Cover image for The last survivor : in search of Martin Zaidenstadt
The last survivor : in search of Martin Zaidenstadt
Ryback, Timothy W.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
195 pages ; 22 cm
Personal Subject:
Corporate Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DD901.D13 R93 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Depicting contemporary Dachau, home of the first Nazi concentration camp, the first gas chamber, and the first crematory oven, proves an illusive task.  Timothy Ryback travels to Dachau, looking for the community that inhabits the town today, to find out how the older people live with the memories and how the younger generation deals with the legacy; there he finds Martin Zaidenstadt.   While Dachau's residents express vastly divergent ways of and reasons for living in a city coinhabited by ghosts, Ryback finds one daily constant: Martin Zaidenstadt's vigil in front of the camp's brick crematorium.  Should you visit the crematorium, Martin will tell you, "My name is Martin Zaidenstadt. I survive this camp. I come here every day for fifty-three years." Martin claims to be a Holocaust survivor; he is both gadfly and guide, a man who embodies the paradox that is Dachau -- a place that was so successful at producing death, that it has become impossible for anyone who resides there to live a normal life.   Ryback's inquiry into a place uncovers a person whose keen intelligence, subtle wit, and boundless goodwill help us to understand Dachau as a city unable to forget, yet unwilling to be defined by its abominable past. This is a stunning and passionate portrait.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Dachau, Germany, was the site of the first Nazi concentration camp, opened in 1933. Thousands of prisoners there were worked and starved to death, shot, beaten, tortured, and died from diseases. On April 29, 1945, American troops liberated the camp, and Martin Zaidenstadt, a Polish Jew, was one of 30,000 survivors. When Zaidenstadt returned to Poland, he learned that his family had perished in the Holocaust and that the Poles were killing returning Jews. He went back to the town of Dachau, married a German woman, fathered three children, and discarded his Jewish identity. Harassed by neo-Nazis 50 years later, Zaidenstadt now returns to the camp almost daily, telling visitors about the hunger, the cold, and the fear. This a remarkable book, graceful in its simplicity and powerful in its poignancy. Readers will find themselves profoundly moved by this work. --George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1992, Ryback wrote a New Yorker article about the picturesque Bavarian town of Dachau, site of the first Nazi concentration camp, in which he "roundly condemned the residents of Dachau as small-minded and selfish, unwilling to accept moral responsibility for their town's role in the Holocaust." In retrospect, however, he felt that he had too casually adopted the moral high ground. So he went back to talk with Dachau's mayor and its journalists, waitresses and policemen, members of a community living normal lives in a place that reeks of historical atrocity. His portraits reveal the various ways Dachauers confront or evade the ugly history of their hometown (many pregnant women deliver in Munich so their children won't have the stain of Dachau on their birth certificates). Yet the voices of these people are ultimately obscured by the enigmatic man Ryback places at the moral center of the book: Martin Zaidenstadt, who may very well be crazy. Every day, Zaidenstadt goes to the camp to rebut the official history given by tour guides and historians. While Dachauers take a bizarre pride that the historical record shows that the gas chambers were never used at the camp, Zaidenstadt has made it his mission in life to tell visitors, in as many languages as he can, that Jews were, in fact, gassed at Dachau and that he saw it with his own eyes. Though Ryback's archival searches never confirm that Zaidenstadt was ever at Dachau, the author is happy to grant the old man his moral authority. In doing so, he implies that there should, after all, be no exit from history for Dachau. Pensive digressions into his own family history and thoughtful responses to what he sees in Dachau make Ryback an appealing guide. Zaidenstadt is so haunting a figure, however, that his presence overwhelms whatever insight Ryback has to offer into the soul of Dachau's present. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Journalist Ryback (deputy director, Salzburg Seminar in American Studies) presents a lively exploration of how the modern inhabitants of Dachau cope with living in the shadow of the infamous Nazi concentration camp. The central figure in the story, tying all the diverse threads together, is the enigmatic figure of Martin Zaidenstadt. A former Polish soldier and inmate of the camp, Zaidenstadt now spends his days sitting in Dachau and lecturing about the camp and his personal history. Ryback's quest for proof of Zaidenstadt's story places the lingering legacy of anti-Semitic violence in stark context. Zaidenstadt's first wife and child were burned alive by Polish Catholics; he now spends his days trying to forget that tragedy by remembering the horror of Dachau instead. Ryback's account helps us understand the continuing legacy of the Holocaust. For public libraries and specialized collections.ÄFrederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. Excerpted from The Last Survivor: In Search of Martin Zaidenstadt by Timothy W. Ryback All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.