IN early September of 2010, Walter Plywaski lost his home and virtually all his possessions in the Fourmile Canyon fire that devoured the Boulder foothills.
But what plunged other fire victims into deep despair rolls easily off this 81-year-old mans proud shoulders.
I had an advantage over the other people who lost their houses, Walter tells the Intermountain Jewish News.
Im used to disaster.
For him, the theory of relativity also applies to human loss.
What is a burned house compared to a burned and gassed family?
Walter was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1929.
By age 15, he knew the filth of the ghetto, the stench of cattle cars and the nightmare of Auschwitz and Dachau.
Today, Walters eyes twinkle with warmth, sweetness, sly humor, even delight.
His quick wit hits like a tidal wave, making laughing pawns of everyone in his wake.
Life is too damned serious not to giggle at it, Walter says after firing a round of jokes around the IJN conference room
Walters erudite vocabulary articulates the unspeakable.
When circumstances warrant, he invokes the expletive-laden GI English he acquired after the war.
Either way, he makes his point.
On Sept. 6, Walter was reading The New York Times online in his Sugarloaf residence when he started receiving reverse 911 calls to evacuate.
I said, Oh no, I will hold off, I will hold off. I wound up having about 25 minutes to get the hell out of there, Walter sighs.
But I had two problems. First, a friend of mine who is 68% Chippewa and the most literate man I know, is deaf. I had to warn him, but he cannot read my lips because he claims I have a Polish accent. So I had to act it all out for him.
Then I spent 10 minutes trying to coral my two black cats into the car. No way, he says.
So I grabbed my computer, a few clothes, and left the front and back doors open for the cats so they would have a chance to live. And they did.
The entire structure and its belongings, including photographs of Walters family retrieved during a visit to Lodz in the 1960s, an autobiography in progress and 1,200 books, went up in flames.
William Plywaski (born Wlodzimier Fialko), Walters cousin, adopted brother and constant companion in the Holocaust, also lives in Boulder.
His Sugarloaf home, located about a mile away from Walter, did not burn down in the Fourmile fire.
Walters sense of experiential relativity keeps his perspective in check.
One lifetime, two strange fires.
There is no comparison.
WLADYSLAW Plywacki, the only child of Maks and Regina Plywacki, entered the world on Aug. 10, 1929, in Lodz. He lived in the apartment above his parents pharmacy.
(Walter changed his name from Plywacki to Plywaski when he became an American citizen. The IJN uses this spelling throughout the interview.)
Walters father was agnostic. His mother was raised Orthodox. After their marriage, religion lessened in significance.
The Plywaskis we were the only Polish family with that name since the 16th century epitomized the cultural and intellectual diversity that permeated pre-WW II Poland.
My father was quite a character, Walter says. As a young man, he was a socialist. He opposed the Tsarist government. His back was scarred with whips and saber cuts inflicted in demonstrations.
He also was a Polish patriot and was one of the few Jewish officers in the Polish cavalry.
And he always exuded a sense of resolution, and security.
This attitude helped save Walter on numerous occasions in the ghetto and camps.
Father and son had theological debates before the war. He wanted me to be a debater, so I read theologians like St. Augustine and Pascal to sharpen my skills.
Regina, Walters mother I have no photographs of her was a very small, vivacious woman with raven black hair who loved to dance. Without her, my father could not have been the romantic hero he was. At least not as readily.
Walter says that his paternal grandmother, whose name hes forgotten, influenced him profoundly.
My grandmother lived in a very small Polish village, in a straw-roofed house with no running water. She spoke five languages and taught me to read and write when I was five.
She was lucky to die before the Germans came.
His uncle Adam, a bon vivant who attracted the interest of a Hollywood producer because of his resemblance to actor William Powell, introduced his then seven-year-old nephew to café society.
Stasia and Lena, Walters paternal aunts, dressed stylishly, smoked cigarettes, haunted Berlins nightclub scene in the 1920s and decorated their apartment with Renaissance artwork. They survived the war.
Regina Plywaski perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Maks Plywaski died after being beaten with a shovel at Riederloh, near Bavaria. Uncle Adam hung himself in Warsaw. Aunt Felicja Plywaski Fajertag, who ran an orphanage in the Lodz ghetto, died at Auschwitz.
Two hundred members of my extended family were murdered in the Holocaust, Walter says. About 200. It might have only been 180. Only.
Now there are only two Plywaskis left on the face of the earth, my adopted brother and myself, he says.
His eyes brighten.
I have three daughters and five grandchildren, he beams. They are my victory flags over the Nazis.
