Learning from the Holocaust


In one of the darkest moments of modern civilisation, over six million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany in a state-sponsored genocide.  This event (The Holocaust) killed over two-thirds of Europe’s entire Jewish population.  The Nazis, in their single-minded belief of German racial superiority, targeted any group they felt as ‘racially or ideologically inferior‘ including  Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians and so on), Socialists, Communists, Jehova’s Witnesses and homosexuals.

Believing that the Jewish people posed the greatest threat to their ideological plans, the Nazi party felt a systematic eradication of all Jewish people was the ‘Final Solution‘ to the ‘Jewish Problem‘.  As Henrich Himmler was quoted as saying, “I may here in this closest of circles allude to a question which you… which has become for me the most difficult question of my life, the Jewish question.. I have resolved even here on a completely clear solution… The difficult decision had to be taken, to cause this people to disappear from the earth.”

The level of dehumanisation witnessed in Nazi extermination camps during was staggering.  Killing was indiscriminate for those whom the party felt they had no use for, and many people were even used for human “medical” experiments.  the account of one Jewish inmate at Auschwitz (Vera Alexander) recalls, “…I remember one set of twins in particular: Guido and Ina, aged about four. One day, Mengele took them away. When they returned, they were in a terrible state: they had been sewn together, back to back, like Siamese twins. Their wounds were infected and oozing pus. They screamed day and night. Then their parents—I remember the mother’s name was Stella—managed to get some morphine and they killed the children in order to end their suffering….”

It took decades for the Jewish people and the rest of the world to recover from World War II, and for most of us- it is impossible to imagine how the very few survivors of such atrocities could rebuild their lives, but some did; and those individuals have gone-on to become ambassadors of hope, of peace, and of reconciliation at a time where it would appear our world has not just forgotten the past, but is doomed to repeat it.

I had the privilege of speaking to three Holocaust survivors who have gone-on to become humanitarians, peace-activists and educators. Walter Ziffer (author of ‘Confronting the Silence, A Holocaust Survivor’s Search for God’), Iby Knill (author of ‘Woman Without a Number’) and Eva Schloss MBE (author of ‘Eva’s Story: A Survivor’s Tale by the Stepsister of Anne Frank’).

[bios]Dr. Walter Ziffer is an adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Mars Hill College in Mars Hill, N.C. He has taught classes in Judaism, early Christian history, Biblical Hebrew and comparative religion. He received an engineering degree from Vanderbilt University, two masters degrees from the Graduate School of Theology of Oberlin College and a doctorate in theology from the University of Strasbourg, France. He has taught in theological seminaries in France, Belgium and Washington, D.C., at the University of Maine in Orono and UNC Asheville. Dr. Ziffer has lectured in numerous venues and has taught dozens of Elderhostel courses in and out of state. He is a survivor of the Holocaust from Czechoslovakia. He has published many articles in Europe and the US and is the author of the The Teaching of Disdain: An Examination of Christology and New Testament Attitudes Toward Jews, published by Orrington, in 1990 and most recently, The Birth of Christianity from the Matrix of Judaism, published by Author House in 2006.

During her childhood in Czechoslovakia, Iby’s parents – alarmed at the persecution of Jews in Germany – smuggled her over the border to Hungary.  She was caught by the security police and then imprisoned and tortured, not only as a result of her Jewish connections but for having entered Hungary illegally and for aiding the resistance movement. Eventually, Iby was sent to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.  In June 1944, Iby Knill left Auschwitz-Birkenau by volunteering to travel as a nurse with a slave labour transport of 500 women. Once transported to Lippstadt, she was put in charge of a hospital unit and risked her life protecting the weak and helpless from the gas chambers.  After decades of silence, Iby recounted her experiences in her book “The Woman Without a Number

Eva Schloss is a Holocaust survivor, peace activist, international speaker, teacher and a humanitarian.

She is also the step-sister of Anne Frank who wrote the book “The Diary of Anne Frank”.

Eva has an incredible story of survival, grit, loss and ultimate triumph of the human spirit against all odds. She survived escape from her homeland in Austria, two years in hiding in Amsterdam, capture on her 15th birthday, nine months in Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, repatriation to Holland, the death of her beloved father and brother… and the poison of bitterness, the burden of grief, the integration of loss.

Forty years after the end of World War II Eva began to share her story.  She has since written three books and spoken to more than one thousand audiences about her experiences.

Eva’s story is sensational and difficult to imagine, yet her insightful message reminds us that life is precious and fragile, that the creative spirit is stronger than fear, that the power of good is immeasurable, and that love makes a difference.[/bios]

Q: How is it possible that humans can be persuaded to do (or support) terrible acts?

[Walter Ziffer] In my opinion, the seeds of cruelty are in nature. We are animals and so we participate in animal behavior. Aggression is part of the natural world and we derive our origins from the natural world in which there are priorities that drive existence such as the need to eat, to reproduce and to defend. These basic instincts establish hierarchies, the strong to acquire and to maintain power and and the weak to become victims. This basic pattern is perpetuated over enormous length of time in the evolutionary process of the species.

