A Survivor Speaks
He's a small man, the kind who wears coats and hats in the summer.
"I can't tolerate the air-conditioning," he said.
He's frail, with pale hands extending from long sleeves that he pulls at, and, if you know his story, you might assume he's hiding something, a tattoo? Numbers?
Throughout his story, he makes no mention of the numbers forever inked on his arms. He talks of the tattoos, the branding of the Jews by Nazi Germany, but he never links them, the tattoo to his own arm. It's as though it would make it too real.
Zev Weiss' story, however, is already too real to the hushed crowd gathered at the Broyhill Inn and Conference Center in Boone.
Weiss spoke last Tuesday as part of the Appalachian State University Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies' Martin and Doris Rosen Summer Symposium on "Remembering the Holocaust," now in its ninth year at the Broyhill Inn and Conference Center. The conference focuses on educating teachers about the Holocaust.
The things Weiss has seen appear vividly in the minds of the witnesses, almost as if they were watching a movie. But, as Weiss will tell you, it's not a movie. It's way, way too real.
"So look at me as you would look back on history, 75 years ago, and I'll try to walk you through my part," he said.
We all know the setting, the war, the German invasion, but it's the speed that's surprising. In Weiss' small village in what's now Hungary, events unfolded slowly. He grew up on land his family had lived on for more than 300 years. Farmers, "they made a good living," he said. "There was nothing that we couldn't get as a child."
The Jewish community where he grew up took up about a third of the town's population of about 8,000, with its own school. He came from a large family. His father had nine siblings and most of them had children. He had 72 cousins in all, and everyone grew up together and played together.
"Life was really good," he said.
And then came the war and change, gradual change.
"Let me tell you what gradual means," he said. "Anti-Semitism in my community existed like everywhere else ... it was very tolerable. If I got beaten up, I learned to beat them up ... quite often I got cornered and got my share of pelting, but I learned to give it back, and I discovered, with the advisement of my older friends, he says take a handful of sand, throw it in their eye, and they won't come back for awhile, and it worked."
Then 1942 arrived and subtle changes worked their way into the routine.
"They came and took away the cows, so we won't have milk," he said. "You couldn't go out certain times. They raise your taxes. You had to pay special taxes if you wanted to make matzo for Passover and other subtle ways of restricting your life."
Still, it was a war that seemed far away.
"We knew the war was on," he said. "We knew there was all sorts of rumors. Nobody paid real serious attention to it, so ask yourself why? Why human nature, human nature is such that you say to yourself it will not happen to me? So, people didn't pay attention ... there's a Hebrew expression ... God in heaven will not allow this to happen."
But, despite what Weiss calls denial, 1943 saw the Nazis taking away male heads of families, older teenagers to work on behalf of the German armies, digging ditches on the front. Still, about eight months later, Weiss' father was allowed to return and his family was able to keep up the denial.
"We were not well-informed. The war was pushing west to east ... by that time ... they had pretty much defeated the German army, but this did not affect what was to come."
Restrictions continued and intensified. Soon, Weiss had to wear a yellow star and couldn't leave his home but for certain hours. Then, he and his family were moved into a ghetto, first in the synagogue, then in a nearby town.
"From there, in early May, we were deported to Birkenau," he said.
Birkenau. The death camp.
"It took about three or four days to get there," he said, with about 80 people to a cattle car with room for only 40.
"We were ordered out of the train and greeted with shouts, 'Arise, arise, get out and line up,'" he said. "We were divided into two parts. Those who went to the right and those who went to the left. Nobody knew. Some people might have suspected, but we didn't really know what was in store, what was happening."
That was the last time he saw his sister, mother and grandmother.
"We went to the left, and I ended up with my brother and father for one night," he said. "We had no conception of what was going on. No idea. No way of knowing."
After all, Weiss was only 12 years old.
"We were taken into a large room where your hair was cut and some powder put on you," he said. "The only way I survived was because the crematorium didn't work fast enough."
Weiss was taken to a barrack with as many as 600 other people, a barrack made for "maybe 200."
"All they cared about was to jam you in until they take you to the crematorium the next day or the day after," he said. "Every day in the late afternoon, the siren went on, which meant that you had to line up outside."
There, the motion of a finger or a head would condemn people to live or die.
"And you could see the smoke coming from the crematorium," he said.
There were ways out. Weiss saw many people run for the electric fences and commit suicide.
Others, like Weiss' brother, did not survive the selection. Of all of his immediate family, Weiss was all that survived Birkenau.
"Don't ask me how I survived," he said, removing his sweater and folding it at the podium.
Then, one day in September, he, along with other members of his barrack, were forced into a truck.
