Holocaust survivor brings history to life during Living Ship Day talk

Holocaust survivor brings history to life during Living Ship Day talk

Dave Boitano
Art Weil

Holocaust survivor Art Weil talks with audience members who attended his presentation Saturday on the U.S S. Hornet Museum. Photo by Dave Boitano.

Arthur Weil knows the face of hate.

As a survivor of the greatest mass murder in history, Weil, 89, understands what can happen when those in power carry out a policy of genocide fueled by bigotry and intolerance.

And though the Nazi concentration camps of World War II are now in ruins, the same kind of deadly fervor that caused the Holocaust is present today among terrorist groups and others willing to repeat the pattern.

“Any time you have this hate, this misunderstanding, this ignorance,” he said. “Sometimes the more intelligent we are the more cold we can be, and that’s sad.”

Weil, a former history teacher and Holocaust survivor, spoke before an audience Saturday on the U.S.S. Hornet Museum. His talk, entitled “In the Shadow of Auschwitz,” was given as part of the museum’s Living Ship Day program, which also featured a performance by the Hornet band.

As Adolph Hitler rose to power in Germany in the 1920s, the Nazi government began a systematic program of discrimination against Jews that stripped them of their homes, jobs and possessions before transporting millions to concentration camps in Germany and Poland.

More than six million Jews and other groups identified as enemies of the Nazi state would perish in death camps run with chilling efficiency by members of the dreaded paramilitary group the Schutzstaffel or “SS.”

Weil, who now lives in Piedmont, grew up in Hanover, Germany and remembers the fervor whipped up by Hitler during party rallies and twice weekly addresses via radio. Nazism pervaded every aspect of life, even the greeting people used on the street.

“There was no more saying ‘good morning’” he said, “Everything was `Heil Hitler’ and if you did not do it, you were against the system.”

Being Jews, his father Siegfried and mother Charlotte were not allowed to work.

Weil remembers coming home one day to find that his mother had auctioned off the family’s furniture and his toys to earn enough money to survive.

“I said, ‘When are we going home?’ and she said, ‘There is no home. I have auctioned everything off,’’ Weil remembered.

Unable to attend a public school, Weil was taken by his father on a 10-hour train ride to an “orphanage” elsewhere in Germany, where he would learn with other Jewish kids.

Later, he would escape Germany and come to the United States by ship as part of the Kindertransport program, which placed Jewish children in foster homes in America. He lived in Chicago and was joined by his mother a year later.

More than 1,400 children were saved, including Bill Graham, who would later become San Francisco’s leading rock promoter, Weil said.

Weil’s father escaped to Italy and attempted to flee to France only to be imprisoned there and sent back to a concentration camp, where he spent two years before being released in 1941. He showed up at the house where Weil and his mother were living and it was obvious that he had changed during his years in captivity, Weil said.

“He weighed 90 pounds, down from 130 pounds,” Weil said of his father.

Weil enlisted in the Army and returned to Europe as part of a combat engineering team that cleaned up destruction from German V1 rockets fired at Britain. Speaking fluent German, he also served as an interpreter for German prisoners of war.

After the war, Weil earned degrees at Roosevelt and DePaul universities, taught German and history in the public schools and became a successful real estate broker.

He has written 21 books of poetry, and some of his works were available during Saturday’s event.

Weil said he speaks about his experiences during the war because many Holocaust survivors are now gone. Talking to students helps them understand what it was like to have lived through those troubled times.

“You can learn from books, but you can’t feel history,” he said. “You can’t feel the immensity of it.”