Living history: Holocaust survivor shares experiences on campus

April 21, 2017

Though sharing his heart wrenching story was not favorable, 90-year-old Dr. Walter Ziffer said it is all too important, “in order to never repeat history ever again.”

Ziffer, a holocaust survivor and now an adjunct professor of philosophy and religion at Mars Hill University in Mars Hill, shared his first-hand accounts to a full auditorium Wednesday evening.

His presentation which was titled, “Witness to the Holocaust”, was made possible by funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Sent to his first of seven concentration camps in 1942, Ziffer emerged four years later at the age of 18, and weighed only 87 pounds.

Ziffer described his experiences in the various concentration and labor camps as, “a parallel universe compared to the world we live in today…it was absolutely awful…it was hell.”

From his first frozen cattle-car ride alongside fellow boys who had been torn away from their families only moments before, to his final liberation on May 8, 1945, Ziffer survived starvation, infections and random executions.

He briefly told the story of a moment following his liberation. He and few others from the same camp came across cans of pork and bags of sugar, and after gorging themselves on both, he fell asleep only to wake up in a nearby hospital.

It was then that a nurse came by to tell him that it was all over–he was free.

“But we only knew life as one way for so long, and when you are so underdeveloped, you don’t think and process like you normally would,” Ziffer said.

So he returned to the exact place he came from–but it would ultimately result in nothing short of a miracle.

He asked several women also at the camp if they had encountered his mother, sister and his cousin. He quickly learned of their whereabouts and traveled approximately 20 miles by bike to find them.

When he found them two days later, they didn’t recognize him at first–years passed by and he was not the 14-year-old they formerly knew–but they were reunited.

The family returned to their hometown in Czechoslovakia to find their father.

“We found him, but he was a changed man,” Ziffer said.

His father survived Auschwitz–one of the most notorious death camps during the Holocaust. 

Ziffer explained that though the events of the Holocaust did not result in immediate deaths in all cases, emotional corrosion and mental health decline was a result uncounted.

Of the 18 million members of the Jewish religion across Europe at the time, approximately 6 million were killed during those several years throughout the Holocaust, he said.

Ziffer stressed the importance of not losing true grasp of the weight in 6 million, or one-third of a particular population.

“Each one of those people loved, and hated, and had knowledge and families,” he said. “Then you begin to realize the severity of the situation.”

Ziffer said some Holocaust survivors made it through because they were lucky. He said knowing the German language helped him stay alive.

In 1948, Ziffer came to the United States and moved to Nashville, Tennessee.

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 in France.

Following his talk, Ziffer responded to questions from students and faculty regarding his experiences and thoughts.

Students were then able to meet him one-on-one and ask him questions, as well as purchase copies of his most recent book, titled, Confronting the Silence: A Holocaust Survivor's Search for God.

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