Survivor shares wisdom, eschews hate

95-year-old man talks to John Carroll School students about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II

December 03, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Georges Selzer easily made his way through a crush of students eagerly departing John Carroll School in Bel Air for the day.

Using a walker, he traveled quickly through the hallways, until he stood at a podium before a classroom of listeners. He held a stack of note cards.

"I call them cheating cards," he said. "I'm 95, remember."

A Holocaust survivor, Selzer had come to tell the students how many times he had cheated death. Since this was at least his 15th visit to the private Catholic school, many had heard his story.

"This man saw so many devastating things that I need to hear him again, just in case I missed something the last time," said junior Nadjay Hettchen.

"This man survived the Holocaust," said sophomore Ron Howley. "I came to hear what that was really like."

During World War II, Selzer served in the French Foreign Legion, endured three years in concentration camps and twice eluded death sentences.

Selzer introduced himself by saying, "I am an American Jew. My father told me never to make a secret of being a Jew."

The last time Selzer saw his parents, Nazi soldiers were beating them and shoving them into a car. Minutes before, his mother had thrown him a coat and told him to run. His parents, siblings and a dozen other relatives perished in concentration camps.

"He has probably inspired thousands with his story," said Ed Miller, Russian teacher at John Carroll School and a longtime friend of Selzer's. "There is not a bitter word in his vocabulary."

In 1939, as the war began in Europe, Selzer's Swiss citizenship prevented him from enlisting in the French Army, so he joined the legion and trained in North Africa.

He was taken prisoner by the German Army and sent to a POW camp. His fluency in several European languages led his captors to assign him to clerical duties, and he managed to fill out papers for his own release.

He made his way to southern France, where he was befriended by a German captain. He was soon marked for death along with 50 other men in retaliation for the murder of a German officer. The officer came to his rescue, saving him from a firing squad and giving him money to escape.

But that freedom was short-lived. Early in 1942, he was again captured and this time packed into a freight car, bound for a concentration camp near a rock quarry in Czechoslovakia.

"From then on, it was not easy," he said. "As I sat naked in the snow, they put a tattoo on my arm."

Several students gasped and many craned to see as Selzer rolled his sleeve and showed "101100" imprinted on his left arm.

His 12-hour workdays began at 4 a.m. with a long walk to the quarry, where the internees loaded rocks into tram cars. The brutal work tore flesh from his hands. He lost nearly 100 pounds from his already slight frame. He was beaten once for wearing a cap to ward off the cold. Another time, a guard broke Selzer's shin because he was not walking fast enough.

Near the end of his internment, a prison guard beating a young victim so infuriated Selzer that he punched the guard.

"I had a temper and I took boxing when I was a kid," he said.

The blow sent the guard reeling. He fell, hit his head on a rock and died. Sentenced to hang, Selzer watched as other prisoners built the gallows. But the camp was suddenly evacuated. Nearly 900 men were ordered to march to Dachau. No one forwarded Selzer's death sentence.

"We never reached Dachau, but only 200 of us were left after the march," he said.

When a student asked if he ever wanted to give up, he answered immediately, "No way!"

They asked if he was bitter, if he hated his enemies, if he sought revenge.

"I never learned to hate," he said. "How can you condemn a whole nation because of some fanatics? One German captain saved my life."

After the war, the American Red Cross helped Selzer reconnect with an uncle in Baltimore. He sent a cable that said simply, "I am alive."

He arrived in the city in January 1948, penniless, emaciated and unable to speak English other than "Hello, Joe," a greeting he used with the American GIs and "too much," the phrase soldiers used when Selzer tried to sell them souvenirs.

Selzer married, became an American citizen, and was finally able to work in the jewelry business, a trade he had learned in his youth. Widowed 18 years ago and long retired, he lives in Towson.

He does not dwell on the hardships in his life, but on the good that has defined it. Before every meal, he still says the simple prayer of grace that his mother taught him. He has never missed voting in an American election or a meeting of his Lions Club.

Although he enjoys telling his story, age is catching up to him and the talk last week was likely his last at the school, he said.

Junior Tim Krajewski, whose parents were born in Poland and who has seen the concentration camp memorials, said he was impressed with "the things Mr. Selzer remembers and the fact that his life was saved so many times."

Junior Erika Stasakova, who moved to Maryland from Czechoslovakia several years ago, said, "We are so glad he came here to share with us. He is the voice. Without him, we would not know."

Sophomore Nick Temple, who covered the event for the school paper, said he has heard similar survivor stories from those who have spoken at his synagogue.

"I am always impressed," Temple said. "He didn't come away jaded. It is almost like it made him a better person."

Miller said his class will discuss the visit and replay a videotape of it.

"It is important for these kids to know about that period of history, that something that bad happened in the 20th century," the teacher said. "Reading about it is not the same as meeting somebody who has been through it."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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