“We must recognize that what is sometimes hard to talk about must be talked about, what is sometimes difficult to explain must be explained.” — Dr. Al Miller, local Holocaust survivor
Dr. Miller has divided the Holocaust into two segments: When Hitler came into power in 1933 until Kristallnacht happened on November 9, 1938.
“During that first segment, things were horrible. Every kind of restriction, every kind of law that accused you of everything else. But the focus was essentially on getting rid of Jews who were in the public eye,” he says. “As long as any Jew was in the public eye, get rid of them.”
Many were incarcerated into camps, but there was no mass effort to do that yet, no mass shootings, and no mass roundups.
He says that everything that came after Kristallnacht was so cruel, humiliating, and degrading that they cannot fully be described, imagined, or believed.
“They smashed something like 30,000 Jewish-owned shops, [there was] so much glass on the pavement,” he says.
“The Nazis burnt down several thousand synagogues throughout Germany and Austria, incarcerated thousands upon thousands of Jewish men — not women yet, not so many,” he continues.
That had immediate consequences for Miller’s family, as the Nazis began rounding up Jews to clean up the streets, throwing them down with nothing more than a toothbrush while spitting and kicking at them, all the time laughing and having a good time.
“That happened to my wife, mother, and my wife’s brother,” he says.
There were book burnings in 34 other German cities, Torahs were desecrated, and Dachau Concentration Camp was established a month after Kristallnacht.
By the time the Germans were finished, there were more than 10,000 camps spread throughout Europe and an additional six camps that were called extermination camps.
“And that is precisely what they were,” Dr. Miller says. “People by the tens — by the hundreds of thousands — were killed in those camps immediately upon arrival.”
All six extermination camps — including Auschwitz — were in Poland. At the height of its capacity in the early fall of 1942, between 10-12,000 people were killed every day in Auschwitz alone.
But Dr. Miller’s family got out.
On November 10, 1938 a lifelong non-Jewish friend down the street invited his family to hide in her home. This made their escape possible. He reunited with his family in England in late 1938/early 1939, where they were classified as “Enemy Aliens.”
Dr. Miller was 17 when he finally arrived in America with his family. When his ship passed by the Statue of Liberty, everyone on board stared in awe and hope.
“This is something to this day that I really cannot talk about,” he says. “It gets to me. I mentioned five countries; I wasn’t welcome in any of them. In one of them I would have been killed — Germany.”
The first American Dr. Miller ever saw was a casual, friendly, polite immigration officer with his shirt unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
“He said please and he said thank you,” says Dr. Miller. “We were not used to that.”
The officer asked him, his parents, and brother for their papers. Everything was in order until it was Al’s turn. He couldn’t find them and he panicked. The immigration officer told him to go in the cabin and search because, in his excitement, he probably left them behind.
Dr. Miller found them and thrust them at the immigration officer. After everything was signed, he was in a rush to get off the boat, but the officer put his hands on Al’s shoulders and said: “Sonny, you are now in the United States of America. You are in a free country. Make something of yourself. Get an education, obey our laws. And if you do all that, we will be grateful to you that you came to live with us.”
After what they experienced in Germany, that’s something that exceeded his wildest dreams. He became much more self-confident and credits the immigration officer for that. Less than three years later, he joined the army.
“Anybody listening here can do the same thing,” Dr. Miller says. “Words are so powerful. You need to be careful what words you use. You can make people happy and feel good about themselves with the words that you use.”
He was only in New York for a few months before his brother — who was supposed to take over the family shirt business in Berlin that was started by their grandfather — heard of a similar business in Cincinnati that was hiring. It wasn’t long before he was working at the Mack Shirt Company and the rest of the family joined him in the city, where Dr. Miller and his wife still live.
“My advice,” he says, “not just to young people, but to anybody, regardless of age, I am tempted to say for old people, who should know better: Rabbi Hillel was once asked if he could summarize the contents of the entire Torah — five books of Moses — while standing on one leg. And the rabbi replied that he certainly could do that. And he stood on one leg and this is what he said: ‘Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself. All the rest is commentary. So go home and study that.’”
“So that is what I give you as a going away present. Because if we all do that — don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself — there would be peace the day after tomorrow,” he says. “You don’t want to be bullied. It can be very, very unpleasant. So if you don’t want to be bullied, don’t do it to others.”
Every Wednesday, the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center features a free talk from a local survivor. Register for this week’s webinar with Zahava Rendler here.