Remaining Holocaust survivors David Zapiler and Barbara Steinmetz share their experiences – Part one of two

BY FREDA MIKLIN
GOVERNMENTAL REPORTER

World War II ended 79 years ago. With each passing year, there are fewer survivors of the Holocaust who can tell their story in their own voice. 

On May 5, Remember 6, an organization dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews who were killed by the Nazis during WWII and the years leading up to it, held a program at Babi Yar Memorial Park in southeast Denver that featured two survivors who are members of our community, David Zapiler, 91, and Barbara Steinmetz, 88. The program included presentations from Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman and former state Sen. Dennis Hisey, who sponsored the 2020 Colorado law that requires the Holocaust and genocide studies to be taught in Colorado public schools, beginning this year.

After Dr. Hélène Dallaire, a faculty member at Denver Seminary, and Remember 6 Vice President Tracy Kirscher welcomed the 100 people who attended the windy Sunday afternoon program, members of the Colorado Civil Air Patrol posted the Colors. Following the performance of the U.S. and Israeli national anthems by vocalist Lynne McDowell, accompanied by Hélène Dallaire on the keyboard and Ken Washburn on violin, Pastor Peter Young of BridgeWay Church delivered the invocation and Sen. Hisey read a proclamation from Denver Mayor Mike Johnston, declaring May 5-12, 2024 Holocaust Awareness Week. 

Although he arrived in the United States in 1949, David had never considered speaking publicly about his experience until he overheard a young woman speaking in German in a café outside Paris while he and his wife Joan were on a trip to Europe in the 1990s. The young woman was telling a friend that she had visited the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Dachau and, “What she saw was that if the people there (prisoners) didn’t like it, they could get up and leave.” Despite Joan urging him to tell the people in the next booth who he was, he did not do so. But in that moment, he resolved to begin to share his story with Colorado schoolchildren as soon as he got home and that’s what he did, for over 20 years.

David began, “My father, Leo Zapiler, was a truck driver. He delivered merchandise like flour, soap, and produce from the train station to stores around Warsaw. The best day was the one when he delivered cookies because when he came home, there were always some left in the truck bed.” 

He went on, “When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, my parents loaded my sister Mania and me, along with 18 members of our extended family, into the back of a truck and started driving south toward Ukraine, then a part of Russia. Poland’s military was no match for Germany, with its tanks, and the country was conquered in a matter of days. Our relatives believed the war was over and decided to go back home, thinking they would be safe. My father said he didn’t trust the Germans so we did not. We never saw any of those relatives again. In 1945, someone told my mother he had seen my father’s brother on a train headed to Auschwitz.”

David continued, “My father soon went to work for the Russians as a truck driver. There were few people who had that skill. We were living in hiding in a Russian farmer’s barn. One day, a truck came and we were forced to get into it. We were transported to Siberia, where we were kept until 1942 as slave labor. Stalin’s method was to take whole families so they didn’t have to worry about any one person trying to escape. There was a Russian woman in the camp where we lived with barely enough food to survive. She was a teacher who organized the children and gave them lessons in Russian, math, and anything else she could think of. We sat on benches grouped by age and we had lots of pencils, I remember, but no pens.”

He recounted, “In 1942, the Polish government in exile signed a peace treaty with Stalin that let us leave Siberia and travel to Kazakhstan, where we lived a normal life. They gave us a farm with a cow and six chickens so my dad could become a farmer, but he wasn’t.  He found his way to the city of Shymkent and got a job driving a truck again, picking up wheat from the farmers in the area. That was how the farmers paid their taxes. We soon joined him in the city and stayed there until the war ended on May 8, 1945.”

David went on, “Our plan was to return to Warsaw. We made it back to Poland when we found out that, out of an extended family of 100 people, only the four of us and one aunt and uncle had survived. There was no reason to go back now. My dad decided to get us to what was then Palestine. Survivor groups were being formed to provide temporary places to stay but they were based on age, so I went with one group, my older sister Mania went with another, and my parents went with a third one. My group traveled by train through Czechoslovakia, ending up in Vienna, Austria, where we stayed for a few months, after which I left that group to try to find my parents.

I was 14 years old. By that time, many survivors were headed toward Bremerhaven Germany, from which ships were leaving for Palestine. I was put on a train headed there. When it stopped for the night, I found a place to stay where other survivors were living. The next morning, as I walked back to the train station, I passed a man walking in the opposite direction. He looked like my dad but it didn’t seem possible. After we had walked by each other, we both stopped and turned around. It was my father! I ran into his arms and said, ‘Tata!’ That’s what I called him. Together with my mom, we eventually found my sister and made it to a displaced persons camp in Germany run by UNRAA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), where we lived for three years until 1949 when my father found out that the United Nations had voted to give the Jewish people a homeland, Israel. But that decision was not well received by its neighbors and the new country was under attack. My dad said, ‘The Germans didn’t kill us. I’m not going to let the Arabs do it. We’re going to America.’

The U.S. government demanded that someone sign for us so we wouldn’t be a burden to the country. We had cousins in Chicago who did that but we got lucky again. Before those papers were processed, President Truman decided to allow 80,000 people, over and above the quota that was in effect, to come to the U.S. and somehow, we were on that list. In Chicago, I started school, but I had jobs, too. I parked cars, taught dancing at Arthur Murray Studios, sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door, worked as an unlicensed electrician, and I delivered meat for a butcher. When I was 19, I married the butcher’s 17-year-old daughter. We had three children, Susan, an attorney, Freda, a C.P.A. and now a newspaper reporter, and Steve, also an attorney. Our family of five came to Colorado in 1967, where I was fortunate to be successful in business. I eventually had another son, Erik, who is also a C.P.A. and a business executive. I have 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and a good life in Greenwood Village with my wife Joan and our two dogs. We still golf and play pickleball when we aren’t spending time with our family. I am a very lucky man.”

Next week: Barbara Steinmetz’ story