Merkel says Germans can never forget death camp horrors

Germans will never forget the “unfathomable horrors” that the Nazis inflicted at the death camps, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich.

In a moving speech to 120 elderly survivors from 20 nations and six U.S. soldiers who helped liberate the camp, Merkel said Dachau and other death camps freed near the end of World War Two stand as eternal reminders of the Nazi regime's brutality.

“These former concentration camps have come into public focus in recent weeks with the passing of the 70th anniversaries of the liberation of one camp after another,” Merkel said in a sombre ceremony at Dachau, now a memorial with 800,000 annual visitors.

“There were unfathomable horrors everywhere,” said Merkel, who in 2013 became the first German leader to visit Dachau. “They all admonish us to never forget. No, we will never forget. We'll not forget for the sake of the victims, for our own sake, and for the sake of future generations.”

The Nazis set up Dachau in March 1933, weeks after Adolf Hitler took power, to detain political rivals. It became the prototype for a network of camps where 6 million Jews were murdered, as well as Roma, Russians, Poles and homosexuals.

More than 200,000 people were being held in the camp when U.S. troops liberated it on April 29, 1945. Television footage from Dachau, showing starved inmates and piles of bodies, was among the first images the world saw of the Holocaust.

“It was a terrible shock, but we will never forget your excitement as you hugged us and brought out a hand-sewn American flag you hid for the occasion,” said a former U.S. soldier, Alan Lukens. “The Nazis could not crush your spirit.”

Jean Samuel, a French resistance fighter, said he felt like a human again on the day the Americans arrived. “It was the best day of my life,” he said. “The nightmare was finally over.”

The main gate with its cynical slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) was rebuilt by a local blacksmith after the original was stolen last year. Merkel said it was alarming that the gate was never found. She also lamented that Jewish institutions need round-the clock police protection in Germany.

“These camps keep our memories alive, despite all the adversity out there,” Merkel said. “There are unfortunately incidents again and again such as the theft of theDachau gate last year that are disturbing.”

In a recent opinion poll, some 42 percent of Germans said they want to draw a line under an intense focus on the Nazi past in German media. 

On Dachau’s 70th anniversary of liberation, a new “Arbeit macht frei” gate

A German blacksmith who painstakingly rebuilt an iron gate at the Dachau concentration camp bearing the notorious “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) slogan  hoped no one would notice his work was a replica.

Michael Poitner said he was honoured to win the contract to reconstruct the 1.87 metre-high, 108-kg gate, which was stolen last year from the memorial site atDachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, set up in 1933.

“It was an imposing assignment full of history and it'll be around a lot longer than I am,” he told Reuters after putting the final touches to the gate ahead of a May 3 ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation by U.S. troops.

“It's as close as possible to the original with a variance at most of just a few millimetres here and there.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in 2013 became the first German leader to visit Dachau, will join some 100 survivors at the ceremony. She visited the Buchenwald death camp with U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009.

The Nazis set up the camp in Dachau outside Munich only weeks after Adolf Hitler took power. Initially designed to detain political rivals, it became the prototype for a network of death camps where 6 million Jews were murdered. More than 41,000 died at Dachau.

“A lot of thought went into how to make this cynical Nazi slogan close to the original – which is important as some 800,000 people visit the Dachau memorial each year,” said Poitner, 36, who was born in town of Dachau. “You can feel all that cynicism with this gate.”

He studied pictures and documents about the original gate, which was installed in 1936, and used techniques like high-temperature brazing, which was more common than soldering in the 1930s.

More than 200,000 people had been detained in the camp by the time U.S. troops liberated it in 1945. Television footage showing piles of bodies and starved inmates of the camp were among the first images the world saw of the Holocaust.

The original Dachau gate was stolen in November and police have not yet recovered it.

In December 2009, a similar “Arbeit macht frei” sign was stolen from the entry gate of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Poland by a Swedish man with far-right ties. 

Gate with ‘Work Makes You Free’ sign stolen from Dachau

Part of the iron gate greeting Dachau prisoners with a sign saying “Work Makes You Free” in German was stolen.

