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Former professor reflects on surviving Holocaust
Mar 11

By JOHNNY CASEY, The Asheville Citizen-Times

WEAVERVILLE, N.C. (AP) - There are not many Holocaust survivors left, but there's at least one in Western North Carolina, and he has ties to both Buncombe and Madison Counties.

Walter Ziffer, 95, of Weaverville, was an adjunct professor at Mars Hill University from 2001-15. Ziffer and his wife, Gail, moved to Weaverville in 1993.

Ziffer also wrote a memoir on his experience, "Confronting the Silence: A Holocaust Survivor's Search for God."

Ziffer's 14 years at Mars Hill came in his "retirement years," he said, as most of his teaching was done in France, Belgium and Washington, D.C. While at Mars Hill, he taught Biblical studies - including Hebrew language studies - as well as theology.

But Ziffer's journey to Mars Hill is an exceptionally improbable one.

He survived seven concentration camps, or what he calls "death/extermination camps" after being captured in his native Czechoslovakia when he was 15. He was not freed until three years later, at 18.

"I was taken into the camps with between 30 and 40 young people, and only two survived," Ziffer said. "The other survivor came to Israel after the war, and I came here to America."

After Ziffer's experience in the Holocaust, he anticipated that after coming to the U.S., people would want to hear about his story but found that not to be the case.

"Coming back now, (I thought), 'Why didn't the people ask me questions?'" Ziffer said. "I think they had guilty feelings, or they didn't feel comfortable asking questions. When I married my former wife, Carolyn, I started going to church, of course, and the people there were very interested. They asked a lot of questions. They wanted to know what it was like. So you can see ... I appreciated the interest. That was one of the things that drew me to Christianity."

"There weren't, until recently, young people who went into the ministry," Ziffer said. "Some of them wanted to know Hebrew and Greek. That used to be something anybody who went to a Christian ministry had to study."

Conversion to Christianity

Ziffer's own journey to the Christian ministry came following his arrival to the United States.

His decision to convert to Christianity was jump-started on his first day in the United States after moving to be near family in Nashville, Tennessee.

"I came to America in 1948," he said. "I had an uncle in Nashville, Tennessee, and he helped me, along with some other organizations that helped me as well. My relationship with the Jewish community in Nashville was not very good.

"I still haven't quite understood it, why a lot of Jewish people don't want to deal with the Holocaust. They don't want to talk about it. They don't understand it. Most people don't understand it, why and how it happened. So, I really didn't have a really good relationship with my uncle."

While in Nashville, Ziffer earned an engineering degree from Vanderbilt University. According to Ziffer, two friends in Franklin, Tennessee, also helped him realize he wanted to explore the idea of converting to Christianity.

"During summer school (at Vanderbilt), I met two young people ... and we became good friends," Ziffer said. "Both were Christians, and I had a wonderful experience with them. Eventually, the fellow had to leave Nashville because he wanted to study medicine in Memphis.

"He came to me once and said, 'Look, I just lost my father, Mr. Otis Grant, in Nashville, and my mother is a widow. Would you consider moving in with my mother and be her surrogate son?' I would cut the grass and take her to church, things like that. So I left my uncle and went to live there. I became interested in Christianity that way."

Shortly after graduating from Vanderbilt, Ziffer and his first wife, Carolyn Kinnard, had their first child and moved to Dayton, Ohio, where Ziffer worked as an engineer at a division of General Motors.

While in Dayton, Ziffer began attending church with his family, where he was drawn to the sermons of a particular pastor.

"That pastor was a remarkable person, whom I like very much," Ziffer said. "At one point, I just wanted to be like him. He was a mentor. So, at that point anway, I said, 'I would like to become a minister like you are.' So, we decided then on Oberlin, because at Oberlin College - it's no longer there - was a Graduate School of Theology."

Ziffer earned two master's degrees - one in Biblical Studies and the other in The New Testament and Greek Language - from Oberlin while working as a student pastor in Gibsonburg, a small town south of Toledo.

Purpose in writing the book

It took Ziffer about two years to write the book, he said.

While many of Ziffer's American peers may have been reluctant to discuss the horrors of his Holocaust experience, Ziffer was quite candid about his experience in the book, so much so that his daughter, after proofreading some of the book, recommended he cut back some of the content detailing his traumas.

According to Ziffer, the book is an abbreviated version of a 400-page work he wrote for his family.

"I wanted to be sure my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - I have six of them, all in Florida - that they get that story," Ziffer said.

However, two of Ziffer's daughters felt the subject matter in those 400 pages was probably too personal for some readers, as the book discussed Ziffer's divorce from his first wife and her more than 10-year struggle with mental health issues. The couple were married more than 30 years.

While telling his story to his family was important, Ziffer has also made a point to meet with students - both locally and internationally through Zoom - to talk about his experiences.

In 2018, Ziffer met with students at North Buncombe Middle School. His experiences in the camps According to Ziffer, one aspect that helped him survive was his ability to speak German.

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2021

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