Professor Walter Zwi Bacharach is Professor Emeritus of General History at Bar-Ilan University. He was born in Hanau, Germany in 1928. In 1938, he escaped with his family to Holland, where they were captured in 1942. He was sent to Westerbork transit camp, then to the Theresienstadt ghetto, and to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. He survived a death march and was liberated by U.S. forces. He immigrated to Palestine in 1946, lives in Tel-Aviv, and is married with children and grandchildren.
This exclusive interview was first published in our newsletter Teaching the Legacy (January, 2008). Professor Bacharach reveals his thoughts on his own postwar experiences, the difficulties in telling his story, the impact on his religious outlook, and current events.
"After the camps, I understood that I could only live amongst Jews"
Please describe your experiences with your family towards the end of World War II and in its aftermath.
[In] 1942 we were arrested by the Gestapo and put into concentration camps, where I stayed until 1945 and was freed. My parents did not survive. My brother and I survived and in 1946 I emigrated – so we called it at the time – to Israel, and my brother to the U.S. This, may I say, is a very interesting thing, because I [am] often asked how, after I had suffered so much, lost my parents, could I take a different direction. My brother didn't want to stay in a Jewish community anymore. [...] He wanted to be recognized as a Jew, but not to be recognized after the camps. For me, it was the opposite. After the camps, I understood that I could only live amongst Jews. So there was no Zionist ideology here. I was just looking for a place where a Jewish community is residing. So that, in short is the background [for my] coming here.
I entered the kibbutz [a collective settlement], Kibbutz HaDati [Jewish orthodox kibbutz movement], because I was seeking – though it may have been subconscious – my Jewishness. That brought me to the conclusion that if [one enters] a Jewish community, it has to do with religion as I understood it. Jewishness and religion are combined and linked. So I went into Kibbutz HaDati in the Negev, [the] Beerot Yitzhak [kibbutz], and there I stayed until we had to move after the War of Independence and we moved from the Negev in 1951 to a settlement nearby. There we stayed, building a new kibbutz, because the other one was completely destroyed in the War of Independence. I stayed there until 1952 [or] 1953. I can't remember exactly – four or five years. Then I had enough. I think I couldn't live a collective life, after being in the camps. [...] I met my wife there. She came from Hungary and joined the kibbutz with a group.
When did you get married?
We got married in 1949. We have three children who are all married today. I have grandchildren already and so we started a life in Tel Aviv from the kibbutz, and from then on, I have lived in Tel Aviv.
So when you arrived in Israel in 1945, you were something like eighteen years old?
I would like to focus on your arrival. How were you absorbed into the kibbutz?
I had family here. My late father's brother lived in Ramat Gan since 1934. Another Yekke [German Jew] who had a part in building Ramat Gan. So they took me in. So you see the local population, whoever it was, even your own family they could not understand the nature of somebody [...] from concentration camps. It's coming from abnormality to normality, so the normal person – if he is not a professional – cannot understand you. That was the feeling I had. Today I can define it a little, but I understood the strangeness of being an outsider, coming from abnormal conditions, but these people were not aware what it meant to be in a concentration camp.
Did you have the same feelings on the kibbutz?
I had the same feeling, but then on a kibbutz there are so many new things, so many – I would say – novelties in life. The fact alone that you are now in a community and in a voluntary community – not in a forced community like in the camps – made life easier for me than a family, strange as it may sound. I was absorbed in that kibbutz community, and I also liked that there were German Jews there. In 1937 they came over here, so I could speak German to them and so on, so it was very easy for me and very interesting.
The founders of Beerot Yitzhak were German Jews that had fled from the Weimar republic?
Because they experienced something of Hitler from 1933?
You know, I think that not understanding this phase of my life, of not being understood, has nothing to do with Hitler. It is the fact that [I] came here undernourished, strange, I would even say in a non-human [form]. That is the point. Not [being] asked where it comes from, but [being seen] as a strange person. "These people coming from the Diaspora – they are crazy. They are not normal." So I don't think there was a special understanding. I don't think so. The [onus] was on me to adjust, to show that I am a normal person like them, and that took a lot of time. Don't forget one thing: I am speaking now for myself and not for others. I lost my parents, and I had to digest that. I am speaking of 1946. My father was shot in my presence. My mother [perished] in Auschwitz. So you know, I was completely confused. I had to settle down. So nobody could understand me and I had nobody to talk to.
