Perhaps the most amazing thing about Alan Zimm isn’t that he survived the torment and cruelty of being held in Nazi concentration camps when so many others didn’t, but that he lived the rest of his life not hating every creature that walked upright on two legs.
“He never held any anger, no bitterness at all,” said his granddaughter Jordana McMahon. “He never spoke badly about the Germans. When he would speak [to groups of students and others], he would say, ‘Learn from what happened, but don’t hate people.’”
Added daughter Ruth Zimm-McMahon, “He would forgive but not forget.”
Zimm, a longtime Richmond tailor who did not retire until he was 97, died on Saturday, a little more than a month shy of his 100th birthday. He had been recovering from recent hip surgery, following a fall, when he tested positive for COVID-19, his family said. He had been a resident of Beth Sholom in Henrico County since early 2019.
His family had not been able to visit him since mid-March when Beth Sholom closed its doors to outside visitors because of the coronavirus. Not being able to visit her father in his final days was “extremely painful,” Zimm-McMahon said.
His funeral on Monday at Richmond Beth-El Cemetery was attended by only a handful of relatives, wearing masks, a result of the current rules prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. The service was livestreamed, with more than 100 others “attending” via Zoom. We heard Halina, his wife of more than 70 years, talk about what a good man he was and how he could be, on occasion, a bit stubborn.
Zimm-McMahon and McMahon represented Zimm’s four children and 10 grandchildren (and four great-grandchildren), telling stories about his love of family, corny jokes and ping-pong, and how he was a man of few words.
“A quiet hero,” Zimm-McMahon said.
Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El recalled Zimm as a man of extraordinary resilience “who defied the Nazi terror and survived — despite all odds — the horrors of the ghetto and three separate concentration camps.”
He said it feels “somehow surreal” that someone who lived his life surrounded by family and operated a business for almost seven decades that involved close, personal interaction “could spend his final days alone because of the unique dangers posed by this vicious plague.”
“And yet,” Knopf said, “sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.”
I interviewed Zimm a couple of times over the years, including in 2007 when the Zimms were invited to the White House as guests of President George W. Bush for a Veterans Day ceremony.
Before that, in 2004, I’d talked to him after he and grandson Jeremy McMahon returned from a trip to Poland for the 60th anniversary of the “liquidation” of the ghetto in Lodz, where tens of thousands of Jews were removed from the city and taken to Nazi death camps. Zimm was among the few survivors, and he was invited to an event observing the anniversary.
Zimm said he wasn’t sure he wanted to go, thinking it would be too painful. His grandson, high school age at the time, helped talk him into it. Zimm agreed to go, but only if his grandson went with him. He thought it would be educational.
“It’s one thing to read about it,” Zimm told me. “It’s another to see it.”
Zimm returned home to Richmond, saying the journey had been filled with mixed emotions.
“It was very sad,” said Zimm, who shared his life story in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. “Thinking back about my family. About everything.”
At the same time, though, “It eased some of the pain.”
Zimm was born in Kolo, Poland, the third youngest of nine children. The Nazis invaded his town and began rounding up Jews. He came home one day to find some members of his family had been taken away. He fled to an aunt’s village but was captured several months later and sent to Lodz, a once-thriving center of commerce with a large Jewish population. The Nazis had herded the Jews into a small section of the city and sealed it off with barbed wire.
More than 200,000 people were squeezed into less than 1½ square miles, according to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Food and fuel were in short supply, and poor sanitary conditions led to epidemics. More than 40,000 people died from starvation, cold and disease.
Many thousands were deported to camps where they were murdered; others, such as Zimm, were sent to camps to work as slave labor. He spent time in a series of camps — Czestochowa, Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, and Bergen Belsen. He was liberated on April 15, 1945, thinking he was the only member of his family to survive. Later, though, he found an older brother, Sol, in a German Displaced Persons camp. Sol had been at Auschwitz for a time and survived a two-month death march.
