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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

“German-Jewish dialogue” presents lecture on Holocaust stories in East Germany

Published: October 19, 2007
Section: News

The search for historical truth in the tangled webs of propaganda, nationalism, and Cold War conflicts was the topic of William Niven's talk Thursday night at the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. The British historian spoke about his book The Buchenwald Child and his research into the story of Stefan Jerzy Zweig, a young boy who was submitted to the terrors of Biezanov, Skarzysko-Kamienna Plaszow concentration camps, and finally, Buchenwald death camp.

The lecture, a part of the Jewish-German Dialogue sponsored by the German embassy in Boston, was attended by around 30 people.

A young boy (Stefan) was smuggled by his father between concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Communist ringleaders clothed, fed, and hid the boy from SS officers. The boy's story became a monument, a book, a film and more. But years later, it emerged that not all was as it seemed: East German propagandists had rewritten a boy's story, Communist guerrillas may have collaborated with Nazi officers and a father's trust may have been betrayed. A formerly simple story of rescue and redemption has become very complicated indeed.

According to Niven, Stefan is important as a symbol of post-World War II Holocaust narratives in East Germany. A tale of Jewish suffering….became a story of protection through Communists. The boy was four years old when he entered the Buchenwald concentration camp, located near Weimar in the former East Germany. He was protected by his father and a group of Communist resistance organizers for several years, and after his liberation became a central part of a concentration camp memorial, as well as the subject of a book and several movies.

Niven's lecture consisted of a concise PowerPoint presentation followed by a brief question and answer session. It moved from a general view of post-war Communist memorials and rhetoric to a detailed exploration of the story of Stefan and his father, Zacharias Zweig. While Niven acknowledged that the Communist leadership was quick to condemn and memorialize the Holocaust, he said they viewed it through a narrow prism of propaganda, so that the acknowledgment of Jewish suffering…[was] a narrow interpretation the cause was capitalism. Capitalism wanted the gold from Jewish teeth.
Niven also discussed how the simple story of Stefan's rescue was complicated by the discovery that, with the aid of SS officers, his name had on several occasions been crossed off of a transport list of prisoners condemned to Auschwitz. This discovery, along with Stefan's somewhat unwilling role as a Communist propaganda story, has led to a fierce debate about the nature of Holocaust memorials and the problems of anti-Communist sentiment in a unified Germany. Stefan himself is tangled in a rhetorical battle over the removal of his name from a certain portion of the Buchenwald Camp Memorial.