The rise of Nazi Germany: Part one, as told by a local Holocaust survivor

“He wouldn’t be caught dead shaking the hand of a black person. He, Hitler, would now turn around in his grave if he knew that there’s a Jesse Owens Street just outside of that stadium.” — Dr. Al Miller, local Holocaust survivor

Due to the pandemic, Sarah Weiss, CEO of the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center in Union Terminal, has worked with staff to move their weekly survivor stories online. The series, which has always been free, used to run at the museum, and features local survivors and their children telling stories about the rise of Nazi Germany and its aftermath.

“We’ve always been about using the lessons of the Holocaust to inspire action today,” she says. “And we know these lessons are relevant, unfortunately, now more than ever, and also that our survivors and their experiences have opportunities to teach us not only about history, but encourage us to reflect on the ways in which we can learn from history.”

Dr. Al Miller, Holocaust survivor, retired optometrist, and a veteran medic and “Richie Boy” in the United States Army, has been sharing his story around the region for years, and is actively involved in the HHC. Last Wednesday, more than 200 people signed up to listen to his most recent webinar.

“We’re incredibly honored that he continues to share his story,” says Weiss.

The rise of Nazi Germany, part one

“I’m the one who’s honored and privileged to give this talk about an unpleasant subject,” Dr. Miller begins, his perfect English bearing the accent of his German roots.

“There has been a poll just lately, the last few weeks in the United States, according to which there is ignorance to extent of 50% of people who have only the vaguest notion of the Holocaust or have never heard of it,” he continues. “So that is my subject today.”

“I’ll talk about the series of events, which, collectively have become known as the Holocaust, which occurred simultaneously with WWII, in which 60–70 million people killed defined our 20th century.”

They were areas of the world that we always thought were civilized and cultured participated, he adds.

Born in Berlin in 1922, Dr. Miller remembers a happy childhood. But when he starts talking about 80–85 years back in history — which from a historical perspective is not a long period of time — he acknowledges that his life as he knew it in Germany was coming to an end.

“Nothing in history ever stands alone as a separate and isolated event,” he says. “Whatever happens in history has happened before or had a connection with something that happened previously. People everywhere are always looking for a scapegoat, someone to blame for whatever may go wrong or turn out badly. Throughout history, Jews were always ready-made scapegoats, accused and blamed no matter what … Hitler did the exact same thing, calling Jews responsible for all the ills and hard times that Germany had experienced.”

He quotes Voltaire and then pauses to collect himself: “Those who can be made to believe absurdities can also be made to commit atrocities. That fits the Holocaust to a T.”

Dr. Miller recollects that the Holocaust did not begin with mass shooting or incarcerations. It began with a monumental absurdity consisting of just five words: “Die Juden sind unser Unglück!”

“The Jews are our misfortune.”

Those words appeared everywhere and were explained, manipulated, added to, and changed to suit the regime’s needs.

“Most importantly,” he says, “nobody challenged or contradicted those five words, and so before very long, they became the truth. The bigger the lie, the easier it gets, repeated and repeated all the time in any way possible, and if nobody contradicts it, it does become the truth.”

His parents were born in Berlin, and his four grandparents had lived all of their adult lives there. Dr. Miller’s father fought for Germany’s honor and freedom in the army, and received many awards.

“A lot of good that did later on,” he says.

Dr. Miller’s dad had two brothers. One was a high school teacher. Once, in 1934, he didn’t come home because he had been badly beaten by teenage boys who bragged about it for days knowing there would be no consequences whatsoever. This was about a year after Hitler came into power.

Immediately after he was appointed chancellor in January 1933, beatings like this became common in smaller communities and villages across Germany.

Hitler wasted no time telling the Jews of Germany “which way the wind was going to blow,” says Dr. Miller, who was 10 years old at the time and enrolled in public school.

“That class did a lot for me,” he says. “[But] things changed quickly. The first thing that changed was the greeting between the class and the students … the teachers would walk into the class and do the ‘Hail Hitler’ salute at the beginning end of every class, and the students had to return the salute. This amounted to kids saying ‘Hail Hitler’ about 50 times a week.”

“It becomes routine, it becomes automatic,” he continues. “That didn’t mean very much to me, but other things began to mean a lot. It was depressing, and it was nasty, and it was just insulting.”