The liberation was bittersweet to the extent that Zimm felt he had no home to go to, which is why his family said he became a staunch proponent and defender of Israel, an “ardent Zionist,” as they said.
But he did not go to live in Israel. He first went back to Poland, where he was smitten by a lovely young woman he saw working in a deli in Lodz. He and Halina moved to Germany, married in 1948 and then came to America, sponsored by a Hebrew relief organization. He settled in Richmond, rejoining Sol, who was introduced to Halina’s sister, Helen, whom he married. (Sol died in 1993, Helen earlier this month.)
The brothers immediately began work as tailors; another brother had taught Alan to sew before he left home.
“I came here on a Friday,” Alan Zimm told me of his arrival in Richmond, “and I was working on Monday.”
He worked for a few months in a Richmond haberdashery before saving enough money to open his own custom tailor shop, first on Meadow Street and then moving in the late 1950s to Patterson Avenue, near Libbie Avenue, where he used to work six days a week.
Zimm-McMahon opened a lingerie shop next door to her father and worked side-by-side with him for 33 years, often sharing customers.
“He would tell them, ‘Go get a bra from my daughter,’” she recalled with a laugh, “and I would send people to get alterations from him.”
He considered it semi-retirement, his family joked, when he reduced his schedule to five days a week and only a half-day on Saturdays. He finally retired for good at age 97.
“He loved his work,” said his daughter Rebecca Parisier. “He considered work his salvation. Work enabled him to survive.”
She recalled him telling her about his time as a prisoner working on an assembly line in an underground Nazi rocket factory at Dora-Mittelbau. Those suspected of sabotaging production were hanged, and the remaining workers were forced to walk beneath their dangling legs. He told her he always tried to exceed his daily quota on whatever he was working on, in case one was defective.
A more pleasant memory from his time there — maybe the only one — was of a German engineer who would secretly leave a sandwich in the drawer of Zimm’s work station, helping him stave off hunger.
Simon Sibelman, executive director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, first knew of Zimm as a teen when he visited his tailor shop, but he got to know him better once he returned to Richmond to work at the museum in 2009.
“He was a diminutive man, and his personality was somewhat like that, yet when he began to speak of his experiences you were bowled over,” Sibelman said in a phone interview from Massachusetts, where he now lives. “He went through with a certain degree of almost what I would call royal dignity. He did not, like some survivors, lash out at the Nazis and collaborators. He just talked in very direct terms of what he had experienced, where he had gone and what he had lost.”
Zimm loved speaking to students and teachers because he felt it important to educate younger generations, Sibelman said.
“He never had any sense of negativism,” he said. “The whole idea was, it happened, and we’ve got to move forward, but must move forward remembering what happened. That really, in so many ways, sums up that man’s life and the lives of so many of the survivors.”
Richmond writer Nancy Wright Beasley says the trajectory of her life’s work was changed dramatically in 1997 when she heard Zimm recite the names of his lost loved ones at a Kristallnacht ceremony at the Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery.
“He spoke each name reverently, citing the individual’s place in his family unit,” Beasley recalled. “I began to cry as I suddenly saw the Holocaust as a singular event, rather than a huge historical one. I had never seen [Zimm] before, but I told him that day he had changed my life.”
Starting with what she heard that day, Beasley has written numerous articles and two books, produced a play and traveled in the United States and abroad to speak on the Holocaust.
“And it all began with Mr. Zimm,” she said. “I will miss him terribly.”
In closing his eulogy on Monday, Rabbi Knopf described Zimm as “a tailor by trade and also in life. Because whatever he did, he was mending and sewing. He was a mender of broken hearts, a weaver of relationships, a connector of family and community.
“Alan made people fit together and feel comfortable with themselves and with one another the same way he made clothes fit perfectly, and in the same way he made people feel comfortable in whatever they were wearing,” Knopf said.
At the end of the service, Halina Zimm thanked Knopf — standing 6 feet away — and said he felt like part of her family. She said she regretted she could not give him a hug.
Knopf replied, “We’ll make a date when [the pandemic] is over.”