The sign, which reads “Arbeit Macht Frei,” was discovered missing from the former concentration camp early Sunday morning, The Associated Press reported. The stolen section of the gate from the prisoners’ entrance measures about 6 feet by 3 feet.

A private firm provides security to the former Dachau camp but there are no surveillance cameras. There are no suspects.

Dachau, which is about 10 miles from Munich, was the first Nazi concentration camp opened in Germany.

The theft comes five years after the 16-foot metal sign from the front gate of the former Auschwitz concentration camp was stolen and recovered across the country 72 hours later cut in three pieces. Repairing the sign took several months.

Five Polish men were convicted of carrying out the theft on behalf of a Swedish citizen, Anders Hogstrom, who acted as a middleman for a neo-Nazi buyer. Hogstrom founded the far-right National Socialist Front party in Sweden in 1994.

Meeting Louis Sneh

Many years ago, when I was a young, harried father, I would sit in synagogue on Shabbat mornings and try to keep my kids quiet. It was a task I consistently failed at. Their mother, the rabbi, was on the bimah, leading services.  She had the easy job.

Once, I was jiggling my crying daughter, grabbing for my son, juggling Cheerios and sippy cups — all the while feeling the Eyes of Judgmental Parents upon me. Then I heard a voice, “Come here, ketzeleh.”

This grandfatherly man with a soft Eastern European accent, a trim mustache and a well-cut suit took my daughter into his arms. In an instant, she was quiet.

That’s how I got to know Louis Sneh — he was the soft-spoken man who would always reach out to comfort my children.

A year ago, I encountered the other side of Louis Sneh: his past.

I was at a screening of a movie called “Last Train to Seeshaupt” at the Museum of Tolerance.  

And there was Louis on screen, wondering aloud who had the better death — his mother, sent to the gas chamber on her first day in Auschwitz, or his father, who survived a concentration camp but collapsed on a final death march and was shot on the spot?

“He had to suffer for a year first,” Louis said.

Until I saw “Last Train,” I had no idea what hellish crucible Louis Sneh survived. He was 16 years old when the Nazis marched into Hungary, March 19, 1944. He and the Jews of his village of Mezokovacshaza, near Szeged, were deported to Dachau.

The Nazis needed slave laborers to build their underground jet factories. A guard asked for an electrician, and Louis’ hand shot up in the air — even though he came from a town with no electricity.

“Because I raised my hand, I’m here today,” Louis said.

In the final weeks of the war, the Germans closed Louis’s sub-camp and put its 4,000 surviving prisoners on a train through Bavaria.

The 70-car train was a kilometer long and packed tight — with nothing to eat or drink, no toilets, no windows, just the smell, as Louis remembers, of blood and excrement.

Allied planes strafed the train, puncturing its wooden walls. One morning, through the holes, Louis witnessed a dreamlike scene: The SS guards stripped off their uniforms, tossed them and their weapons behind a bush and ran away.

Soon Gen. Patton’s tanks rolled in, and the prisoners — starved, sick, dying — stepped out onto the platform at the Seeshaupt station, free.

Louis calls that day his second birthday.

The documentary also tells what happened afterward in Seeshaupt itself — more on that later.

Louis eventually made his way to pre-state Israel. There, he served in the navy, met his wife, Dina, got a job with National Cash Register and eventually was transferred to the States. He opened his own cash register repair store on Hollywood Boulevard, worked hard, bought some property — became a success.

“It’s the American story, and the Jewish story,” Louis told me last week.

But, almost every year for 30 years, Louis has returned to the small town of Seeshaupt, near Munich. He has found himself taking picture after picture of the same exact thing: the train station and that platform, the site of his rebirth.

Once he decided to wait for a freight train to pass through, so he could recapture that image on film. Dina told him they could be there all day — he should ask the attendant for the schedule. The clerk said, “The last freight train passed here in 1945; it was filled with corpses.” 

Louis said, “You’re looking at one of those corpses.” 