THE Nazis marched into Lodz on Sept. 8, 1939, Walter says. I was 10, and had just started my third grade grammar school.
The ghetto was erected in Baluty, an old section of Lodz that Walter describes as a slum even before the war. There were no sewers, no running water.
Between 35,000-40,000 Jews and Christians lived in Baluty before 1939. That number soard to 130,000 once the ghetto walls closed.
Walter insists the ghetto did not frighten him.
Not really,he says, because I was with my family.
When Walters cousin William lost both parents to TB in the ghetto, Maks Plywaski adopted him. This was one of my fathers finest gestures, Walter says, given that we received so few calories a day.
Because his family spoke only Polish and dispensed with Yiddish, Walter became an unsuspecting recipient of Jewish anger.
The first real beating I got in WW II was from five Jewish kids who were mad because I couldnt speak Yiddish, he says ironically. Believe me, I learned Yiddish after that.
The Nazis designed the Lodz ghetto as a gradual, systematic killing machine, Walter says.
There was no medication. It was rampant with disease, exterminations.
Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the infamous Nazi-appointed head of the Judenrat in the Lodz ghetto, was a friend of Walters aunt Felicja.
They had worked in Jewish orphanages before the war, Walter says, so Chaim asked Felicja if she would operate an orphanage in the ghetto.
Felicja smuggled me and my brother in there for a few days at a time to get extra food. Even in hell, if youre protected by the powers that be, you feel a slightly cooler flame.
Lighter moments interrupted the scent of death.
My father knew a wonderful guy in the ghetto, Walter says. His name was Ginsburg, and he was as large as Falstaff. My father paid him a few pieces of bread to tutor us. My brother and I would study the multiplication tables, then suddenly discuss the downfall of Troy. Ginsburg was a scholar.
By the end of the war, his skin hung around him like a raincoat.
AS the grim years progressed, the Lodz ghetto held more than 200,000 Jews at any given time.
The Nazis deported new arrivals first because they lacked family or connections. Incoming Jews from all over Europe took their place for a few days or weeks or months.
By the spring of 1944, the ghetto was down to 30,000 Jews, Walter says. That figure included my parents, my brother and myself.
The Germans conducted hunts for Jews on the street on a daily basis. Placards informed us that anyone caught in enclosed areas will be shot on the spot. Otherwise we will send you to the east for resettlement.
Walter and his father knew the truth. There was no resettlement, only death.
My father taught me how to die about a year-and-a-half before we were sent to Auschwitz, he says.
The lesson was, Kiss ass, lick boots to live. But if youre on your way to die, attack and die in hot blood.
I didnt realize how much it cost my father to say this to me until I had children of my own.
How do you think Id feel if I had to teach my children this?
Unexpected tears glisten in Walters eyes.
Beg your pardon, he says, reaching for napkin. Sorry.
In June, July and August of 1944, the Plywaskis hid in an attic at the edge of the ghetto.
We took out the insulation and hid between the beams, Walter explains.
It must have been 125 degrees Fahrenheit. You dont dare sneeze. You dont cook. We left garbage on the stairs so the Nazis would think the place was abandoned.
Eventually, we were simply too exhausted physically and psychologically to continue.
The Plywaskis were among the last Jews to leave the Lodz ghetto.
The family was deported to Auschwitz that August.
The family arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Walters birthday, Aug. 10, 1944. He was 15.
The survival rate at the camp was approximately two weeks.
Fifteen was the borderline between extermination and being allowed to live, Walter says. If you were under 15, the Germans didnt let you live.
The extra food and treatment we got through Rumkowski in the Lodz ghetto worked to our advantage. We still had fat and muscle on us.
Thats how we survived the elimination game when we got to Auschwitz, he says. But not my mother.
Walter, his father and brother were ordered to stand in one line. His mother was ordered to the other.
I already knew not to run to my mother to say goodbye. If I ran to her, I was sentencing her to death. Any woman with a child was dead. This was a war against Jewish genes; a war of extermination.
That first day, Regina Plywaski met her fate in the gas chambers.
Walter and William spent a week in quarantine before being released into the mens camp, where their father waited beyond hope.
Then my brother and I lied our way into Josef Mengeles barracks, Walter smiles.
No, we were not twins, he concedes, but we heard there was extra food there.
A Polish gentile Kapo took me aside and said, Wladek, you dont want to be here. This place is really horrible. If I can, Ill get you both out.
A few days later, the Kapo smuggled the brothers out of Mengeles torture chamber.
No one noticed.
