Who was Herman Ziering and why is his life work intrinsically linked to the Holocaust Center at Manhattan College?

 

Herman Ziering was a survivor of the Shoah whose work as Vice-President of the New York-based Society of Survivors of the Riga Ghetto and as a member of the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Nazi War Criminals contributed to the identification of Nazi war crimenals. His dogged research led to the exposure, deportation, and eventual trial of Latvian Nazi collaborator Bolislavs Maikovskis, the deportation of John Demjanjuk and other war criminals hiding in the United States, and an increased awareness among survivors and their families of the existence of Nazi war criminals living in the United States generally. His work also led to the appointment of Elliot Welles to the directorship of the Task Force on Nazi War Criminals, He also shepherded a decades-long effort to generate a book-length historical account of the Riga ghetto. Regretfully, after many disappointments, he did not live to witness in print.

 

Born in 1926 in Kassel, Germany, to Polish immigrants, Ziering and his younger brother Sigi Ziering spent their grammar school years dodging Hitler Youth on the way to and from school. In 1938, their father managed to leave Nazi Germany just prior to the invasion of Poland, using a group passport for transferring adult male Jews of Polish background to the Kitchener Camp in England. He wanted to take his family with him, but Ziering’s mother thought it was too risky to take the children across the border without proper documentation.

 

In 1941, Herman, his mother, brother, aunt and cousin were loaded onto unheated rail cars with approximately 1000 others in the middle of winter and sent to Riga, Latvia. They were settled in the Jewish ghetto which had been “cleared” in a mass shooting of 27,800 Latvian Jews while the Jews from Kassel were en route. The immediate family survived the ghetto by obtaining food “illegally” through barter or theft, since rations were insufficient for survival. Ziering’s aunt and her young daughter did not survive an “Aktion” during which ghetto dwellers deemed too old, too young, or too infirm to work were rounded up into trucks and disappeared. During one such Aktion, Ziering witnessed Latvian SS members shooting Jews who failed to get on the truck fast enough and smashing the heads of babies against the truck. When the Russians approached Riga in 1944 and the ghetto was liquidated, Ziering and his mother and brother were transferred to a series of work camps and prisons, and narrowly escaped assignment to a death camp.  At the notorious Neuengamme, their final stop before being rescued by the Swedish Red Cross, the family witnessed a two week evacuation process during which 15,000 prisoners were killed. Nevertheless, Ziering, his brother, and his mother all survived and were reunited with his father in 1946. 

 

The entire family emigrated to the New York in 1949. During the decade and a half after the war, Ziering served a stint in the US army in Germany, started and maintained a thriving real estate business, buried his father, married, and raised a family with his wife Lea. But he never forgot his experience during the Shoah. He remained in contact with fellow Riga survivors. Many of those who, like himself, had been adolescents at the time had lost their parents and were informally “adopted” by his mother after the War.

 

In the early 1970s, Ziering’s sense of responsibility began to solidify into two efforts that were to occupy him for the remainder of his life: doing justice to the memory of fellow Riga survivors and honoring to the dead in contributions to historical memory of the ghetto, and identifying and bringing to justice war criminals hiding in the United States. Both of these efforts stemmed from his service as Vice-President of the Society of Survivors of the Riga Ghetto.

 

The most prominent of Ziering’s commemorative activities was a decades-long effort to produce a historical volume on the Riga ghetto. This “Yizkor (memory) Book would include essays of survivor memories and honor the dead. Ziering tangled with multiple prospective authors whose priorities were not sufficiently in line with those of survivors. At the time of Ziering’s death, the volume was still not completed but when it did appear in 2009, it was historically rigorous and drew heavily on the oral histories of Riga survivors.

 

He began his pursuit of war criminals by assisting the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in locating witnesses who could identify Nazi war criminals. This work escalated when it became apparent that the U.S. government was dragging its feet in many cases. The case of Latvian Nazi chief of police Boulislav Maikovskis, who had ordered the mass shooting of over 200 villagers, assisted in the murder of 20,000 Latvian Jews, and had personally assaulted and killed Jews in the Riga ghetto itself, was the most famous and the most consequential for Ziering’s activism. Ziering and Society president Lore Oppenheimer organized a demonstration in front of Maikovskis’ home in Mineola, NY, to draw attention to Maikovskis’s personal history and the inaction of government officials. Since neither of them had organized a protest before, they looked to the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for logisitical support. Ziering’s relationship with the ADL intensified as a result of this demonstration, as did his relationship with fellow Riga survivor Elliot Welles. Ziering arranged a meeting between Welles, whose mother had been shot by Maikovskis. Welles, who had been relentlessly pursuing evidence of Nazi war criminals at large since the early 1960s, and ADL director Abe Foxman worked on this together. Welles proposed that the ADL form a task force on Nazi War Criminals. As a result of this meeting, Welles served two decades as the director of the ADL’s Task Force on War Criminals and became one of the most influential forces identifying war criminals in the United States and working for their extradition. 

 

For most of these two decades, Ziering served at his side. Welles and Ziering continued working to pressure immigration authorities and the courts to deport Maikovskis, and continued to follow the case through various twists and turns. When Maikovskis disappeared after his last request to delay extradition was denied, they investigated and discovered that he had been secretly allowed by to emigrate to Munster, Germany. They both went to Munster, inundating the Munster police with documentation on his crimes and his movements and demanding to know why Germany was openly harboring a Nazi war criminal. When Maikovskis was finally arrested and placed on trial, they attended the early court sessions each day. Unfortunately, the trial dragged on until, in 1996, the judge declared Maikovskis too frail to stand trial. But Ziering’s and Welles’s two decades of work on the case had raised awareness of the presence of such war criminals at large, and they assisted in the extradition of many more, including the extradition of SS work camp commander Josef Schammberger from Argentina to Germany and that of Paraguayan war criminal Norberto Pena-Iral, responsible for the torture and death of 17 year old Joelito Filartiga in retaliation for the political activities of his father, from the United States to Paraguay.

 

Herman Ziering was preoccupied with the Shoah -- telling and retelling his memories to everyone he could including his children. He was unable to forget the sheer arbitrariness of his own survival, and of the persistence of the will to live in the absence of any belief that he would live. “If I’m alive,” he said, “probably someone else died instead of me.” For that reason, he thought, “you cannot forget the people you left behind.” The dead questioned his life. His determination to face what happened rather than to forget or flee his experience, exhibited not only in his talks with his children or his work with the Society but in his willingness to return to Germany as part of U.S. occupation forces and, much later, to the very cell in a Hamburg prison where he had been held after the Riga ghetto liquidation, and in in his preservation of his concentration camp uniform, reflected this sense of the contingency of his own survival and his responsibility to the dead. But the Shoah did not consume him. His children remember him as a fun-loving and playful man with an intense and courageous love of life. Herman Ziering’s life is an inspiration and a reminder that the abandonment of a progressive narrative announcing premature victory over the evil of the Shoah and an appreciation of its enormity and persistent effects need not result in a passive fatalism on the part of scholars, artists, politicians, or the general public.

Manhattan College's Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center with the generosity of Debby Ziering, his daughter has obtained many of his collected letters, correspondences, evidence of Nazi criminals and belongings which will be displaced at the O'Malley Library in room 504 & 505.  The new exhibit and archive space that has been made possible by the College which is a Lasallian Catholic and is committed to interfaith relations between Jews and Christians, and education of the Holocaust.

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