Knoblauch Family

The Knoblauch Family (from left): Oskar, his sister Ilse, his mother, father and brother Siegmund. Leipzig, Germany 1932.

 

Speaker Oskar Knoblauch, 91, stood in front of a crowd of hundreds of students at a Flagstaff school. 

From his materials, he pulled out a prop – an armband displaying the Star of David, similar to badges the Nazis forced Jews to wear throughout portions of Europe during WWII.  He held it up and gazed at the crowd. 

“Who is brave enough to wear this on your arm for the rest of your day, everywhere you go?” Knoblauch asked the students. 

No one stood up.

He then asked another question. “How many of you have ever shaken hands with a Jew?”

And again, no one stood up. 

But after a moment of silence, one boy did. He stood up, walked over to Knoblauch and shook his hand. 

“Let that be a lesson,” Knoblauch reminded the students. “This is how the Nazis used propaganda to foster hate. You need to get to know people in order to tolerate and respect one another.”

Knoblauch’s gait is quick and his frequent gestures convey the energy of a much younger man. If you didn’t know better, you might assume his vitality is the result of an easy life. 

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Knoblauch is a Holocaust survivor. From 1933, when the Nazi regime came into power in Germany, to beyond his liberation in 1945, Knoblauch endured the horrors of one of the darkest chapters of our world’s history. 

And today, out of that darkness, the Arcadia resident is shining light by sharing his story.  

To date, he has spoken to hundreds of thousands of youth and adults in schools, companies, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. This year alone, he has given more than 150 presentations, and he is on track to exceed 250. Knoblauch has received more than 20 awards around the Valley including the Architects of Change award from Arizona State University and the Characters Unite award from the USA Television Network. He has also written a book called A Boy’s Story A Man’s Memory.

“The way I present to the students is I involve them,” Knoblauch said. “Would you like to see something like this repeat itself? Can you imagine their children and your children living in something like this?”

Often, Knoblauch talks about what he calls “upstanders,” or those who are willing to stand up while others remain only bystanders. 

“Survival depends not only on you, but on others next to you,” Knoblauch said, “This is why I also tell students, ‘You have to learn to work together and disregard the skin color and religion.’” 

He added, “I could not imagine I would’ve survived only because I wanted to survive.”

Knoblauch credits his survival, in part, to a handful of Polish and German “upstanders,” who helped his family and him along the way. 

One was a Polish farmer who sneaked him loaves of homemade bread and sent him away for a lengthy errand when the Nazis came by for a roundup of Jews. Another was a German SS officer who gave him a job to keep him from being transported to a death camp. And still another assisted his family in visiting and sneaking food in to their mother at Camp Plaszow (a Nazi labor and concentration camp in Krakow, Poland). 

“The people who did this for me were people who supposedly hated me – were taught to hate me – but yet after we started working together and getting to know one another, we change,” said Knoblauch. 

Knoblauch was born in Leipzig, Germany to parents Ruzia and Leopold. He and his older sister Ilse and older brother Siegmund had a wonderful and happy life before the Nazi regime came to power in 1933. 

At first, it was rampant anti-Semitism and discrimination that threatened the community, and the family was stripped of its German citizenship. The Knoblauchs moved to Poland, but by 1939, the Nazis occupied the country and the family was forced into unbearable life in a ghetto. 

“It was hunger, cold and a lot of work,” Knoblauch said. “You have a 480-calorie diet for a day. You’re weak and supposed to pick up garbage cans.”

He added, “Then the ghetto began being systematically dismantled.” 

Ruzia was taken to Camp Plaszow to sew uniforms for the German military, while Knoblauch, his father and siblings were taken to a subcamp.

There, a teenage Knoblauch was given jobs, which sometimes was taking care of the furnace in the basement, but often was “cleaning up” – wiping up the blood and carrying out the bodies from the interrogation room. 

Leopold was ultimately murdered at the subcamp. Knoblauch had his siblings were able to avoid death, although many of his fellow prisoners were sent to concentration camps.  

After the liberation in 1945, Knoblauch was saved from one enemy, but still not free. 

“We are free in Poland and then, in three or four weeks, we get a visit at our apartment from the KGB, accusing us of collaborating with the Germans,” said Knoblauch. “They have you in their grasp and now they say, ‘The war is still on; you need to go fight the Germans.’” 

After being trained, Knoblauch and his friends realized that their objective was to target a nationalist group that wanted a free Poland. No prisoners were to be taken. 

“We survived all of this garbage and now we are going to kill people who tried to be free like we wanted to be free?” Knoblauch recalls him and his friends saying to one another. “We can’t do that.” 

So, the small group walked down to the river to wash one day, and they kept walking. When Knoblauch returned to Krakow, he was advised to leave, because authorities were looking for him. 

But then he learned his mother had returned home. When he saw her, he barely recognized her – her body a frail and sickly shell of what she once was.  

“My mom was beyond recognition,” Knoblauch said. “She said, ‘Where is your father?’ and I said, ‘We’ll talk about it later. We can’t stay here; we have to go. I will tell you everything on the way.’” 

Knoblauch and his mother took up fictitious names and lived in a town occupied by Poles. They worked briefly in a Jewish-owned grocery store while Ruzia got her strength back. 

After additional attempts at leaving, Knoblauch ultimately ended up in a displaced person’s camp in Feldafing, Germany, and received a sponsorship to enter Canada. He arrived on June 11, 1949 after a seven-day ocean voyage. His brother, sister and mother would all end up safely in Canada. 

He met his wife Lila, an American, after first seeing her in a photograph, and the couple married in Toronto in 1951. They started a family and moved to the U.S. in 1953.

Knoblauch retired in Phoenix in 1995 and at the encouragement of his family, he began writing about his experience in the Holocaust. His first classroom presentation was in the mid-1990s when his granddaughter asked him to come to her classroom. 

Patti Mastropolo, who teaches 8th grade language arts at Greenway Middle School has known Knoblauch for four years and calls him a “great spirit.” 

“It’s very emotional when he presents to my kids,” she said. “They love Oskar. After hearing his story and how he speaks about tolerance…and how he has handled all of these situations, it makes them think before they act.”

She added, “They gain an inner strength from his story.” 

When students tell Knoblauch about bullies, he reminds them to be upstanders. When they tell him that they are different and struggle to make friends, he reminds them of coming to Canada unable to speak a word of English. When they tell him about their friends turning on him, he reminds them of the friends he lost when they joined the Hitler youth, and how there will always be more friends. And when they tell him they want to give up, he reminds them to keep going. 

“You have to persevere,” he says. “This is not the end of your life.” 

He’ll never forget the teen girl who was ready to give up on her life until hearing him speak, or another student who knew she was headed down the wrong path and was finally convinced to turn her life around. 

“When I stepped foot out to freedom on January 18, 1945, I kicked hate out of my vocabulary and I replaced it with tolerance, respect and love,” said Knoblauch. “Never forget that life is beautiful, and it was given to you.” 

To learn more about Oskar Knoblauch, visit voiceoftolerance.com