By Joseph Hamrick
GREENVILLE — Earlier this year, researchers made the startling discovery that there were not 7,000, but 45,000 ghettos and concentration camps scattered across Europe under Nazi Germany’s reign. One of those camps was Stutthof, Poland, where Peter Loth was born in 1943. Loth shared his experience during his seminar “Healing Through Forgiveness” to the audience gathered inside the Fletcher Warren Civic Center on July 21. His mother was three months pregnant when she was shipped to Stutthof. Loth said the only thing that separated the German soldiers from the prisoners “was the yellow Star of David.” Multiple times throughout the presentation, Loth asked parents to shield their children’s eyes from the grisly images he showed on the screen. The camp was liberated by Russian soldiers in 1945, but Loth said the liberators did not treat Jewish people much better. “Most people were so afraid that [the Russians] were going to execute them,” he said. Because his mother was so weak and frail from the years in the concentration camp, Loth said she did not have the strength to take him with her on the trip back to Germany, so she left him in the care of a woman he affectionately called “Matka,” or mother, in Polish. “Matka became everything to me,” he said. “She gave me food, she gave me shelter. And everything she did, she did it from her heart.” Since Loth was Jewish, the Russian police prosecuted Matka for housing a Jew and forced them to live in a slum next to a sewer drainage system.
“After the war, people still hated Jewish people,” he said. “Also I was a German. So we lived in the barrows where the sewers ran.” One of Loth’s first memories was being taken away from Matka by Russian soldiers to a children’s prison to await transfer to an orphanage for German children. According to Loth, life under Russian rule was not better than Nazi Germany. “First Hitler put a Star of David, now Stalin does the same thing,” he said. “We were not allowed to go to school. We had to work all day long in the field.” It was there that Loth met a little girl he called Star, because of her Star of David. Loth said the Russian soldiers took their hate out on the German children because of the atrocities in WWII. “At night the Russian soldiers came and took us upstairs, and you imagine what happens,” he said, adding that the children were abused every night for years. “Would you be able to forgive? That’s the question we have to ask.” One day, the Russian soldiers took the children from the orphanage and began lining them up against a bullet-riddled wall. The soldiers took Star and began dragging her off, Loth said. “She was crying out ‘Peter, Peter save me. Help me, Peter,’” he said. “You ever see a child executed? You will never forget,” he said. Just before it was his turn to be executed, Matka was able to negotiate his release by allowing the soldiers to abuse her in exchange for Loth’s life. “She said ‘Take me, let him live, let him live,” he said. “Would you do this for your friend? Would you lay down your life for another? These are the questions we have to ask.” Loth cited John: 15, where Jesus told his disciples to love until the point of death. \ “Do you see, this is God’s commandment?” he said. “And nobody pays attention.”
Loth lived with Matka until a letter from the American Red Cross came in the mail. The letter had a picture of two young girls who were his sisters. At first Loth said he didn’t believe it because the two girls in the picture were black and he still thought Matka was his real mother, but Matka then told him about his early childhood and he believed. Loth’s mother had met and married an African-American man who was stationed in West Germany during WWII. Loth was then sent across the border where he met his mother for the first time since she left him with Matka on the train station years ago. When he met his mother, he said he was still angry at her for leaving him in Poland when she left for Germany. “First time I met my mother she was crying, weeping and saying something in German, ‘my love, Peter, forgive me’,” he said, adding there was a language barrier because his mother spoke German and English and he spoke Polish and Russian. Loth said he forgave her when she showed him the scars she had on her back. “When she showed me her body, I knew she had been through the same thing as I,” he said. “The only thing I could do was hold her, embrace her. We cried.”
In 1959, the family moved to Georgia, where this time he had to protect his sisters from discrimination because of their race. “In 1959 black and white was not acceptable,” he said. “Every place I went with my sisters, somebody spit on them, so I got in fights. They took me to the police station and they beat the daylights out of me because the KKK was the police.”
Loth’s stepfather became alcoholic and began to beat his sisters, which came to a culmination when he ran away after being beaten by his father with a chain for standing up to him. Loth grew up, got married and moved to Florida where he raised a family. He attempted to find his mother through the years but was unsuccessful. One day, more than 20 years after running away from home, he received a phone call from his sister, saying his mother had passed. Loth reunited with his sisters, and went to Poland to fulfill his mother’s wish of having her ashes scattered in Stutthof.
Loth took his family and went through the harsh places he grew up in. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” he said. While at the camp, Loth said he heard a voice telling him to forgive the officers who had worked at the camp.
“The voice said ‘forgive them so that I can forgive you,’” he said. “I was on my knees and I started to forgive and the Holy Spirit came upon me.” From then on, Loth said he was able to forgive those who had tortured him and ask for forgiveness from the people he said he had wronged. At the end of the trip he visited the cemetery where Matka was buried. He had the stone engraved before he left. “The only thing it says is ‘thank you, Matka,’” he said. “I had two wonderful mothers, but did not know it.” Loth said he tells his story to remind people they can forgive and be forgiven, and to never forget what happened in Germany during WWII. “These kinds of stories you can’t let happen again,” he said.
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