I cannot help but admire the insight of our Jewish sages of old who taught that every child is born with equal affinities toward goodness and evil, in Hebrew yetzer hatov and yetzer hara. This means that we are not born as a tabula rasaClinical experiments performed on babies performed at the Baby Lab at Yale University have shown to what extent the ideas of “good” and “bad” behavior are already present in these little ones. Experiments with older children have shown that socialization has the ability to influence the inclination toward evil and its transformation toward societal acceptability and even altruism. In other words, the hard wiring of these inclinations are influencable. Back to our sages: mitzva goreret mitzva ve avera goreret avera or “A good deed generates good deeds and an evil deed generates evil deeds.”

When pushed to extremes by exterior influences, real or perceived as real, the inclination toward evil can overwhelm our psychic system and push us toward extreme cruelty toward others and even toward the self.

Needless to say, the processes I describe are not autonomous, automatic and unconscious rendering the person into an object unaccountable for a committed act of cruelty.

As I see it, education that strengthens our inclination toward the good is the means toward creating decent behavior in humans. Such education should be of the formal kind and through role modeling and osmosis.

Q:  What worries you about today’s society? 

[Walter Ziffer] Forgetfulness of the past and the consequences such forgetfulness potentially produces. Extreme nationalism prevents nations from cooperating with other nations. Apart from hate mongering within our nation’s politics which I will not discuss, increasing isolationism threatens the necessity of inter-national cooperation to deal with the scientifically well established dangers of global warming and climate chance that are upon us and the associated world wide decrease in availability of water. While I have confidence in science and its ability to come up with workable solutions, I wonder whether unchecked population growth and irresponsible use of nature’s gifts, as well as pollution underground, on earth’s surface and air, have brought us to a point of no return in the ability to provide the basic necessities of life for humanity. Only a sustained cooperative effort can at this point stop, let alone reverse, the process of degradation of our planet.

Given the current political situation it may be too late for such an accomplishment.

[Eva Schloss]:  We have lost the personal touch – today, everything is fast – impersonal, digital… yet, we are not robots.   We need personal contact, we need to understand each other’s feelings… and this can’t be done via email; and especially for the older generations in or society, this change is really hard.

We [older generations] want to sit down with people and talk about things- but young people go to a restaurant, and sit together, both with their telephones!

In today’s world, people have become so ambitious, everything has to be quick, and everyone wants more… there is so much greed.  Have, have, have.  Everything has to be quick.

I remember we used to have much better family ties too… parents very often lived with you, little children learned from the older generations, there was a deep personal link between generations… now? if I give advice to one of my grandchildren they laugh and say, ‘oh my, you don’t know about our lives today…

We have become robots, instead of humans with feelings… with conversations… with letter writing, you know.

I also worry greatly about how our world is now, with so many people and few resources to sustain them… with countries who are threatening each other with atomic weapons…. Weapons which can never be used because they would destroy the earth.

Q: What is the allure of authoritarian leaders…Is history perhaps repeating itself?

[Walter Ziffer] The allure of authoritarian and extreme leaders is elevation of self by lording it over others. Psychologists tend to attribute this human tendency to men and women who feel insecure or perhaps jealous of others of superior intellect and accomplishments. In order to cover their own insecurities, leaders become megalomaniacs who strive to be in control of people and situations.

The dangers inherent in such behavior lie in the fact that the teaching of contempt for individuals or groups of people, usually powerless minorities, when done long enough, potentially sinks into the psyche of vast numbers of people who become prejudiced against the maligned persons or groups. Prejudice can quickly turn into hatred, discrimination, persecution and worse. Human history and certainly the Holocaust reminds us how this kind of progression can turn into catastrophe.

The dangerous escalation begins with words of disrespect for say an ethnic group. These words can easily turn into openly expressed contempt which, in turn, segues into social incorporation of the toxic ideology. When this progression is not stopped by peaceful means by the maligned group’s appealing to higher powers that are in a position to stop this toxicity, provided that such powers exist, the toxin can easily turn into social incorporation of racism, racist legislation and eventually “legal” murder (cf. the Nuremberg laws).

Why is society so easily seduced by evil authoritarian power and acts? Two major reasons come to mind: the material enrichment of people who, having joined the poisonous ideology, by legalized theft of assets of the persecuted who are in jail or concentration camps and by elevating their social status as followers of the political regime. In the Holocaust religious antisemitic motivations may also have played a role such as punishment for the Jews’ rejection of the New Testament taught messiahship of Jesus Christ, the second person in the trinitarian godhead. Summarizing the reasons for some peoples’ easy acceptance of authoritarian extreme leadership: self-enrichment, self-aggrandizement, religion based prejudice and hatred.

Q: What did you recall about the outbreak of war, and when did you realise the severity of the conflict?