"The [onus] was on me to adjust, to show that I am a normal person like them, and that took a lot of time"
Were there no other survivors you could talk to?
Yes, but as you say, everyone had his own, as we say, "package" – pecklech in Yiddish.
So there was no closeness between the survivors?
No, as I myself am concerned. No. And I today understand why – because everybody was seeking his own private corner. "Leave it out, don't bother me." They wanted to look at the future and not be bothered with the past.
That was what you felt?
You had no anger?
What help did you get, if any?
I didn't get any help. I helped myself. I didn't get professional help. Psychologists, never. No, no help. I had good friends. I made good friends in the kibbutz and that helped me.
From the beginning?
Yes, absolutely. You know, I felt menschlichkeit, as we say [a sense of caring and responsibility for others], but no professional help, that I think I should have needed then – no. So I had to overcome [a series of] obstacles, which I would call psychological obstacles.
What I am hearing from you is that the obstacles that you faced on your own were internal?
You did not encounter any kind of obstacle with the young Israeli society that you walked into in 1946?
No, absolutely not. It was new, challenging. Don't forget I went into the framework of a kibbutz life, which was very adventurous for me. The first impression and meeting other young people were really in a sense a kind of medical treatment for me for my inner problems, because I stepped into a total[ly] normal society with a goal: building up this country. Then of course, in 1948, we went to war. We were attacked by Egypt. I became involved. I became a so-called soldier in the kibbutz. I wasn't in the army but the army was me and the other members of the kibbutz. You know that story. So it was all so new for me that in a certain sense, it pushed aside my camp experiences, and so this society accepted me and I accepted them.
They did accept you?
Yes, but it was all strange. What was strange was the normality.
Do you remember telling the young people on the kibbutz about your family and what happened to them? Were they willing to listen?
I can't remember if I did it intentionally. I had a very good friend who was my teacher. We became close like brothers. I am still in contact with his wife and children. He passed away and yes, I told my story privately to him and close friends, but I needed a guiding hand and that I didn't get – not because they didn't want to, [but because] they didn't know how to handle that. At that time nobody knew how to handle us. That was the real problem. They didn't know our needs and were very busy defending themselves. Maybe that was the important thing for me. Not to get busy with myself. But that's what I said before, looking at the future without any false idealism, or nonsense. You were in a new reality. You were in a new surrounding, which [enveloped] your whole personality. [...]
Try to understand it. I believe in the power of religion and am very careful not to idealize, but I think by keeping mitzvoth, [commandments] in an open and not fanatical way; not in the [...] extreme way, I think that it was a big help – for a survivor. I am glad to say I put my fate in the hands of God, probably in a way of trying to [...] digest all that has happened to me. The fact that I was alive, that my parents were not alive, the fact that my brother was alive, and all my friends were killed from the camps. You know you can't understand that. So there was somebody to cling to, and that was God, who I didn't speak to. I didn't ask Him, but I could make myself a picture, an idealized picture of a superpower which probably watched me, saved me, [but] did not save my parents, which I can't understand. [...] If you ask me today if I can understand – I can't understand what I went through and I can't understand what happened to my father and my mother. I can't understand it. You know, living today at my age, seventy-nine, with the idea that my mother was gassed, it becomes more and more difficult for me, because I can't understand it. [...] How can you even express it? Imagine, if I asked an American child, "Where are your parents?" He would answer, "My parents passed away." Then he would ask me, "Where are your parents?" "My mother was gassed." I imagine a conversation like this. They would put me in an institution. The abnormality of this life [...] brought me to Yad Vashem. That brought me finally to deal with the subjects: Antisemitism and Holocaust Studies.
The way you are presenting it is that all the difficulties that the Holocaust created for you, are problems that were created within you and had nothing to do with Israeli society. Israel was not an obstacle?
No, in no way. In my eyes it's absurd to claim that.
