Toward the end of World War II, Sid Shafner was headed toward Munich with the U.S. Army’s 42nd Infantry Division when he and his reconnaissance detail spotted the church steeple of a German town that was labeled on their map as Dachau.
As was customary, the U.S. soldiers opened fire on the steeple, because that’s where German snipers typically hid. But this time, Shafner remembers, the reaction was different.
“All hell broke loose in the village,” he says. “All sorts of people showed up in strange clothes, speaking a strange language. Some said, ‘Thank you, liberators.’ Some fell down and couldn’t stand up.”
Shafner recalls two kids telling the U.S. soldiers that the Germans were killing people in a concentration camp there and, at first, Shafner didn’t believe it.
Then the U.S. forces stormed the camp and found the horror.
“You want to talk about inhumanity to man,” he says. “What people saw in the newspapers was a Boy Scout picnic compared to what we saw. They were machine-gunning them right into box cars.”
* * *
Shafner, a radio operator in the war, is one of the speakers at Holocaust Awareness Week, which is being held March 8–11 at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The concentration camp liberator, who is now 88 years old, will talk about his experiences at 11 a.m. on Monday, March 8, in the University Memorial Center, Room 235.
Shafner recalls that his fellow soldiers found some German guards that hadn’t already fled Dachau. “They started running like hell,” he says. “So we rounded them up and had the inmates tell us who did most of the tormenting.”
One of the older American soldiers, whose family had fled Germany in the 1930s, lined up some of the Germans who had been identified by the prisoners as the worst offenders and shot them, Shafner says.
That soldier was turned in by the Swiss Red Cross and faced a court martial. According to Shafner, General George Patton himself defended the soldier, saying he would have done the same thing.
The soldier was found not guilty. And the two kids who told Shafner and his fellow soldiers about the concentration camp continued on to Munich with them and stayed with the division until the end of the war, performing kitchen and cooking chores in exchange for food.
Shafner took those kids under his wing, he says, and to this day he still stays in touch with one who now lives in Israel, although now it’s by e-mail instead of handwritten letter.
He says he will bring not only his stories but some of his memorabilia to his March 8 talk, partly in case any Holocaust deniers show up.
“If anybody thinks it didn’t happen, I’ll have enough evidence to show it did happen.”
* * *
Holocaust Awareness Week, now in its 26th year, features several guest speakers and films, including Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh. The film’s director,
Roberta Grossman, will host a question-and-answer session after the 7 p.m. screening of the film, which has won audience awards at 11 film festivals, including the 2009 Denver Jewish Film Festival.
The film is about Senesh, a 22-year-old woman who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944 with a group of Jewish volunteers from Palestine so that she could try to rescue Jews from her native Hungary. She was captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis, and her beloved mother witnessed the ordeal, first as a fellow prisoner and finally as an advocate who tried to save her daughter.
Grossman told Boulder Weekly that she first read Senesh’s diary when she was in junior high school, and “was immediately taken by Hannah and her intensity and her view of the world. It was just one teenage girl reading another teenage girl’s diary.” Since that time, she always wanted to make a film about Senesh, Grossman says.
It didn’t happen until she had a daughter of her own. (She has two daughters and a son.) Grossman says the film can be seen as “a mother/ daughter love story” that often takes the perspective of Senesh’s mother, who is forced to watch her daughter make choices that were not just controversial, but dangerous.
Grossman says that during the Q&A session that follows screenings of the film, she is often asked why she leaves open the question of what motivated Senesh to join that mission, what the impact of the mission was, and what happened to Senesh’s mother and brother, who she says lived on and kept telling Senesh’s story publicly.
A shortened version of the film, which got a limited theatrical release, will be shown on PBS on April 13, Grossman says.