That conversation took place in 1995. The attendant told Louis the town was in the midst of a debate over whether to construct a monument to that train. Louis got involved and grew close to the mayor and others in town, and he was present when the villagers erected a monument to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and to the liberation that took place at Seeshaupt.

In “Last Train to Seeshaupt,” made for German television with English subtitles, local elementary school students visit the memorial and sing Hebrew songs. Its German inscription reads, “Not for hate … but for love … I am.” German high school students visit, and they send letters to Louis.  

“I have faith in the latest generation,” he told me.

As for our children, how many of them will get a chance to meet an actual survivor like Louis Sneh? Memorials and videos are one thing, but time is running out to meet the people for whom, as Louis said, their lives are the story. 

Take advantage of that, now — you and your children. It isn’t just our last opportunity to reach out to them: it’s our duty.

Louis Sneh and other survivors will speak at a screening of “Last Train to Seeshaupt” on April 7 at 7 p.m. at Adat Shalom, 3030 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Survivor: Alex Friedman

The train arrived at Dachau one morning in late November 1944. As the doors opened, German soldiers wielding big sticks yelled, “Raus, raus” (“Out, out”). Alex Friedman and the other Jewish prisoners exited, were marched toward the camp and, outside in the snow and cold, ordered to strip. Alex gave up his warm coat and the tefillin he had carried from Hungary. The men stood in a long line, waiting to see an SS doctor, who examined them one by one. “How do you say belly button in German?” Alex asked a fellow prisoner. He had pain and wanted medical attention. When Alex’s turn came, he started to speak, but the doctor hurriedly pushed him forward. “I was naïve. I had no idea they were killing people,” Alex said, looking back. He was 23.

After Alex was processed, he was given a shirt, pants and wooden shoes, and sent to a barracks. “We had no time to be afraid. We gave up everything already,” he said. 

Alex was born Sándor Friedman on March 21, 1921, in Kiskunfélegyháza, Hungary, to Mihaly and Rachel Friedman. He was the youngest of six children in an observant Orthodox family with two girls — “the most beautiful girls ever,” Alex said — and four boys. Their father ran a general store and provided comfortably for his family.

“I was lucky. I had everybody. I was the youngest,” Alex said. 

Although anti-Semitism always existed in Kiskunfélegyháza, Alex said, especially on Easter and Christmas when “talking against the Jews” was widespread, it mostly had been subdued. Plus, his family was well liked. Local farmers who could not read or write sought help from Alex’s mother, who composed and posted letters for them, even paying for the stamps. 

But in October 1940, when Hungary became an ally of Germany, anti-Jewish measures took effect. Among other prohibitions, Jews could not buy merchandise. Alex, who was 19 at the time and running his father’s store, traveled to Budapest to find goods. “We were selling whatever we could get,” he said. 

On March 19, 1944, however, Germany invaded Hungary, and by April all the Jews in Kiskunfélegyháza were ordered to wear yellow stars and relocate to the ghetto. Alex and his parents moved into one room. “Everybody was thinking — though no one was saying it out loud — that they brought us to the ghetto to kill us,” he said. 

After 10 days of not knowing whether to flee or stay, Alex volunteered for forced labor. He was taken to an army barracks and sent to work each day at a private, German-owned canning factory five miles away, in Nagykoros, where he peeled apples, among other jobs. “We had everything,” Alex said, including all the apples they could eat.

But in mid-October 1944, as Hungary tried to make peace with the Soviets, German troops deposed Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy and replaced him with Ferenc Szálasi, head of the Hungarian Nazis, who stepped up deportations and executions.

Soon after, Alex’s labor unit was sent on a forced march. After five weeks, with intermittent stops, they came to a large, empty field in Zurndorf, Austria, where thousands of prisoners were “guarded by 16-year-old German boys with big guns,” Alex said. They were then loaded onto cattle cars and shipped to Dachau. It was the end of November 1944. 

