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Holocaust survivor, soldier tell stories

Roy Shaffer, a World War II veteran, spoke at the Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony May 4, sharing his experience of being posted at Flossenburg concentration camp as a 19-year-old soldier in 1945.

Roy Shaffer, a World War II veteran, spoke at the Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony May 4, sharing his experience of being posted at Flossenburg concentration camp as a 19-year-old soldier in 1945.

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Andy Holten survived the Holocaust as a child because of his parents' determination and the courage of strangers. The rest of his family wasn't so fortunate.

Holten was among the speakers at the Holocaust Remembrance event May 5, Holocaust Memorial Day, in the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center Leaf Presentation Center.

Holten said he was born a couple of years before World War II. In 1940, Germany invaded Holland, where he and his parents lived.

"Persecution of the Jews was what they were trying to do in Holland," he said.

In 1942 or 1943, Holten said, the Nazis began sending all young men to German factories to work and Jews to concentration camps.

"There was no easy way to avoid arrest," he said.

They couldn't leave the area because Holland was surrounded by water and unfriendly countries, he said. To survive, Jews had to hide, which wasn't easy, either.

It was illegal for non-Jews to help Jews, Holten said, and food rationing made it hard to feed people in hiding.

When Holten, an only child, was 5 years old, his parents thought they'd found a place for all three of them to hide. However, the would-be benefactors backed out.

Holten's parents contacted the underground resistance and asked for a place to hide their son.

A Christian couple in their 60s took him in under an assumed name, hiding his Jewish identity until the war ended.

"My parents, my grandparents, pretty much the rest of my family, were arrested," he said.

The Nazis sent Holten's parents and one set of grandparents by train to Auschwitz.

His father worked in a factory there for four to six months, until he became too sick to work and the Nazis sent him to the gas chamber.

Holten's mother and grandparents were killed the day they arrived. So were the 122 children on the train.

Had Holten been with them, he would have met the same fate.

His other grandparents were sent to Sobibór death camp. They were not among the few survivors.

When Holten was 7, Allied troops marched through the streets, having liberated Holland. He still remembers the day.

His foster parents knew only his last name and had to approximate his birth date, but they registered him so his family could find him if they survived.

"But no one came back," he said.

So, his foster parents raised him.

"I admire them, and I'm eternally grateful for what they did," Holten said.

His foster family became his only family, and he still keeps in touch with their grandchildren.

When Holten was 10 or 12 years old, he began to grasp what happened to his biological family and struggled. He always hoped someone would come back for him.

After finishing high school in Holland, Holten came to New York City and earned a college degree in physics. He qualified for U.S. citizenship after college and joined the Air Force on the way to the citizenship ceremony.

Following five years as an Air Force officer, he became a civil servant. He eventually took a position with a professional services company in Albuquerque, supporting the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center.

In his retirement, he substitute teaches in Rio Rancho and gives presentations about his story to students.

Holten quoted a Holocaust scholar in saying no one should ever perpetrate insults or killing based on who people were born as, or be a bystander to such crimes.

Young soldier

Roy Shaffer, a World War II veteran, also spoke at the event, sharing his experience of being posted at Flossenburg concentration camp as a 19-year-old soldier in 1945.

"I come to you not as a scholar, but as a witness," he said.

Shaffer was drafted into the Army in 1943. He served with the 350th Medical Collecting Company in Europe, where he found himself traveling through many of the same places where his father fought in World War I.

He and about six buddies were sent to Flossenburg after Germany surrendered.

By the time they arrived, many of the victims had been "stacked in trucks like cordwood" and sent back to their home countries. Some refused to go, however, especially the Polish Jews, who had heard the Russians would kill anyone in Poland who wasn't a communist.

Shaffer said the prisoners who remained were so emaciated they looked like skeletons with thin rubber stretched over them. The barracks were more like potato warehouses, he said, with wooden beds devoid of any blankets or mattresses.

"The people were warehoused on these shelves," he said.

He remembers seeing the crematorium and a quarry where starving prisoners had to mine blocks of beautiful granite. In the quarry was a wooden platform where the Nazis hanged Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who took part in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

The prisoners had made an American flag. They'd cut the swastika off a Nazi banner to have a red piece of cloth, painted on white stars and stripes, and colored the blue field with laundry detergent.

The flag hung on the concentration camp fence. No one claimed it, but Shaffer wanted to preserve it.

"So, I either liberated it or rescued it," he said.

When the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum of New Mexico opened, Shaffer thought it was the perfect place for the flag. He gave it to the museum in 2001.

Shaffer challenged the audience members to look at what goes on in their heads and hearts and to consider the influence they have to prevent new Holocausts.