"There is a resistance where people want to live, to eat, and so on"
When you arrived here in Israel in 1946, to a certain extent you felt alien – different. At what point in your absorption process did that begin to change?
In the kibbutz. By experiencing a totally new style and content of life. As I said, it was a kind of curing of my problems. It was not only confronting a normal society again – I would put a new word in that – a new normal society, which I never had known. I couldn't say this I knew from home. Nobody at home knew what a kibbutz was. I remember my brother came to visit me and I was still in the kibbutz and he was unhappy. He thought that I was again in a camp life. He was speaking like an American. He became Americanized totally and he asked, "Why do you have to live here?" So I didn't understand him, he didn't understand me. That's interesting. So it's a normal new life and that was probably very important for me.
Do you see yourself as a survivor, or as an Israeli citizen born here, or one that immigrated to this country from a free country?
I would say as a survivor who became normalized and who became Jewish by insight, not Jewish because of a Jewish mother. Jewish by insight, I think my experience here was begun really as a survivor trying to get a hold again in a normalized Jewish society, but the survival aspect was the main one. Because I came here still with the concentration camp in [my] head [...] but not knowing, not accepting that my parents were murdered. I couldn't get that idea. I had to fight myself. I think I was very strong.
You must have been.
I think so. Probably because I wanted to live. I just read a book written by my colleague Yehuda Bauer. He wrote a book in English on the Holocaust. [In the book] he speaks about resistance. There is a resistance where people want to live, to eat, and so on. That's a kind of resistance that is so important, that hasn't been dealt with. You know, he writes about active resistance, armed resistance, but there is another kind of resistance which I have experienced and that is the urge, the desire to live, and that is the opposite of what they wanted from us. They wanted us to die. We didn't proclaim that we wanted to live. If I would go on the streets and proclaim, "Listen people, I want to live," I would be put in an institution, but that's really the drive. That was really the thing I wanted.
This answers your first question. The Israeli society has nothing to do with that. You see it has to do with myself. You could put me in an African society. I would have said the same. I want to live, and the urge for life, the desire for life, that has been with me all the time. It made me religiously tolerant, because if I want to live, I must be tolerant of your life, otherwise I can't live. It's so clear to me, but that has taken years, you know, and in that sense it all comes from surviving. It's a kind of self-made philosophy, but it is a very important one for me.
Do you think that you relate to the genocide in Darfur today as a survivor differently perhaps from the general population in this country and around the world that are not survivors? Genocide is happening on our back door today. Do you look at it differently?
Differently, absolutely. I feel sorry for the people there. I don't understand it well enough. I don't know the people or the politics. The fact that there are people being murdered is tragic. It is a tragedy in my eyes, but could not be compared with the Holocaust in no way, because of one single fact. Never in history has somebody been a target for murder because he was born. Only the Jews. Therefore, whatever you bring up of tragedies in human history today they are not comparable to the Jewish fate. [...] I have read, I think, all the Nazi literature, because I want to understand what it is – in what way was I different from my German friends at school. In no way, only because I was born. That's a fact. That's written in their papers. The Judische Ungmensch [Jewish inferior person]. Using that word means that I am not a human being. How come? How is that possible? That's unique, that's really unique. So I do accept this verdict of saying the Holocaust of the Jews was unique. And it's not comparable. It's unique. Of course you can compare how many victims [were murdered] – that you can do – but if you look at the motivation, the reasons, it's not comparable, and not understandable. How can a human being say you have no right to live because you were born? That's the riddle about National Socialism.
Has anything changed your perspective on art, music, and literature, as a result of the Holocaust in those fields?
No – it has intensified my love for classical music.
Including Richard Wagner?
No. I tell you why. It has nothing to do with the Holocaust. I don't like Richard Wagner.
I have written an article. It is called "The Antihuman Humanist." I have it written somewhere even in English. I don't like his music, but I have never gone into that Richard Wagner is a German. I don't know. It didn't interest me, but I love classical German music. It has nothing to do with Hitler. It has nothing to do with nationalism. You know, Beethoven, Mozart [...] These were great people, humanists, and I enjoy them. I go to concerts and even when there is something of the German classical music, I am there.