 Alex had been in Dachau only a few days when he and a group of prisoners were sent to Mühldorf, a Dachau subcamp, where much construction was taking place. “We didn’t know what they were building,” Alex said. There they slept two to a bunk and subsisted on meager rations. 

A few days into the job, while unloading bags of cement weighing 50 kilograms (about 110 pounds) from a truck and carrying them up several flights of stairs, Alex was punched hard in the face by a soldier. The blow knocked him to the ground and caused so much swelling his friends didn’t recognize him. “I wasn’t working fast enough,” he remembered.

Alex remained at Mühldorf about five months, wearing the same shirt and pair of pants. Sometimes he carried bags of cement. Other times he shoveled loose cement into wooden boxes and hauled those. Then, around the third week in April 1945, when Alex was digging a runway and was “so weak he couldn’t even pick up a stick,” he overheard a German soldier say the war would soon end.

A week later, Alex and other Mühldorf prisoners were loaded onto cattle cars. “They want to kill us all in the mountains,” Alex heard people saying. But because American troops were advancing from several directions, the train never reached its destination and instead halted on a siding at Bavaria, where the prisoners were liberated by American troops on May 1, 1945. 

Alex spent three months in the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp, which was quickly established on the site of a former Hitler youth camp, near the train siding. 

In August, Alex returned to Kiskunfélegyháza, arriving at midnight. Unable to sleep, he spent the first night sitting on the synagogue floor. The next day, he went to his parents’ house, but he couldn’t go inside; he just sat on the curb.

Alex moved into his sister’s house. She and all his siblings, as well as his parents, had been killed in Auschwitz, with the exception of his brother Naftoli, who was liberated from Mauthausen and who lived with Alex until Naftoli’s death in 1987.

Of the 1,500 Jews living in Kiskunfélegyháza before the war, according to Alex’s recollection, only 30 came back. But it was there that he was introduced to Eva Goldman, who had spent more than a year in Auschwitz, and they married on Dec. 4, 1945. Their son, Andrew, was born on April, 26, 1947.

In 1949, when communists came to power in Hungary, Alex tried unsuccessfully to escape through Czechoslovakia with his family. They then settled in Budapest. But on Dec. 4, 1956, after the Hungarian uprising, they escaped again, walking all night until they safely reached Austria. In January 1957, they arrived in Los Angeles with little money and no English.

Alex found work as a typewriter repairman. He saved money and, after two years, began buying convenience stores, accumulating seven. In 1978, at 57, he retired, renting out the stores and making other real-estate investments. His wife died in 1998.

Today, Alex is 91 and, because of ill health, he misses attending services at Congregation Bais Naftoli on La Brea Avenue, named for his brother. But he enjoys spending time with his family — his son, four grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. 

“God was always watching me,” he said. drops jigsaw puzzle of Nazi camp Dachau

The American online retailer has stopped selling a jigsaw puzzle featuring the Dachau Nazi concentration camp following complaints.

The puzzle has 252 parts that together form a picture of the camp. Before it was taken offline Oct. 1, the product description said  the toy was intended for customers eight years old and above. It sold for $24.99.

Last week, Gerda Hasselfeldt, leader of the Christian Social Union group in Germany's parliament, wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that the toy was “a slap in the face” to the camp's survivors, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported.

A spokesman for the nonprofit Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial told the German daily Münchner Merkur that he is outraged by the puzzle. “The toy is a trivialization of the place and its history,” Dirk Riedel said, adding that memorial officials wanted the legality of sales of the puzzle on Amazon to be reviewed.

The image was taken by Robert Harding, a photographer who has provided countless pictures for puzzles, some 80,000 of which are offered by Amazon alone. As of Monday morning, the link to the puzzle was no longer available and it appeared that the Web retailer had taken it offline.

Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp, located in the small German town of Dachau, about 10 miles northwest of Munich. The camp was established in March 1933 and liberated in April 1945.

More than 200,000 prisoners passed through the camp, and over 30,000 “officially” died there, although the more accurate figure is certainly much higher, according to the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration.

