by Maeve Callahan – firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Wednesday, thousands of emotional onlookers packed into St. Peter’s Square to see Pope Francis on the balcony of the Vatican. The televised images unexpectedly triggered a long forgotten memory for Holocaust survivor Walter Ziffer.
“These mass meetings produce a kind of hysteria and it reminds me of those days. These sort of things hang over you,” Ziffer said.
Ziffer recalled the time he watched from a window as thousands stood in Heil Hitler salute during a speech by Joseph Goebbels, the German minister of propaganda, in his town’s square. As the crowd dispersed, Ziffer and his cousin dodged rocks that came smashing through the window where they had been watching.
Ziffer, who spent four years imprisoned in seven different concentration camps, comes to UNC Asheville on Wednesday night to share his stories.
Deborah Miles, executive director of the Center for Diversity Education, said Ziffer’s speech at 7 p.m. in Alumni Hall of Highsmith University Union, focuses on his experiences as a teenager in the Holocaust and how it changed his life.
Approximately six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, which means “sacrifice by fire,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. By 1945, two out of every three European Jews were killed.
A black-and-white family photograph sitting on a shelf next to Ziffer’s dining room table shows Ziffer as a boy standing with his family before the war. After the war, half of the people in the photo were killed.
Before his deportation to one of the 20,000 concentration camps, Ziffer lived in a ghetto and endured forced labor. The ghettos were created to concentrate and monitor the Jewish population prior to deportation, according to the USHMM website.
“After a series of evictions, I ended up in a ghetto with just under a thousand others, of whom 99 percent were murdered,” Ziffer said.
Suffering imprisonment, beatings and starvation left Ziffer feeling inhuman. However, he considers himself lucky he never ended up in an extermination camp.
“I was never exposed to that kind of camp, as many of the people in my town were. The ones where you went in and in 24 hours you were dead and out the chimney,” Ziffer said.
Miles spoke about the importance of hearing Ziffer speak on Wednesday, which will follow the opening reception of the art exhibit, “Parallel Journeys: WWII and the Holocaust.”
“It has been 68 years since Ziffer was liberated and we have limited time left to hear the stories of those who lived through the Holocaust,” Miles said.
Ziffer said he has spoken to more than 20,000 people about the Holocaust, but he has never spoken to an audience about his personal experiences.
“In the past, I was asked to talk about the Holocaust in a very objective way, a very academic way. But on Wednesday I am going to talk about myself and some of the toxic deposit that has remained in my head, which is not pleasant,” Ziffer said.
Ziffer attributes much of his success in becoming what friends call “the best adjusted Holocaust survivor they know” with making choices to remove himself from the past.
“If you allow yourself to be sick about this, you are really giving Hitler a posthumous reward for having destroyed your life. And I will not let that happen. That means he is victorious,” Ziffer said.
Ziffer decided to come speak because he wanted people to learn from his experiences.
On April 8, the USHMM dedicates this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day to “Never Again: Heeding the Warning Signs.”
“I think the Holocaust is a lesson for us to be taught and listened to because evil continues existing and has to be combatted,” Ziffer said.