By Ben Blumberg
Washington Post Scholarship Winner
Monday, May 14, 2007 1:54 PM
Klaus Zwilsky, 74, of Calvert County MD, is a Holocaust survivor. However, his story is relatively unique among Jews who emerged from the horrors of Nazi Germany. He was not sent to a concentration camp, nor did he spend World War II hiding in the home of a sympathtic non-Jew. Instead, Zwilsky survived in a Jewish hospital in Berlin, with the knowledge, and consent, of the Nazi government.
"We were very fortunate to survive," he said. He remembers the Gestapo, German secret police, ordering members of his extended family off to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in January of 1943. "Most of the family got wiped out."
Zwilsky is one of twenty who were interviewed for Daniel B. Silver's book "Refuge in Hell: How Berlin's Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis." The book details how the 800 or so Jews living in the hospital managed to survive in the capital of Nazi Germany. Causes range from bureaucratic infighting to German leader Adolf Hitler's ambivalence about how to handle Jews of German descent to the simple fact that the Nazis needed a place to treat Jews.
Because Zwilsky's father was a pharmacist, they were allowed to live at the hospital in relatively good conditions. They received running water, heat and electricity at the benefit of soldiers undergoing treatment.
As a child, Zwilsky spent his time reading, assisting with the gardening and playing with the other children at the hospital. That is not to say, however, that the experience was not difficult. Between Allied carpet bombings and the constant threat of being deported by the Nazis, Zwilsky and the other occupants of the hospital lived on edge.
"Certainly there was fear," he said. At times, they almost wished to be sent off to a camp, just to relieve themselves of the constant threat of danger. They did not know at this time that places like Theresienstadt were not relocation camps but places for Jews to be held before they were sent to their death at another location. Zwilsky and his family did not learn about many of these things until after the war.
"We didn't know at the time," he said, that the Nazis were systematically executing Jews. "You find out all these things afterwards." Soviet troops reaching Berlin in April of 1945 were surprised to find any Jews alive in the city at all because they had discovered that the Nazis were planning to exterminate those who remained.
"We found out afterwards that an order had been given to kill all of us on the twenty-fifth of April and I think it was the twenty-first that the Russians appeared," Zwilsky said. "Had the war gone on any longer I wouldn't be here." He was the first Jew to have a Bar-Mitzvah, a Jewish rite of passage for boys at the age of thirteen, in Germany after the war.
His experiences left him scarred but with a new appreciation for life. Survivor's guilt plagued him for the better part of thirty years because he survived while so many others, including the members of his own extended family who were taken in 1943, did not. But it does not do any good, he said, to feel guilty. Today he makes a point of telling others about his story, particularly because of those who wish to deny that the Holocaust ever happened.
"That's one of the reasons I'm here," he said, speaking to a group of high school students, in order to make people believe the stories. It makes him angry, and perplexed, to hear people express disbelief at the deaths of over ten million people, six million of them Jewish. "Deniers don't have a leg to stand on."
Despite his firm stance against Holocaust deniers, he does feel that they have a right to voice their ideas. He believes that laws punishing Holocaust denial are a little foolish, as is the act of denying in the first place. But he does understand the rationale. He adopts a similar approach when speaking about Germany today.
"No one likes to talk about difficult times," he said, about the tendency for German families to avoid speaking to their children about the Holocaust. "I can't forgive the people who were responsible for the Holocaust," but he also can't hold their children and grandchildren responsible.
Zwilsky and his family arrived in the United States in 1947, after relatives in new Jersey recognized Zwilsky's father in a New York Times article about Germany's surviving Jews. It was here that Zwilsky finished his schooling, earned a doctorate, and became a metallurgist. He and his wife, Robert Safer, today live in Calvert County as part of the small but strong local Jewish congregation Beit Chaverim.
"I have been very pleased," he said, "that I have not had any experiences of Anti-Semitism in the county." He and his wife believe that the welcoming nature in Calvert has been beneficial for them both as Jews because this is not always the case elsewhere. However, they still fear that the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime will be forgotten if they do not speak up.
"I don't want the story to be forgotten," Zwilsky said, "and it needs to be repeated and people should know about it and that it really happened. There was such a thing as the Holocaust and it should be remembered."
Ben Blumberg is a senior at Calvert High School.