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Holocaust survivor discusses ‘camps,’ Nazis, anti-Semitism
Tuesday, 02 April 2019 22:50

Second in a series of two stories


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EDITOR’S NOTE: Weaverville resident and Holocaust survivor Walter Ziffer, a local scholar now in his 90s, addressed “Anti-Semitism” on Jan. 31 at the UNC Asheville Highsmith Center’s Grotto — and drew a standing-room-only crowd of around 165 people.

Ziffer spoke about 45 minutes each on the topics of anti-Semitism and his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. 

He then fielded questions from the audience for about 15 minutes.

His talk came on the heels of a Jan. 24 speech at UNCA by Tamika D. Mallory, who brushed off accusations of being anti-Semitic for her friendship with the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, an outspoken anti-Semite. She has called him “the GOAT” — greatest of all time.  Her talk sparked concern, particularly in the Asheville Jewish community. 

The previous article spotlighted Ziffer’s retelling of his early life and experiences in what is now the Czech Republic, prior to enduring and surviving imprisonment for more than  three years — from ages 15 to 18 — in seven Nazi slave-labor concentration camps.

Ziffer shared his recollections of his family’s experiences after being ordered to leave its comfortable home — and of meeting the first girl with which he was smitten.

 He told the UNCA audience, “We had two more evictions. We eventually ended up in a ghetto… an abandoned entertainment complex,” where “nothing was working... 

“All of this for about 1,000 Jewish men, women and children. It was atrocious living. But I fell in love with a girl (Livia) with golden hair. We played ping-pong with improvised boards. Our family lived in the (complex’s) dance hall on the stage.

“My father was lucky enough to find a factory about an hour’s train travel from our town, where he was willing to work in a defense factory,” Ziffer said.

“Livia told me that she and her family had decided to leave clandestinely to walk east toward Russia, which was still a haven for Jews... We cried and embraced….”

Somberly, he added, “About 10 days later, someone told my father that Livia and her family had been found and shot dead.”

As he absorbed the shock of Livia’s death, Ziffer said, “We (his family) were “ordered to pack for our resettlement to the east. 

“Then the (approximately) 1,000 Jews (in their settlement) were marched down to a nearby junkyard. We were ordered to hand over all valuables. There were German soldiers with guns and whips.

“The men and women were separated, each into three groups — old, middle-aged and young... My mother raced after me and yelled, “Waltie, Waltie… don’t leave me!” 

Ziffer recalled grimly, “She was brutally stopped by a German soldier....

“I’m going to stop here and say this... I still can’t give over our (U.S.) recent policy of separating parents and children (of illegal immigrants) at our Southern border. If there is any sin, that is a sin.”

Continuing, Ziffer said, “We were brutally pushed into the train cars. And then the trains started moving and the destination was unknown. I’m so glad we didn’t know the destination — because that destination was death” in concentration camps — for most Jews.” 

“The purpose of a concentration camp was exactly the same as an extermination camp. It was just a longer period before death....  Joseph Goebells was right when he said what he said” about “the big lie,” Ziffer said.

(“Goebbels was a German Nazi politician and Reich minister of propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. He was one of Adolf Hitler’s close associates and most devoted followers, and was known for his skills in public speaking and his deep, virulent anti-Semitism, which was evident in his publicly voiced views. He advocated progressively harsher discrimination, including the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust,” according to Wikipedia.

(Goebbels also was considered the originator of “the big lie,”  which, according to Wikipedia, “was a narrative of an innocent, besieged Germany striking back at an ‘international Jewry,’  which, it said, started World War I. The propaganda repeated over and over the claim that a conspiracy of Jews was the real power in Britain, Russia and the United States. It went on to state that the Jews had begun a ‘war of extermination’ against Germany, and so Germany had a duty and a right to ‘exterminate’ and ‘annihilate’ the Jews in self-defense.”)

Ziffer noted that, upon entry into the concentration camps, “out of 16 kids (that he traveled with on the train), two of us survived” the years in the camps. “One was Peter Berger, who, after separation, went to Israel... and me.