 [Iby Knill] It goes back to Spring 1938, when Hitler occupied Austria in the Anschluss.  My father had relatives in England, and he and I were on the point of going to England when the Anschluss happened and we couldn’t go, and we were stuck in Slovakia.

The result of the Anschluss was that Czechoslovakia mobilised and- at that time- the army were on bicycles not in tanks!   All of the bicycle manufacturers were in the Sudetenland, and those factories refused to supply the government with bicycles directly for their mobilisation!  I can remember quite vividly that my father arranged a huge quantity of bicycles from the Sudetenland, and then- as a business- sold them to the government for their mobilisation.  The particular reason I remember is that all the bicycles had to be black, and not have any shiny surfaces.  That’s what I remember about how things started!

Next came the horror of the occupation of what is now the Czech Republic, and the creation of the puppet-state of Slovakia- which shook us to the core.

At the time I was only 12-14 years old, and at that age- you don’t take note of politics as such.  Also, you don’t have the same communication systems.  You didn’t have mobile phones, television and so on- and not everyone looked at newspapers.  Radio gave concerts and plays, not news.  The amount of information of what was going on was minimal.

Q: What do you recall about the events that led to your arrival at Auschwitz, and did you know about Auschwitz before then?

[Iby Knill] We heard of camps but I certainly didn’t realise what the implications were.

We [Jews] were told that after the age of 16 you should no longer have any intellectual pursuits and that you shouldn’t go to school any more- so our education was interrupted.  The Nuremberg Laws also enforced a curfew from 8pm to 6am.  We [Jews] weren’t allowed to sit down on public transport or park benches because they thought we would contaminate them.  We couldn’t go to any places of public entertainment, and we had to wear the yellow star.

My family was not religious, and so I hadn’t realised that we were Jewish! As a young girl, I was angry… I thought it was very unfair.  I didn’t think we were any different, and was angry that we were being treated differently.

When we were told to leave school, we were then told to learn a practical trade.  As a girl in the 1930s as a girl what was I going to learn as a practical trade? I was not going to become a bricklayer or a plasterer, so I took a course in graphic design! This actually worked out rather well as eventually in England I had a successful design business- so no learning is ever wasted from that point of view!

When the German soldiers came, we had to leave our apartment as we were in the area- near the Embassies- where the Germans wanted to live.  They allocated us a one bedroom apartment on the outskirts of town.  We obviously couldn’t take most of our possessions.  At the time we had maids and cooks who came from one particular village.  When they got married, their children or relatives came- it was a family progression.  One of our maids who got married… her husband came with a horse and cart and loaded up all our furniture.  My mother, with much forethought, filled a suitcase with photos and personal items and hid it in a barn on a farm, behind bales of straw and other such things.  We got all of that back after the war.

This all took place in the winter of 1941.  In February 1942, I escaped over the border into Hungary because they were rounding up the Jewish girls.  I was hidden first by my cousin, and then after he was called up by the Hungarian army- I was hidden by the Marky family.  We tried to escape via the routes used by air-crew who were shot down and unfortunately we got caught.  There were 428 of us who got arrested.  They interrogated us at the police station, and I ended up with a 3 month sentence at the Women’s Prison in Budapest.  When they released me I was re-arrested as an illegal immigrant and sent to a detention centre, an immigration centre, and eventually a refugee camp in Northern Hungary.  When you were arrested as an illegal immigrant, you were classed as a political prisoner and released on parole. This happened to me in March 1944.

On the evening of D-Day, there was blanket bombardment- probably to divert the attention of Germans.  They had never anticipated air-raids in Hungary, so we had no trenches or shelters.  People were told to stay in their homes and not to go out.  During that night lorries drove up with German Einsatzgruppen, accompanied by the Hungarian police, and rounded up all the Jewish people in the area.  They rounded up about 3,000 people- I had just been visiting there and so was at the wrong place at the wrong time.   I finished up at a brickyard, and from there we were taken to Auschwitz Birkenau.  We left of the 12th of June and arrived in Auschwitz on the 17th of June.

Q: What are your key memories of Auschwitz?

[Iby Knill] I remember the back of the lorry being pulled open, and being told to leave.  They said that they were taking the old and ill people to a hospital, and everyone else had to get out- men to the right, women to the left.  There were five of us women including two doctors.  We jumped out, linked arms and- I know it sounds crazy- but we sang the Hungarian national anthem.  At the time we thought [in a sick way] that it was funny.  We were then shown the door into Auschwitz Birkenau.

I remember that we were told to strip and stand on little stools.  All the hair on our body was shaven off and around the room SS men and women were laughing and joking at us.  It was frightfully degrading, and was our first glimpse at being dehumanised.  You were not treated as a person- but rather as a thing.  They made you feel that you weren’t a person, but rather- to all intents and purposes- that you were a sheep being herded.

