When Nat Shaffir looks at his beloved grandchildren, he beams with pride. But he also wonders.
He wonders if they could survive.
He sees them at their basketball games and birthday parties, and he sees himself at 9, promising to take care of his sisters as his father was taken away by the Nazis. He sees himself playing a dangerous game of trickery to keep his family alive through the winter of 1945 in the Jewish ghetto.
Shaffir survived the Holocaust as a child, emigrated to Israel and then the United States, settled down and raised a big, happy family. Five children, 12 grandchildren: Each named after one of his 32 relatives murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews total.
Now 85, Shaffir is one of the youngest Holocaust survivors, and he is keenly aware that in a couple decades, there will be no more.
“I’m their voice. Later on, when we’re gone, these young people will be our voices."
“I’m their voice,” he says. “Later on, when we’re gone, these young people will be our voices, and the Holocaust Museum will be our voices,” he says. “We are actually fighting a war, which means time.”
January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. is honoring the day with a virtual program.
Shaffir, who volunteers at the museum, holds tight to his Jewish faith, and he believes there must be a reason for his survival against the odds.
“In many cases, Hitler succeeded in wiping out total families,” Shaffir says. “He did not succeed with me. I won, not him.”
'These are Jews'
The war came to Shaffir’s life in 1942, when he was 6 years old. His parents had heard of violence against Jews in Iasi, Romania, the closest big city: One night in 1941, thousands of Jews were killed on the streets of Iasi. Thousands more, including one of Shaffir’s uncles, died of thirst and suffocation in what’s known as the “Romanian Death Trains.” But as a child on their family’s peaceful dairy farm, Shaffir was mostly shielded from the growing horror of Hitler’s death machine.
Until the day a priest showed up with a policeman and two soldiers. The priest visited weekly, and Shaffir’s father always gave him milk for the congregants who couldn’t afford it. But the policeman and the soldiers wanted something else. “These are Jews,” the priest said to the officer.
His father pleaded with them. “I’ve known you since you were a little child. I’ve known your parents,” he said. “Can’t you do something about ‘forgetting’ your order?”
No. They had four hours to pack and report to the Jewish ghetto in Iasi.
Across Nazi-controlled Europe, Jews were being rounded up and killed or forced into ghettos, work camps and death camps, part of Hitler’s “Final Solution” to wipe out the Jewish people. In the ghetto of Iasi, with Shaffir, his two sisters and parents crowded in one room, life was a constant struggle for food and enough kerosene to survive the cold winters.
They were allowed a quarter loaf of bread every two days. To survive, Shaffir’s father traded on the black market. Shaffir always went with him and carried the contraband food; if an adult Jew was caught with black market food, he would certainly be imprisoned and tortured, possibly executed, while a child would just be slapped around a bit, Shaffir said. So it was safer for him to carry the food.
In February of 1944, all men in the ghetto were told to assemble to be taken away. Shaffir walked with his father to the assembly spot until his father said, “Nat, it’s time for you to go back.” Then he put his hands on his son’s shoulders and said five words that Shaffir would never forget: “Nat, take care of the girls.”
“Now, I could have said, ‘OK dad, I’ll try,’ or ‘I’ll do my best,’” Shaffir recalls now. “I never did that. I said, ‘I will.’ I always kept my promise. That stood with me for a long time."
'OK, little Jew, let me see what you can do'
Soon after his father left, Shaffir befriended the drunk Romanian attendant who doled out kerosene rations in the ghetto. He offered to pump the kerosene so the attendant could stay in his warm booth (probably sleeping off a hangover, he realizes now). “OK, little Jew, let me see what you can do,” Shaffir remembers the scruffy attendant telling him. From then on, he always got a little extra kerosene.
“That kept our family a little bit more comfortable,” Shaffir recalls. “I was (always) thinking how to make sure my family stays alive.”
They did stay alive, and in the spring of 1945 Russian soldiers liberated the city of Iasi. His father had been on a work crew, and hitchhiked back to Iasi on a Russian convoy. The family reunited, and Shaffir and his father went back to their farm. They stopped to see an old friend on the way.
“The farmer was very happy to see us, hugging us. He was happy that my father survived,” Shaffir says. “Then the farmer said, ‘Where are you going from here?’”
“My father said, ‘Of course, we’re going back to the farm.’”
“The old farmer said, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’” Their farm had been divided three ways: One part to the priest who turned them in as Jews, one part to the officer who ordered them into the ghetto, and one to the mayor of the town.
They learned that every member of their extended family except for one uncle had died in the Holocaust. Eventually, Shaffir’s family moved to Israel, and Shaffir immigrated to the United States, sponsored by his uncle.
'We don't have much time'
Shaffir met a sweet Southern woman named Merryl, married her and had five children. He started his own business. He took up marathon running in his 60s; he gave that up a few years ago, but felt like he needed a new challenge so he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro just before his 83rd birthday. He volunteers at the Holocaust Museum, near his home of Silver Spring, Maryland.
Shaffir is an optimistic man, full of faith. His grand-daughter Kira says he's always smiling. But he has no illusions.
“The Holocaust could happen again,” he says. “Sometimes history repeats itself. We have to work very, very hard to make sure that atrocities like the Nazis have committed do not happen again… What concerns me is the anti-Semitism that’s going on in the United States. The thing that happened in Charlottesville could happen in other places.”
The resurgence of neo-Nazis makes him worry. His grandchildren and their generation give him hope.
“Without these young people telling what happened, all our lives would have been wasted completely,” he says.
Shaffir starts talking to his grandchildren about his experience during the Holocaust in earnest when they’re about 12, when he thinks they are old enough to understand. They talk about it around the dinner table. They know their history.
"I feel a special duty to tell my grandfather's story," said his grandson, Benji Wilber. "The truth is that it happened, and we have to learn from it."
Shaffir leads tours at the Holocaust Museum so that everyone will know. Diane Saltzman, Director of Survivor Affairs at the museum, says survivors like Nat "bring an authenticity and a truth in a way nothing else can. They are the best teachers we have."
She and other educators know they are racing against time. "There will be a huge change when we don't have living eyewitnesses. Having the evidence will be that voice," she says. "The (museum) is the keeper of that memory. As the history recedes, it's as relevant now as ever."
Shaffir thinks about it too, that moment when the last Holocaust survivor is gone. “We don’t have much time. We’re counting on these young people, especially my immediate family, to tell their friends, ‘Here’s what my grandfather did. Hear what happened to him,’” he says.
“Maybe we didn’t know during the ‘30s and ‘40s what these signs mean, but now we do know and we need to do something about it. We cannot remain silent. Even one person can make a difference, and one voice can make a difference.”
Learn more about International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's web site.
Editor's note: This story was first published Jan. 26, 2018, and has been updated.