Aryeh-Alfred Meir-Mayer was born in 1927 in Ratibor, Upper Silesia in eastern Germany (today Racibórz, Poland), to parents Walter-Shlomo and Herta née Frankel. His sister Ilse was born in 1929.
Some 600 Jews lived in Ratibor in 1933. On 1 April 1933, the day of the national boycott, SA men stood in front of Jewish shops, Jewish law offices and the waiting rooms of Jewish doctors in Ratibor and deterred the majority of clients from entering. However, apart from that one occasion, anti-Jewish legislation in Ratibor was postponed until 1937. The Convention for the Protection of National Minorities was in force in Upper Silesia, but with its expiration in 1937, the Third Reich's anti-Jewish legislation was implemented there too. In the course of the November Pogrom ("Kristallnacht") on 9 November 1938, the synagogue in Ratibor was set alight, as well as Jewish homes and most of their shops. In 1939, 282 Jews remained in the city. In 1940, Jewish men from Ratibor were seized for forced labor. In order to evade this fate, Walter looked for work in his field as an engineer. He found a job at a factory working for the German war effort, and moved to Berlin. Herta and the children stayed in Ratibor. Walter applied to the authorities, requesting permission to bring Herta and the children to Berlin, and the Gestapo approved his application in June 1942. This approval came at the very last minute: in July, the deportation of Ratibor's Jews began.
Then 15-years-old, Aryeh relates:
We arrived in Berlin, amidst the turmoil of war. We didn't have an apartment for the first three months. They were not renting apartments to Jews anymore. We lived in dire conditions – a tiny box room that other Jews let us use. We were four people with two beds… Of course, no one could sleep in peace, also due to fear of the Gestapo, who were liable to come at any time of the day or night to take us away. I walked around wearing the Yellow Star… We weren't allowed to use public transport… food was scarce… we were very undernourished.
Walter succeeded in getting Herta a job at the factory where he worked. After about three months, he managed to rent two rooms in the home of a Jewish widow, and the family's living conditions improved, but they still lived in the shadow of the constant deportations of Berlin's Jews to the East. After a Jewish family in their building was taken away by the Gestapo, Walter decided that they had to go underground and hide. As long as they were in the apartment, they never answered the door, and were terrified every time they heard footsteps in the stairwell. In January 1943, Walter found a German couple who agreed to hide the two children in return for payment, and Aryeh and Ilse moved in with them. In February, their parents came to the hiding place distraught, without coats and hats, still wearing their work uniforms, and told them that there had been a raid on the factory where they worked, and all Jews still working there were caught. They managed to sneak out, and were being searched for. Walter and Herta stayed with their children for a few days, and then hid elsewhere, in separate places. Walter found a hiding place in a small, dank cellar, for which he paid a fortune to the owner, who bribed and abused him continuously. Most of the time, the owner didn't allow Walter to enter the cellar, and he was forced to live on the streets. Walter and Aryeh managed to reach the apartment where they had lived earlier, which had been sealed off by the Gestapo. "We tore the seal, opened the door, and within a minute, we took everything we could carry," recalls Aryeh. "We broke into our own apartment, feeling like criminals."
After being out of work for about 2 months, Walter realized he wouldn't survive without a job. He found work at a factory where he knew the owner, who employed Walter without requesting documents or registration at the employment office, and treated him fairly. Due to Berlin's susceptibility to bombardment, Walter's factory and others were evacuated eastward, to Silesia. His employer offered Walter the option to move with the other workers, but Walter refused, not wishing to leave his wife and children. Meanwhile, Walter organized employment for Aryeh outside Berlin, in the village of Fichtenwalde, where he worked in agriculture. Walter found Ilse a job as a maid with a German family, where she could also sleep. Herta hid elsewhere. After a Gestapo raid on Aryeh's place of residence in Fichtenwalde, Aryeh escaped by the skin of his teeth and returned to Berlin.
Walter found a new job, but only three days after he started there, he was turned over to the Gestapo, and was deported to Auschwitz on 17 May. Herta, Aryeh and Ilse found themselves alone in Berlin, without the husband and father who had taken care of their every need. Herta lost hope and informed her children that it was preferable to turn herself over to the Gestapo. "They'll catch us anyway," she said, "And that way we'll be together with Father." Aryeh dissuaded her, declaring, "However hard things get, I will never hand myself over to the Gestapo." After Walter's arrest, 16-year-old Aryeh searched tirelessly for hiding places for himself, his mother and sister. None of them had an ID card. Sometimes they were together, sometimes apart, but they kept moving from place to place in an effort to evade the Gestapo raids and the spot- checks carried out on the streets by the police. They spent many hours on the streets, and sometimes didn't see each other for weeks at a time. Their money gradually ran out, and they took odd jobs for short periods, for fear of their Jewish identity being discovered. Aryeh lived in the room of an apartment surrounded by Germans. He relates:
In the building where I lived, they were all Nazis except for two families. The greeting "Heil Hitler" was said morning, noon and night, and if we went down into the shelter, we said it again… In the same apartment where I had my room, lived a couple with their daughter. The father was a sworn Nazi. Almost every night I was forced to sit with him and discuss politics. What a Jew-hater that man was! I had to curse the Jews together with him. If he had only known who I was, I'm quite sure he would have crushed me with his bare hands!
During two days of Allied bombing in November 1943, Herta, Aryeh and Ilse lost all their belongings, which had been scattered amongst different acquaintances. The apartments of these acquaintances went up in flames and disappeared without a trace. Every day, they struggled to find a place to sleep and something to eat, and continued to work at any job they could find. All three of them survived the days of fighting in Berlin, and were reunited after the liberation of Berlin by the Red Army. Recalling the first days after liberation, Aryeh relates:
Citizens filled out forms and were issued food tickets. I registered too, this time under my real name. The residents of the building were amazed, because until then, my name had been different… Some six weeks later, I managed to find us a nice apartment with one-and-a-half rooms in a new building – an apartment that had belonged to Nazis who fled during the fighting. I went to the housing office, and asked for a form permitting entry to the apartment. The procedure was simple… In those days, Jews had a few advantages.
Aryeh decided to leave Germany. He parted from his mother and sister, and left Berlin in October 1945, reaching the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. In January 1946 he moved to the children's home in Blankenese, Hamburg, and in April that year, he immigrated to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) via Marseille, together with a group of children and teenagers and their counsellors, and settled in Kibbutz Dorot. Aryeh enlisted to the Palmach, and then to the IDF, and was seriously wounded in the War of Independence. In his memoirs, he wrote:
I was "privileged" to be wounded, and was even considered a casualty of war for a time, but miraculously I survived, and at the last minute I was airlifted to hospital, which was rare in those days. I accepted all this with love, because it was for the purposes of protecting our homeland, the Jewish State, the State of Israel, our national homeland where our people will settle forever, and no one will return us to that place where we were during the story you are reading. (Kiryat Bialik, Israel, 2005).
Herta and Ilse-Ilana immigrated to Israel in 1948.
In 1955, Aryeh Meir submitted a Page of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of his father Walter. In 2015, the Meir family's documents and family photographs were donated to the Yad Vashem Archives as part of the "Gathering the Fragments" project, as well as Aryeh's memoirs from the war period, in German and Hebrew. Some of the donated materials are displayed here.