American Muslim leaders visit concentration camps

Eight Muslim American leaders who visited concentration camps and met with Holocaust survivors signed a statement condemning Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.

The trip earlier this month, intended to teach the participants about the Holocaust, featured visits to Dachau and Auschwitz.

“We stand united as Muslim American faith and community leaders and recognize that we have a shared responsibility to continue to work together with leaders of all faiths and their communities to fight the dehumanization of all peoples based on their religion, race or ethnicity,” the statement read. “With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hatred, rhetoric and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth.”

Marshall Breger, an Orthodox Jew who served in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, launched the trip to educate those who may not have had the opportunity to learn the history of the Holocaust. Breger said this would help combat Holocaust denial among Muslims.

The leaders on the trip were Imams Muzammil Siddiqi of Orange County, Calif.; Muhamad Maged of Virginia; Suhaib Webb of Santa Clara, Calif.; Abdullah Antepli of Duke University in North Carolina; and Syed Naqvi of Washington, D.C., along with Dr. Sayyid Syeed of Washington; Sheik Yasir Qadhi of New Haven, Conn.; and Laila Muhammad of Chicago. U.S. government officials, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, and an official from the Organization of the Islamic Conference also participated.

According to the Jewish Daily Forward, several of the leaders, all with large spheres of influence, had a history of anti-Semitic comments. Laila Muhammad is the daughter of American Muslim leader W.D. Muhammad and granddaughter of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam.

The Aug. 7-11 trip was co-sponsored by a German think tank and a New Jersey-based interfaith group called Interreligious Understanding.

Elmau & Dachau: A Muslim’s Testimony

Barbed wire, loaded with death
is drawn around our world.
Above a sky without mercy
sends frost and sunburn.
Far from us are all joys,
far away our home, far away our wives,
when we march to work in silence
thousands of us at the break of day.
But we have learned the motto of Dachau
and it made us as hard as steel:
Be a man, mate,
stay a man, mate,
do a good job, get to it, mate,
for work, work makes you free!
— Jura Soyfer (Dachau survivor)

I am a Muslim intellectual woman who teaches Judaism and Islam, a Muslim who seeks dialogue with Jews, a Muslim who sympathizes with Jews and understands the need for the state of Israel.

The past year has been an intense one for me and my family. On March 30, I gave birth to a beautiful girl, Ruya, who happens to share her birth date with Moses Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish philosopher and physician. At the end of June, I was invited to present a paper at a conference in Elmau, a small resort town 50 miles south of Munich. The conference was organized by the University of Munich’s department of history and Jewish studies and co-sponsored by University of California. It was titled, “Judaism Through Muslim Eyes and Islam Through Jewish Eyes.” I teach at a variety of Southern California universities, and I was honored by the invitation to be part of such a unique international conference, which included esteemed scholars and intellectuals whose work has had a deep resonance for me, in terms of both my political and religious thinking.

But my trip became much more than the academic experience, because while I was in Germany I took the time to travel with my husband and daughter to Dachau. My intention at the conference was to try to make some connections with Jews and Muslims from Europe, Asia, South America, Israel, America and the Middle East who were also in some manner involved with Jewish-Muslim relations. In post-Holocaust Germany, Muslims (mainly Turks) are treated with disdain, and the memory of Jews has become a distant past. Yet the uncanny coincidence of Muslim and Jew in Europe has fascinated me for some time.

As I watch post-Sept. 11 American and European images of Muslims, I am reminded of how Jews were depicted in 18th century British caricature: the Maltese Jew in his oriental turban. By the 19th century, the classic picture of the Jew was Lord Rothschild in formal wear receiving the Prince of Wales at his daughter’s wedding in a London synagogue.

This image of a people turned over in a blink of a century. Religious identity (as a Jew or a Muslim) replaced national identity — although very few people, I imagine, except perhaps the anti-Semites, remembered that the Rothschilds were once a Frankfurt family who escaped the Yiddish-speaking ghetto. For a time, Jews were imagined as all alike. Today, Muslims also are beginning to all look alike in the popular eye. My role at the conference — to help differentiate these images and to connect with colleagues — was clear.

