Not only is the ninth of Av the date when both the first and second Holy Temples were destroyed, it is also the anniversary of the beginning of World War One. Since World War One was a precursor for World War Two the Holocaust is counted as one of the many tragedies that befell the Jewish people on that date. As tragic as the ninth of Av is, though, tradition teaches us that the Moshiach will be born on that date and then it will become a day of joy.
So is life for the Jewish people. Tragedy and joy are intertwined together. The story of the two Walters illustrates this well.
Walter Katz was born in 1920 in Jesberg, Germany, the oldest of three boys. Walter Spier’s birth came seven years later in Marburg, Germany, and he was the youngest of five. In 1933 Walter Katz’s Bar Mitzvah was subdued as Hitler had just come to power. Walter Spier’s Bar Mitzvah in 1940 was the last Bar Mitzvah to be held in Rauish Hozhausen, the town where his family had moved.
By that time Walter Katz and all of his immediate family had been able to leave Germany for America. Walter Spier’s three older siblings were sent to England but he, his parents and brother, Martin, were not so fortunate. In 1942 they were sent to Teresienstadt and then in 1944 to Auschwitz.
In 1942 Walter Katz entered the American army and received his American citizenship, in that order. He was assigned to the 5th Armored Division after basic training and trained with them in company supply until the Division was being moved to Pine Camp, New York to await shipment to England. There he was sent to Fort Ritchie and became a Ritchie Boy, one of the many Jewish-German refugees whose knowledge of the German language and mentality served the United States Army.
Walter Spier’s parents were murdered in Auschwitz and he became separated from his brother. At the age of sixteen he was shipped to a Polish work camp and then, as the end of the war was near, sent on a death march to Mauthausen, Austria.
Meanwhile Walter Katz was stationed in Europe and upon the Allied Victory his job was to interview Nazi civilians. He and his cousin, Jack, also stationed in Germany, made two visits to their German hometown. In one of those visits they forced the mayor to provide all the housewares that one of the survivors needed.
On May 5th, 1945 Mauthausen was liberated by the American army headed by Captain Michael Levy. As far as Walter Spier was concerned Captain Michael Levi was an angel who saved his life. The extraordinary story of how Walter Spier searched for his rescuer can be seen on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mK65Z9ww1hw .
The High Holy Days in 1945 found Walter Spier in Bad Nauheim, Germany. He and his brother were waiting for their visas to join their older brothers and sister now in America. Walter and Jack Katz were nearing the end of their tour of duty and were advised that the army was holding services in a restored synagogue in Bad Nauheim. They went and Walter Katz was most impressed when a teenager who had recently returned from a concentration camp was called to the Torah to recite the blessings. How could that boy remember the blessings after all he had been through?
In November 1945 Walter Katz was discharged from the army and made his home in Wichita, Kansas. It was there he met his wife, Barbara Matassarin, and they were married in 1950. Walter Spier and his brother arrived in America in the summer of 1946. In 1951 he married Karla Spier, no relation, and they made their home in Washington Heights, New York.
Years later Walter and Barbara Katz were visiting relatives in New York City. Among them were Karla, Walter Katz’s first cousin from his mother’s side, and her husband. In the course of family anecdotes and recollections Walter Katz told how he had been so impressed with the teenage boy in Bad Nauheim so many years ago. His story was greeted first with silence and then Karla’s husband spoke up.
“I was that boy!”
Walter Katz died in 2007 and is survived by his daughter, seven grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren all living in Israel. Walter and Karla Spier have been married for over sixty years. They have two sons, named for his parents, five grandchildren, including a rabbi in Frisch Yeshiva High School in Paramus, New Jersey, and a great-grandchild. What a revenge for Hitler and all the Nazis!