Walter Blass, Holocaust survivor, U.S Navy veteran, former director of strategic planning at AT&T, two-year country director of the Peace Corps in Afghanistan and operator of his own management consulting company specializing in strategic planning and telecommunications, has certainly lived a life full of the unexpected. Blass spoke at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega on Thursday Nov. 16 in the Hoag Auditorium about his experiences during the Holocaust, as well as his leadership knowledge.
Blass was born in 1930 into a lower class household and lived in Vienna, Germany as a child with his mother and father. At that time people were still trying to get over the Great Depression.
“I remember if you wanted a loaf of bread you’d have to bring a wheelbarrow full of money, and you’d go and get your bread,” said Blass. Adolf Hitler had recently been elected chancellor, and within three months of taking the position, he had an executive order preventing Jews from entering into any legitimate professions. Thankfully, Blass’ father was an educated, well-liked man with connections. So, despite Hitler’s order, he was able to keep a steady job and provide for his family unlike many Jews at the time.
Blass led a very happy life until May 10, 1940, when Nazi Germany attacked western Europe and declared war. Blass was 10-years-old when things began to go downhill in Germany, and when Blass’ father went mysteriously missing, Blass’ mother was determined to keep young Blass out of harm’s way. The two of them, along with a few others, quickly evacuated their homes in Germany and fled. With little time to pack, Blass and his mother quickly threw together overnight bags with a mere change of clothes. There was really nothing personal brought along. “I even left my teddy bear behind,” said Blass.
With his father interned as an enemy alien and mother sent off to a concentration camp, young Blass was left at a home for delinquent children in Belgium. Though Blass called it a miserable experience, he was able to keep in touch with his mother and the two wrote letters during their separation.
“I was lucky to be able to correspond with my mother when many children like me were left completely alone,” said Blass.
After four months of seemingly endless misery, Blass’ father was liberated and his family happily reunited, finally out of harm’s way.
Despite his happy ending, Blass, like many others who lived through that time, felt much pain and anguish due to these unfortunate experiences. Blass battled survivor’s guilt for years because he “survived many near-death experiences only because strangers decided to intervene in order to save [his] life, all out of the goodness of their hearts.” Though Blass struggled for a long time with feeling he wasn’t worthy of being alive after so many innocent people were killed, he believes his right to live was earned back many years later, after jumping in and saving a little girl from drowning. “I finally felt that I was even with God,” Blass said.
Although Blass was greatly affected by the tragic events he experienced in his youth, he’s been able to look past the hardship and live a full life devoid of hatred. “I do not think that evil is inherited, and I now have many German friends,” said Blass. Also, despite his Jewish roots, Blass believes there have been many events of equivalent devastation to the Holocaust. He went on to compare current events in Central and South America to his experiences during the Holocaust and said there are definite similarities between the two. “I think it is a human phenomenon that if we de-humanize and de-personalize certain groups, and don’t learn to respect every human being, these kinds of tragic events will continue to go on,” said Blass.