Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
Section 1: A Survivor Speaks Then
We’re not sure if the man featured in the “Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation,” segment recorded 10/30/96 through the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, is a close or distant relative or if he just shares the same last name with our Jewish great-grandmother whose family immigrated from “Prussia” to America in 1874. My sister found his visual history interview almost by accident while perusing the USC site several months ago. We have not tracked a possible relationship, yet, as we just recently learned of the Jewish component of our ancestry.
But we do know there were 155 Jews with the name Steier recorded on at least one official registry of those who died in the Holocaust. And we know the many members of his family who perished lived in the general vicinity in eastern Europe that Great-Grandmother’s family left six decades prior to the Nazi occupation and six years prior to the Russian Pogroms of the 1880s.
We also know from his video testimony that he experienced unspeakable horrors as a teenager in a Nazi labor camp called Westfalen, in Serbia, where for two years (1943-45) he worked along with thousands of other prisoners breaking up mountains of stone and loading it onto train carts.
This was one of many such camps where prisoners of all ages, some young teens, some elderly, performed the back-breaking work on extremely small rations and in constant fear due to the cruel treatment of the guards and supervisors.
The overseers were not, however, the German commanders. The Germans, Steier said, stayed in their comfortable lodgings, ate good food and amused themselves, tending to few real duties.
It was his former countrymen, he said, from Hungary (one of the countries his family had to move to as the war ramped up), who were given the “dirty work.” Some of them did it with gusto, often coming into the barracks to humiliate or abuse the prisoners for sport.
Perhaps one of the most terrifying things they did, said Steier, was sometimes, at night, they shot prisoners who were sitting on the long benches inside the latrine, “picking them off” through the windows as if the prisoners were “targets at an amusement park game”.
A particularly memorable and painful torture he described was inflicted on the prisoners during the bitterly cold winter. Prisoners were ordered outside then told to strip down after which the guards hosed them with blasts of ice-cold water on their bare skin.
Some prisoners, particularly the elderly and the weak, simply worked to death, others were shot if they were injured or couldn’t keep up.
There were no gas chambers or ovens in this camp but neither was there a hospital.
In spite of all the terror and trauma, starvation rations and random murders, Steier was among the prisoners who survived to liberation day and who were then helped by local resistance partisans who hid in the surrounding mountains and kept watch on the activities in the labor camps, for there were a number of such camps in the region.
When asked several times how he managed to survive, Steier shared the following.
But Those Italians…
In the labor camp there were three types of prisoners, said Steier. Each bunked in sparse barracks with their own groups for various reasons: assimilated Jews, non-assimilated Jews such as Steier’s family, and Italian soldiers who were political prisoners.
There was a certain animosity between the Jewish groups because the assimilated group blamed the others for their imprisonment. Some of the assimilated group had been living for perhaps generations as Christian Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, or Poles and did not know they had ancestors who were Jews until they were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the camps.
The Italian soldiers, however, were different, said Steier, and as a group, they were one of the factors of camp life that enabled him to survive.
Although the soldiers also had sparse provisions, they had enough food and several other essentials the Jews were forbidden.
Perhaps that was one of the reasons they were so different, said Steier. Whereas the Jewish groups were terrorized and suffering greatly mentally as well as physically, the Italians were not treated as badly, and they were always smiling, laughing, and singing no matter what, he said.
And their hair! Steier said they were always fussing with it, styling it, combing it.
While he found that amusing, the uplifted spirits were what made him to literally risk his life to be with the soldiers (the Jews were forbidden to mingle with them). And they took him in, “hiding him” in an Italian soldier’s uniform should any guards peer in the windows. They also fed him, as by that time he was seriously undernourished and down to about 75 pounds, he said.
He learned as much Italian as he could (he already knew German, Hungarian, and Czech) and spent as much time with them as he dared risk, his body, mind, and spirit refreshed and reinforced each time by their kindness and attention.
The jovial and generous Italian soldiers fed not only his starved and severely undernourished body but his soul as well.
This was just one of the ways Steier survived the horror called Westfalen labor camp in Hitler’s Germany during World War II, ways he shared between the lines as well as blatantly and repeatedly when asked how he stayed alive in those severe conditions.
Echoes for Survival Today
As I listened and reflected on Steier’s experiences–those that he shared in as much detail as he could or would–I knew his story was not only a personal narrative of his own courage, though his perfunctory story-telling style did not include any tone of personal aggrandizement, it was also a story of survival on one of the most cruel and inhumane pages of human history.
A history that evolves whenever one group of people choose, as Steier put it, “to elevate themselves” by “crushing” others.
