Frisch students, 650 of them, listened raptly as one of their teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Spier, grandson of Walter Spier, a survivor of the Shoah, described the moment in 2006, in Mauthaussen, that changed his life. He was on a “roots” trip with his grandfather, Walter Spier, a survivor from Marburg, Germany; his parents; and siblings. That day set him on a path to find the man who saved his grandfather’s life, because Walter wanted to say thank you.
It was a 67-year old quest that began in earnest when Jonathan went on the Internet on the anniversary of Kristallnacht 2011 to search for Capt. Mike Levy, the American captain who was Commandant of the Displaced Persons Camp in Mauthaussen. The captain made Walter his special project-providing him with clothing, preventing him from eating too much when food finally arrived, and by putting him on a train to his hometown to search for his brother-just one step ahead of the Communists. When Walter and Jonathan talked about their search at Congregation Ahavat Achim, Bergen County resident Randy Herschaft, a longtime Associated Press investigative researcher, heard about their quest and offered to help with data searches.
|Survivor Walter Spier Courtesy The Frisch School|
As the young rabbi stood on the stage, in front of a huge blow-up of the deadly staircase in Mauthaussen, he described how he realized that what we complain about today is meaningless compared to what the Jews and others went through in those places. It is what motivated the search for Capt. Levy, one that took months of Internet research and ended in what appeared to be success – the realization of his grandfather’s dream of being finally able to say thank you to the American who saved his life.
That was not to be, however, because both the captain, who settled in Texas, and his wife had passed on. Yet all was not lost. The Levys daughter and granddaughter stood before the students at Frisch and described how they were raised by a man who was changed when he came back after the war. They told how, when his children and grandchildren would reach 13, he would take them into his office and show them “the book” from the war, while making certain they understood that they alone were responsible and accountable for their own actions; that they must never stand silent in the face of injustice, and that they had to care in making their choices.
“My father taught us no whining; to stand up straight; to fight for what’s right with determination, and to respond immediately. We knew there was a burden on his heart,” said his daughter.
Granddaughter Rebecca Miller is a Holocaust education teacher at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, way out in the boonies.
“I live in a part of the world where the Holocaust is not part of family history. And I teach my students that we must never go back there again.” After the program, she told The Jewish Standard that occasionally she finds that one student who gets it and makes all the work worthwhile. She believes that the kinds of behaviors that ultimately can lead to genocide – if unchecked – begin with bullying in school.
Finally, Walter, the grandfather and great-grandfather of a family he is so proud of, got up and spoke about how the captain befriended him, and described his journey through hell. He spoke extemporaneously about how he and the captain met; about his reunions with his siblings. There was the brother he found in their hometown, thanks to Capt. Michael Ernest Levy, who said when they met, “I am Captain Levy and I will make sure you will live a normal life.” Walter admitted that he did not believe him then, and does not remember how they managed to communicate without a common language. Then he was reunited with two brothers who had been sent on kindertransports to England, and a sister who made it to America, and life became normal again.
At first, Walter worked for 75 cents an hour at the Swingline Stapler factory. He eventually got out of there and opened a kosher butcher shop in Washington Heights. With the living he earned, he was able to send his sons to yeshivot, to have them learn how to study Torah, to be good Jews, and make sure no one would forget.
At the end, he raised his voice, looked at the students and declared, “Am Yisrael Chai. Long live the People Israel. Never let it happen again!”