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Holocaust Survivor's Legacy: Hard Times Reveal Good People

Alan Zimm talking to historians
Alan Zimm shared his story at the Virginia Holocaust Museum. (Photo: Virginia Holocaust Museum)

Alan Zimm, a Holocaust survivor, died from the coronavirus earlier this month. Alan and Halina, his wife, said the kindness and courage of others were what helped them survive the war. They added their stories to the Virginia Holocaust Museum's  oral histories collection.

Alan Zimm remembered the day the Nazis marched into Poland. "When they came in it was very scary. The black uniforms, the Gestapo and the SS. They were very scary looking people. I mean, people were afraid of them. Look at them. You couldn’t look at the Nazis. If they notice you looking at them, they kill you."

Zimm was born in Kolo, Poland, the third youngest of nine children. The Nazis invaded his town and began rounding up Jews. He fled to an aunt’s house in a nearby village, but was captured and spent most of the war in a series of camps working as slave labor. One of those factories was manufacturing parts for the V2 rocket.

"You have to make 20 of these. Not defective. Because if you find four of them that are damaged or defective, that’s considered sabotage. And for that they hang people. They were hanging people every day," Zimm said.

But in the worst of times and the worst of places, he found kindness. A German engineer befriended him and did something that would help save his life. Zimm said, "So he was so nice. He knew we didn’t have enough food to eat, very little. He said don’t worry, I’ll take care of that. And every day in the morning, he would bring a sandwich and hide it in my machine."

Almost 60 years later, in this interview at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, Zimm recalled the engineer's kindness. "Because of that German, I survived the war."

Sam Asher, director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, says Zimm and his wife Halina were among the 100 holocaust survivors who settled in Richmond after the war, and he had fond memories of him. Asher said, "Alan was a very lovely man. He was always kind. Loved to tell a joke. But at some times he could be very, very serious about what happened in his life."

Like Alan, Halina spent the war years in fear of the Nazis. She changed her name, kissed her mother and father goodbye and fled, promising never to tell anybody she was Jewish. She was working for a young couple in Warsaw when the Nazis finally found her.

But she says the young woman who employed her saved her life. "She took all her jewelry, put it on the table. ‘I guarantee that the child is not Jewish,’" Halina said. "Why would she risk her life for me? Every Pole who was hiding a Jew was automatically put in a concentration camp."

There were others who helped. A soldier on a train who turned his back and let her run away. Farmers and their families who let her stay overnight when she walked two and a half weeks, alone, from the German border to Warsaw to see if anybody she knew was left.

Alan and Halina married after the war, and lived for a time in Germany, later immigrating to the United States. They arrived in New York, but immediately came to Richmond. Alan said, "So I had a job in Richmond, as a tailor, in Berry-Burke. I remember today, I arrived here on Thursday and Monday I was working."

Zimm soon opened his own shop and for the next 70 years he and his wife became part of the community.

In their oral histories, both Alan and Halina said hard times reveal good people and it’s a lesson they passed on. Alan said, "Not to hate. Be nice to people. Help them if they need help."

Alan Zimm died April 18 from the coronavirus. He was a month away from his 100th birthday. At his funeral, family members wore masks and his wife of more than 70 years was unable to hug anyone. But their legacy of love remains, says Halina. "You raise four wonderful children and never taught them to hate, but to accept other people. And be kind. When somebody is nice to you, be nice to them. Be nice. Say, 'Thank you, so much, thank you, so much!' That’s who I am and the end of my story, I guess."

Both Alan and Halina’s stories will live on in the Virginia Holocaust Museum’s library of oral histories.

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