What follows are the other survival methods besides the life-affirming Italian influence that gave Steier practical help and hope, other methods I believe are important for us to know these days, too, as our own era seems to be growing increasingly more hate-filled and cruel, the modern brand of fascism sounding its own alarms, people beginning to “hide” already as the voices of contempt and violence get louder and more menacing. Certainly, as the voices of anti-Semitism rise again.
Section 2: 10 Survival Strategies from Then for Now
In addition to keeping hope alive as illustrated by what the cheerful, singing, hair-combing Italians in Steier’s labor camp helped him to do, there were, as I counted, 10 other survival strategies he employed.
- By the goodwill and generosity of the Italian soldiers and others who helped Steier and his family, he knew the importance of having “friends” in tough times, certainly in the prison camp, not just in the struggle to survive but also in the struggle to retain mental health and refrain from succumbing to despair.
- Every day, he said, he galvanized his thoughts, “raked his mind” as he put it, to figure out how to survive. That was his primary focus particularly when, for example, he and dozens more were packed so tightly in the cattle car on the way to the labor camp (which took 8 or 9 days, he recalled) there was literally no room to bend or sit. Thus, some died of dehydration, starvation, or illness, standing up. And the prisoners did not know where there were going. Nevertheless, Steier kept his mind on survival. Once in the camp, he woke up every morning with that same thought. “I (fought) every day to stay on top of it,” he said. He never let that idea fade, even when he risked his life to visit the Italians because he knew the value of keeping good mental health as much as was possible. Incidentally, he was the only one who risked visiting the soldiers’ barracks.
- He made efforts to keep himself as clean as he could, however meager the resources. For example, he told the story of how he made “soap” of a sort, at least something with which to scour off as much dust, dirt, and grime as he could, by adding sand or loose dirt to the (cold) water.
- He never went to the latrine at night “no matter how bad” he had to go, he said. Although he himself had not witnessed the murders there, he and the others knew what it likely meant when some prisoners did go, gunshots punctuated the night air, and they never returned. The others already knew the guards murdered randomly, at will, and for sport so nobody suffered any “cognitive dissonance” in desperation to think such an atrocity would surely not happen to them.
- He paid close attention to who the enemy was, even among fellow prisoners, because “the Jews had many enemies”.
- Although some in the camp offered to speak for others, Steier emphasized the importance of looking out for yourself. “You can only survive by your own wits,” he said. Nevertheless, he added, he believed his survival, for all of his efforts and reasoning and the “blessing” of kind souls, were only about 15% instinct but 85% luck.
- Another reason he learned to be wary of others, even those he thought were friends and/or tolerant of the Jews, was betrayal. He mentioned this several times in the interview that included the years before his internment in the slave labor camp when the growing anti-Semitism that eventually led to such enslavement and the wholesale murdering began. He talked of “turncoats” during the earlier years when his family first lost their sense of acceptance in the community, then their jobs, then their homes as they moved from country to country in hopes of a better life.
- Steier used what resources he had, not just physical, but also his ability to learn languages quickly and his talkative nature which helped him make connections with the Italian soldiers. As opposed to his beloved brother who did not survive his own camp experience and who was much more “easy-going and diplomatic,” Steier said he “[walked] to the beat of my own drum.” He wasn’t always agreeable to who or what was the popular “beat”. He was not so amenable.
- Lastly, Steier knew he had to adapt quickly to the environment, the culture, if you will. Prior to his internment, due to growing anti-Semitism, his family had become accustomed to having to move from country to country, learning the language, customs, and other cultural elements of each to make a living and establish a home. In the slave labor camp, Steier knew he had to learn its “culture” as well, and quickly, in order to simply stay alive.
- Based on his testimony recorded over fifty years later, it is also apparent that Steier also retained his humanity, in spite of his experiences, heartbreaking to say the least, or as he put it, “the saddest story in our history.” In his closing words, Steier wanted his interviewer–and the world–to know that “(Jews) are a caring people. We care for each other and for our fellow man…the ‘underdogs,'” as he put it, citing, as an example, the Jewish involvement at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. And he expressed his hope that his children will carry on this tradition.
In short, Steier survived because of his friends, his focus, his adaptability, and his humanity. And, as he repeated several times, his luck. I think, however, his “instincts” to survive played a likely much bigger part than he may have acknowledged.
To Today’s Lessons
Listening to Steier’s account, and imagining the things he described very articulately, it was obvious how easy it would have been to succumb to the terror, anger, and cynicism of life in a German slave labor camp during World War II, beat down by physical and mental abuse and betrayed in the cruelest of ways. It was easy to imagine a mindset of revenge.
It would also be easy to imagine why many would speak with cynicism and continued anger over all of the abuse, over time, as other testimonies reveal.
