SPARTA, NJ – The auditorium was silent as Sparta High School students listened to their guest speaker tell his story of surviving the Holocaust. On Friday morning, the freshmen class and History of Genocide students were attentive and even emotional as Eric Mayer condensed an incredible lifetime into one hour.
Incredible but true, Mayer told the students everything he was going to share with them was true and had been verified. Normally speakers do not need to give such a disclaimer but by the end of the session it was apparent why he did.
Mayer, who currently resides in Wayne, will be 91 in a couple of weeks. The students had created and signed a card that brought a tear to his eye.
“I have a bulldozer in back of me,” Mayer said, “because I feel I don’t have enough time to tell the story… I have lived through a lot of experiences. Maybe my talk with you will help you to make a decision about the path for your life.”
“Many strangers, totally unknown to me, saved my life,” Mayer said. “There is a price to pay when you help someone but you always feel better.”
He began at the beginning. Born in 1928 to a family “international in character.” His grandmother was “a highly educated Italian.” His grandfather was “a wine maker in the Rhine Valley.” His father was one of 10 children.
In 1931, times were bad in Germany, especially economically when Hitler lost his first election. But two years later things had deteriorated and “they elected a dictator, and he was not even German.”
“People who supported Hitler were not all bad people, they were hungry and looking for a savior,” Meyer said. “Beware a savior.”
The economy improved as Hitler ramped up manufacturing to prepare the country for war.
In March of 1931 Mayer’s father was arrested for the first time, 30 days after Hitler came to power because of his opposing political views. He was released.
In March of 1936 his father was arrested again. This time they felt he would be a traitor because his sister had married and was living in France.
While many Jews began to leave German, Mayer’s father had been a “highly decorated soldier in the German Army in World War I,” and had “blind faith in honor of the German army to get rid of Hitler” before it got too bad.
Also in 1936, Mayer and other Jewish children “were expulsed from being with friends at school” and had to go to school taught by Jewish teachers. He said the school was fine because it was the same teachers but getting to school was the challenge.
“When you give a six or seven-year-old a uniform and a fake rifle, he feels powerful,” Mayer said. But he told the high school students, “you have to make allowances in life,” for people who are only reacting to their circumstances.
The family was living in Worms, an historic town, where “we want along with our divided lives.” Shop keepers largely ignored the laws prohibiting them from serving Jews. When, in the same year the Olympics came to Germany and “Hitler relaxed the rules against Jews to show the world we were civilized we kidded ourselves that things would” get better.
In 1938 his father was arrested for a third time and sent to a camp, as blackmail. Mayer explained his wealthy Italian uncle from Milan owned a factory in German that the government wanted. His father’s brother signed over the property and his father was released.
According to Mayer, the truth about Kristallnacht was that it was one homosexual that killed another and not the propaganda of a Jew killing a German diplomat that was the reason for the night of terror. “The history books have gotten that wrong,” Mayer said.
“On September 11, 1938 the Nazi Ghouls came with axes into our spacious house… and destroyed everything; mirrors, bedding, my brother’s stamp collection,” Mayer said.
To explain what hatred does to people Mayer explained in detail what the soldiers did. They gouged the eyes out of a painting of horses saying they were Jew horses and dumped the goldfish tank out the third floor window saying they were Jew goldfish. “I never saw a goldfish Bar Mitzva,” Mayer quipped with a shrug.
They arrested his father and grandfather, taking them to a central location to be sorted and then sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Someone saved his grandfather b pulling him off a transport truck. The rest of the family was arrested by the local police and brought to the metropolitan jail.
What he did not realize at the time was that the “police chief was protecting us from the Nazi goons.”
“You have to take time an assess what people are doing,” Mayer said. Try to understand what the reason is behind what they are doing.
After being release from jail they relied on a Lutheran “76 year old fraulein” who went to the store each day and got food for them. “That was dangerous,” Mayer said. “Without her we would have gone without food for about 10 days.”
“No matter what your age, you can always help your neighbor,” Mayer told the students.
His father was released on December 23, 1938. He began to make arrangements through his French relative, to get false papers to get the children out of the country.
His cousin’s Anglican mistress, in a “tremendous act of courage” traveling on an English passport brought the false papers and took Mayer and his siblings out of the country on a train.
With Nazi Germany hoping to forge an alliance with England, the “Gestapo agent who checked her passport, seeing she was English simply clicked his heels, said Heil Hitler and went on his way” without even looking at the false documents.
Mayer pointed out that they had been helped by French and Italian relatives and neighbors.
They had been living in Paris for six months when they had to evacuate. August 24, 1939 war had started and all non resident children had to leave. They went to Burgandy with nothing, “no blankets, pots or pans” and people gave them everything.
