Raphael Cho ‘21
In the shadow of the 2017 white nationalist rally, Allan Hall, a law professor, engineer, and Holocaust survivor, spoke to the UVA Law community about his harrowing experiences under Nazi occupation and the role of lawyers in fighting extremist ideologies. Hall began the talk by describing his shock and consternation at the 2017 white nationalist rally as his motivation for hosting the talk in UVA. He felt that it was important for students to hear about his experiences and be vigilant in stopping extremism. As a prelude to his story, he posed two questions that nestled into the minds of the attendees: “Can it happen to you? Can it happen now?”
Hall was only four years old when Nazi Germany occupied his childhood home of Krakow. Throughout the war his family fled from one city to another, narrowly avoiding capture at each turn. In the early years of the war, his father attempted to avoid capture by bleaching his hair and obtaining a rhinoplasty, which he described as a home surgery in the dead of night, with nothing but “vodka anesthetic.” Later, his family was identified by the Nazis and moved to the Jewish ghettos where he was taken to a holding camp along with hundreds of other children. Although his father was ultimately able to free him, he vividly remembers, to this day, the faces of the children he left behind. Hall’s family then obtained false IDs and posed as Christians but were taken to the Gestapo headquarters after a neighbor informed the Gestapo of her suspicions. Hall narrowly escaped being sent to Treblinka at the age of eight, after the train he was boarding was delayed due to the Nazis’ fears that the corpses would infect their soldiers. Although he was subsequently separated from his family and sent to an orphanage, Hall reflected fondly on his time there as it returned some semblance of normalcy to his life. He was eventually reunited with his mother and hid in an office storage closet during which time his younger brother, Andrew, was born. Following Germany’s surrender, Hall and his family lived under Soviet occupation. Hall and his father were sent to Siberia despite the fact that there were “never formal charges,” but were eventually reunited with their family in France. In 1947, his family immigrated to the U.S. where he and his brother studied law. However, the scars of the war remained with him throughout his life. He stated, “everyone faces depression at one time or another,” and thanked his mental health workers for enabling him to share his story so that others may learn from it.
Despite all that he endured, Hall remained thankful to those that helped him and maintained a sense of humor throughout the talk. He spoke with deep gratitude about the man who assisted in reuniting him with his family. He wished he could thank the man for risking his life to help his family, but knew nothing about him. Hall emphasized that even in the darkest times, “there are people with an extraordinary moral compass.” He also described his brother’s birth and joked that we shouldn’t criticize Pepsi too much as his brother survived off sugar water despite being only two pounds at birth. Although there was an ocean of sorrow in his story, Hall felt it was important for the younger generations to hear it and remember that it was not so far removed from our current realities. In fact, Hall took the effort to shake the hands of everyone in attendance so that if anyone encountered a Holocaust denier, we could say that we shook the hand of someone who lived through it.
In his opening remarks, Hall asked if what he lived through as a child could happen to us today. His answer was an unequivocal yes. He stated that the rhetoric he hears today is horrifyingly similar to the rhetoric heard under Nazi occupation. Hall went on to explain that “when the Nazis took control of Germany, they only represented six percent of Germans,” and that a similar comparison could be made to “all the other extremists” in the U.S. today. And he stressed that “every time you don’t register to vote…you are trusting your lives and the lives of your children to precisely the people you do not want.” When one student asked how we, as future lawyers, could prevent this from happening again, Hall was visibly pleased by the question. As lawyers, he explained, “we are the first line of defense,” and our primary goal is to serve our society. As long as lawyers ensure the rule of law exists, we ensure our societies are protected from discrimination and tyranny. He emphasized that this holds true in both private and public sector practices in that part of a lawyer’s job is to “say no” to any practice that would weaken the rule of law. He stated in simple terms, “when you see something, say something and do something.” While this may sound cliché, Hall reminded all the attendees in the realest terms that, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for the good men to do nothing.”