Indeed, if any brand of man’s inhumanity to man would elicit cynicism, anger, and a burning desire for revenge, it would be the Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, the carefully prepped and perpetrated systematic murder of millions of people, mostly Jews but also political prisoners who opposed Hitler’s regime, a tragedy that began years prior and festered until it exploded.
When people say, “Oh, it could never happen here,” or, “Why did the Jews ‘let’ this happen to them?” it is clear they have never studied its history.
Nor in their bubble of ignorance have they likely ever studied or experienced, even on a small scale involving just two people in an abusive relationship, how such a systematic breaking down of another individual, let alone a whole group, can occur over time, with concerted effort, and by carefully crafted language and behavior that at once demonizes the target of the abuse while also provides excuses and/or rationalizations for the abuser to continue.
More importantly in the case of crimes against an entire group of people, without studying such terrorism, uninformed people can not comprehend how the perpetrators court and con cohorts by simple tactics such as fake news and “spin,” which are major tools of propaganda used to set the stage, to the more sophisticated level of Orwellian Newspeak that dresses up evil with good-sounding words delivered by good-looking, smooth-talking, and educationally pedigreed salesmen and saleswomen.
At least at first.
But bringing it back to the naked truth of what did happen in the Holocaust among captors and captives, at one point in his testimony Steier likened those who perpetrated sheer hatred of the Jews to chickens in a coop perched on a wire mesh beneath which their waste dropped on what/who was beneath–Jews–whom the perpetrators had been conditioned to believe were worthy of the worst and most humiliating treatment, indeed, worthy of annihilation.
THAT is what it boiled down to, in reality.
THAT is what it always boils down to, if not addressed and resisted.
Although Steier used this analogy, and understandably could have laced it with cynicism and anger, he did not seem to.
His presentation came across as straight-forward observations, with a few pauses to recall exact places, names, and dates, and for his apologies when he became emotional
Considering all that Steier had to say, both blatantly and by implication, led me to think that by use of his own unique collection of survival mechanisms, he was able to not only survive the literal slave labor camp in Hitler’s murderous regime, he was also able to avoid another kind of prison, one that would have kept him in bondage for the rest of his life: the prison called anger which if untreated easily becomes bitterness then rage.
To borrow from the work of neuro-scientists and psychologists, when life is narrowed to survival only, we operate from the amygdala, the so-called “bottom of the brain,” where danger evokes fight, flight, or freeze responses and body systems prepare themselves accordingly to meet the threat.
In the case of the bottomless abyss of unaddressed anger, the tendency left after the time has passed for fighting or fleeing would be to freeze in that emotion, as it were. When we are frozen in anger we are less likely to be creative and clear-headed, searching for solutions and a way out, not to mention being susceptible to bitterness and rage.
Perhaps worse, we are also more vulnerable to those who know how to exploit anger and vengeance for their own agenda.
Although anger and a strong desire for revenge are humanly understandable, given the horrors of the murderous Hitler regime (not to mention other socialist/communist/fascistic/Marxist, etc., regimes of the last century–and to now), they also make us very vulnerable to be caught up in causes and ideologies that, perhaps, on closer examination from an historical, spiritual, and/or logical perspective, will enable us to understand that their real end result is often a tragic dystopia instead of any free-stuff-for-all utopia that may have been–or may be now–advertised by the “front” men and women.
It’s something to think about.
And none too soon, I think.
Whether or not John Steier is a distant relative of my family or simply another survivor of the Holocaust whose story and its portent for today speaks now when anti-Semitism is on the rise again, I honor him and others like him.
And I take notes.
By sharing their very difficult stories, the survivors give us help and hope in the power of the human spirit to survive, and they show us how.
If we will heed what they have to say to us today.
BONUS: OTHER CAUTIONARY VOICES
Just today I came across the following article, “NEW USC SHOAH FOUNDATION DOCUMENTARY FOR DISCOVERY CHANNEL DELIVERS CAUTIONARY MESSAGE FROM WWII HEROES” promoting a television feature entitled Liberation Heroes: The Last Eyewitnesses,* “a documentary film produced in association with USC Shoah Foundation that [premiered] Wednesday [5/1/19] (4 p.m. PT/ 7 p.m. ET) on the Discovery Channel in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The program will also air in some 200 countries and territories around the world.”
Like the narratives of the Shoah, Visual History Foundation, the History Channel film also speaks to the importance of listening to the urgent messages of those involved in Nazi concentration camps, in this case the liberators, as they, too, that is those who are still alive, see the ominous signs of another impending Shoah in what is happening in the world today.
*NOTE: the availability of the History Channel video linked above and here, Liberation Heroes: The Last Eyewitnesses, expires on YouTube 46 days from this date of 6/5/2019.