the Nazis in Germany and the territories they invaded in World War II, killed an estimated six million Jews and other minorities.
“We will look at the two cases side by side and look at their similarities and causes,” he said.
By examining these similarities, Melson said we can learn how to prevent similar events in the future.