Friday November 10, 2017

'That's me on the picture': How a book cover brought a Holocaust historian and Auschwitz survivor together

Child survivors of Auschwitz, wearing adult-size prisoner jackets, stand behind a barbed wire fence. Miriam Ziegler (far-left corner) was nine-years-old when Auschwitz and Birkenau were liberated in January, 1945. She is now 82-years-old and lives in Toronto.

Child survivors of Auschwitz, wearing adult-size prisoner jackets, stand behind a barbed wire fence. Miriam Ziegler (far-left corner) was nine-years-old when Auschwitz and Birkenau were liberated in January, 1945. She is now 82-years-old and lives in Toronto. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/Belarussian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photograph)

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Toronto historian Max Wallace wasn't sure what to make of the elderly Jewish woman who approached him this past October. 

Wallace was signing copies of his new book, In The Name of Humanity. The event was being publicized with a large poster of the book's cover which had one of the most iconic pictures of the Holocaust on it.

"It's a group of children behind barbed wire at Auschwitz on the Day of Liberation," Wallace says, describing the picture. 

"There weren't very many survivors and my publisher just happened to use that photo on the cover. I had no idea that any of them was living in Toronto."

'That's me on the picture'

It was a combination of coincidence and mundane weekend routines that led to Ziegler and Wallace's meeting.

"My daughter usually picks me up on Saturday and we go grocery shopping," says Ziegler.

Miriam

Miriam Ziegler points to a picture of herself as a nine-year old in Auschwitz. She just happened to see the picture that is the cover of Max Wallace's book, In the Name of Humanity, while shopping. (Miriam Ziegler)

"And we were in Costco shopping and we noticed a sign about Max selling his book and my picture on it. So we went over and my daughter says, 'Mom, go introduce yourself'. So I introduced myself to Max and we started talking and I said 'That's me on the picture.'"

Wallace says at first he was almost speechless.

'My new discovery reveals very likely why Miriam survived.' - Max Wallace

"At first I didn't believe her. I thought it was a metaphor. You know, 'I was a Holocaust survivor as well.' And then I saw her pointing to her nine-year-old self. It really brought these events home," Wallace recalls.

"It was [made] even more poignant by the facts that the events I write about in my book, my new discovery, reveals very likely why Miriam survived."

Miriam Ziegler

Miriam Ziegler, a survivor of the Holocaust, 82, sits beside the iconic photo used in Max Wallace's book cover that sits beside a picture of her mother. (John Chipman/CBC)

Miriam Ziegler was three-years-old when Kristallnacht — or the Night of Broken Glass  — began. It was on this day 79 years ago when the streets of Germany and Austria were littered with smashed glass from Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues — a turning point for European Jews.

The anti-Jewish terror that infused the Nazi state exploded into an orgy of violence — and the state-organized pogrom saw the mass arrests of Jews, many sent off to concentration camps.

The stage was set for death camps like Auschwitz and Birkenau.

AUSCHWITZ

Railway tracks lead to the main gate of the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp. (Reuters)

Ziegler, a Jewish girl living with her parents in Poland, did not escape the pogrom's horrific consequences. She spent a year in the death camps.

"I lost my whole family. My mother had three sisters and a brother. And most of us, except one, were married and had children," Ziegler explains.

But after the liberation of Auschwitz in January, 1945, Ziegler was placed in an orphanage until a miraculous moment changed her future.

The secret deal that ended the Holocaust

Wallace spent 17 years investigating the people and the secret deals that led to the Nazis destroying the major instruments of mass murder at Auschwitz and other death camps in the waning months of the war. 

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Toronto historian Max Wallace says common wisdom about the destruction of Auschwitz gas chambers is wrong. He exposes the secret deal behind why it was destroyed in his new book, In the Name of Humanity. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

Wallace discovered a cache of documents at the Jewish Orthodox Yeshiva University in New York showing that just days before the destruction of the crematoriums at Auschwitz, an Orthodox woman in Switzerland named Recha Sternbuch learned that Heinrich Himmler, the top Nazi in charge of carrying out the genocide, would cease implementing the final solution.

That promise came about through top-secret negotiations involving the former president of Switzerland. Himmler's decision was based on his belief that the Western Allies were open to a separate peace with Germany that would be followed by a united front against the Soviet Union. 

Max Wallace book

Holocaust historian Max Wallace gets to the bottom of an Auschwitz mystery in his book, In the Name of Humanity. (Random House Canada)

"He really believed that there was a chance that the Allies would just forgive these crimes because the greater enemy was Stalin and Bolshevism," Wallace says.

"At the same time as Himmler orders the destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria, he issues an order prohibiting the further killing of Jews. So there's a lot of evidence that comes together that suggests that this is more than just an attempt to cover up their crimes. This is actually a result of these secret negotiations."

Himmler would eventually offer to surrender Germany to the Western Allies — a move that would cause Hilter to order his arrest. Himmler believed in the possibility of the alliance up until the very end.

He would kill himself after the surrender of Germany by crushing a cyanide pill between his teeth. 

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.