We came to realise- pretty soon- the real purpose of that place [Auschwitz].  First of all, the smell of the place… the smell of burning flesh…. it stays with you forever.  It may sound strange, but to this day I don’t particularly like barbecues as a result…  The smell was there all the time, it stays with you.  Smells are very evocative, and remind you of things very much.

We were quickly made aware of what was going on.  We were told that if you didn’t stand up straight, and if you didn’t look fit, you were just taken away and never seen again.  The gas chambers and crematorium were smoking continuously.  Thousands and thousands of people from Hungary were being brought there at an incredible rate.

Somewhere along the line, we were each given a number.  There were so many of us, it was the only way they could keep track.  The machinery broke, and I was not given a number.  Mine should have been 75,245.

Q: How did you deal with your experiences at the time?

[Walter Ziffer]  This is a question I have been asked following every lecture dealing with my Holocaust experiences? How did I cope? How did I survive physically and mentally?

Somehow the word “cope” strikes me as completely irrelevant to my life in the concentration camps. To cope means to manage one’s life, to fend for oneself consciously or somethings similar. As I address this question I can only speak for myself, a boy between the ages of 15 and 18 and not for older folks like, for instance, my father who had the benefit of education and was highly cultured.

I followed the order of the day while constantly under the threat of beatings by Kapos (prisoner camp police) and Nazi guards. Three years of dehumanization results in the victim’s becoming a zombie. The making of decisions becomes impossible. One becomes an object with no means of self-determination and self defense, totally at the mercy of the oppressor. Living becomes automatic and instinctual. There is the daily ritual: long and backbreaking work, avoidance of being seen and heard so as not draw attention to oneself, the phlegmatic hungry waiting for the pitifully small ration of food three times a day, the evening ritual of de-lousing oneself, the exhaustion that brings liberating sleep, often disturbed, alas, by fellow prisoners’ screams and Nazi guard night controls. Given this scenario, there is no ability to “cope or manage.”

How did I survive all this? A frequently posed question! My response: 90% of good luck, 5 % of my ability to speak German fluently and correctly. I understood the orders given and performed them while most of my fellow prisoners in almost all the camps were Eastern European Jews who spoke Yiddish only. Ordered to do things in shouted German, they did not understand. Failing to do things correctly, they were beaten and often worse. The last 5% that probably helped me survive (according to the wise insight of my wife Gail) was my parents’ inculcation in me that I was “somebody,” a person of dignity and worth. When there was no water in the faucets, I washed my face with snow when many of my fellow prisoners let themselves go and so accelerated their demise, etc. My parents’ influence was incalculably beneficial to my survival.

“Coping to survive” by means of an intellectual effort or an animal-like instinct of survival? Surely the latter!

Q:  How did you find the mental fortitude to survive through your experience during the war and holocaust?  

[Eva Schloss]:  We were a very close family; every day we went to see my grandparents, my aunt, my uncle…. We talked together… we’d listen to music together… my father would tell us about life, about experiences, nature… it wasn’t rushed, it was beautiful – we had time, it was a different world from today.

When I was in the camp, I was just 15 – and I desperately wanted to survive.  I wanted to have a boyfriend, get married, and have a family with children so that I could give them that very same life I had experienced.  It was that thought which gave me strength, I was not ready to die.

Going through something like that, especially when you are young, leaves trauma.   Even when we were liberated, I didn’t at all appreciate my freedom- I was suspicious of everybody.  I came back to a life without my brother, my father, it felt meaningless… I felt suicidal and didn’t have the will to carry on with life… but I am here because I was scared of doing such a thing.  I became completely shy, if 2 people were there? I didn’t dare to open my mouth.  It was a terrible, terrible life.  I think I suffered more afterwards than when I was in the camp.  When I was in the camp, I had to use all my strength to survive.  But afterwards, I lost the will really to carry on.

Q:  How did you move-on from what you experienced during the holocaust?

[Eva Schloss]:  Otto Frank, who was Anne Frank’s father, came to our house after my mother told him I was depressed.  Otto said to me, ‘…if you hate people, the people you hate don’t suffer, it’s you that suffers because hate is a very negative sentiment…’

Otto told me he didn’t even hate the Germans, even though – because of them – he lost everything.  That was powerful because there I was, a German myself, who loved German literature, loved German music, loved German language, but hated that very thing which I was…. Even hearing the German language sent shivers down my spine… Hate is like jealousy, it’s negative.

Slowly, slowly, I started to hate less… and it took a long time for me to get over that.  I went to school in the late 80’s and 90’s and met people from Holland who had also been in the camp.  It was not something we discussed, even after acknowledging this… we pretended it never happened to us… we simply could not face speaking about it.

Q: How did you feel towards your captors, and those involved in running Auschwitz?

[Iby Knill] The huts themselves were run by Capos (trustees).  Fortunately I was a linguist, and the Capo in the hut that I was were Czech and I could communicate with them. All the others in the hut were Hungarian and could not speak any other language.  At this stage, you just thought of survival- the five of us stayed together, and because I could communicate I got maybe a little more soup than other people- a blanket that was slightly bigger.  Because I could speak German, I could also communicate with the Germans, which was also an advantage.  Being able to communicate with people was an advantage, and you took advantage of that fact to survive.  Your only aim in life at that stage was to live one day longer.