“I lived in seven different camps in Nazi-controlled Poland. They’ve now reverted to the Polish names,” he said.

“I was liberated on May 8, 1945” at age 18.

Regarding the seven camps, Ziffer said, “The most important item in our concentration camp life” was food. “We were hungry all of the time. We were given bread and a concoction of coffee. There was soup… There was favoritism for a friend who would dig deep in the kettle for content.”

As prisoners, “most of our conversations were about food,” Ziffer recalled. “For instance, how best to eat bread... I called these conversations ‘food philosophies.’ I decided to eat the whole piece of bread when I got it.”

He said the work in the camps included shoveling sand, unloading cement, mixing cement, laying cinderblock, bending rebar and building railroad lines.

As for clothing, Ziffer said that “the first few months, you wore the clothing you wore into the camp. Instead, of taking off your clothes, instead of receiving your clothes back, they were gone.”

Each prisoner was assigned a number by the Nazis. Appearing to focus hard, Ziffer said, “64,157 — is that correct? That was done only in Auschwitz. That was my number. I was deprived of my name. I was deprived of my humanity. I had all my hair cut off. I was an object, with which you could do whatever you wanted. We were given thin, loose weave pajama-type of clothes — a shirt, pants, a jacket and shoes. Never any underware or socks.

“We wore filthy rags, basically... There were infestations of lice. There was mutual de-lousing. But the lice would also burrow under our skin. So each night we had a mutual lice inspection. If you had lice, you had an infection and no longer could work. Then you would be sent to a camp where people who no longer work were machine-gunned and cremated en masse.

“Instead of being addressed by name, we were addressed by number. We also were called ‘Jew dog’ or ‘You Jewish piece of (expletive deleted).’”


Ziffer added, “Roll call for me was a nightmare. What happens when nature calls, right then and there? Most of us had diarrhea, chronically. We had roll call day or night. ... because the numbers never jibed. Some died at night. Others were shot. It was a nightmare.


“If you needed to urinate or (have a) bowel movement (during roll call), the inevitable thing happened,” since the prisoners never would be excused to use a toilet. “The urine would run down the legs to the wooden shoe (the prisoner wore) and onto the ground. And when it came time to march, they were frozen. We would  hit them with our shoe. But under their shoe there would be several inches of ice underneath their shoe. Later, they’d fall and we’d walk over them. No choice. Later, they would be shot.”


Pausing, Ziffer said, “It’s hard for me to understand that I went through this and that I survived.”


Regarding his second camp (Bronte), he noted, “We arrived after a horrible train ride. It was wintertime. On the horizon, we saw little houses. I’d see in the windows little lights. I saw them as the lights of Christmas trees. Jews usually don’t have Christmas trees.” However, he noted that his family was different from that of many Jews — so “we often had Hannukah gifts under a Christmas tree.


“I would hear ‘Silent Night’ and I was in the deepest of depressions. Somebody said Bronte was the convalescent camp. It didn’t have any construction site.” Tragically, Ziffer soon learned that “Bronte was something else. It had a Nazi commandant who was a sadist. He (the commandant) hobbled around from a World War I injury, which he blamed on the Jews….


“So how did he avenge himself?” Ziffer asked, rhetorically.


“During roll call, we were organized into groups. We (later) were dismissed to clean barracks” or to perform other jobs. “Shortly thereafter, we heard screaming… I asked a prisoner, what was this about? He just looked at me… A few days later, a couple came with two boys and said, ‘Follow me.’ What we saw were 12 or 14 naked corpses lying on the floor in excrement and blood on the tile floor. We had to put these corpses into a cart and put them in a park for burial and then clean up the barracks.


“I asked what happened to the men. The men were hit with pots of hot water and whips by Nazi guards until they died. I guess you could call it ‘Nazi entertainment,’” Ziffer said sadly.


Later, “a letter was intercepted — by a Jewish prisoner. I had (the misfortune) to be there, when the man was brought in.” The commandant “walked in and pulled out a piece of paper. He asked, “Did you write this?’ ‘Yes,’ the young man said. Immediately, whips hit him and he died. Eventually, there was nothing but a piece of flesh.”


