Herman Zimmerman says every Jew who survived the Holocaust has a story to tell. But unlike Zimmerman, not every survivor has crawled back into the belly of the beast to tell it. Cologne-born Zimmerman, now a U.S. citizen, returned to his native Germany, where began the Final Solution that claimed 70 of his relatives. There, he set out to tell his story. After the American insurance company for which Zimmerman worked transferred him to a town near Heidelberg, a local social studies teacher invited him to address a roomful of American teenagers who were studying abroad.
That was just the beginning.
Fourteen years later, answering requests from across Germany and even France, Zimmerman speaks to as many European students as Americans.
In the Bay Area last week to visit his daughter, Zimmerman reflected not only on his youth spent fleeing the Nazis across Western Europe but also on his mission to tell German students about the Holocaust.
"I don't make people responsible for what their grandparents let happen," said Zimmerman. "I tell them, `I feel sorry for you, that you have to live in a country where the unexplainable happened. I don't think you should assume guilt, but your challenge and responsibility is what to do with the memories.'"
That's why Zimmerman dusted off his own painful collection of war memories to share with the students.
His trouble started in 1938, when a Hitler Youth leader stopped Zimmerman, then 13, and his 16-year-old brother Julien on a Cologne sidewalk.
"Things got so bad [that] Julien punched him in the nose," Zimmerman recalled. Afterward, his brother fled to Belgium to escape retribution.
The whole family soon left Germany for a village near Bordeaux in France, where they lived with 17 other Jewish families, closely watched by French police. Julien appeared at their door one day, having located his kin through the Red Cross. Reunited, the Zimmermans dreamed of emigrating to the United States as a family, but their hopes were dashed soon enough.
When French police knocked on their door, the Zimmermans thought the Nazis wanted to conscript Julien for slave labor, so they sneaked him out into the rainy night to hide on the roof. The family did not guess the officers' true motive.
Zimmerman's mother faked a seizure, so both she and Julien, who was still hiding on the roof, were left behind, while Zimmerman and his father were put onto convoys headed for Auschwitz.
Zimmerman's father nursed a theory that young children would be spared, so he advised his son, who was then 16, to tell guards he was 12. The teenager was put aboard a special children's bus along with Rosa, a 9-year-old family friend.
That children's bus was headed for a gas chamber, where they would have died if a sympathetic French guard hadn't secretly advised young Zimmerman to take Rosa and run. They fled the bus and slept on a blanket on the bathroom floor of a nearby hotel. But a French hotel guest called the Gestapo, so the two went on the run again.
The pair was soon separated by a Jewish group aiding refugees in France. The boy was on his own.
For years he ran, sometimes alone, sometimes with family members he located. He spent his youth cowering under beds with his older sister in Lyon, hiding in bushes with his older brother outside Switzerland, fleeing on buses, trains and on foot.
"It was sunny outside, and you longed to be free, but you were always afraid, always worried about `roundups,'" said Zimmerman.
He narrowly avoided several such roundups, in which the Gestapo assembled large groups of Jews, ensuring their doom.
Zimmerman made it to Zurich, living with a wealthy Jewish family.
"I'm the only child in the Holocaust who was twice bar mitzvahed," he jokes. "Once in Antwerp in 1938, and again in Zurich. I kept the lie about my age [by this time, Zimmerman was 17], because they were sending Jews back to Germany. I was very shy, very afraid."
Yet all the family survived and were reunited in Switzerland before emigrating to America. Zimmerman credits not just luck for their survival but "the angels by my side," people who risked their lives to save the family.
Zimmerman says non-Jewish landlords protected him and Jews took him in. He tells students about such acts of "civil courage," and that no act of bravery is too small.
His message evokes different reactions from German and American students, Zimmerman said. American students greet him with standing ovations and many questions, but Germans are more reserved.
Still, he has received about 150 notes from those students. In one, a Turkish teen described her fears as a foreigner living in Germany. He carries her note and others, a reminder that the purpose of his own survival is to give children "a gift of life for the future."