We knew that the D-Day landing had taken place, and we were hoping it would not be that long before the Allies won the war and we would be liberated.  We were now in June 1944, quite a way into the war- and close to the end.  We were holding on and trying to survive.

Q: What has been the role of forgiveness in your journey?

[Walter Ziffer] The question on forgiveness is also something that surfaces regularly after my lectures. To me, a Jewish secular humanist, the notion of forgiveness makes sense only from the viewpoint of religion and the effect it may have. As I see it, the dead are dead. My forgiveness or lack of it makes no difference to them. From a religious viewpoint, primarily in Christianity, where there is belief in an afterlife, divine judgment, etc., the consideration of my forgiveness or lack of it, makes sense. In Judaism there is no emphasis on either life after death or potential damnation of sinners, etc. It should also be noted that Jewish teaching rules out one’s forgiveness of injury or sin committed against others. Forgiveness of sins against the person having suffered aggression is, as far as I know, his or her personal decision without consequences.

From a psychological viewpoint, the act of forgiveness may be meaningful in as much as carrying guilt feelings about not having forgiven someone can impair one’s life style, depriving one’s life of experiencing joy and satisfaction.

The deaths in my family and of the Six Million sadden me enormously. Hatred for the killers who have long since died (with a few exceptions) to me is meaningless. I feel no need for either hating or forgiving. Chapter closed.

As far as resilience is concerned, I am infinitely grateful for the kind of upbringing my parents gave me and the love they showered on me which, combined, provided me with of the resilience I so desperately needed and which, it seems, helped me survive relatively unscathed.

[Eva Schloss]:  I have forgiven, but I will never forgive those people who committed the crimes themselves… the top Nazis that decided the quickest cheapest ways to kill all the Jews was gassing.  Those were criminals, they were really through and through evil people, or they had become evil people.  But the German people as such, and any other people, are not evil.  They were just caught up in terrible times – I think most of them now are very, very sorry that their people have done those terrible things.

I have forgiven… when I started to learn history, I saw that all the western countries have committed terrible crimes through colonialization, through slavery… let’s not forget it was the British who invented the concentration camp in South Africa during the Boer War – they separated Men and Women so that the population would never grow.  This is the story of civilisation in many ways…. France, China, Indonesia… Just look at the treatment of Native Americans, they had their land taken away, and their livestock was killed so they couldn’t eat. People have done terrible things to each other.

My worry is that today we have become robots… slaves to the internet… and I worry we don’t have feelings and care for each other.  I know that may be a generalisation, and I do see exceptions…. And I do have hope because young people start to care, and starting to look for a better life, not just a mechanical life.   Young people are seeing that this robotic life cannot be maintained….

Even now, I go to Germany sometimes to meet young people – I show them my tattoo and they cry, they say how sorry they are even though it’s nothing to do with them…. They express such profound guilt for what their grandparents have done…

Our world is changing, and I hope- through the actions of the younger generations- becoming more humane.

Q:What does freedom mean to you?

[Walter Ziffer] Funny! “The notion of freedom in the Hebrew Bible” was the subject of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Strasbourg, France.

This is a huge subject. First, let me suggest that there are two kinds of freedom: inner freedom and outer freedom.

Outer freedom has to do with civil and personal rights, the rule of law (a problem in itself in need of discussion), due process, security of property, personal safety, etc. Inner freedom is the freedom of thinking and perceiving things around one. Inner freedom is also the freedom from inner compulsions. Inner freedom is more subjective than outer freedom. It is less tied to the existence and level of outer freedom, yet it is easier to find inner freedom in a society where outer freedom is assured. Inner freedom is more of a way of being in one’s self, independent of circumstances outside of oneself.

Based on my experience I know that inner freedom is vulnerable. It can be silenced and even demolished by cruel forces of others.

Does society, at large, appreciate freedom? In good times it is taken for granted but in bad oppressive times, the difference between inner and outer freedom comes into concentrated focus and the freedom of both becomes ever more appreciated.

Q: Did your experiences at the camp(s) change your views of death?

[Walter Ziffer] I learned that life is fragile. I learned that folk who were dear to me and died were quickly forgotten. This is perhaps why the Jewish tradition created Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, when Jewry all over the world are encouraged to REMEMBER. We remember the victims who were murdered and we also remember the goodness and badness experienced during that hellish time and encourage one another to support the former and oppose the latter for the sake of our people, as well as for the world. Yom Hashoah and the concept of Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, are closely related.

As a Jewish secular humanist I do not believe in any kind of afterlife. In my opinion, life at the moment of death disappears into nothingness. We return to where we were before our conception and birth. There is only one thing that survives of us and that is our name, reputation, the goodness we created or supported by our life that led to a betterment of the world. Even that, however, recedes into the night of past history eventually and is forgotten.

