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Holocaust survivor recounts history of anti-Semitism
Wednesday, 06 March 2019 11:52

The first story in a two-part series


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Weaverville resident and Holocaust survivor Walter Ziffer 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.

He spoke about 45 minutes each on the topics of anti-Semitism and his experiences  as a Holocaust survivor. he also 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 hat sparked controversy.

Mallory was the keynote speaker at a program capping the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Week, which featured a number of activities honoring King accomplishments as a civil rights leader.

Mallory, a New York City-based activist and co-organizer of the Woman’s March, has been accused of anti-Semitism as a result of her association with — and praise for — Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is a declared black nationalist and an anti-Semite. Farrakhan, among other assertions, has referred to Jews as “termites.” 

Mallory at one point recently posted on social media that Farrakhan was the “GOAT,” an acronym for “greatest of all time.”

Locally, when it was revealed that Mallory would be the featured speaker, UNCA caught flak from Jewish activists and others, who contended that it was an insult to King’s legacy, which abhorred anti-Semitism, for the university to sponsor the week’s keynote speaker at a celebration to honor the ideas and work of King, who was strongly anti-Semitic.

Some of the protesters opposing Mallory’s appearance said that, to add insult to injury, her talk was held in Lipinsky Auditorium, which named in honor of philanthropist Solomon Lipinsky, who was a prominent Jewish businessman and community leader in Asheville. From the 1890s to 1978, nearly 90 years, the Bon Marché became the longest running department store in Asheville’s history.

In response, Mallory has said she is not anti-Semitic, but she has not publically denounced Farrakhan for his open, frequent and long-standing anti-Semitism.

Prior to his address, Ziffer was introduced by UNCA’s Cori  Anderson, interim director of the university’s events and conferences office.

She noted that “Dr. Ziffer is from Czechoslovakia,” where he was born in 1927.

“He endured life as a teenager in seven different Nazi concentration camps... He was liberated (by the Soviet Union Army) at the age of 18, weighing 75 pounds.”

Later, Ziffer “immigrated in 1945 to Nashville, Tenn.,” and later earned a number of college degrees.

He has taught philosophy and religion at UNCA, Mars Hill University and other shcools, she said.

Ziffer, who is in his 90s, began his address by thanking UNCA’s new chancellor, Nancy J. Cable, for inviting him to give his talk. 

“She asked me to talk about anti-Semitism — and some about my experiences. Because of time, I won’t be able to do much of the latter....

“The timing for the talk is good because this university celebrated two weeks ago the birthday of Martin Luther King (Jr.),” whom he termed a great prophet for freedom.”

Ziffer then noted that, in his address, he was only speaking “for myself — and not the university, global Judaism” or any other entty.

“We remember Martin Luther Kng and his work and his overview of social justice. For white people, he helped liberate them against the curse of abominable treatment of blacks.

“This I can confirm with all Jews that we stand uniquivocally with Dr. Martin Luther King on his efforts” to improve conditions for African-Americans and other disadvantaged people..

Next, Ziffer pointed out that “Merriam Webster dictionary defines ‘anti-Semitism’ as hostility against Jews and Judaism...”

He said the term “anti-Semitism was “coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a German agitator.

“Some would have it as the conflict between the Jews and Jesus advocates… but I’m sure that’s incorrect,” Ziffer said.

Anti-Semitism appears to have arisen “from a rivalry of traditional Jews and nascent Judeo-Christianity — Judaism’s spiritual offspring that chose to go off in a different direction.”

Ziffer said some scholars believe “the origin of anti-Semitism (occurred) in the 7th century in Asia Minor (and nearby areas)” with “a group called ‘the Church Fathers.” There were “300 or 400 of them,” Ziffer said, adding that “they wrote and taught actively against Jews.” Especially among 20 or 25 of them, their language (toward Jews) was just abominable.”

Next, Ziffer said anti-Semitism was fueled by “the formal teaching in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism…. Milito Sardis, in the 2nd century...  He (Sardis) accuses the Jews of ‘deicide’ (the murder of God)” by holding them responsible for ‘the crucifixion of Jesus, the incarnate God.”

With a wry laugh, Ziffer said that “some people here in Asheville” have been known to call some Jews ‘Christ-killers.’”

What’s more, Ziffer said that during the 5th century the term “sermons” arose — and some Christian leaders “referred to the synagogue is a ‘whorehouse’ — and that insults went down from there.

In 1543, he said, Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, wrote that “the synagogues should be set on fire and covered over with dirt” and that “they (the Jews) should be deprived of their prayer books,”

Luther also wrote of Jews, “Let us drive them out of our country for all time, so away with them,” according to Ziffer.

