Holocaust refugee speaks at UNG in Cumming
Former Peace Corps director talks technology, ‘surviving Hitler’ and more
Woodrow Wilson Fellow Walter P. Blass stopped by the University of North Georgia’s Cumming campus on Tuesday. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

Walter P. Blass has lived an interesting life that has included an escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, serving as a country director in the Peace Corps and becoming a professor at Fordham University in New York City.

This week, he has been sharing his experiences with University of North Georgia students.

On Tuesday, Blass stopped by the school’s Cumming campus for a pair of events as part of a weeklong residential program as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. He said his presentation has changed depending on who he was talking to.

“I’ve tried to ask questions rather than give a lecture,” Blass said. “I know the story about my surviving Hitler and so forth; I hate to bore myself repeating and repeating it. So, I think I’ve tried to emphasize different things on different campuses.”

Blass and his family escaped Nazi Germany and later Belgium, and he spent four months separated from his family. 

“I was out of contact with my father for four months and my mother almost a whole month; she was in a concentration camp for women. My father had already been taken by the Belgians as a possible enemy alien,” Blass said. “I mean, it was a war, and the characteristic of war is confusion.”

Blass said after his mother was released, she wrote a letter saying she would get his father, then one of them would come find him.

“She has a letter from me, writing back, that said, ‘no, you come get me first,’” he said. “I was 10 years old, typical 10-year-old; they’re quite self-centered.”

The family was eventually able to escape to America, and Blass said he “burst out crying” many years later when reading the letters for the first time as an adult.

“Reading that handwriting and reading those words brought back all of the negative emotions and it was just devastating,” Blass said.

Blass said sharing those experiences with the students and addressing topics relevant to their courses, such as discussing globalization at the local campus.

Besides telling his personal story, Blass spoke on a variety of topics such as the trend of education taking place more and more online and what that could mean for the future.

“Technology change is going to affect all of the elements: administration, faculty students, buildings and so forth,” Blass said. “You don’t need a cafeteria if all of your students are online.”

Sheila Caldwell, advisor to the UNG president on diversity and director of Complete College Georgia, said Blass had a busy day in Cumming and met with many groups.

“He spoke to leadership groups, student government associations and the greater student population,” she said, “and a hundred students at World Language Academy.”

Caldwell said Blass would be going to the school’s other campuses and speaking to those communities as well. She estimated he would speak to 1,000 students by the end of the week.

“We’re always trying to expose faculty, staff and students, as well as the community, to opportunities that enhance their cultural competency,” she said. “I feel like Mr. Blass has unique experiences that people have not had a chance to hear about before.”