[Iby Knill] I honestly don’t know.

We were simply concerned with the moment, just surviving one day at a time.  We could only live for today… there was nothing you could do about yesterday, and tomorrow may not exist. You were living in the here and now.  It’s a state of mind that stayed with me.  You can only deal with things as they are now.

Q: What did your experiences at Auschwitz teach you?

[Iby Knill] The most prominent lesson was that there is only today.

You have to live for today and make the best of today.  Maybe at the end of the day you will feel like you have not hurt or damaged anyone or even that you have done some good.  It’s been the lesson by which I have lived the rest of my life.

You can plan for the future, but not anticipate it.  In reality there is only today, nothing else.

Q: Did your experiences at Auschwitz change your sense of identity?

[Iby Knill] Initially, after the liberation- everyone felt survivors guilt.  Why did we survive when others didn’t? What do we now have to do in order to earn and deserve the fact that were still alive? This is common with survivors, and colours the way you look at life and your own actions.  You evaluate things on that basis- and you try to be a better person.  You try not to harm person… and try to not damage or belittle others, because you have experienced yourself what it is to be belittled.

I had a nervous breakdown for the first three years.  Had it not been for a very understanding husband, I don’t think I would have survived.  My late husband had been a soldier in the First World War and experienced trench warfare.  He understood the trauma of what I was going through.

It took several more years to get some form of balanced mental state.  I wrapped up those memories into a Pandora’s box, threw it in the sea and threw away the key.  I would never talk about it or refer to it, nor would my mother who had also been in a camp.  We would never mention to each other- anything about it.  You pretended that period of time never existed.

During my time in Auschwitz, it was impossible to isolate good from bad- and so that period disappeared.  To the extent that for those years afterwards, I could not speak German- which had previously been my main language.  It is only now- since 2002 when I started my book- that I concluded that it was time to put down what I had experienced, and bear witness to it.

Q: How have your experiences shaped your view of God and our relationship as a society to religion. 

[Walter Ziffer]  Introductory: My father, an attorney a highly educated person and an agnostic. My mother lighted candles Friday evening to usher in Shabbat. She believed in a personal good God, taught me my first prayer as a toddler and relied on this God to protect and take care of us. After the Holocaust which my parents, sister and I survived, she no longer lit the candles and I do not remember God having been in our conversations. This said, it is important to state that my father was the last president of our Jewish congregation, elected by the Jewish population of our town and province. During the Holocaust but prior to our Jewish population’s deportation, my father was ordered by the local GESTAPO to be the head of the Judenrat or Jewish representation vis a vis the Nazi occupation forces.

Given the fact that my father was an agnostic, my religious baggage at the time of deportation was minimal. I knew how to read Hebrew and that is about all. Having been brought up with parents of German-Austrian cultural backgrounds, I did not know Yiddish, the language of the majority of Polish Jews. My second language was Czech, having attended four years of elementary school in Czech.

At age 15 and for the following three years, alone in the Nazi hellish camp environment I was exposed to double discrimination, from the Nazis, of course, but also from my fellow Jews who, because of my German cultural background and lack of knowledge of Yiddish, at times called me Jaecke, a Jewish pejorative word for German. On the other hand, it was precisely my fluent knowledge of German that undoubtedly helped me survive. In Sakrau, my first camp, I still occasionally, when not too exhausted from shoveling sand, addressed Mein lieber Gott, “my dear God,” as my mother had taught me to address him, with my one and only petition: to get me out of the camp and to reunite me with my family. Alas, Mein lieber Gott did not respond. During the following three years there was no time for God-thought and talk.

Upon liberation, family unification and return home, we found that our wider family had been decimated – most murdered in Auschwitz and that others had simply disappeared. I began asking questions but my father, after two years in Auschwitz himself and now quite taciturn, did not respond.

I left for France in hope to immigrate to the US where my uncle lived. Living in a suburb of Paris, working there and residing in an orphan home for children who had lost their parents in the Holocaust, God was never mentioned.

The visa arrived and I found myself in Nashville, Tennessee with an uncle and his wife who were nominally Jewish. There was no God-talk in the home. I volunteered teaching at Vine Street Temple and found that neither the Temple family nor its rabbi was interested in my previous life or the Holocaust.

Because of my conflicts with my family and the rabbi, I left my uncle’s family, I moved in with the recently widowed mother of a fellow student at Vanderbilt University where I studied engineering.. A relationship with a Christian girl fellow student developed into love and we married. Through church attendance with her I was exposed to fundamentalist Christianity and also to caring new friendships resulting in my conversion to Christianity.

Graduation and job search took us to Dayton, Ohio where for 7 years I worked as a mechanical engineer for one of General Motor’s Divisions. It was a good life with regular church attendance under the guidance of an excellent Christian pastor.