After a pause, the retired professor said, “In other interpretations (of Luther’s invective), Martin Luther meant (remove Jews) “for good.”

Ironically, just when Ziffer made the last comment, the lights at UNCA blinked off — and then back on —  rapidly. 

Ziffer joked about whether there was any cosmic coincidence with the momentary power outage, while the crowd laughed, albeit sounding more nervous than amused.

Next, Ziffer noted that in the book “Mein Kamf,” Adolf Hitler writes a description “of a typical Jew.... ‘Waiting for an unsuspecting girl whom he defiles.’”

Hitler wrote that a Jew “lowers the racial level by the continuous poisoning of individuals” through breeding with non-Jews. “A provisional option is …. the coming, final solution to the Jewish problem.”

Ziffer said that Joseph Goebbels, who served as Hitler’s minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, wrote in his diary on Mach 27, 1942 regarding his thoughts on “the evacuation eastward,” stating, “the procedure is a pretty barbaric one… On the whole, about 60 percent of them (the Jews) will have to be liquidated. While 40 percent can be used for forced labor.”

At that point, Ziffer declared, “That’s all I can say about anti-Semitism... The rest of my talk is about anti-Semitism as a experienced it.”

In speaking of the country in which he was born, Ziffer said, “Now Czechoslovakia was one of the most democratic countries in Europe before World War II... Anti-Semitism was existent in (what is now) the Czech Republic when we lived there....

“One day after school I walked home with a boy serious about his Judaism… In a tunnel-like portion (of their path homeward), we passed some of our peers,who shouted ‘filthy little Jews.’

“They threw rocks at us, at the time. And Jacob Katz (the boy) started running in one direction and I started running in the other.

“When I got home, my Mom’s response was to take me into her arms. She said, ‘Voltie, forget it. They were no good street urchins.’”

“But,” Ziffer said, “the question is where did these street urchins learn to hate Jewish children? Parents, teachers and preachers. Very sad. But that was how it was.”

He then reiteraed, “Czechoslovakia was a very democratic country, but anti-Semitism existed.”

Next, he noted, “Poland invaded Czechoslovakia… Then the Germans invaded Poland .... We were forced to attend Polish schools. We were Jews and we were Czechs — and we couldn’t speak Polish,” at first.

“Suddenly, everything was empty, and it was the Polish Army retreating from the border. Everyone rushed east toward Russia” in Poland

Right behind those in retreat, Ziffer recalled, “the German Army came driving in, without a shot being fired, going east toward Poland.

“The war against Poland lasted only two weeks. It was called the Blitzkrieg — the lightning war. Then the ‘SS’ came in — they were the occupation troops that stayed in our town.”

With a smile, Ziffer noted that, “at age 12, I lived a good life. My father was a highly educated man. He saw transmitting his wisdom to his children” as a key responsibility.

“My Mom was a fantastic woman. She would have given the shirt off her back to a poor person who needed it. My sister was my protector and she was a tough woman....

“That first night after the German occupation occurred ... I woke up early on Sept. 2 (1942). Something in the air made me very nervous. I went to look for my hero, my father. I saw him looking over the balcony. He was smoking and looking very pale. I asked what was going on. He laid his — usually warm —  ice-cold hands on my head. He said, ‘Listen, Waltie... Waltie, I think they are burning our synagogue.’

 Eventually, Ziffer noted, “I said to my father, ‘Look the sun is coming up.’ He said, ‘Yes, the sun is coming up, but our sun is setting.’”

Ziffer added, “We could see the synagogue. It was smashed. I was not terribly struck to see the synagogue burned down” because “I wasn’t terrible excited about going to religion classes....

“Standing by the ruined synagogue, nobody said anything to us,” even though Ziffer noted that his father was “a well-known lawyer and head of the Jewish community.... I heard snide remarks,” such as “they had it coming.”

Then, “we were evicted from our apartment. We were allowed two suitcases to carry out. We had beautiful oil paintings, a library of some 2,000 books,” but “in one day or so, we were reduced to poverty. Think about it... To lose everything you own, just like that....

“Then with Gustapo (taking charge), the Jews were to be identified with a white arm band…. Then a few months later, a new edict we had to sew on the front left of your jacket a yellow patch saying ‘Jew.’

“We were soon tripped up and spat upon by Nazi youths. We were forced to do forced-labor.

“When my Mom went to the market to shop for food, many of the farmers suddently did not want to be seen with Jews” However, Ziffer noted with pride, “My mom was popular with some of the farmers — and she always brought home food” to the family.

“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 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.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This remainder of this story will continue in April’s edition.


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