Holocaust survivors are a unique breed.
They are stronger than the rest of us. They have seen things that no one ever should have to see. Despite that, many of them have overcome those memories to create families and legacies that give special meaning to the words hope and survival. It is hard to listen to a survivor’s story and not say to yourself, “There is no way I could have done that. There is no way I could have survived.”
Organizations like the Spielberg Foundation have given us the gift of recorded stories of survival. We are able to go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, among other institutions that are dedicated to preserving the memories of the six million who perished, and sit and listen for hours and hours to survivors tell their stories. Those stories are told by survivors who still had voices, and gracefully and graciously shared them for those who never were able to tell their own stories.
But there is nothing more special than to hear these stories in person. To look into the eyes of the heroes who survived and then thrived. Walter Spier and Werner Reich are two of these amazing people. But their story is even more incredible. Just a few months ago, they found each other — because the numbers that had been tattooed on their arms in Auschwitz were just 10 digits apart.
The two men share much. Both were born in October 1927, Mr. Reich on October 1, and Mr. Spier on the 17th. Both were born in Germany. Mr. Spier’s number is A1828 and Mr. Reich’s is A1838. They were separated by 10 other people — and they met for the first time just a few months ago.
The two men came together at Congregation Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn, where Mr. Spier’s son and daughter-in-law, Arnie and Randi, are members. The synagogue hosted a Kristallnacht program in cooperation with Congregation Beth Tefilah of Paramus, and that night the two survivors told their stories.
Arnie Spier introduced the program by saying that “the recent bigotry should serve as a reminder and a commitment that ‘never again’ is not just two words.” Rabbi J.Z. Spier — Arnie’s nephew, Walter’s grandson — is a freshman dean and rebbe at the Frisch School in Paramus. When asked what it has been like to have Walter as a grandfather, he smiled and said, “The more we talk, the more we realize what a privilege it is to have a man like that in our lives. He continues to teach me to be proud to be Jewish, to be proud to be a part of our family.”
Those weren’t the only lessons Mr. Spier taught. Seven years ago, Rabbi Spier and his grandfather went to Walter Spier’s hometown in Germany, “Words cannot describe those lessons and those stories,” Rabbi Spier said. A couple of years ago, they found the American soldier who rescued Walter when the camp was liberated, and they were overwhelmed with the realization that without this GI, “our family would not exist.”
Rabbi Eli Shestak of Congregation Ahavat Achim pointed out a common theme among Holocaust survivors. “They built a future for themselves and for their families,” he said. “They constantly looked to the future and moved forward. And it isn’t until they see the birth of their grandchildren, and realize how far forward they have come, that these survivors can begin to turn back and look at the past.
“They have turned sorrow into joy and accomplishments. It is an honor to hear from those who turned pain into the redemptive lives of their family.”
Werner Reich was born into a typical middle-class Jewish family. In 1933, the family emigrated to Yugoslavia. According to Mr. Reich, “ I belonged to a generation where children were to be seen and not heard. We were sent out of the room when there was news of what was going on, so I really knew nothing.” Today, he said, information is everywhere. “Back then, not so much.”
Walter Spier was 11 on Kristallnacht; that night — November 9, 1938 — policemen knocked on the door to advise the family to leave the house. “My father had been in World War I and he was a respected man,” he said. “They wanted to give him notice.”
Mr. Reich said that he was in Auschwitz the first time he heard Yiddish. He also said that when they were given a change of underwear, the new garments were made of tallises. “Wearing them as almost a diaper was the height of insult to us,” he said. He also remembered Dr. Mengele and a group of SS officers telling jokes and laughing. “We would just stand there trying to look as tall and as strong as we could,” he said.
But through the many camps these men have been in, the death marches they were forced on, the vicious murders of people they loved and the hopelessness that must have overtaken them during various parts of their ordeal, the two men have the same message.
They are alive. They have families that now include great-grandchildren. That was something that didn’t seem possible when they received those tattoos, just 10 people apart, all those many years ago.
And we all can learn a great deal from that message.