Judaism was forgotten, consciously or unconsciously, as my interest turned to theology. The new attraction led me to leave engineering, to enter the Graduate School of Theology of Oberlin College in Oberlin, a liberally oriented theological seminary where four years later I graduated with two masters degrees.

Upon graduation we set out for Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France to find a new orientation for an American church supported conference center which we transformed into an ecumenical language center for missionaries with destination East Africa.

Little did we know that during the Holocaust this little town’s population were responsible for the saving of roughly 3,500 Jewish refugees by hiding them from the German occupation forces.

The five year long ministry in Le Chambon turned out to be a life saving adventure for me.

Then followed ministries and theological teaching in Washington, DC, in Brussels, Belgium and at age 55, because of health problems, retirement to Nova Scotia, Canada.

Scrolling back in time, I experienced antisemitic talk in several places of my employment

and wonderment about its origins. Thinking back, I remember some who wondered whether I had really converted and become a genuine Christian, mind and soul. There were some who, knowing my background which I never hid, told me “Jewish jokes” and wondered why I did not join in their laughter. There was a congregational president who in a lunch conversation expressed his wonderment why my sermons were so different from those he had heard in many other churches where he had worshiped, etc.

It was in Nova Scotia where I finally had time to plunge into the history of antisemitism. Surprisingly, my study led me to the New Testament and its origins of antisemitism and to the writings of the so-called Church Fathers of the 2nd to the 7th century CE. This discovery led me to the writing of my first book, titledThe Teaching of Disdain: An Examination of Christology and New Testament Attitudes Toward Jews.”

To make a long story short: upon leaving Nova Scotia because of my former wife’s illness and her desire to return to the US I decided to leave the Christian faith and to return to my native Judaism. This time coincided more or less with my wife’s and my decision to separate. Her on and off bouts of depression made it impossible to live together any longer.

Settling in Bangor, Maine I joined a Jewish Reform congregation and accepted an invitation to teach at the University of Maine. Affiliation with Bangor’s congregation Beth Israel brought me back into Judaism. Then followed divorce and my present wife’s and my move to North Carolina where I accepted the offer of an adjunct professorship at the University of Carolina and five years later a similar position with Mars Hill University, a small liberal arts school from which I resigned four years ago at age 88. Down here in Weaverville, a small town north of Aheville where we live now, we joined Asheville Conservative Jewish congregation Beth Israel.

It is has taken long to get to this point in my life history. Because of my theological studies in both Judaism and Christianity, as well as, knowledge of Hebrew I was soon enlisted in worship leadership and teaching functions which I enjoyed.

It was not too long, however, before I found incompatibility between the triumphal texts regularly prayed in synagogue and what I had learned about the almost perennial persecutions of Jews, primarily in Europe, and my own experiences as a Jew during the Holocaust. The bombastic language in the Jewishsiddur or prayer book turned me off. The prayer book’s almost exclusive fixation on the Exodus from Egypt thans to the Jewish God and the neglect of centuries long Jewish suffering without this great, powerful and awesome God’s intervening, suggested to me the large amount of mythologizing that Jewish history had undergone. Old Epicurus (341-270 BCE) had it right when he taught,

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?

Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able but not willing?

Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing?

Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing?

Then why call him God?

In short: I have become a disciple of Epicurus 🙂

With regard to your question about society’s relationship to religion let me suggest on the basis of statistics that membership in organized religion is rapidly decreasing worldwide.

With the advent of science and the scientific method the relevance of religion and its claims has significantly decreased and rightfully so. The trend of those who abandon religion has often ceded to what many folks nowadays call spirituality, a new mode of thought hard to define as its definition varies from person to person. For these reasons I will not further elaborate on this issue.

Q:  Why are we seeing a rise in anti-Semitism again? 

[Walter Ziffer] The new antisemitism has nothing to do with religion or race in a direct sense. The fact is that the plague of antisemitism never really died out. It just changes face or simply goes underground for a while. The rise of extremist rightist political parties has been a kind of green light for European as well as US antisemitism. U.S. President Trump, a racist and white supremacist himself, a man applauded by the KKK and other hate mongering organizations, has empowered and encouraged racists and white supremacists to speak up and act openly here and overseas, thus reviving the disease which had lain dormant more or less for a few decades since the end of WW II..

In Europe as well as in the U.S., antisemitic threats and acts have recently been of a physical nature. The danger of the revival of antisemitism in this form, dangerous in itself, extends beyond physical incidents. Centuries-old stereotypes have been dug up once again, such as Jews manipulating national and international politics in the pursuit of amassing money which, in the past, have led to local pogroms and slaughter.

The common source for the revival of antisemitism, in my opinion, is seeing the Jew as “the other” who does not belong in European or, for some , American society. This is racism. Blaming Jews and in some cases other minorities for things going wrong politically and/or economically has been a well known, long used and successful diversionary tactic. It has been successful because the blame game falls on ears that have been conditioned to antisemitism for centuries. When all goes well, antisemitism goes underground for a while, only to reappear as social and economic conditions go sour. Scapegoating is an appropriate term for this convenient phenomenon of hatred.