"First you have to be human and then to be Jewish, not vice versa"
Would you say that your contribution to society is a contribution that is defined by your being a survivor?
I think so. I taught at very good schools. I taught for years in Tel Aviv at an excellent school, and you know, every teacher gets [feedback] from his pupils. So I know I contributed [...] I try to be open to everyone here in this society and in other societies. First you have to be human and then to be Jewish, not vice versa. That's my rule. Be human. We were born not as Jews. We were born as human beings. I wasn't born as a religious boy, so I try in a certain sense to transmit this to my students and to others. OK, be religious, that's fine, but be open, [...] be in an open society and never try to force yourself on others.
Is it easier for you today to cope with your memories of what happened through the passage of time?
No. Absolutely not. I was thinking about this last week, every morning, because of what I said before [...] I understand less and less what happened to me. I really can't understand it. Therefore in that sense, I am a little bit confused, and I really don't know how to explain it [...] I can't understand it. Maybe because I have brought up my children, [...] maybe it's because we became adults, we became older, we see the end, we think about it. Maybe, I don't know; but absolutely it is not easier. I am very much bothered by my past. Again I am at the point I started with: with myself. I can't share this. I can't share this with my wife, with my children. I can only share this with myself.
And not with other survivors?
No. Let me say it this way. I have never tried. Maybe that's a more honest answer. You know, you don't want to hear another story. Mine is enough.
When did you start telling your wife and children of your experiences?
You know what I did? I went to visit my brother in the U.S. and there I sat down and wrote twelve pages of the most horrifying experiences I went through and sent it to my children from the U.S.
How many years ago?
That was in 1956, 1957.
So your children were still young.
Yes. I [haven't received] any reaction to this very day.
So you've never actually sat down and explained it to them?
Not in an orderly way like we do here now – never. I tell you why. I was prepared for this interview. [...] I am busy with it all the time, so that is why I can bear it. Because I am doing it in a disciplined way like science, in a scholarly way, which controls my feelings and emotions, it disciplines my emotions. That's why I am teaching Antisemitism and Holocaust Studies. There you can't sit and cry. We have to use the rules of historical research, so I do that. I can't lecture my sons and my children. They don't want to be lectured. The fact is they know I went through hell. They know that I lost my parents. They never ask me. Why do people always ask, "Did you tell your family?" [or] "Why didn't your family ask?" I know the answer. It is because they don't know how to cope with these stories. They are people [who], fortunately enough, [are] growing up in normal circumstances. At home with children, they have normal households. No stories about Auschwitz – nothing. So I think they don't know how to cope with it. I know once, before I went to the States my son stopped me in the kitchen and asked me, "Oh, you are going to see your brother – who are you?" I was shocked. That was the reason why I wrote from the States what I told you before, my story. He didn't ask, "What did you go through?" [but] "Who are you?" Ever heard a son who asks his father, "Who are you?" I never forgot this. He was fourteen, fifteen, something like this. I think he was bothered. So that was the reason why I wrote from there, to tell them what I went through.
And he also never reacted?
Did they read it?
Yes. I asked them, "Did you get my letter?" Listen, that's very difficult for them to deal with. They want a normal father.
Do you remember when you started speaking to Jewish and Israeli groups?
That was connected with Yad Vashem. They asked me and I always try not to speak as a survivor, because then you are pitied. I don't want that. So it started together with my studies of antisemitism and the Holocaust. [...] Slowly you become known as a lecturer and so on. Yes, and through my studies with antisemitism and so on, I became closer and closer to it.
So this probably started in the 1960s.
Yes, as a lecturer. Sometimes when they ask [me] if [I] went through it, I don't deny it, but I don't put myself in the position of a survivor because then your teaching is lost – people don't dare to ask you. Maybe they might hurt me, something like this. I think I have transmitted and contributed something in a small part.
As an academic and a survivor, are both roles important for your contribution?
Yes, absolutely. A survivor without the academic part wouldn't be so satisfying to me if I may say that today. Yes, I needed the academic part in order to make sense and control the stuff I am transmitting.