"It was actually designated to be taken to the crematorium," he said. "And we were put on the truck crying, this was the end of life."
Instead, the truck was taken to Auschwitz for tattoos before heading to Weiss' third hellish destination, Gliewitz, Poland.
"Gliewitz was a war camp, and the reason they took us there was people who died in Gliewitz had to be replaced," he said. "It had a steel and cement factory, and we were the new supply of human workforce. You can imagine how I probably weighed about 90 pounds, but it was survival. We got to Gliewitz and survived."
Every day, amid subzero temperatures, he carried cement blocks on his shoulder, unloading the trains.
"Some days I was lucky and worked in the steel part ... it was nice and warm," he said.
In spite of "indescribable" conditions, Weiss continued to survive, and while at Gliewitz was influenced by "bright, brilliant people," poets, teachers, and dentists who taught him to care for his teeth with leaves.
It was there, amid the exhaustion, cold and death, that he learned to appreciate poetry, as teachers and poets recited them to the other prisoners, poems Weiss can, to this day, recite by heart.
"We knew absolutely nothing as far as time, date ... it was just obeying orders," he said.
But in early January, the prisoners were ordered to line up once more. By this time, unbeknownst to Weiss, Auchwitz had already been liberated. The Russians were coming from the east, Americans from the west.
And, back at Gliewitz, the prisoners were ordered to march. You may know it from history as the death march, a trek through a narrow area still controlled by the German army. Here's where Weiss' voice started to tremble.
"We started in the evening and we walked until quite late when we were divided on the highway, half left, half right. There was probably two feet of snow then. You did what you had to do to try to survive."
His farm background taught him to dig in the snow for warmth.
"Those who were on the left side ... they went into a big huge barn," he said. "They lucked out."
He smirked, recalling how bitter the right side was at having to sleep in the snow.
"Early in the morning ... as we were lining up, they burned the barn with the people in it," he said.
As he finished the sentence, he moved from the podium, his voice shaking with his hands, something like tears welling in his eyes. He had to get water before continuing. Even after 75 years, the memory of the smell, the smoke, the screams, they weigh on him.
"We kept marching," he said, trying to shake it off. "It was estimated at the last death that 8 percent of those that started survived."
Survivors were placed on a cattle car and taken, "of all places in the world," to Sachsenhausen.
"All of it was evil, but Sachsenhausen was evil-plus," he said. "They made prisoners walk around in circles on nails."
And through it all, the war was coming to an end. When the Russians liberated Berlin, however, the Germans loaded the prisoners back onto a cattle car, and traveled "back and forth" to all the areas Germany still controlled, including another concentration camp, Manhausen.
"Unfortunately, the crematorium there didn't work, so they killed you by hunger and lice," he said.
Eventually, tens of thousands of survivors were taken into a field where, at long last, they were liberated on the last day of the war.
"One evening, early evening, there were shots from all over, machine guns, then it quieted down. The towers were empty and the nightmare was over, but a new nightmare started."
It was chaotic, people looking for food, people trying to figure out what to do next.
"What do you do if you're liberated, if there's nobody to turn to ... you're among trees?"
Weiss and a friend started walking and, when they couldn't walk any more, they collapsed into a ditch where they were discovered by Americans in a jeep. The Americans took them to a hospital and, even though the hospital initially refused to treat "this type of prisoner," one American, a Quaker, didn't take that for an answer.
"He came to visit us to see if we were okay every single day," he said.
And because of the American, he survived.
"It took me about four weeks to get home," he said, and when he arrived, he found a stranger with a gun had taken possession of his house.
"I left and I never went back," he said.
He found a few cousins, all that survived of his family, and from there, Weiss made it to an orphanage.
"Good food, everything was good," he said.
The orphanage helped him immigrate to Canada where, despite immense adversity, he was able to finish school, eventually applying and being accepted to McGill in Montreal.
Since graduating, he has devoted his life to education. First, as part of the regular school system, then, in the late '70s, he took a "real gamble," quitting his job to start Peace and Holocaust studies at the collegiate level, videotaping the stories of survivors, trying to teach others the art of "compassion."
"So, I urge you, if you learn anything ... have compassion," he said.
When asked how, amid the Holocaust, he kept his faith, he answered, "Who said I did?"
"Belief," he said, "is a very complicated issue ... to me, God doesn't reside in heaven. He resides in you."
He resides in you, he said, through compassion.
Weiss spoke last Tuesday as part of the Appalachian State University Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies' Martin and Doris Rosen Summer Symposium on "Remembering the Holocaust," now in its ninth year at the Broyhill Inn and Conference Center. The conference focuses on educating teachers on the Holocaust.