When Dr. Walter Ziffer speaks at the Mountain Branch Library in Lake Lure, it will be a rare opportunity for lovers of history and the human race. His talk is set for 3 p.m. on September 10.
Ziffer, 92, was a teenager in seven different concentration camps during the war and feels lucky to have survived along with his parents and some of his siblings.
Ziffer will ruffle some feathers with statements like this one, "I cannot subscribe to their view of attributing my survival to God's protection. I do not and wish not to see me singled out in some way by God from the rest of world Jews, of whom one-third perished by Hitler and his henchmen during the Holocaust. How could God make me survive while one and a half million innocent children went to their death without God intervening on their behalf?"
In addition to the million and a half children who were killed, historians say another 4.5 million adult Jews and 3 million Poles, other Eastern Europeans, disabled persons, lgbtq folks, the mentally ill, and persons deemed enemies of the state including Protestant ministers like Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Norbert Chopek.
The outspoken advocate for justice and humanity, holds a number of postgraduate degrees, including a doctorate in theology. He tells amazing stories of dealing with one of the darkest times in human history, like this one:
"In one of the camps, when I was 16, I was operating a machine bending rebar. The German engineer brought me to his office and showed me a new design I was to follow. I quickly found that the dimensions on the blueprint did not add up correctly and I told him so. Doing so in impeccable German which is my native language, he was amazed and just sat there shaking his head. Then he spurted out, 'You are not a Jew!.' 'Of course, I am a Jew. This is why I am here.' To this he answered with, 'You cannot be a Jew because Jews are not capable of speaking German!.' Opening his lunch box he shared with me a sandwich, admonishing me to eat it in his office. This is an example of Nazi education. He was taught that Jews were Untermenschen - meaning 'subhumans' - totally inferior to the Germans who were allegedly a super-race."
The doctor is not only a Holocaust survivor, but a scholar of religion who speaks openly and clearly of moral issues affecting our world today. At 92, he still has the chops to make a great speech, as he did recently at Asheville-Buncombe Community College.
He told the crowd at the community college, "This is a warning talk, because the reason things were so bad during the Nazi period is because people in the period prior to that had not done their civic jobs of being politically involved." He described political involvement as not only voting but speaking with others to change thoughts and ideas.
Having spoken to thousands, especially middle school and high school students, he says he always gets the question, "Could something like the Holocaust happen here in America?" Sadly, he says, "Yes," and his reasoning is based in part on the fact that normal human beings committed the crimes that he lived with for three years, 1943-45.
"The people who committed this incredible crimes were people like you and me," he said.
He talked about how the German people were exposed to lies about the Jews every day, day after day, from printed material and radio. Television was not yet in common use.
"If you hear lies often enough, you will begin to believe them," he said. "Especially if the lies come from an authoritative source. They begin to sink in. Not only do we begin to believe them, but we begin to act on them. This is what happened in the Nazi period."
His cure for falling prey to liars is critical thinking.
"In the past, the present, and the future critical thinking is our civic duty," he said.
He urged critical thinking around the issues of immigration and mass shootings. He said fear and ignorance are at the heart of the fear of immigrants; and hatred and fear lead to mass shootings.
In thinking about today's young people, he said, "In my opinion, it is the young people in this country and world wide that are standing up for social justice, democracy and the practicing of sound ecology. Unfortunately, the status quo is hard to overcome because a lot of people profit from it. I hope the young will prevail in their search for equity for all."
He described a little of what it was like to serve the Nazis in work camps, "When the body is starved the brain cannot work. All we could think about was work and dreams and food."
Dr. Ziffer also said, "There is an abundance of hatred around these days. I wish I were enough of an optimist to say that there are signs out there for a peaceful, healthy and a good future for humankind. Science, in my lifetime has made tremendous strides in the field of physical healing. Science has also been warning us of impending doom unless we come together as people and as nations to stop worldwide pollution. The big question is: are we listening and will we be doing just that?"
According to Wikipedia, Ziffer received an engineering degree from Vanderbilt University, two master's degrees from the Graduate School of Theology of Oberlin College and a doctorate in theology from the University of Strasbourg in early Christian history, Biblical Hebrew and comparative religion.
He currently lives in Weaverville.
The September 10 talk is free and open to the public. Mountain Branch Library in Lake Lure at 3 p.m.