This was the first time a non-Jewish Pole saved Walter. It would not be the last.
Look, a Jew could not help a Jew, he says. We were at the bottom of the pile. To be in a position to help, you had to be a gentile. But you had to be careful. And you had to be a mensch.
Without this inexplicable intervention from these anonymous Poles, I would not be here, Walter says. No way.
His voice breaks. He picks up the same napkin.
Taking a sip of strong caffeinated tea, Walter resumes his story.
WALTER watched out for his brother at Auschwitz, the labor camps that followed, and Dachau.
Having my brother close to me helped, absolutely, he says. Protecting him gave me a mission outside of myself.
Relying on his innate intelligence and his fathers advice Dont follow a crowd because they are probably doing something wrong; always look for opportunities to survive he repeatedly rescued William from transports and selections.
Walter relates a vivid memory at Auschwitz almost poetically.
One day I see this beautiful man, like a Renaissance angel: elegant, wearing suede gloves, carrying a walking stick in his hand to hook you around the neck.
He starts reaching for me and I laugh in his face. I got ready to jump him. I thought, This is it.
I think he picked up on my incipient violence.
Do you speak German? he asks. Ja, I answer. How old are you? Sixteen. Youre a liar. When our boys are 16 theyre already fighting the Bolsheviks on the Eastern Front.
I said, How big would they be if they had to eat the same crap youve been feeding us for four years?
Walters lips form an impish semi-circle.
And then he let go of me. Had I been afraid, the result would have been very different. But I remembered what my father told me; I was not afraid. This man and I sort of developed a strange rapport but he would have shot me in a second.
His expression tightens.
Im an atheist, Walter announces. Once in Auschwitz, we were on lock-down in the barracks. And we hear high-pitched screams coming from somewhere outside. The Kapo comes in and tells us that the Nazis are burning children seven and under alive.
Whether that was true or not, I cannot say. But I accepted it as truth. So for me, the voice of G-d at Auschwitz was the scream of a burning child.
Walter, his father and brother were sent to Landsberg-Kaufering 4 concentration camp in mid-September, 1944.
They had been in Auschwitz less than two months an eternity.
LANDSBERG, Kaufering and Riederloh (They called Riederloh a punishment camp, if you can believe it) operated within Dachaus nefarious network of camps scattered throughout Germany.
At Landsberg-Kaufering 4, Walter labored in the potato fields and constructed concrete buildings for the Nazis. The barracks were rectangular holes in the earth with earth bunks and a roof at ground level, he says.
After Landsberg, the Plywaskis worked for two weeks at Kaufering-11 concentration camp.
We worked on a fighter plane landing strip, he says, but it was sabotaged.
All the laborers who toiled on the landing strip were deported to Riederloh.
For Maks Plywaski, this would be the end.
Have you heard the Yiddish term Muselmann? Walter asks. In the camps, when people were starving to death, it affected their brains. You become like an automaton, resigned to your fate.
The old prisoners called these people Muselmann. You are resigned. You behave almost catatonically.
This started to happen to my father in Riederloh.
Despite his deteriorated condition, Maks Plywaski mustered his fury and insulted a camp commandant.
I think he did this because he knew I was watching, Walter says. He verbally attacked that commandant because there was no hope.
He was illustrating the lesson he taught me, for the last time.
This commandant was so astounded by my fathers behavior that he stood there for maybe a minute, listening. He could not move, like Lots wife.
Then he started beating my father over the head with a shovel.
Walter was a runner in Riederloh, carrying messages between the camp guards and SS officers.
The commandant sort of knew me, so I jumped in the middle and yelled, This is my father, stop!
The German officer stopped but it was too late.
Two days later, Maks died in the Muselmann barracks. He was 51.
WALTER and William were deported to Dachau I in January of 1945. Ugly holes had formed in Walters legs from prolonged malnutrition.
My brother took me to a clinic, he says, and I was shoved into their so-called hospital.
Once again, two Polish Kapos stepped in to save his life.
They brought me hard-boiled eggs and meat, Walter recalls. Just like the Kapo at Auschwitz, they told me, If we can, well save you.
The men also told Walter that he was scheduled to become a malaria guinea pig, meaning doctors would test his bodys response to injections of malaria.
The holes in his legs began healing in two or three days.
The Kapos put a corpse in Walters bed and smuggled him out.
Then I rejoined my brother in the quarantine barracks, he says.
The fortuitous move turned out to be another death trap.
All of us in the quarantine barracks were scheduled for extermination, Walter says.
Aided by the Kapos, the brothers names were added to a list of inmates who were shipped out of the camp prior to the barracks annihilation.