There were three or four other Jewish kids in his class, and one by one, they left. He stayed for another two years. So many of the kids in his class had drastically changed their attitudes — no longer playing with him, and turning their backs when he approached or asked a question. Some would mock him and spit at him.

“So why did I stick around? Well, I had two very good friends in that class,” he says. “Both of them had become members of the Hitler Youth (the junior contingent of the brown-shirted storm troopers) many times they came to class in their uniforms with a swastikas on their arms. But our friendship never wavered. They remained good friends and I appreciated that so much, it was a major reason for me to stick around.”

Athletics were another factor. The school had every sport imaginable, and he was very good on both the running and soccer teams, so he was mostly left alone and he appreciated that.

“Now there’s another reason that’s difficult to explain. I was stubborn. And I just didn’t want to be chased away, he says. “With my very presence, I wanted to prove something.” But he strove to stay in the middle, not earning terrible or excellent grades to avoid calling attention to himself.

The time came when he was not only the only Jewish kid in his class, but in the whole school as well.

“And that became a different ball game altogether,” he says.

Not a single day went by without incident. Students would knock him down and bully him while teachers watched and did nothing. “I recognized the time had come to call it quits.

He was also adventurous but knew that every time he walked the streets, he took a chance. He describes storm troopers always marching and singing, and says you could hear them before you saw them.

“My memory has become quite poor,” he says. “My memory has essentially left me. But there are some things however, that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, and the ending of one of the songs is one of them.”

“Wenn’s Judenblut vom Messer spritzt dann geht’s noch mal so gut.” When Jewish blood spurts from the knife, things will be twice as good.”

In 1935, “Jews not welcome here” signs popped up all over Germany. All businesses could hang them: movies, restaurants, hotels, and shops. Dr. Miller saw it at the entrance of his favorite pool.

"Jews in Germany had now become deprived of their Germany citizenship,” he says. “We were no longer citizens of Germany. We had become subjects of Germany. That hit my father very hard. He had fought for Germany as a front-line soldier. Now he was no longer considered worthy enough to be a citizen.”

Many had left, but just as many stayed living a life of illusion. “Now they understood that this was not something to wait out,” he says. “This was real.”

It was now time to get out, if they could still get out, which had become very difficult.

Dr. Al Miller was at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when Jesse Owens won four gold medals. During the 1936 Berlin Olympics, all signs of anti-Semitism disappeared. The Nazis instructed everyone in Germany to welcome strangers with an open heart, to smile and shake hands with visitors from around the world so they would go home thinking everything was fine.

“So many foreigners streamed into Germany to watch the games,” Dr. Miller says. “Everybody went back home and couldn’t understand what the Jews were beefing about. ‘Nothing is happening over there,’ they said. And they were entirely correct. For those … weeks of the Olympics, nothing was happening. But wait until the Olympics were over. At the very same time that the ’36 Olympics took place, the Germans, the Nazis, made frantic preparations for war.”

Just three years later, in September of 1939, Germany invaded Poland.

“I have several heroes,” Dr. Miller says. Jesse Owens won four gold medals and Dr. Miller watched him do it. Hitler was there at the same time and made an appearance for applause and adulation. When the rally died down, it was announced that Owens won another medal, and Hitler immediately left.

“He wouldn’t be caught dead shaking the hand of a black person,” he says. “He, Hitler, would now turn around in his grave if he knew that there’s a Jesse Owens Street just outside of that stadium.”

In 1937, Dr. Miller left for Switzerland while his parents stayed behind. “It took us three-and-a-half years and five countries to get to the United States.

He reunited with his family in England in late 1938/early 1939, where they were classified as “Enemy Aliens.”

On November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, known as “The Night of Broken Glass,” made the rest of his family flee.

Part two of Dr. Al Miller's story — and his lessons for us today — will be published in the July 7th issue of Soapbox.

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Read more articles by Jessica Esemplare.

Jessica Esemplare is the managing editor of Soapbox Cincinnati and a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Shortly after completing her degree in magazine journalism, she began covering local and regional topics at The Cincinnati Herald and, later, as an editor at Ohio Magazine. Her writing has also been featured in U.S. News and World Report.