News Column

Holocaust Survivor Opens Up

April 18, 2013

Loudmouths talking politics on the radio are a dime a dozen, but one such "screeching voice" caught the attention of 10-year-old Robert Behr.

Behr, who is Jewish in that his family went to a synagogue a couple of times a year, was bothered by the screecher talking about there being a "Jewish conspiracy" to blame for Germany having lost World War I.

"My mother said, 'Don't worry, boy, it's just a politician trying to get elected who doesn't like Jews,' " and that the German people were far to smart to put someone like that in a position of power.

By January 1933, the Jewish boy, who had been born in 1922, was living in a Germany where that screeching voice on the radio had just been named chancellor.

Behr, now 91 and living in Maryland, spoke Wednesday evening at Kansas Wesleyan University as part of the school's annual Holocaust Remembrance and Genocide Awareness Week.

After surviving the Holocaust, Behr moved to the U.S., served in the U.S. Army for seven years, worked as a civilian for the U.S. Air Force and earned several degrees in history.

He now travels the country, speaking about his experiences as a Jew in Nazi Germany.

Won't live much longer

"Why would I come out here and speak to you, in this miserable weather?" he asked the crowed gathered at Sams Chapel. "I'm retired and should be sitting in my easy chair. It's because I won't be around much longer and I want other people to carry justice into the future."

Behr said he was born into a well-to-do family; his father was a doctor, who had volunteered for military service in World War I.

After Hitler came to power and began his campaign against the Jews, Behr said, "Mother told me Germans were too smart to keep a guy like Hitler in power" and that he'd be out in six months.

Instead, the Berlin he'd grown up knowing as a center for culture and art had a change of atmosphere; the insurance companies quit paying Jewish doctors, and not long after that, Jewish doctors weren't allowed to see non-Jewish patients.

A town that hates you

"You suddenly find yourself living in a town that hates you," Behr said.

"We were Germans first, Germans second, Germans third, and maybe Jews fourth," he said. "My father had fought in World War I -- volunteered to fight for the emperor, and the the country he risked his life for didn't want him."

The following year, in 1934, the Nazis declared that Jews were no longer considered German citizens; they were allowed to live in Germany, but had no civil rights.

Not easy to leave

Over the next few years, he said, the restrictions tightened; public pools were closed to Jews.

"Were we hungry? No. Were we beaten in those days? No," he said, but they increasingly became fearful of standing out, of being identified as the "people who had caused Germany's downfall."

For those who did decide to leave Germany, it wasn't easy; Germany didn't mind if the Jews left -- but wouldn't let them take anything with them, and "most countries don't want penniless people."

One of the worst countries about accepting German Jews, he said, was the United States, which insisted each immigrant have a sponsor who could guarantee they wouldn't have to use any government services.

Doing hard labor

By 1938, he was doing hard labor, bicycling to an office 7.5 miles from home, six days a week, for jobs such as hauling coal or bricks -- by then, Jews weren't allowed to use public transportation.

The violence started in the fall of 1938, after a Polish Jew living in France shot and killed a German diplomat; that led to Kristallnacht -- translated as the "night of broken glass," in which the windows of Jewish business were smashed, synagogues burned and tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested and sent to camps.

"American reporters stationed in Germany couldn't believe that a cultured nation could act in this manner," Behr said.

Hitler wins, wins, wins

The start of World War II in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland was cause for celebration in the Behr family.

"My parents were so sure that the British and French were going to clobber Hitler in six months," he said. "But you look at the history books; Hitler won every goddam battle. He captured Paris in six months -- in World War I, we got bogged down at Verdun."

When the Nazis decided to exterminate Jews, his family was spared because of his father's military service.

But in 1942, he and his mother were arrested; she had helped a friend sneak into Switzerland, and the friend sent her a postcard thanking her.

Concentration camp

They were sent to the Theresienstadt camp in occupied Czechoslovakia; it had previously been a city of 4,000, now holding 60,000.

"My first job there was collecting dead bodies -- I was 22," he said, describing hauling "naked and emaciated" bodies in a wagon to the edge of the city to be burned.

He later volunteered for a work crew to build a new headquarters for the German SS after the original was destroyed by Allied bombing raids; the Germans had said the families of the volunteer workers wouldn't be "resettled" to other camps.

He already knew resettlement meant a trip to Ausch-witz death camp.

Sick and hopeless

While there, he said, he got sick and "for the first time, I gave up."

But one day, he saw Germans heading west, instead of east, and realized they were in retreat from the advancing Soviet army.

"If the Russians were that close, I thought maybe I could hold on," he said, and in February of 1943, he was transferred back to Theresienstadt.

Two months later, the Soviets liberated that camp, and he was free.



Source: (c)2013 The Salina Journal (Salina, Kan.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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