* * *
Another film that will be shown during Holocaust Awareness Week, Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg, will be followed by remarks from George Kondor, a Holocaust survivor whose family was saved by the Swedish humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg.
told Boulder Weekly that his father worked for Wallenberg, who saved
thousands of Jews in Budapest, Hungary, by issuing Swedish protective
passports that identified them as Swedish subjects and saved them from
shares a story about the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross military surrounding a
“ghetto” of about 60,000 people in Budapest, threatening to burn it
down. Wallenberg, who enjoyed political power because he was a wealthy
diplomat, called the Arrow Cross commander in chief “and said he would
be the first to be hanged after the war,” Kondor says. “He guaranteed
As a result, he recalls, the Arrow Cross backed down.
he was a young boy, Kondor and his sister were sent to different
nunneries for protection, and one day his mother got the feeling that
his sister was in danger, so she picked her up from the nunnery. “That
evening, it got a direct hit, and everybody died,” Kondor says.
father was shot and killed by Soviet soldiers after he tried to protect
a woman they were trying to rape. Kondor was 11.
for Wallenberg, his fate was disputed for many years. He was arrested
by the Soviets in Budapest in 1945 after they took control from the
Germans, and the Soviets claimed that he died of a heart attack in
1947, at the young age of 35.
Kondor believes he lived longer in captivity, in part because of a
story he heard from a Hungarian who came to Canada. (Kondor lives in
Toronto.) The Hungarian claimed to have worked on a train in Budapest
where he overheard Soviet officers speaking about Wallenberg and a
secret agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany to take over
Poland and split it up between the two countries, Kondor says. When
Wallenberg was arrested, Kondor was told, he threatened to unveil to
the world that the Soviets had massacred thousands of Polish prisoners
of war in the Katyn Forest in Russia. As a result, he says, Wallenberg
was taken directly to Moscow and locked away.
calls the film and his talk that will follow “a story of a great man
who sacrificed himself for others and became the second honorary
citizen of the United States, after Winston Churchill.”
* * *
Awareness Week, which is hosted at CU by the Jewish organization
Hillel, features other events throughout the week in UMC 235. Kathy
Kondor, George Kondor’s daughter and co-coordinator of the event series
(along with Melissa Weintraub), outlined a few of the other highlights
of the week.
For instance, Holocaust scholar Bryan Rigg will be speak at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9. Rigg, author of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military, has written about Jews who fought alongside the Nazis in hopes of saving their families, according to Kathy Kondor.
says another highlight will be Zachary Kutner, who survived the
concentration camp at Auschwitz, and his wife, who was imprisoned in
Shanghai. They will speak at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, March 10.
Holocaust survivor Doris Small of Broomfield will speak at 11 a.m. on
Wednesday, March 10. Small’s husband, Martin, who died in 2008, was
known for expressing his experiences as a Holocaust survivor through
poetry and art.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Awareness Week is heroes and rescuers, Kondor says.
The title is a quote taken from the Torah:
“To save one life is to save the world.”
Monday, March 8
11 a.m. Sid Shafner Concentration camp liberator University Memorial Center, Room 235
1 p.m. Walter Plywaski Holocaust Survivor UMC 235
2:30 p.m. Robby Adler Peckerar CU Professor UMC 235
7 p.m. Berel Lang Professor of philosophy and Holocaust studies UMC 235
Tuesday, March 9 11 a.m. Maria Krenz Holocaust Survivor UMC 235
1 p.m. Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg
A Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from Hungary UMC 235
3 p.m. George Kondor Holocaust Survivor saved by Raoul Wallenberg UMC 235
7 p.m. Bryan Mark Riggs Author of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, the story of Jews who fought with the Nazis UMC 235
Wednesday, March 10 11 a.m. Doris Small Holocaust Survivor UMC 235
1 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Zachary Kutner Holocaust Survivor UMC 235
2:30 p.m. Stephen Feinberg Director of International Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. UMC 235
7 p.m. Movie: Blessed is the Match Followed by Q&A and talk by director Roberta Grossman UMC 235
Thursday, March 11
11 a.m. Ella Mandel Holocaust Survivor from Auschwitz UMC 235
1 p.m. Eric Cahn Holocaust Survivor UMC 235
2 p.m. Closing Ceremonies UMC Atrium