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  • The Last Survivor
  • Written by Timothy W. Ryback
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780679758266
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The Last Survivor

Legacies of Dachau

Written by Timothy W. RybackAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Timothy W. Ryback

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In The Last Survivor, journalist Timothy Ryback explores the surprising--and often disturbing--ways the citizens of Dachau go about their lives in a city the rest of us associate with gas chambers and mass graves. A grandmother recalls the echo of wooden shoes on cobblestone, the clip-clop of inmates marched from boxcars to barracks under the cover of night. A mother-to-be opts to deliver in a neighboring town, so that her child's birth certificate will not be stamped DACHAU. An "SS baby," now middle-aged, wonders about the father he never knew. And should you visit Dachau, you will meet Martin Zaidenstadt, an 87 year-old who accosts tourists with a first-hand account of the camp before its liberation in 1945. Beautifully written, compassionate, wise, The Last Survivor takes us to a place that bears the mark of Cain--and a people unwilling to be defined by the past, yet painfully unable to forget.


There is a click as the key turns. The desk drawer slides open. A pile of red-and-white HB cigarette packs is knocked aside. A gun is withdrawn. As far as I can tell, it is a standard .380 caliber pistol, not unlike the kind that Heinrich Schmied displays in the window of his
sporting-goods shop across the street from Susan's Café in downtown Dachau. According to Schmied, these .380s are not very sophisticated weapons--a seven-shot clip, recoil-operated reload, and rather limited range. An amateur sportsman can hit a target at eight to ten meters. Anything beyond that, says Schmied, is "a matter of luck."

But on this fine spring morning, Martin Zaidenstadt would not need much luck. Seated opposite him at his desk, no more than three feet away, I am an easy target. He has just finished telling me about the execution of a fellow inmate, Jerzy Czermanski, at the hands of the SS. It was a beautiful spring day, not unlike this very day, when an SS officer put a pistol to his temple and blew his brains out. Just like this. And he points the gun in my direction.

People in Dachau had warned me about Martin Zaidenstadt. They said he was a tortured soul, a deeply troubled man. Some said he was obsessed, others that he was deranged. Nobody told me he was armed.

Several years ago, Martin began a daily vigil in front of the camp's brick crematorium building that also houses the gas chamber. Whenever visitors approach the building, he addresses them, usually in German, though sometimes in English or Polish or Russian, and occasionally in Spanish, Yiddish, or Hebrew. I have even heard him offer passing phrases in Chinese. The man veritably speaks in tongues. None with any fluency. He speaks about things we already know--about the hunger, the cold, the fear, the myriad brutalities of camp life. He also adds fresh insights to the generic horrors. "You could always tell whether they were burning Russians or Jews," Martin recalls. "The Russians still had faton them, and the smoke was yellow. The Jews had been starved and were nothing but skin and bones. The smoke was always blue." Or was it the other way around? Martin used to know but can't quite remember anymore. Sometimes he says that the Americans brought him to Nürnberg to testify in the 1946 trials against Nazi war criminals. "They listened to Martin,"he told me, "because they knew what he told them was true."

A full-faced man with a solid constitution, Martin Zaidenstadt dresses his eighty-seven years in tweed jackets, wool pants, and sturdy walking shoes. He moves with the slow, late-life rhythm of a man who has survived many harsh decades. His weathered face seems sculpted, as if hewn from some durable stone breathed to life. Martin could be eighty-five or ninety-five or a hundred and six. It seems as though he will live forever.

But the mind is failing this solid vessel. Martin's inner compass has lost its bearing and the course of his conversation drifts and tacks with the slightest conversational breeze. Martin will pass indolently from one memory to the next, his eyes fixed on the distant shores of his youth, until he is overtaken by a squall of rage. His eyes fill with fear or anger. He fulminates and rages, and after a few moments this passes, and he again is set adrift onto other memories.

Martin holds the gun in his hand and stares at me. A gun to the temple on a clear spring morning, and a simple tug on a trigger, he has just told me. That is how people died in Dachau a half-century ago. What did I think about that?

In truth, I don't know what to think. I have had guns pulled on me before--in Detroit, in Bosnia, in
Wyoming--but always by people who knew what they wanted--money, a passport, or just for me to get the hell off their land. With Martin I am not certain why he is doing this, and, more unsettling still, I am not certain he knows either. I stare into his eyes, trying to gauge his intentions. They are deep, brown, kind eyes, but now they seem fogged, clouded.

"You don't think the gun is loaded," he says, his voice suddenly challenging. I offer no answer.

Martin tilts the gun slightly to the side, presses a release, and the ammunition clip slips into the palm of his left hand, revealing nine gleaming bullets with rounded brass tips. They glint tauntingly in the morning light that pours through the window. He smiles at me, then kicks the clip back into the gun with the butt of his hand and again levels the barrel at me. I see his finger move to the trigger. Only then do I feel myself go weak. In that instant I do not see my life flash before my
eyes. Instead, I see the Zaidenstadt laundry in the backyard, an array of unbleached shirts and undergarments flapping in the morning breeze against a brilliant April sky, all the while thinking that it seems like such a waste to die on such a beautiful spring day in a suburban study at the hands of a befuddled, possibly delusionary Holocaust survivor. The gun, cushioned on a cloud
of jumbled memories, drifts to the right and left in Zaidenstadt's unsteady hand, and I am trying to fathom his intentions, wondering if a quick leap to the right or left will save my life or trigger his reflexes, not certain what in the hell I should do.

We sit there face-to-face for a moment. Zaidenstadt flinches when he hears steps in the hallway. It is his wife, who has just come in the house. He drops the gun into the drawer, pushes it shut, and turns the key.
Timothy W. Ryback

About Timothy W. Ryback

Timothy W. Ryback - The Last Survivor

Photo © Herman Seidl Tirez images

Timothy W. Ryback is the author of Hitler’s Private Library, which was named to the Washington Post Book World Best Nonfiction list in 2008, and The Last Survivor: Legacies of Dachau,New York Times Notable Book. He has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He lives and works in Paris.



"Elegantly written without ever neglecting the magnitude of horror that underlies every gesture, breath and nuance in Dachau." --The New York Times Book Review

"A brilliantly written tone poem in which identities and facts slip and slide into the abyss of memory." --The Baltimore Sun

"Ryback's insights come in haunting prose: heading down a long gravel-path at Dachau is 'like walking on crushed brittle bones.'" --Detroit Free-Press

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