Holocaust survivor shares story with youth
Klaus Zwilsky had to skip fifth, sixth and seventh grades because of the Holocaust, but now he’s a part of dozens of students’ history lessons, both in Calvert County and abroad.
Zwilsky, 85, of Port Republic, has spoken about his experiences to about 20 local groups over the years and is scheduled to return to Germany Oct. 7 to speak with a group of high schoolers.
Many times, the students at events will ask him, “How do you feel about us?” And Zwilsky says he has to answer with his head and his heart. His head answers that the students are three generations removed from the people who carried out the horrors of the Holocaust. His heart tells the students that he lost so many relatives in the Holocaust that he does not want them to forget that part of history.
Zwilsky was born in 1932, when Hitler was already in power. But, he lived a relatively normal life his first six years. He said his parents shielded him pretty well from what was going on, and that at that age, he probably wouldn’t have understood anyway.
His earliest memory is Kristallnacht in November 1938, when windows of Jewish stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed and people were killed throughout Germany.
Then, in 1938, Zwilsky’s father, Erich, lost his job as a pharmacist as the Nazis decreed that Jews couldn’t work unless they were in a Jewish organization. He was unemployed for awhile but later found work as a hospital administrator. Zwilsky’s mother, Ruth, was a forced laborer. She couldn’t go shopping because she worked during the only hour Jews were permitted to, from 4 to 5 p.m.
During that time, Jews also couldn’t use public transportation and received fewer rations than everyone else. Each Jew was required to carry identification as such and adopt “Israel” or “Sarah” as their middle name.
Zwilsky and his parents were part of a small few who “legally survived the Nazi regime,” he said. Out of 160,000 German Jews, Zwilsky said many emigrated before the war started and most who remained were among the more than 6 million total Jews killed during the Holocaust. Some survived the concentration camps, others went into hiding and others were spared because of special circumstances like that of Oskar Schindler, who is credited for saving the lives of more than a thousand Jews. But the number of Jews who survived is minute compared to the number killed, Zwilsky said.
The Zwilsky family lived in the hospital where Erich worked as an administrator, and that’s how they escaped death. The hospital became a holding place for Jews. Still, the Gestapo would come into the hospital periodically and he and the other handful of children who lived there were sent to hide in the basement. There were also bombings in the area. The escape from death was narrow, though. Mere days before they were scheduled for deportation, the Russians came.
Relatives in the United States found out Zwilsky and his parents were still alive after the war through an article in the New York Times on the hospital they lived in. There was no way to communicate after the war, as 70 percent of Berlin was destroyed. The family sent packages back and forth through soldiers and military mail.
About 15 years ago, Zwilsky donated his documents to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Now, classes of high schoolers in the area spend time pouring through the documents and writing reports on him, his mother and his father. Some years, he goes to the museum to meet with the students. He also has presented at Calvert High School, Huntingtown High School, Northern Middle School and The Calverton School.
Zwilsky said he doesn’t have a stock speech he gives to every audience. He caters his remarks to the specific age group.
“My pride-and-joy speech was [as] a keynote speaker at Sunderland Elementary,” he said, where he was tasked with telling fourth- and fifth-graders about the Holocaust. He wanted it to be honest and accurate, but age-appropriate.
Holocaust survivor Klaus Zwilsky, 85, of Port Republic looks at the copy of the New York Times that alerted his family in the United States that he and his parents survived.
A WWII ration book for Jews had some items crossed out, as Jews didn’t receive as many rations.
In addition to wearing a yellow star of David, Jews were required to carry identification and use “Israel” or “Sarah” as their middle name.