On a riverboat cruise along the Danube, Saratoga resident Sophie Weinzimmer decided to make a stop and visit the place where she was born: a Displaced Persons camp for Holocaust survivors, located in Steyr, Austria.
“I thought to myself, I’m 71. I want to see what’s there.”
Through a series of coincidences that still amaze her, Weinzimmer reconnected with more than her family’s painful past. She also discovered the efforts of one Steyr resident to learn the truth about his town’s involvement, and his commitment to never forget.
Weinzimmer’s parents were Polish. Her mother was the youngest of nine, all of whom were killed except one sister with whom she spent the war years in hiding. Their father did forced labor in Siberia.
“All Holocaust families have these stories. That’s nothing unusual,” Weinzimmer said. “I want to share this story for another reason. With so much news these days about anti-Semitism around the world, I found an exception.”
That exception was a local Christian man, Karl Ramsmaier, who served as Weinzimmer’s guide during her stopover.
Ramsmaier, a religion teacher who is now in his 60s, had never been taught about the Holocaust growing up. He decided to make it his life’s work to learn as much as he could and then teach others. He founded Steyr’s Holocaust memorial committee, and was at the forefront of recent efforts to create a monument honoring the town’s Holocaust victims.
Weinzimmer first learned about Ramsmaier on an earlier visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where she sought information about her birthplace. A helpful docent not only supplied general information about Steyr but also presented her with three camp IDs: her parents’ and her own. The docent also mentioned the work Ramsmaier was doing in Steyr and provided his email address.
She contacted him once she knew she’d be making a stop in Steyr. “Karl is a truly righteous Christian,” says Weinzimmer, “someone who believes in witness and in making Austrians accountable. His commitment deserves to be recognized.”
Weinzimmer first left the cruise ship at Linz to visit the nearby Mauthausen concentration camp, where inmates worked as slave laborers and hundreds of thousands died. To her surprise, her visit coincided with the annual commemoration of the camp’s liberation by U.S. troops on May 5, 1945.
“I was stunned by the magnitude of the commemoration,” says Weinzimmer, who was welcomed as a guest of honor and given a tour of the camp. “Thousands of people from all over the world were there, intent on making Austria aware of its dark history.”
But the most emotional moment came later, after she continued her journey to Steyr, location of a Mauthausen subcamp during the Nazi regime and later the site of the DP camp where her parents ended up.
Little remains of the original Steyr compound. But among the few surviving structures is Building 6 on Roosevelt Strasse, where Weinzimmer was born after the war.
“These were the same cement buildings, the same sidewalks,” she says. “I went up and down stairwells feeling deeply the cycle of life, its sense of loss and wonder. This was full circle for me.”
“I was trying to imagine what it was like for my mother, at age 19 having lost all her family, finding herself in this camp, marrying a stranger. I was born nine months later.”
The family stayed for three years, until a U.S. family was found to sponsor them.
“My mother was enterprising and hardworking. By the time I was in elementary school, we had our own home in Beverly Hills,” she recalls. But her parents were mismatched and their family life was hard.
After Weinzimmer had returned home to Saratoga, she got a message from Ramsmaier, who reported that “today, on June 14, we inaugurated a new monument to 800 concentration camp victims.” In 1948, he said, these victims’ remains were discovered buried together in a tomb in the Steyr cemetery, but that over time “the gravesite was covered by a footpath, and the fate of the slain prisoners sunk into oblivion.”
The mass grave was rediscovered in 2011, and the effort to erect a memorial took a number of years.
The remains “were [originally] discovered in 1948, the year I was born,” says Weinzimmer. “So many coincidences — our cruise arriving the same day as the liberation commemoration, the unlikely odds that the building I was born in is still standing, our encounter with Ramsmaier. I can’t help but wonder: What is the world signaling to me?”