The following year, December 1939 they moved again to Vichy to be with a cousin. They “went to school and had a pretty normal life.”
He and his brother put themselves into their studies. “I wish it were true that all Jewish people were people of the book. We strove to do well,” both finishing number one in their class,” not because we were smarter, but because we had to strive because we didn’t know where our parents were.”
Though he did not know it at the time, Mayer said on March 4, 1942 his mother was gassed on the first day of her arrival at a Belzec concentration camp. His father was killed in Sobibor also in 1943.
When Vichy expelled all non-citizens, they moved to a small town in the south of France.
Mayer went to work in a marmalade factory Bonne Mamam, “the largest in the world.” “We integrated,” Mayer said. “People looked out for us.”
“I want to point out that we had been saved by a German Protestant, an Anglican and a Catholic,” not because of religious prejudice but to show human decency comes in all types of people.
His boss, the leader of the French Resistance, eventually recruited Mayer because of his small size, facility with French and German and his hatred of the Nazis. He rode his bike with secret papers concealed inside the handle bars for 18 months as a currier.
“I had a big head,” Mayer said. He thought he was very important. At night they gathered up the weapons dropped by the Allies. Their task was to slow down the German troops coming from the south of France, “hold them back at every bridge for the Allies.”
Eric at 16 and his brother at 18 were with a group of resistance fighters that held off a Panzer division for three days at a bridge during the D-Day invasion. What followed was the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane where all the men were killed in the village square and the women and children locked in a church that was set on fire.
Mayer said the only resident of the town to survive was a Jewish high school boy who was warned not to return to the town.
As the French Resistance fighters were folded into the French Army, Mayer wanted to fight “because I was so full of hate,” but he was too young. But still having to follow orders, he was told to go help some German POWs write letters home for the Red Cross to deliver.
He protested because of his hatred for the Germans. But on August 24, 1944 he told the students about going to meet with the soldiers. “There were 21 of them sitting at a long table and in front of them they had laid out family photos from their wallet,” Mayer said. “As their towns were being bombed they had no way to know if they were alive.”
Choking on tears, Mayer said, “I looked at the photos and I saw human being and the hate evaporated.”
Many students in the Sparta High School auditorium had tears in their eye as the 90 year old spoke.
Though he did not know it at the time, Mayer said on March 4, 1943 his mother was gassed on the first day of her arrival at a concentration camp. His father-in-law died from an injury sustained the day before being liberated from a concentration camp.
“Despite that hurt, I do not hate,” Mayer said.
Mayer’s sister Ruth was a “war bride” having married Walter Rothschild, an assistant to General Eisenhower. They moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Eventually Mayer and his brother joined her in Baltimore. Mayer met his wife Edith on a blind date.
It was three dates before they discovered they had much the same background, having grown up about 30 miles from each other in Germany and were in close proximity in France as well. She had been rescued from German by Quakers and adopted despite not knowing the fate of her own parents.
The two moved to Wayne in 1966. They have two children and one grandchild.
Students lined up to ask questions. The first was if he thought the current generation can make things better to which Mayer said, “That is very hard to answer. I don’t know.” He then commended the young lady for her “courage to come up here.”
“How scary is it to see the rise of the alt right,” the next student asked. He answered, “Most people would never kill or harm people, it is usually economics.”
“The promise of ‘never forget’ was never kept,” Mayer said.
He was asked about being in the resistance and about other [Axis] soldiers.
Mayer did say, “Mussolini was not Hitler. All of my Italian relatives lived. In Poland it was imposed. Hungray it was the will of the people. Most were manipulated from within. The Italians and Romanians were the first to surrender at the Russian border. Forty thousand French volunteered to fight for Germany. That was 40 thousand too many.”
Mayer offered students the opportunity to write their questions to him. He said they would be exhibited at the Holocaust Museum in New York as part of a rotating exhibit. He also left a number of books as resources for the teachers to share with students.
Mayer gave an interesting answer to the question “Is it always wise to attempt to forgive those who have hurt us.” Mayer said, “One has to be careful who you forgive.” Sharing a story about a trip back to German, Mayer said, “You have to examine why someone did what they did. If they believed what they did, it is not wise to forgive…You have to be alert and discerning when forgiving.”
“The Sparta High School administration greatly appreciates Mr. Mayer taking the time to speak to our students,” Assistant Principal Michael Lauricella said. “It is important that the lessons learned from a situation as horrendous as the Holocaust are not forgotten. Thank you to Mr. Brennan, Mr. Kercher, and Ms. Hassenplug for their efforts in planning and organizing Mr. Mayer's visit.”