Ivan Backer's "Train to Freedom"

A Holocaust Survivor's Important Memoir

RWCFI congratulates Ivan Backer of Hartford Connecticut on the release of his new book "My Train to Freedom: A Jewish Boy's Journey from Nazi Europe to a Life of Activism,” He is 86 years old and has spent his life working to benefit the poor, the disenfranchised, people whose voices were not heard. His entire adulthood, every time Backer needed to act on an important matter, questions would pop into his mind.

“I made most of my decisions in life from the question, ‘Why am I here?'?” Backer, of Hartford, said. “Why was I spared? Why did I survive?”

The question goes back to the day when the 10-year-old Backer was put on a train in his native Prague to travel to England to be raised by strangers. His mother insisted on it, to protect her son from the anti-Semitism of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Because of her foresight, Backer escaped the Holocaust, as did the rest of his family.

Backer has written a memoir of those days, and of his adulthood working with communities in New Jersey and Hartford. A book launch will be held Wednesday in West Hartford for “My Train To Freedom: A Jewish Boy's Journey from Nazi Europe to a Life of Activism” (Skyhorse Publishing).

“I lived while so many of my own relatives whom I loved, parents and their children of my age perished. Why? What should be my response to the central event of my young life — being spared a terrifying death?” Backer writes. “I contemplated how to integrate the meaning behind being saved into a purposeful life. The lingering question demanded an answer.”

Backer has given talks in the Hartford area in the past. In 2012, “Nicky's Family” was shown at the Mandell JCC Greater Hartford Jewish Film Festival, and Backer spoke at a screening. The documentary is about Nicholas Winton, the Brit who rescued 669 Jewish children with his Kinder-transport.

The Kinder-transport and its aftermath is only half of Backer's memoir. He begins the book with happy childhood memories before the Nazis came and later tells of the many families in England who took him in. Backer also tells stories from his adulthood, about his work as a parish priest advocating for progressive causes, his departure from the pastorship because his politics were considered too radical by church hierarchy, and his move to Hartford, where he worked at Trinity College and with community organizations to improve the successes of downtrodden neighborhoods and the futures of their residents.

All of his activism began with a conversion to Christianity, a step that angered Backer's older brother Frank. “It was right after the war. He saw the horror, the aftermath of the Nazis. I think he thought I was abandoning the Jewish tradition,” Backer said. “I wasn't. I was embracing something else.”

He added that he often questioned his own decision to convert. “Sometimes when I was at the altar, I heard an inner voice — what's a nice Jewish boy like you doing here?” he writes in his book.

At Trinity College, Backer worked to improve relations between the university and the surrounding community. He joined the Blue Hills Civic Association in the early 1970s during a time of white flight. He helped with the launch of the Hartford News community paper. He worked with other civic organizations to elevate blighted areas and improve educational opportunities for women and disadvantaged youths. Most recently, in 2011 and 2012, Backer joined other protesters in the Occupy Hartford movement.

Backer is retired, but he works as a co-chairman with an adult learning program affiliated with ElderHostel and UConn.

His book goes into detail not just about Backer's triumphs as an activist, but also his unfulfilled hopes, such as the lack of concrete results of the Occupy movement and other attempts he made. Although these stumbles disappoint him, he is philosophical about them.

“A lot of times I felt, when I was standing on that street corner with signs, that I was just bearing witness,” he said. “You may not see visible short-term results, but it's important to bear witness.

(Susan Dunne, Hartford Courant)

Learn More:

Read "My Train to Freedom"