Retired optometrist saw beginning of Holocaust

More than 80 years after the Holocaust, Dr. Al Miller can’t help but wonder what the world lost when 1.5 million children under the age of 15 were needlessly slaughtered by Nazi Germans.

“Can anyone guess what shining stars in medicine, gifted musicians, talented writers, committed artists, dedicated scientists were simply murdered, bulldozed into mass graves, most of them nameless,” Miller said. “The English language does not contain the vocabulary remotely descriptive of the enormity that had been perpetrated on the scale so immense.”

If not for incredible circumstances and good fortune, the world would have been minus one optometrist. Dr. Miller, who was born in Berlin, Germany in 1922, started his optometry practice in Hamilton in 1953, and retired 42 years later.

Now living with his wife of 65 years, Janie, in Deerfield Twp., Miller is part of the The Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education’s Speaker’ Bureau. He was a guest speaker last week at Atrium Medical Center, and those in attendance were still asking questions more than 30 minutes after his one-hour talk was scheduled to end.

Finally, a gentleman stood up and, fighting back tears, told Miller he was sorry “his people” endured such hatred from Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Miller said it’s important that people — regardless of their age and religious backgrounds — understand the damage done by injustice, inhumanity and prejudice so that history doesn’t repeat.

“Can these things happen again?” he asked. “There is a slogan around that says, ‘Never again.’ I believe the slogan is all wrong. I believe it can happen again.”

Miller, 93, was introduced as a Holocaust survivor, a badge of courage he quickly removed.

“I don’t consider myself a survivor at all,” said Miller, who lived in Germany under Hitler’s dictatorship from 1933-1937. “Those four years were relatively benign. I mean rough, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and fearful. But it was nothing compared to what happened later on and the mass executions. It was so bad that it can not be described, can not be imagined, can not be believed.”

He talked about attending public school in Berlin and his classmates and friends who eventually cut him out of their lives because he was Jewish. He said they turned their backs and made “cutting remarks.”

But he stayed enrolled in the school because he had two very good friends in class and the school was athletically minded. He played soccer and ran track there.

Plus, he said, he “wanted to prove all that crap wrong. It doesn’t make sense to me now. I wanted to be a good guy and I did.”

While in school, 50 times a week, Miller said the students saluted by saying, “Heil Hitler!” before and after every class.

As a 14-year-old, Miller attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics made famous by American Jesse Owens winning four gold medals and Hitler abruptly leaving the stadium so he wouldn’t have to shake Owens’ hand. Miller called Owens one of his heroes and asked if everyone knew Owens.

“You are not my friend if you don’t know,” he said with a smile.

He said Hitler, who committed suicide on April 30, 1945, would “turn around” in his grave if he knew a street near the Berlin stadium was named in Owens’ honor.

In 1937, Miller departed Nazi Germany for Switzerland, while his brother was sent to England. His parents remained in Germany, hiding in a friend’s house. The family eventually was reunited in England before immigrating to America in 1939. For the first time, after living in five countries, Miller said he felt welcome in a country.

His family met with an immigration officer, the first American Miller saw since Owens. The man was dressed in a straw hat, with a tie over an unbuttoned shirt, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his feet up on the desk. He said the gentleman said “please” and “thank you,” words they hadn’t heard from foreigners before.

In less than one minute, and in a few words, the officer improved Miller’s vision of our country.

“He said, ‘Sonny, you now are in the United States of America,’” Miller said. “‘You are in a free country. Get an education. Make something of yourself. Obey our laws. If you do that we will be grateful to you that you came to live with us.’ There was no cloud high enough for me to float on. I thought I was in paradise.”

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