In 1943, thousands of Jewish citizens were ruthlessly killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in German-occupied Poland. Halina Zimm watched from the outside as bombs exploded, children cried, and gun fire erupted. Alan Zimm had only recently been transferred out of the Lodz ghetto before the first tank rolled into Warsaw, and Lodz was forced into liquidation. Both Alan and Halina Zimm lost their family in these events, but they lived on to tell the story of their family and survival.
Both Halina and Alan Zimm refer to themselves as lucky, having narrowly survived numerous events like this one. They came to Godwin High School to share their story with the current sophomore class on March 3.
English teacher Steve Wozny contacted the Virginia Holocaust Museum after his sophomore classes finished the novel Night by Elie Wiesel, another Holocaust survivor.
Wozny said, “These links to the Holocaust will not be around a lot longer. Pretty soon all the survivors will be gone. So the students are seeing history before their eyes.
“And maybe the lessons of man’s inhumanity to man will not be forgotten in whatever direction their lives go. Respect for Jewish people I hope would be clear. And the spirit of survival seen by the survivors I hope will stick – as well as the miracles that led to their survival. We all need them.”
Alan Zimm, currently 95 years old, said, “I always believed that, with patience, I would somehow survive the war. I never gave up hope.”
He then told his story beginning in 1939 when his home in Kolo, Poland was bombed by Germany. He was captured and separated from his six brothers and sisters, only to later learn that they were all eventually killed by Nazis.
Alan Zimm was sent to work on roads, build bridges, and distribute food in order to receive food ration cards. After about a year, Alan Zimm was sent to the second largest ghetto in German-occcupied Poland, the Lodz Ghetto. There, he continued to work for rations.
From Lodz, Alan Zimm was then sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he stayed for only one month.
Alan Zimm said, “I was lucky. They took us in the middle of the night and put us on a train for three days. I didn’t know where we were going. When we stopped, everyone alive had to walk. We left many dead behind; we hadn’t been given any food.”
Alan Zimm and many others had been taken to Dora-Mittelbau, a labor oriented concentration camp in Germany. He worked there under a German engineer manufacturing V1 and V2 rockets for the Nazi army. In order to receive full rations, Alan Zimm had to produce 20 fully functioning V2 rockets each day. But while imprisoned, Alan Zimm made an unlikely friend.
Alan Zimm said, “He [the engineer] was very nice. He left me extra bread in the machinery I drove. I would keep the bread under my shirt until we all went to sleep, and then I would eat it under my blanket. The other prisoners would have attacked me for this bread had they known I had it. I know it is because of him that I survived.”
He worked in the factory building rockets for seven months while the war approached Germany. He was forced to leave again in the middle of the night to a new camp, Bergen-Belsen.
Alan Zimm said, “This German engineer, before I left, he gave me another loaf of bread and said to me, ‘You are going to survive two more weeks. Then you are going to survive the war.’”
The allied powers came in the middle of the night. Alan Zimm watched his camp be silently liberated; no bombings and no gunfire, just celebration.
An allied solider said to him, “From now on you are liberated with the allied forces. The Nazis cannot do anything to you again.”
Halina Zimm’s story was quite different from her husband’s. She was 11 years-old and living in Lodz, Poland when the war first broke out. Despite her parents’ desire to expose her to as many opportunities and as much education as possible, such things were limited for the Jewish citizens, all of whom were clearly denoted by a yellow star of David worn on their clothing.
Halina Zimm’s beloved father made the decision to move the family to a small village. They began the journey with all of their possessions, but they were stopped midway through by German soldiers. The soldiers took everything from them including her father’s wedding ring. The family arrived at their new cabin with nothing.
Hearing rumors of what befell the Jewish in Poland, Halina Zimm’s father wanted to acquire Christian papers for his children. Soon, they befriended a rich woman who, feeling sorry for the three girls, brought them two papers, which she gave to the oldest and youngest child. Two weeks later, Halina Zimm and her older sister left to begin their new lives under their new identities.
Halina Zimm said, “I had to say goodbye to my mother and father. When I said goodbye I knew I would never see them again. It was especially hard to leave my father. All he wanted was for his children to live.”
Soon the middle sister joined Halina Zimm and their older sister in their new village, and people began to get suspicious. The sisters knew the only way to survive was to split up. Halina Zimm’s only thought was to go to the train station and find someone willing to help. She ended up with a kind, but poor, widower. This woman found a job for her with a young couple working for the Germany army. Halina Zimm was hired on the spot, no questions asked, by a beautiful woman. She worked there for one and a half years.
Everyday Halina Zimm would walk to the market and pass the Warsaw Ghetto, a large walled ghetto surrounded by Nazi soldiers and Gestapos.
She said, “It was so awful. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t let them know I was Jewish and I couldn’t help them. They were trapped and starving while I was surviving and walking past.”
One day, Halina Zimm opened the door to find the Gestapo waiting to interrogate her. They interrogated her about Christianity, believing that she was Jewish.
Halina Zimm was unable to answer a question about the Christian Communion, and so, the Gestapo was preparing to kill her. The woman Halina Zimm had been working for interrupted, stood up for her, and ultimately saved her life.
Months later, Halina Zimm was alive to witness the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
She said, “We could hear the planes and the screaming of the dying children. Everyone came out to watch, afraid of the flames. I stood there and cried. I remember the woman said to me, ‘I feel sorry for them as humans, but as Jews, let them burn.’ I was shocked; what an awful thing to say. But, life goes on. And it did.”
Halina Zimm was soon part of a Polish uprising and was eventually captured by the Germans. The Germans were directing everyone to work camps, but one soldier motioned to Halina Zimm to run. She grabbed a woman’s hand, said a prayer, and ran.
She said, “I was free and I was lucky. There were so many people and so many times I could have been killed but I wasn’t. I strongly believe most people are good people. I love everyone.”
She and her husband then went to answer questions, speak with students, and hug almost everyone.
The event ended, leaving students to think, as Halina Zimm said, “Hate is very destructive. You can never be truly happy while you hate. Your skin, your religion, your race doesn’t matter. It matters if you are a good person. Get to know people – don’t judge. Look for the good in everyone.”