Then there is the criticism of the modern State of Israel, to some extant deserved, but in this case extended to all Jews. It is simplistic to blame Israel only for the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and the turmoil in the Near East. It would be equally wrong to believe that Israel has been an innocent party in this controversial issue. For many Jews in America it is troubling to witness Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu lying when convenient, going back on promises made, cozying up to President Trump and adopting the latter’s hostility toward human rights.

It is reassuring that most European governments, contrary to how things happened in Europe in the 1930s, defend their Jewish citizens. The continued violent antisemitic incidents in Europe and sporadic incidents in the U.S. Will however have to be closely watched and reigned in lest antisemitism spread and inflict upon Jews and society at large increasing damage. As I see it, only a multi-national extensive educational effort will be able eventually to put an end to it. Will that ever happen?

Incidentally it is the above reasoning that has motivated me ever since my liberation in 1945 to address over 40,000 people of all ages through formal teaching and public speaking.

[Eva Schloss]:  Anti-Semitism has been with us for centuries, and I don’t think it will ever go away.  I don’t know why it is with us- but I fear it will stay.

I do feel some of today’s anti-Semitism is because of the conflict we see in Palestine.  People think Israel are not doing the right thing… the classic argument is that Palestine throws rocks and Israel fires weapons… and that kind of argument can only create bad blood, and I do understand that.  In truth though, yes – Israel is at fault, but as well – the Palestinian government (Hamas) is too – they have not recognised the country and still openly say they want to throw it [Israel] to the sea.  If there was a peace treaty, Israel would not carry on building fences and walls… if there was a peace treaty, I know people could live together…. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked…. as long as there is no official peace treaty, there won’t be peace.

Q: What was the importance of sharing the stories of the Holocaust, and what can society learn from your experiences?

[Iby Knill] It’s very important for people to realise that you mustn’t allow a culture of us and them to develop.

When you look at young people- they play together regardless of their colour or background.  Somewhere along the line they start to feel that other people are different to them.  I’m not saying we should all revert to childlike innocence, but rather that this feeling of equality should remain… that we feel that under the skin, we are all the same…

I find it very important to talk to young people about it, and make them aware what the end result can be of this sort of culture of dehumanisation can be.  I spend a lot of time talking to young people about the fact that people being different only makes life more interesting, and more valuable.  It would be very dull if we were all the same.

[Eva Schloss]:  I hope that people realise that nobody gains through hate and destruction.  I hope that people learn that we have to have a fair society, we cannot be too greedy.  I hope that people learn history repeats itself, and so we must learn from it.

Wars have always been… hatred has always been… we are not living in an idealistic world, but we can work together to have a better world.

Q: Do you think the messages from Auschwitz could prevent such a horror from occurring again?

[Iby Knill] Here’s hoping!

Unless young people get actively engaged in treating people as they wish to be treated themselves, it’s a very dark outlook for mankind.  If we aren’t careful, we will destroy mankind.. I find it very frightening…

Q:  What advice would you give to the generation after ours? 

[Eva Schloss]:  I was a sporty child, and at an early age – I didn’t read, I was not intellectual… I was happy-go-lucky, and my first sense of anti-Semitism in Austria was when we were separated for religious education at school.  Jewish children were called to a different classroom for ‘Jewish education.’  We [my family] were not religious and we had Catholic friends…. Austria was a Catholic country…. I remember soon after the Nazis marched in, I went to play with one of my friends on the way home… a Catholic girl from my class… as soon as her mother saw me, she said, ‘we never want to see you here again…’ and slammed the door in my face – I had done nothing wrong, I was flabbergasted! This was itself a shock, and I could never have imagined what was to come next.  We were peaceful, we had a good life, we mixed with the community… we could never have believed the inhumanity of the camps, of the guards, it was unbelievable.  You wouldn’t believe those were educated human beings.

Today, we are seeing young people fighting each other again – take the knife crime here in London!  I think it is because they are brought up without love, without understanding what life is about.  Those people obviously have no expectation of life, that life is beautiful, look at nature, look at all the things we can create.  That is missing now.

We have become robots, and robots have no feelings.  And we have to go back to be humane, because that’s what we are.  And I think the young generation now is starting to realise that.

Q:What gives you hope and optimism for the future?

[Walter Ziffer] I am not optimistic for the future. If optimism is to be a reasonable outlook, it must be based on realism. Realism informs me that we are sliding down a slippery slope which, unchecked, leads to destruction. History and science reminds us that it happened before in our planet’s history and so it can happen again.

Q: What would be your advice to your young self?

[Walter Ziffer] I would have no advice. The advice and the education my parents gave me were the best I could have gotten to prepare me for the hell I was to enter and inhabit for three years. Both my parents were the best parents imaginable, in their love, education and care for me and my sister. I am infinitely grateful to them.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.