But why did I want to visit Dachau? For whose memory? Perhaps I wanted to be a witness, a Muslim witness, who could testify against the outrage of Holocaust denial in the Islamic world and point out the deep danger in ignoring history and the memory of narrative.

It was the pairing of these two journeys that made this trip so pivotal for me.

The conference organizers hosted about 25 scholars at Schloss in Elmau, a luxurious castle surrounded by mountains, hiking trails, lakes and breathtaking beauty. My husband and Ruya roamed through the exquisite settings and enjoyed the hospitality of the University of Munich as I attended the sessions. It was my first conference with a baby along and I was filled with trepidation, but she was such an inspiration when I would catch her smile during coffee breaks.

The conference lasted two days and was filled with intense papers on Jewish and Muslim history, religion, politics, literature, poetry and art. Many of the scholars present were seasoned teachers, writers and intellectuals who brought with them an earnest desire to see Jew and Muslim as equals. They sought to describe the co-existence in many different realms of life, love, art, literature and religion. Muslim scholars openly critiqued their own cultural biases and the prevalent anti-Semitism in Islamic countries, and Jewish scholars were generous in their understanding of the contribution of Islam upon Judaism.

The most intriguing night was the last roundtable dialogue, when a local journalist put several personal and political questions to both the Muslim and Jewish scholars. Interestingly, the five scholars did not answer the questions, but each expressed deep and provocative sentiments of what it meant to have a Jewish or Islamic history, respectively. In response to their responses, the following questions were asked: How can there be real reconciliation? Memory and the effect of narrative are raw, so perhaps we need to deconstruct the images of one another, especially in the media? The conclusion of the conference remained open-ended, like most academic meetings tend to be, but there was a chill in the air that last night as some of the participants sounded pessimistic and some cynical.

A deep anxiety surfaced within me as I saw a sudden personal testimony rear amid the scholarly masturbation we had engaged in over the last two days — in other words, how can a group of scholars end the mistrust between Jews and Muslims? Well, we can’t. We have no power to resolve the problems of the Knesset or the Fatah or Hamas parties, but we can at least create dialogue and influence from these types of meetings.

But what is dialogue? It is a conversation between two willing parties. However, the willingness of many Jews and Muslims has become buried beneath the memory and effect of narrative and images, as well as death and fear. As the only Muslim woman at this conference, I witnessed some sincere thoughts from Jewish and Muslim men, as well as two Jewish women, who created a dialogue and understanding of how simply human both Jews and Muslims are.

Crossroads School thanks its courageous music man

Crossroads School in Santa Monica might not be where one would expect to find the archived works of a celebrated composer who survived Dachau and Buchenwald, especially when one considers that the Vienna-born Herbert Zipper worked as an educator at a variety of institutions of higher learning, including USC and the New School for Social Research in New York. But when Zipper died at the age of 93 in 1997, he left his papers to the K-12 school where he taught musical composition and theory in his retirement years. His relationship with the school was such that co-founder and former headmaster Paul Cummins wrote Zipper’s biography.

“[Zipper] helped steer Crossroads into arts education” and had an “impact on the curriculum” that is still felt to this day, said David Martino, Crossroads archivist and curator of the April 22 exhibition, “Herbert Zipper: Courage Teacher,” which marks the official opening of the archive to the public.

Among the items to be found in the permanent collection are a German-language letter sent by Zipper on Buchenwald Konzentrationslager letterhead and the original manuscript of “Dachau Song,” Zipper’s stirring anti-Nazi anthem,which was initially titled, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the ironic words hanging above the Dachau gate, which translate roughly as “Work will set you free.”

On April 22, six tall panels — collages of musical notations, photos and other artifacts — will be displayed in the high-ceilinged, first-floor lobby of the school’s Paul Cummins Library. The panels document Zipper’s long life and career: his days in Vienna before the war; his time in the concentration camps in 1938 and 1939; his wartime work in the underground in Manila, radioing Gen. Douglas MacArthur about the movements of the Japanese; and his postwar career in the United States.