That night, “we heard sounds… that I had never heard. Animal sounds. Howls. Screams. Then, toward morning, silence, because …. he (the Jewish prisoner) had died... This was a real Hell that people prepared .. and make ... and do ... to people.


“I will skip the other descriptions of camps. It was a parallel universe. Nothing like you’d find in this room.”


Continuing, Ziffer said, “We marched to work at 5 or 6 o’clock (in the morning) to work. I don’t know the exact time because we didn’t have watches.


“One day, someone threw a package over the fence. I received it. I ate the sandwich inside... Shots rang out. I don’t know if the person who threw it was killed” for that gift of food, but that is what Ziffer suspected.


He added, “My first night after the de-lousing, after getting into the bunkbed, I had to take my shoes off. There was something oozing from my foot. I just went to sleep.


‘When you don’t get enough food, your brain doesn’t work well. Several days later, I saw my foot was green. I went to a clinic and I heard the word ‘gangrene.’ They cleansed my foot with alcohol. I screamed. They hid me under the floor for several days,” as the Nazis would shoot to death prisoners who were too sick to work.


“On May 8 (in 1945), in the early morning, we stood for roll call. We looked at the triple fence. There was nothing up there. There were no soldiers. In my state of mind, it meant nothing to me.


“The triple gates opened, the German Waffen-SS commander entered, talked to the prison commander, then left. He took a key from his belt and threw it over the three fences and it landed on our side.


“Then a Soviet tank drove in and smashed some of the fences. We still didn’t understand what had happened. Then, a person standing next to me (an Austrian) said, ‘I think it’s over. Let’s get organized and get some food.’ Get some food was (always) the No. 1 thought in our minds.


"There was nobody around. There were brown cans on the shelves. Another guy found a screwdriver” and they opened a can that was filled with grease,” Ziffer recollected. “But it smelled like pork fat. So we ate can after can of pork fat. We hadn’t had meat in four years.”


Next, “We found sugar. We hadn’t seen sugar in three years. We got on all fours and shoveled sugar into our mouths. 


“Then, my friends, everything went blank. I later awoke, and there was a cuckoo clock on the wall.” It was at that point, Ziffer said, that he realized, “Now it is over. You are free.”


He added, “We finally woke up. We stayed with a woman who cooked us soup.We also broke into the basements of abandoned houses. But we wanted to get rid of our filthy rags. I don’t know what I found, but it was good.


“We hadn’t had to make a decision in three years. So we went back to the camp. Then women came to our camp from other concentration camps.


“I asked if they had ever run into any women named Ziffer.” To his surprise, he recalled, “they said, ‘Of course.’”


“I was a skeleton. I was 18 years old and weighed 87 pounds. We looked like apparitions from Hell.”


In his early observations after being freed from the camps, Ziffer said, “The women had made much more progress than the men” in adjusting to life after imprisonment.


Soon, he observed a door opening, “and in came my sister, my mother and my cousin. They came in with sacks filled with food... They smiled sort of an angelic smile. They walked right by me,” not recognizing him.


Ziffer noted that “I was scared — and walked over to my Mom and said, ‘I’m Walter, your son,’ surprising but delighting her, as he was so thin she did not — at first — see him as her son.


“We spent nights with peasants and we finally arrived in my (home) town. We found out that my father already was there.He was staying in the apartment of our maid.”


Sadly, Ziffer said, “It took my father a long time to heal. Something had gotten taken away from him” from the Holocaust experience.


“So that is my story,” Ziffer concluded.


“Anti-Semitism over the centuries has done enormous damage to my people. It murdered one third of us (Jews) on the globe — 6 million human beings (died), including 14 members of my family.”


In shifting to contemporary times, Ziffer said, “After the slaying of the Jews in the synagogue in Pittsburgh —  I think the Jewish community is slowly coming out of shock. Anti-Semitism is still alive. I’m optimistic that we have the capacity to do that.


“We also know other American minority people are ready to join us, as we join them….


“So I ask myself what the future will bring.”


He then spoke of  “a political science,” in which “the future is not some place we’re going, but some place we’re creating….


