Fort Belvoir, Virginia, April 19, 2018 —
Nat Shaffir lost his childhood and 32 family members to Hitler, but he still believes in the goodness of mankind.
“Despite all of the bad things that have happened, my parents instilled in us the idea that most people are good, and it’s important to try to help others,” the 81-year-old Holocaust survivor told McNamara Headquarters Complex employees during a Days of Remembrance event April 18.
Shaffir was born on a Romanian dairy farm and had what he called a “good life,” going to kindergarten and first grade with many Jewish and non-Jewish friends, until the local priest led the Nazis to his mom, dad and two older sisters. The priest had been a weekly visitor for years, always asking for donations for his struggling congregants.
“In almost 20 years my father never denied the priest’s requests and gave him mostly dairy products,” he said.
One day in November 1942 the priest arrived with a police officer and two armed guards at his side. It was unusual, so everyone in the family went outside in curiosity. As his father extended a hand in greeting, the priest turned to the police officer, pointed to the Shaffir’s and said, “These are Jews.”
Without hesitating, the officer gave the family four hours to vacate the farm, and because he knew the family personally, he allowed them one horse and one wagon to load valuables such as cash, jewelry, cooking utensils and blankets. Shaffir’s mother told him and his sisters to dress in as many layers of clothes as possible.
Armed guards escorted the family to a nearby ghetto that day. They were given one room for all five of them.
“The house had four other families, so there were five families kept there with only one room each. All the rooms had were two beds. There were no closets or cooking areas,” Shaffir said.
Ghetto authorities sternly introduced them to three rules: no religion, no school for children and everyone must do manual labor. Shaffir’s father was assigned work as a street cleaner; his mother became an orderly at a hospital. For their work, they were paid in rations, which included a quarter loaf of bread every two days for each family member plus five liters of kerosene for heating and cooking. It was all the family of five had until several farmers noticed Shaffir’s dad cleaning up horse manure in the market square.
“One of them knew my father from the past and he came over to say, ‘I’m sorry to see you in the condition you are in now. I knew your work back at the farm. You were very kind and helped other individuals. How can I help you?’”
A little extra food would go a long way, Shaffir’s father replied. A week later the farmer said he and a few others agreed to share what they could. The night before market days the farmers gathered in a field so they could arrive together in a caravan that passed the outskirts of the ghetto around 2 a.m.
“Wait for us at a certain place and as we go by one of us will throw something your way,” the farmer instructed.
Shaffir’s father snuck outside the ghetto in the dark without telling anyone of the plan.
“He didn’t tell my mother because she was the reasonable one and probably wouldn’t have let him do it. He was taking his own life into his hands because to be found outside the ghetto at that time in the morning only meant one thing: that that individual was trying to escape. And that was punishable by prison.”
He took a chance and when a bag was tossed from one of the last wagons in the caravan, Shaffir’s father looked around to make sure police weren’t watching. Back at the ghetto, Shaffir’s mother scolded his father for taking such a risk. She acquiesced after reaching into the bag to find precious items like cheese and eggs that could only be bought on the black market.
“My mother always said we need to keep our money for a rainy day. She always thought things could get worse,” he said.
Shaffir, then just 7, was out looking for ways to bring in extra rations when his mother was cleaning hospital floors and noticed a child wheezing. She screamed for the nurses to come, but they were in the operating room. Alone, she performed basic first aid steps that she’d taught herself while caring for her children at home. The child, whose father was the local chief of police, recovered.
“Without her, chances are the child would not have survived,” the nurses told the parents.
“Any time this child’s mother would come to visit him she would bring my mother a piece of chocolate or some kind of food. This went on for a while until the police officer came and saw her cleaning. He said, ‘If she saved my son’s life, why is she doing orderly work and sweeping the floors? Why isn’t she a nurse?’”
Authorities promoted Shaffir’s mom to nurse and farmers continued to slip extra items like apples and potatoes to his father. Times were tough, but the Shaffirs had some good luck compared to others in the ghetto. Then in February 1944, boys and men ages 15 to 50 were assembled for work at a distant labor camp.
“I didn’t know when I would see my father again or if I ever would.” Shaffir walked hand in hand with his father toward the assembly area until his dad told him it was time for him to turn back.
“He turned me around, put his hands on my shoulders, looked into my eyes and said five words that would stay with me for the rest of my life: ‘Nat, take care of the girls.’ You can imagine how much pressure that put on my mind.”
Some days he felt like giving up, but Shaffir pushed past his desperation because he believed his mother and sisters wouldn’t survive without him. He became resourceful, and after finding a bottle of plum brandy his father left behind, Shaffir traded it for an extra ration card so he could buy items on the black market.
“I was almost 8 years old at this point, and already I’d figured out what I needed to do to help my family.”
Russian soldiers liberated the ghetto in April 1945 after days of heavy bombing, and months later his father returned from the labor camp. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins had died. His grandfather died of starvation in Auschwitz a month before the concentration camp was liberated. Two of his uncles survived, each weighing just 65 pounds when they were freed.
Shaffir realized there was no future for Jewish people in Romania in 1947, but exit visas were repeatedly denied. His mother gathered what remained of the family’s valuables and went to the police officer whose child she’d rescued.
“She took everything we had and put it on his desk, then said to him, ‘I saved your son’s life. Save mine.’”
In 1950, the family was finally granted visas to Palestine. Shaffir moved to the United States in 1961. Eight years later he started his own business and one year after that he married his wife, Merryl, in Atlanta, Georgia. They have five children and 12 grandchildren, all of them named after family members lost during the Holocaust.