Walter Spier had returned to Germany before.
But his recent trip was different. This time, the 83-year-old Holocaust survior was an invited guest of his hometown of Holzhausen, where high school students had undertaken to renovate the Jewish cemetery where his grandparents are buried.
Born in Germany in 1927, Spier had remained behind when his oldest siblings escaped to England in 1938. After surviving Auschwitz, he returned to his Holzhausen after liberation, and after a year moved to America where he settled in Washington Heights.
|Walter Spier addresses the ceremony rededicating the Jewish cemetery of Holzhausen in Germany. Courtesy Arnold Spier|
He once returned to Germany with his wife Karla, who had escaped with her family from Germany before the war.
He took his two sons back a few years ago. Three years ago, he took his three grandsons.
“He felt it was important to teach us, to show us,” said his son, Arnold Spier, who lives in Fair Lawn.
“Early on my father did not talk about it much. Only after he had grandchildren did he start. He felt he had an obligation to teach them and leave that legacy,” said the younger Spier.
It was that sense of obligation that led Walter Spier to accept the invitation from the town’s mayor to join in the ceremony rededicating the cemetery.
“I didn’t want to go because I knew how emotional it would be for me,” he said.
Nonetheless, he went, accompanied by his wife.
He returned to the school he had attended until he was expelled in 1938 following Kristallnacht. He told the students, “The last time I was here I was sitting in the back because I was a Jew. Today I’m sitting in the front and I’m telling you the story.”
Spier said, “The children were crying, especially the girls.”
In a speech read by his wife at the cemetery dedication – Spier feared he would be too emotional to read it himself – he told of his experience.
“There were some Germans who were loyal Nazis who made our lives miserable. I won’t mention their names but I remember who they are and what they did visibly. However, there were also good citizens of Holzhausen who secretly helped my parents.”
In September of 1942, Spier was deported to Theresienstadt along with all of the town’s Jews. Two years later, he was transferred to Auschwitz.
“I was alone in a concentration camp with only strangers,” he recalled. Most spoke Yiddish, which as a German Jew he didn’t know.
As the Allies approached, he was sent on a death march to Mauthausen in Austria.
“Very few of us survived the march. The only way that I survived was with the help of an SS officer who shared his food with me and kept me from sleeping so that I would not freeze to death like the others. Why he befriended me and looked out for me while a few thousand others died, I will never truly understand,” Spier said.
At the cemetery, students displayed posters they had created showing family histories of some of those buried there and of their descendants killed in the Holocaust and not buried at all.
“They did a lot of research,” said Spier.
A few hundred people were at the cemetery, including teachers, students, and parents. They were addressed by the mayor, the head of the Jewish community of the nearby town of Marburg, and a Protestant minister.
“After three hours, we were still there and people were asking questions,” said Spier.
“When I saw the reaction of the people, I said to myself, it’s a successful trip,” he said. “It was very important for the children to see what went on.”