Meet Holocaust survivor Peter Gaspar


Peter was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in 1937. His parents were Imre and Jenny Gaspar. Peter was an only child who like his parents, grew up trilingual. 

Peter does not recall any sign of Judaism in his family home either before or after World War Two. The family led an assimilated life, very involved in the cultural life of Bratislava as well as Vienna which was only a tram ride away. Both parents were well into sports; Jenny fenced, played tennis and swam. Imre did his military service in the Slovak Army Mounted Regiment and continued riding after the army. He also rowed with a Jewish rowing club. Both parents were prolific skiers. Peter skied and played ice hockey. 

Peter as a young boy, 1940.


In 1938 Nazi Germany took over Slovakia and the German government installed Josef Tiso – a Catholic priest – as president and he immediately proceeded to implement the racial and antisemitic policies under the Nazi regime.  

In May 1939, when Peter was only two years old, Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.  

In June 1942, when he was five years old Peter was sent home from pre-school and told “Never to return!”. The reason given was because he was Jewish. From that time on until 1945 Peter missed out on any form of education and had no contact with children of his age. 

That same month, Peter’s father was dismissed from his job at an insurance company.  

In June 1942 forty members of Peter’s family were arrested and deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Jenny’s sisters Magda, Irene, Herta and Olga were murdered in September 1942 together with Peter’s maternal grandmother Mathilde. 

Peter’s uncle Paul was the only family member to survive Auschwitz. 

Fortunately, Peter and his parents escaped the first wave of arrests because they did not live in the centre of Bratislava, or the Jewish quarter; their house was on the outskirts of town. Following the arrest of their close family members they immediately went into hiding. 

Peter and his parents were hidden by Christian friends, domestic staff and work colleagues of Peter’s father from the insurance company where Imre had worked until his dismissal in 1942.  

Peter and his mother, 1942.

For the following years Peter and his parents went into hiding around Bratislava, spending their nights in parks, garages, friends’ houses, roof cavities, orchards and a dugout the size of a grave for several days during the freezing winter of 1944. Peter and his parents were escorted around to different places by what they deem to be their “rescuers”.   

Peter attributes his family’s survival to the rescuers who aided them in hiding from 1942 to the end of 1944 – he is convinced the family would not have survived in the concentration camps for that length of time. 

“Amongst some, regrettably too few, there was moral outrage against what was being done to fellow citizens, other humans.” 

Eventually, physically exhausted from years of hiding, Peter’s parents decided to turn themselves in. They walked to the nearest police station and said: “We are Jews and we have come to be arrested.” 

To their surprise, the police told the family they were about to go out to lunch, and if the family was there when they returned, then they would “have to do what we have to do”. With no place to go, and all out of options, Peter and his family waited at the police station for the officers to return.   

They were taken to a collection camp, where Peter’s father was separated from the family and was forced to work as a slave labourer in Sachsenhausen and from there was sent on a death march to Lubeck, 289 km away. It was the winter of 1944/45 and incredibly, Peter’s father survived. 

The Nazis sent Peter and his mother to Terezin transit camp on an overcrowded cattle wagon for two days with no idea where they were going. Peter recalls his experience of the transport being horrific.  

“We were on transport no.6 on 412 people, put into two cattle wagons. Newborn babies being nursed by their mothers, and old people, maybe 80 – 90 years old. 200 people per wagon. A bucket of water for drinking, and another for refuse. We travelled for what seemed like two days – we don’t know. It was total darkness.”  

Peter aged 10 or 11 years old.

On arrival at Terezin, Peter and his mother were put into a stable, and they slept on straw without enough blankets. “I remember sleeping in a cement trough”. There was not enough food for Peter in the camp.  

In addition to Terezin being a camp, it was also a “piece of propaganda” used for a German documentary production designed to conceal the horrible conditions of the camps under the regime.  

The Red Cross paid two visits to the camp – one in June 1944 before Peter arrived, and one in April 1945.  

“For those visits, a show was put on. Cafes suddenly opened up. Gentlemen in suits sat at the cafes and drank empty cups of coffee. Concerts were suddenly organised in the town. The adults were issued money, and told ‘go and buy bread’ and they went into the bakery and bought bread, but then the bread was taken away from them round the corner and recycled back onto the shelves.”  

There was also an opera concert put on, in which Peter participated dressed as a ladybird.  

Peter retained some of the “Terezin money” from the camp until after the war.  

Peter and his mother were liberated on 8 May 1945. 

Of the thousands of children interned at Terezin, Peter was one of very few that survived. Coincidentally, two of his childhood friends were on the same transport as Peter to Terezin, and also survived the war.  

Peter Gaspar’s memoir ‘Lucky to be Here’, published in 2021.

The stress and hardship of years in hiding as well as starvation, fear, sickness and loneliness in the concentration camps, left Peter’s parents forever damaged. 

Following the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, the Gaspar family immigrated to Australia in 1949. Being trilingual, Peter quickly learnt English and integrated well, somewhat attributed to his love of sports. Peter graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce Degree and, in 1964, married Lesley and began a family with two children – Tim and Michaela.   

After the war, Peter and his parents maintained contact with their rescuers and in 2006 Peter took his children and grandchild to Bratislava to meet the courageous people who enabled his family to survive.  

Peter began speaking to students at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum (previously, Jewish Holocaust Centre) in 2020. In 2021 Peter published his memoir Lucky to Be Here: Of All Other Possibilities, which is now available at the MHM Bookstore