Despite all the inhumanity he witnessed and endured, Zipper never battled depression nor lacked for style. One characteristic picture of him at the archive shows Zipper wearing a bow tie and gray suit, sporting a smile on his face.

“I’ve seen pictures of him from the 1900s to the end of his life, and he went through the Holocaust and World War II, and I think I’ve only seen one picture where he looked unkempt,” Martino said.

Zipper hailed from a well-to-do family and was exposed to classical music at a young age, studying with well-known composers like Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss. Later he became a composer and teacher himself, leading orchestras in Manila, Brooklyn, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Perhaps his greatest achievement, though, was when he convinced an SS guard in Dachau to get him violin string. Zipper and his fellow inmates then stole wood wherever they could find it, cobbled together makeshift instruments and performed compositions such as “Dachau Song,” whose lyrics were written by poet Jura Soyfer, another prisoner. Known in German as “Dachau Lied,” the piece was first performed in an abandoned Dachau building filled with latrines.

Of the secret concerts in the Dachau outhouse, Martino added, “It helped keep people’s sanity and dignity.” Yet even before Zipper came up with this scheme, he began reciting Goethe to others in the concentration camp, refelcting his belief that the arts gave people their humanity.

In addition to the Holocaust-related items, the archive’s permanent collection also includes a telegram signed by General MacArthur expressing his gratefulness for the “splendid contribution” of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, which, conducted by Zipper, performed for American servicemen after the city was liberated.

Zipper might never have led that orchestra or many others were it not for his father, a successful inventor, who was able to secure his release from Buchenwald in 1939, before the Final Solution became official Nazi policy. But Zipper’s time in Dachau was marked by all the indignities and torture that were characteristic of the Holocaust. Zipper saw many fellow inmates murdered. He himself suffered several broken ribs on the way to Dachau when an SS guard leveled him with a rifle butt, which also closed his left eye.

After he got out of Buchenwald, Zipper showed great insight into the Nazi psyche in a letter to his friend Eric Simon, in which he noted that the SS guards “were replaced every half hour” because otherwise they might begin to identify with their captives. “Nazi ideology does not permit free reign of the raw instincts of brutalized monsters. That would be a mistake, because eventually the worst brute after a while will have spent his sadistic impulses and for at least a time may become tame.”

Zipper might not be as famous as Ravel, Strauss or Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a friend who became a film composer in Hollywood. But Zipper was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, “Never Give Up.” And his work lives on in myriad students whom he taught around the world, from China and the Philippines to Germany and the United States. He infused them all with the possibilities opened up by the imaginative realm.

As he once said, “We have to see the world as it is, but we must think about what the world could be.”

“Herbert Zipper: Courage Teacher” will be on display Sunday, April 22, 2-5 p.m., at Crossroads School, Paul Cummins Library, 1714 21st St., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-7391 ext. 259 or visit

A Journey into the Heart of Darkness

There was something haunting about taking the train. The aged boxcars on a parallel track seemed frozen in time. I quieted my thoughts. After all, the train was a necessary evil. This bitter irony was not lost on me as the train sped from Munich to Dachau on probably the very same tracks that led thousands of innocent people to their deaths more than a half-century ago.

Once before I had attempted to visit Dachau only to find the camp closed. All museums are closed Mondays, said the guard. But how could they close the camp on this day? On any day? I returned to Dachau nearly four years later. It was a Wednesday.

My family, like many of those from Eastern Europe, is small. I had three grandparents, an uncle, aunt and two cousins. The rest of my family was exterminated. During the war, both grandmothers were hidden with their children. Both grandfathers were taken away by the Nazis. One perished in slave labor on the Russian front. The other was shipped from his home in Hungary to Auschwitz, then to Dachau-Mettenheim and, finally, to Waldlager, where he was liberated on Feb. 5, 1945. My surviving grandfather never spoke of his time in hell, yet with this burden he managed to live life to the fullest, taking advantage of every moment of every day, relishing the simple fact that he was.

