Holocaust Survivor: Werner Reich

As a human race, we are the epitome of diversity, in which our cosmopolitan universe consists of various ages, social upbringings, sexual orientations, ethnic backgrounds, and personalities.  Despite all our individual differences, we are all undeniably connected by something beyond simply “existing on the same planet.” 

The Holocaust also known as the Shoah is defined as “the mass murder of Jews under the German Nazi regime during the period 1941-45. More than 6 million European Jews, as well as members of other persecuted groups, such as gypsies and homosexuals, were murdered at concentration camps such as Auschwitz”. The question is, why? Why did the world allow the destruction of millions of lives, of people like you and I, people with families, children, siblings, parents, people with hopes and dreams and goals and wants?

Why did the Nazis and their affiliates commit such a heinous crime? They did such a thing because of intolerance, irrational hatred, ignorance and for want of a scapegoat to serve as something to direct years of suppressed anger towards. However, there is no excuse, nothing that could ever come close to justifying the eradication of millions of innocent lives. Why did the world not rise up against this hate crime, this crime against humanity? They simply refused to take action, as could be seen through the results of the Evian Conference which occurred in July of 1938. The conference was convened to discuss the many refugees that had escaped the horrors occurring in Europe and had needed a place to stay, the tone of the conference was set when the Canadian representative stated “Let the Germans solve their Jewish problem” after which no country, with the exception of the Dominican Republic, permitted the refugees a place to live within their borders.

People such as the aforementioned Canadian representative exist today, they now have a name, they are called bystanders. Bystanders are those that witness such actions as bullying and harassment and choose to do nothing, to turn a blind eye to actions that could have been stopped or prevented. We must remember that despite everything that differentiates us from one another, race, cultural background, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, and gender we are all at our core, at our very essence, human. We all feel pain, sadness, loneliness, happiness and love, thus we are all the same. Clearly then, we all have the innate duty to care for one another and if we are to witness any form of abuse, mental, emotional or physical we have to take action. As Werner Reich said, the Holocaust and all the pain and suffering caused by it occurred because “the good people did nothing”.

To learn from the perspective of one who experienced first-hand these crimes against humanity, the students of Newfield High School were honored to receive the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the cognitive as well as inspirational presentation of an eighty nine year old man named Werner Reich. Werner Reich was once a teenager as you and I are today, he had hobbies, dreams and aspirations just as we all do, but at the young impressionable age of only fifteen he began to experience such horrors that no human being alive should have ever had to go through and yet did.

Werner Reich lived a peaceful life with his mother, father and sister up until the year of 1933 when his father lost his job as an engineer, prohibiting Werner and his sister, Renate, from pursuing their educational studies. Werner and his family moved three countries away in Yugoslavia in search of a new job opportunity, but were unsuccessful and his father died not soon thereafter. It was not long before Germany began to invade the country, worrying, Werner Reich’s mother made the crucial decision to place her children with two seperate families for safe keeping. Werner Reich had been placed with a couple who worked for the resistance, which enabled him to participate in this movement as well, for it he made films and enlargements as evidence of Nazi cruelty. By being in such a dangerous position, it was practically inevitable that he experienced ramifications for his involvement when the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, arrested Werner and his surrogate family.

 At this point he was detained, beaten and transported to various locations until he eventually arrived at the gates of Auschwitz at the tender age of fifteen. While there he experienced physical as well as psychological trauma by constantly being exposed to the permeating stench of burning hair and flesh and on one occasion being severely whipped on a bench fifteen times. While suffering through one of the worst winters of the 20th century, the Russians were closing in, and he had been forced to move once more. About 3 days into a Death March that was part of the journey to the concentration camp of Mauthausen, Werner Reich’s foot had rotted and his toes were amputated. After a period of agony he was finally liberated by the Americans, weighing only 64 lbs at 17 years of age, he was given rations by them.

Werner Reich is a man with a strong will and a wise soul. Upon liberation at the age of seventeen from the concentration camp of Mauthausen in Austria, despite being extremely physically weak and having experienced such horrors that seem to belong only in fictional horror novels, but were in fact very real, Werner Reich persisted on with his life. Eventually, he came to Britain where he met his wife Eva and while there, earned a very modest living from his work as a manual laborer. Soon, Werner Reich realized he had no particularly bright future in Britain and so he came to our nation, the United States.

Werner Reich wanted a higher education and wanted to do intellectual rather than physical work. Thus, he pursued an education so that he could become an engineer such as his late father was and later changed his course and pursued an education that would enable him to become particularly, an industrial engineer, which he became. Werner Reich came to America also because he wished to be reunited with his sister Renate, and so he was.

Post-retirement from his career as an industrial engineer which he thoroughly enjoyed, Werner Reich learned from a local newspaper that at a high school, students were being taught about the Holocaust. Upon realizing he could be of help he telephoned the school and was offered an opportunity to speak with the youth regarding the occurrence of the Holocaust that he himself had experienced first-hand. Ever since then, Werner Reich has spoken to many an audience of kids such as us.

Despite all the tragedy, torture and utter hate he was subjected to, Werner Reich was not demoralized. Today, he continues on as a very joyous and jubilant person that teaches the young generations from his experiences. Upon being asked how he can continue to be so strong as to be so utterly happy despite all he has endured and upon coming face to face with the hideous face of absolute cruelty, Werner Reich replied that while he was at the concentration camps he and his fellow prisoners distracted each other from the lingering misery and pain that consistently threatened to consume them by telling each other jokes to keep their spirits up. He wisely stated that if you are in a terrible situation and no matter what you are feeling, you will still be in that situation, then no matter how difficult it is, you might as well be happy because if you are sad you will be in that situation and even if you are happy you will still be in that situation. Werner Reich stated regarding what he told himself while at the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz, “I am happy I am in Auschwitz, if I wasn't happy I'd still be in Auschwitz.” Through this one can see how strong the will and character of Werner Reich is.

Despite being exposed to such negativity and hatred, Werner has also continued to reach out and speak with others on a deep and personal level. He describes himself as very “people oriented”, causing him to absolutely despise interactions via electronics because it prevents that connection, in which he refers to electronics as “garbage”. The way Werner sees it, picking up your phone mid conversation is the equivalent of interrupting someone as they are in the middle of speaking. Even when being discreet with your phone, Werner notes that it is very obvious because as he jokingly states, “nobody looks at their crotch and smiles”. Clearly, Werner Reich is a man who enjoys companionship through person-to-person interaction and kindness.

Werner Reich is one of very few survivors, for example over 1.1 million people died at the concentration camp of Auschwitz alone. An estimate of 6 million Jews were systematically murdered along with millions of people of other groups such as Christians, Muslims, homosexuals, Jehovah's witnesses, gypsies, those that are disabled in any way and anyone else that were considered weak and inferior to the fictional perfect ‘Aryan race’. All of these lives similar to your’s and mine ceased to exist, they were destroyed, and by whom? These innocent lives were brutally taken by people blinded by arrogance, intolerance and hatred.

We are all human, you and I, and that is something extremely significant that unites us. We must learn from the past, all of us, so that nothing similar to the Holocaust can occur ever again. How can we start? We can all start by standing up for, and supporting one another. We must never bring each other down, and if we are to witness any form of cruelty towards anybody, be it a large group of people or a lone individual, we must not be bystanders, we must take action. Never again should should a crime against humanity such as the Holocaust occur. Never again.

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