Tonight, I shook the hand of one of the most amazing humans I’ve ever met in my life.
I finished a bit of work this afternoon and, with nothing better to do, decided to wander around. On my way home, I stopped by Changing Hands Bookstore to look at their second-hand foreign language book collection as I am wont to do. To my chagrin, there was a large crowd there to hear a speaker, and my language book section had, as usual, been relocated to some unknown location. At first, I was a bit annoyed, but I’ve become accustomed to this happening when speakers were there. As the speaker was introduced, my ears perked up.
I have been studying Third Reich history since I was a small boy. But I had never met a survivor… until tonight.
Ernest W. Michel survived several Nazi concentration camps, including the death camp at Auschwitz. He told us that shares his experiences, “not because I enjoy it… this is very hard for me.” He shares because he has a responsibility to bear witness to what he had endured.
These were no stories from some history book. These were the stirring words of a man openly sharing the most horrific experiences anyone can imagine. This was a man sharing his life. Ernest Michel’s words were open, honest, and searing. His words were just as much a part of his flesh as the number 104995 on his left arm.
He shared personal stories from Kristallnacht, the camps, and of his escape. He told us of writing down the names and numbers of the countless dead, and of carrying their bodies to their eventual destination: “up the chimney.” He also talked about his involvement with the Nuremberg trials after the war, including meeting several famous reporters who were covering it for the various world news agencies, such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
One story that particularly struck me was of his meeting with Hermann Göring, formerly the 2nd most powerful man in the Third Reich. Apparently, Göring had been reading Michel’s news articles in the German press. Having heard that Michel was present at the trials, Göring asked if he would be willing to meet with him. When Michel entered the cell of the former Reichsmarschall, Göring stood to greet him, offering his hand. Michel refused to shake the hand of the top living Nazi, instead asking the guard to allow him to leave the cell. The last thing he saw was Göring standing there, hand outstretched.
Mr. Michel openly fielded questions from the crowd, including those asked by two young boys. Through a welcoming smile that did nothing to hide the seriousness of his words, he admonished them: “Learn, young man. Learn history.”
Despite all he had been through, he told us that he cannot live with hate.
When my opportunity came to talk to Mr. Michel and ask him to sign my copy of his book “Promises Kept,” I reminded him of his Hermann Göring story. He looked up. I asked, “Would you do me the honor of shaking my hand?” He smiled broadly and gave me a hearty, warm handshake.
Tonight, I shook the hand of the man who refused to shake the hand of Hermann Göring. Tonight, I shook the hand of Ernest W. Michel, Auschwitz Survivor #104995.