Walter twice tried to escape the camps.
He made his first attempt with William, of course at Turkheim in March, 1945.
William couldnt get out, so I returned to be with him, he says. But I did manage to steal two pairs of boots for the march the Germans planned for us.
The death march to Karlsfeld, a Dachau subcamp located about 12 miles north of Munich, began at the end of March.
It was very brutal, Walter says. We were underfed. There was little water. I dont know how many Jews were murdered in the Nazis random shooting games.
Village children threw stones at us and even begged the SS to kill us for their viewing pleasure.
Somehow, the Plywaski brothers made it.
BY April of 1945, repeated aerial assaults from Allied planes were taking their toll on the Nazi infrastructure and psyche.
During one bombardment, Dachau 2s electrified barbed wire shorted out. Nazis hid in bunkers to avoid the inevitable.
Walter and William escaped.
We were not liberated, Walter corrects. We liberated ourselves. It was a conscious act, rather than passive waiting.
The pair crawled ran through a potato field. There was shooting all around us, he says, but we finally made it to an abandoned German anti-aircraft hanger.
Guess what we found there?
His expression falls into a dream.
The Nazis left an iron pot on the stove. It was still bubbling with corned beef stew, peeled onions, potatoes, mushrooms and carrots.
You know, Ive twice eaten in five-star French restaurants, but Ive never tasted anything like that stew in my life however long that might last.
The memory breaks his heart with gratitude.
A few tears fall. Walter wipes them away.
We found a bunch of DDT and got rid of our fleas and lice. We practically bathed in the stuff. Then we put on nice warm German uniforms, steel helmets, grabbed some weapons and started marching toward the Allies.
A while later, they were overcome by strange-looking soldiers who had been crouching in a ditch.
They ordered us to drop our weapons, Walter says. Hands high! they shouted in German. It was an American infantry patrol. They took us prisoner.
Walter refused to speak any German, fearing he would be mistaken for an escaping Nazi.
At US field headquarters, he met a Polish sergeant from Chicago. I spoke to him, and he told the others, Oh, these are Jewish Poles. Give them whatever they need.
Then he told me to throw away all this German crap and well give you American crap.
Thats when I became a US Army mascot and learned GI language.
From May of 1945 to May of 1947, Walter accompanied the GIs to various units in Strasbourg, Aix- en-Provence and Marseille.
He arrived at Ellis Island on Dec. 16, 1947.
Walter worked as a printer in Philadelphia, where he stayed for one year, and served in the US Air Force from 1948-1952.
He then enrolled at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, with every intention of majoring in English literature.
His professor, the renowned author Bernard Malamud, dissuaded him.
He told me, This will bore you, unless you want to become a professor like me.
So I switched to electrical engineering. It was an excellent choice.
He met his wife at Oregon State. They divorced 30 years ago.
In 1962, Walter moved to Boulder to join the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration.
He relocated to the foothills in 1965.
THE Germans never asked me whether I daven, Walter says. They didnt ask me whether I studied Torah. They just said, youre a Jew.
Despite his negation of religion, its an identity Walter holds close.
I am a Jew especially when I meet anti-Semites, he says.
Walter, who has had threatening run-ins with the KKK, hurls vicious insults that send them running in the opposite direction.
If you deny anti-Semites their payoff our fear, our silence their game is lost.
Holocaust survivors attribute their survival to a wide range of factors.
For me, it was luck, Walter says. About 80% luck, 10-15% the education my father gave me (including German lessons), and 5% intelligence.
I also had the knowledge that I could dictate how I would die. It gave me this chamber of freedom in my mind, which meant that I didnt panic like other people.
When you come out of the camps, its as if you are born again with nothing, he says. No mementoes of your previous life, no photos, no memorabilia, no nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Walter tugs at his collar, as if catching his reflection in an invisible mirror.
I look like an old man, he says. I never thought I would become this old. But I guess none of us do.
Asked to consider what kind of man hed be today if he had never experienced the Holocaust, Walter hesitates.
Of course, I prefer it never would have happened, he says. I didnt volunteer for it. No one did. But I have no idea, no idea, who Id be without it.
There is no way to say. The Holocaust was a complete termination of who I was intellectually. Then, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, I lost my belief in G-d.
That gentle smile returns.
I love my life, very much, Walter says. I suspect it means more to me because of what Ive been through because after the camps, I never had a single bad moment in my life.
No matter how dire a situation looks, an instinctive comparative function kicks in.
Then I realize nothing is that bad.
Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News