“So I’m convinced about the future that, with your help, ‘We shall overcome.’ Thank you!”


His hour-long speech received a standing ovation from the crowd.


After his address, he fielded questions from the audience for about 20 minutes.


A grey-haired man led off the Q&A by asking Ziffer, “There always were (television0 shows on the Haulocast as I was growing up. I don’t see any of that now. I wonder why” Ziffer thinks this is occurring?


“They recede into the past,” Ziffer replied, “Particularly nowadays, with the media. They bring us new catasrophes and problems and all kinds of controversies. You know, we don’t even have time to think through from yesterday, last week, last year. We’re being overwhelmed with constant news. That problably explains why the Halocaust has receded into the past.


“I’m not sure how many of you realize how anti-Semitic actions have hurt our people for 20 centuries… We don’t talk about this even in our own synagogues.”


Yet, Ziffer said he realizes he is not beyond criticism, so “don’t think I’m patting myself on the back... I was invited to do this talk.”


Another oIder man asked, “When you were in the camp did you lose your faith in God? How did, you regain your faith in God?”


“While my father was an extraordinary person in every way, my father was not a very religious person,” Ziffer replied. “He was an upright person and a very ethical person — and I think that is why he was the leader of our congregation.


“Some people who came out of the concentration camps not only kept their faith, they came out with stronger faith.”


He added, “Questions were raised, such as, ‘Where was God?’ ‘Where was the God of the Book of Exodus who told us we were his special people?’ These are quotes from the Hebrew Bible. ‘Where was Jesus?’ These are problems.


“There are some folks who would say you don’t have to deal wth them… Isaiah — ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts’…. Well, what do you do with that, for Pete’s sake? Then the rest of the Bible tells you all about love... Then professional religious people, as rabbis are, say they are things we just don’t know... If we don’t know what happened then, then we won’t know what happens tomorrow.”


Further, Ziffer asserted, “History is important from an academic standpoint. But also that we don’t need to make the same mistakes over and over... We seem to have good teachers, but not good students.”


A young man asked Ziffer to share his thoughts “about fascism and bigotry in this country.”


“I’m not sure what can be done, other than conversation with other people,” Ziffer said. “This is happening (even) in Asheville. People are conversing. I don’t participate because I’m too old. I’m getting tired right now, as a matter of fact....


“The German people jumped on Hitler’s bandwagon. There were some tiny (Christian) churches, however, that said ‘no’ to Hitler.. They laid their lives on the line.”


Ziffer then quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian was put to death by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler, who said the oft-quoted: “Only those who criy out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian chant.”


Pausing, Ziffer said, “First of all, you have to be interested. I could stand here and tell you much more about theology, which happens to be my profession. 


“You have to be open to listening. But that is not enough. Because listening has to be transformed into action. But that can be dangerous.


A young woman asked, “How can we, as Americans today, combat modern-day anti-Semitism?


“Have you ever attended a Jewish worship service?” Ziffer said in response.


“Yes, when I was younger,” the woman replied.


“That’s good,” Ziffer answered. “We’re open to women. We’re open to all .. You have to come be with us — and you’ll be included, without having to become a Jew... Once you come to us, we’ll be in contact. And that’s where everything starts.”


A grey-haired man asked, “Why there persists in our country an element of anti-Semitism? I don’t see it with others — Irish or Greeks... Why does it persist?


“First of all, let me say that anti-Semitism doesn’t just persist in our country,” Ziffer replied. 


He then asked, rhetorically, “Why does it persist in our country, given our Founding Fathers’ documents? Why are women not fully accepted? Millions of years of evolution have left some deposits here…. Some of that is still in us. …. If you study evolutionary psychology, we’ve acquired antidotes to that.


“In Judaism, we don’t have Original Sin. In Judaism, every child who comes into the world has an equal inclination…. You have to nurture the good side of the scale, so the good side goes up and the bad side goes down. … 


“Only that (education) can heal that absolutely ugly phenomena you see in the world. Also, the capacity to be thinkers who can distinguish between lies and the truth. Education is the key,” Ziffer said, in concluding the Q&A session.



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