I had been to the Wiesenthal Center, the Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem. I thought I was prepared for the emotion of Dachau. At first I was happy to be a part of a large tour group, thinking that a collective experience would somehow be cathartic. We listened to the doleful biography of the camp and toured the museum that was not more than a sparse littering of atrocities from the camp photo album. Mounted below each picture was a terse description translated into several languages. Surprisingly the pictures weren’t even all from Dachau, as if there hadn’t been enough atrocities at this camp to cover the walls end to end 100 times over. At the conclusion of the museums tour, visitors were shown grainy black and white footage of Holocaust atrocities. The poor quality of the film, accompanied by a monotone and detached narrative, allowed the viewer to register the events on an intellectual level, but prevented them from creating an empathic connection with the victims.

Having studied the Holocaust throughout the years, I was mostly acquainted with the tour guide’s lecture, so I trailed behind the group hoping to find an emotional link to the past through my solitude. I approached the original entrance to the camp with the disdainful lie still emblazoned on the iron gates: “Arbeit Macht Frei” — Work sets you free. I grasped the gate, but all I felt was the chill of cold metal.

The original bunkers at Dachau were razed, with one exact replica rebuilt when the camp became a museum. How ironic: A model within a model. After all, Dachau was Hitler’s first and oldest concentration camp, and used as a model in propaganda films to sell the idea of mass extermination to his minions. The bunker was pristine, as were the gas chambers. The ovens suffered from no wear and tear and looked like they hadn’t even baked a loaf of bread, much less thousands of Nazi victims.

The visitors slowly departed at the conclusion of the tour, but I stood alone in the anteroom of the gas chamber and wondered how such a horrific place could leave me devoid of emotion. Looking around, I noticed that none of the other visitors had left with tears in their eyes. I realized that the Wiesenthal Center, the Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem were built, in part, in memorial to Hitler’s innocent victims. Each presented images and words designed to create an empathic link between visitor and victim. Dachau’s purpose was inapposite. It was built in a remote location, behind large secretive walls designed to house “undesirables” — a place where people could be exterminated in silence, then forgotten. Rather than memorializing its victims, Dachau was sanitized of their memory. True to its original design, Dachau was a place longing to be forgotten. The rain began then, a natural reaction and fitting tribute to this monstrous place.

Looking through the rain, I finally saw what my heart longed for: He was a solemn, gray figure that approached in slow labored movements. He was introduced to me as Martin Zaidenstadt, a Jew, a member of the Polish resistance and a Dachau survivor. Zaidenstadt was happy to tell me his story, for this is why he still comes here. Zaidenstadt was part of a small group of Polish soldiers captured by the Nazis and interned in Dachau. As Jews and resistance members, he and his comrades were to be summarily executed. By some twist of fate, Zaidenstadt’s true identity was obscured and he was incorporated into the slave labor details, even though his comrades were executed. After liberation and a brief stint in Israel, Zaidenstadt returned to Dachau, took up residence and has visited the camp on nearly a daily basis for the past 52 years, vowing never to forget his fallen comrades.

Zaidenstadt took me on a personal tour of Dachau, detailing in broken English some of the many atrocities committed on these grounds. His mind’s eye painted the camp as it was those many years ago: Forced prostitution, starvation, pestilence, medical experiments, suffering. Finally, I felt.

In parting, Zaidenstadt allowed me to take his picture, but insisted it be in front of a rather nondescript and somewhat obscured memorial. As he stood there, he translated the inscription: “To Honor the Dead and to Remind the Survivors.”

Looking at Zaidenstadt, I realized what memory I was to take from Dachau. The memory is as much about those that died as it is about those that survived. It cannot be wedded to a physical place or limited to a particular time, for it is an everlasting tribute to the triumph of the human spirit. It is the collective memory of a people past, present and future who will never forget, who will say “Never Again” and who live life to the fullest, taking advantage of every moment of every day, relishing the simple fact that we are.

Michael D. Braun is an attorney at law who lives in Los Angeles.