High Holidays

Walter Feiger

Walter Feiger

As a boy in Poland, Walter Feiger cherished a book about Buffalo Bill; when he first visited Tucson in 1970, he said, “That’s buffalo country!” Feiger, who survived a ghetto and several concentration camps, has been telling his story to local school and law enforcement groups since the 1980s. He has outlived two wives and a daughter; his two sons and two stepdaughters live in Tucson. Now on dialysis, the 91-year-old continues to give talks when he can.

I was born in Krakow, Poland, but my parents moved when I was an infant to a city called Katowice, which was part of Germany before World War I. It was multilingual, we spoke German and Polish in that city. It was beautiful.

As a schoolboy, I would do gymnastics and go swimming. I belonged to a hockey team. We had a beautiful park with all kinds of animals. I used to be the group leader and took kids from school, and we played Indians and Cowboys instead of going to school.

There were two different schools. One for the gentiles, one for the Jews. On breaks, we used to fight all the time. Not because of anti-Semitism but because kids fight, you know.

My father had a small factory producing cleaning products. My father would never give me allowance. He would say, go to the factory, ask the manager to give you samples and go sell them. So that money I used to see cowboy movies.

My childhood was wonderful, until Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Sept. 8 I was going to be 12 years old and my father promised me a nice birthday. Instead, he called me, he said, “I’m so sorry, I just got drafted.” And I never heard from him again.

My mother was German. I spoke fluent German. I wasn’t afraid of the Germans; I just thought, well they took over, I speak German, I’ll be okay. But, the first order they gave was for the Jews to leave Katowice. They called it the Greater German Reunification.

This photo collage shows Walter Feiger, bottom left; his father, top; and brother, bottom right. Only Walter survived the Holocaust. Courtesy Walter Feiger)

First, they summoned the Jewish elders, the lawyers, doctors, rabbis. They said, “We need you to give us a list of the habitants. Names, ages.” Then they created a Jewish police who would be in charge of the ghetto. The ghetto was Chrzanów that I was in, about 18 kilometers from Auschwitz. It wasn’t a walled ghetto, but there were so many blocks dedicated in the lower class of the city. You couldn’t leave unless you had permission from the German police.

I was a Boy Scout, and it was my duty at night to see that all the windows were covered, that you couldn’t see any light. They gave me a flashlight with a gas mask, and I thought I was an adult at 12. When they’re going to bomb the city, if they couldn’t see the light then they would miss the city. They didn’t miss anything. The Poles had a cavalry on horses, and the Germans advanced with tanks. They called it the blitzkrieg.

At 17, my brother was sent to Germany to work. I was 13 or 14. It was an order that each family must give a male, to “volunteer,” they called it.

One day a group of us was forced to go to forced labor camp. I was not quite 15. My mother was able, because she knew the police, to hand me a small suitcase with personal belongings and German money.

We were first sent to a transition camp. There, I said, “I have German money. I’d be happy to give it to you if you send me to Sakrau where my brother is.” Three weeks later, I was sent to Sakrau. My brother was amazed.

For me, it was a salvation. He was already over a year there. He knew the ropes; he knew what to do, what not to do to avoid beatings. For the next three and a half years we supported each other. Till the death march. He died in my hands, six weeks before the liberation.

My mother went to Auschwitz. She was 38 years old.

I was in different camps, nonetheless as brutal as Auschwitz. Every camp commander had a manual. Basically, what that manual said was three things: torture, starvation, humiliation.

That’s how they killed you. If they didn’t kill you by torture, they killed you by starvation because when starvation came, disease. There were no treatments.

You would get in the morning, a half-pound of bread and a cup of imitation coffee. When you came back from work, you got a bowl of cabbage soup, potato peels. Obviously, on that kind of nourishment, you couldn’t sustain yourself too long.

I used to pretend that I was invisible. If I was invisible, I wouldn’t get any beating. But one time, I was caught with bread in my pants. I got 50 lashes with an iron rod covered in leather.

We used to have assembly in front of the barracks. When we came back from work, there were two bodies hanging upside down. Bloody. They got me out of the line, and I had to kiss their faces. I never forget that. But I couldn’t recognize their faces. They were so bloody, massacred.

When I got liberated by the Russians, I was barely able to walk. A German family took me in until I got back on my feet. I went to Poland. Nobody [I knew] survived. I heard the Poles were still killing the Jews that were coming back, so I went back to Germany. I felt safer in Germany.

I was just lucky I survived. I had a lot of guilt. Why me? Why did my brother die, and I survived? Well, I no longer have that guilt because I know that I have a mission.

I joined a Zionist group that got me to France and eventually to Palestine. But I almost drowned in Marseille. I was a good swimmer, but where I grew up there were only lakes. I was fighting the ocean currents, and I thought “I’m going to die.” I had no strength anymore, and so that’s when I talked to God.

I said, “This is the joke you play on me? You let me survive all those years in the concentration camp to drown me in the big ocean?”

I turned around — there was a fisherman. I call it divine intervention. God had a job for me. And my job was to talk about the Holocaust. To spread the word of the cruelty of the Nazi people and to be vigilant. Because if you’re not vigilant, it might happen again. That is my mission. I’m a lucky fella.

I was in the war [of independence] in Israel and a police sergeant in Haifa after the military, in 1949. The typical police officers, they give out tickets. I was drafted from the army to create an anti-terrorist squad.

I got married in France in 1956. I lived in Paris, next to the Moulin Rouge. I used to go dance there every Saturday. I loved it in France. I mean, they’re very anti-Semitic, but if you know French, then you could mix with them. And I spoke French, I still do.

President Eisenhower had a special quota for Polish political refugees, and I was able to get a birth certificate from Krakow that made me eligible. Courtesy of the U.S., from Brussels, my young wife and I flew to LaGuardia [Airport, in New York]. That was Columbus Day 1956. They had a parade. I told my young wife, “You see, this is the parade for us!” And she bought it.

Came out, Passover 1970, on a visit to Tucson. Fell in love with Tucson.

I finished school in New York, sold my house, and came back. First, I bought a small apartment complex but didn’t enjoy being a landlord, so I sold it. Lost money. I bought a liquor store that I had for over 20 years on the corner of Wilmot and Speedway, Monterey Discount Liquor.

After I retired, I was president for two years of the Holocaust survivors’ group. There were 80 of us here in Tucson. We were mostly a social club in those days. We started [talking] to schools in the ’80s. Mostly Sunnyside because the Chicanos were interested in us. The Jews were not so interested. They wanted to protect their children from tragedies that we were talking about. But Chicanos could identify with our problems, so we were well received by them.

Being that I was with the military, I traveled throughout the United States to give talks. Locally, I’ve been called to talk to the police, the sheriff’s department, and at Davis Monthan airbase.

I tell them to be more civil than the Germans. To have respect for people. When I talk to the children, I tell them that they’re our future democracy, that they should be vigilant, respectful, they shouldn’t bully.

You know, my time here is short now. All I can do is convey what I experienced. I had a lot of tragedies in my life. But I have a zest for life. I am what you call in French, “a bon vivant,” somebody that enjoys life.

I tell my kids to associate themselves with people that are positive. Stay away from negative people, they drag you down. Positive people will uplift you.

I am very grateful I am not afraid of death. It’s a normal part of life. When my time comes, I’ll go. When God will ask me to come, I’ll come.

— As told to Shayne Tarquinio, AJP intern. Read more about Walter Feiger at https://jfcstucson.org/walter-feiger.