Feb. 12, 2007

Holocaust survivor tells her story

By Matt Kane
Sports Editor

Swastika – 1: a symbol or ornament in the form of a Greek cross with the ends of the arms extended at right angles all in the same rotary direction 2: a swastika used as a symbol of anti-Semitism or of Nazism.

Webster’s Ninth New College Dictionary gives these two definitions for the term swastika, a noun. To Dr. Sabina S. Zimering, the term has much more meaning.

“Very bad, sad memories. Tragic memories,” Zimering said Wednesday, when asked what fills her head when she sees a swastika.

Those memories include the sounds of German-dropped bombs zeroing in on her girlhood town of Piotrkow, Poland, at the start of World War II, when she was 16. Her first kiss. Lying about her own faith. And American soldiers declaring, “Hitler, kaput.” All memories of the Holocaust.

Zimering, a retired opthamologist, moved to the Twin Cities in 1950 with her future husband, Ruben, also from Poland, and now resides in St. Louis Park. She spent 42 years looking into the eyes of thousands of patients until her retirement in 1986.

It makes you wonder whether any of those patients took a deep look into Dr. Zimering’s eyes. If they had, they would have found a story of pain, a story of loss, a story of hope, and a story of survival.

For decades, Zimering struggled with talking about her past as a Holocaust survivor, but, with encouragement from her three children and a friend in a writing class she took later in life, Zimering opened her memory, first in a newspaper article and then in her book “Hiding in the Open,” an autobiographical story of her survival as a Jewish girl living under the Nazi rein.

In 2004, her story made it to the stage at the Great American History Theatre in St. Paul.

Wednesday, Zimering was in Delano to tell her story of surviving the Holocaust to an auditorium full of eighth and ninth grade students, faculty, and community members.

“It was very interesting,” said eighth grader Stephanie Menzey after purchasing a copy of “Hiding in the Open,” and getting it personally signed by the author. “It made me want to learn more about (the Holocaust).”

And that is precisely the reason Zimering decided to tell her story to the public.

“For the longest time, I was not able to talk about it, but somehow I got over it, and now it’s very important for me, at my age, I am 83 and will be 84 in two weeks, to talk to teenagers,” she said. “They probably don’t realize now, when they are teenagers, but when they are adults making decisions, this, I’m sure, will help them be humane and fight hate that is, unfortunately, still around.”

“Hiding in the Open” was first released in 2001, and is now in its sixth edition.

Zimering carried an empty suitcase away from the Delano Middle School Wednesday. When she brought it in, it was filled with several dozen copies of her book.

“It is better this way,” she said when she effortlessly picked up the light piece of luggage just before exiting.

Zimering’s visit to Delano came at the request of Delano Middle School teacher Melody Soderberg.

Soderberg’s eighth-grade language arts class has been studying the Holocaust, which includes the reading of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” By asking Zimering to speak in Delano, Soderberg wanted her students to realize that there are more stories than what Anne Frank wrote.

“They have to realize it was more than just Anne Frank, and that’s why we do the extensive study on (the Holocaust),” Soderberg said. “To see that these people are still here and they can still tell their story — this isn’t something that is, oh, so long ago. This is in our present-past.”

Soderberg believes seeing and hearing Zimering’s first-person account of surviving the Holocaust is vital in bringing an understanding of what went on in a way text-books cannot.

“The kids read about it, but to be able to put a face with the experience makes it real to them. That this is something that really happened,” Soderberg said. “To have someone tell their story is truly important because then, (the students) can’t forget what that was all about — especially with what it going on in the world today.”

The first thing one notices when Zimering talks is the silence in the crowd, even when the crowd is made up of teenagers. There is no snickering. No giggling. No juvenile games. Just the sound of closed mouths and open ears. Ears trying to catch every soft word Zimering speaks.

The words are soft, but the stories are as hard and cold and grey as the Nazi soldiers they often describe.

Zimering read several excerpts from her book out loud.

“Sad, sunken eyes,” read one phrase. “Day and night, the heavy boots of German patrol,” read another. And a line describing her mother said, “Secretly, she gave us food rations, as she grew skinnier and skinnier.”

On page 4, Zimering’s youth is shown in her reaction to the air-raid sirens.

“I hardly had time to look up when I heard an explosive thunder. The ground shook underfoot. Bombs, real bomb,” she said. “‘Good,’ I whispered, ‘finally some excitement.’ I was 16, and boredom was my worst enemy.”

The words command the attention of her juvenile listeners, and Zimering knows the students in her audiences, are, indeed, listening.

“I can tell whether they are with me by the questions,” she said. “(The questions) usually reassure me that they were listening.”

And there were questions, 20 minutes worth, ranging from “Did you ever meet Hitler?” to “Do you know what happened to the boy you first kissed?”

The answers to both were, “No.”

Zimering’s book is about her own journey, but she was never alone. Her younger sister, Helka, joined her in an escape from Treblinka, a concentration camp, and accompanied Zimering wherever she went, which was oftentimes under the noses of Nazi soldiers.

For teenage Jewish girls in the early 1940s, living near and working for high-ranking Nazi officers was far from an ideal situation. When Zimering and her sister worked at the Maximilian Hotel, where high-ranking German soldiers stayed during the war, in Regensburg, Bavaria, in southeast Germany, the two girls were Polish Catholics — as far as the Nazi soldiers knew.

That’s what the girls’ identification cards read, and, despite several run-ins with suspicious soldiers, lying about their Judaism and posing as Gentile children was a necessary means for survival.

“At the hotel, an officer suspected that I am a Jew, and I said, ‘Well, that’s it, he will probably know what to do next.’ I was lucky,” Zimering told. “We were in the midst of our own worst enemies.”

Zimering admits the memories of her childhood stuck with her for years after, but says they are not as constant as they used to be.

“For a while, I had nightmares and couldn’t get rid of them, but, by now, well, once in awhile, I see a situation that resembles very much what I went through, but there is nothing steady,” she explained. “For quite some time when I heard a plane it brought back the war — the fighting and the bombing in the beginning and in Germany. That would bring back the scary.”

On April 27, 1945, after six years, and, at the age of 22, the lying and hiding were over. Zimering, Helka, and their younger brother, Natek, who all currently live in the Twin Cities area, survived. Their parents did not. All but seven of 60 relatives perished.

She remembered going back to Piorkow immediately after the Jews were liberated.

“The city looked back to normal,” she said. “Except there were no Jews.”

The Holocaust

• The word Holocaust is of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.”

• Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invades Poland, and WWII begins.

• Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) carried out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist party officials. More than one million people were killed by these units.

• Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust, but others, including Roma (Gypsies), mentally or physically disabled people, political intellects and religious leaders, homosexuals and others deemed socially unacceptable, and religious dissidents (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) were also victimized.

• The German armed forces surrender in the west on May 7 and in the east on May 9, 1945.

• By war’s end, close to two out of every three Jews in Europe had been murdered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators in the Holocaust.

• Approximately 6 million Jews were murdered during WWII.

(United State Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org)

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