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Jewish Journal

Judgment of Herbert Bierhoff

A terrible delimma haunts first-time playwright, Dr. Sigi Ziering

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 9, 1999 | 8:00 pm

The nightmares have plagued Dr. Sigi Ziering since the Holocaust.

"Of all the many memories of friends and family that I [have] carried with me for over 50 years, the fate of the Bierhoff family... [has] caused me the most sleepless nights," Ziering says, through a character in his new play, "The Judgment of Herbert Bierhoff." The play, the first ever written by the 71-year-old businessman and philanthropist, will be performed in a staged reading at the University of Judaism Sept. 15 and 16, and star Jon Voight and Cloris Leachman.

"Bierhoff," Ziering says, was inspired by a man he knew in the last days of the Jewish ghetto in Riga, Latvia, in the fall of 1943. Herbert Bierhoff was a Jew and a ghetto policeman; his 5-year-old daughter, Ellen, was one of the few children who had survived the repeated "selections," in part because of her father's privileged position.

As a ghetto policeman, Bierhoff knew of the shooting of 29,000 Latvian Jews in the Rumbuli forest in 1941; he knew of the daily hangings and beatings, and he knew about the impending liquidation of the ghetto in the fall of 1943.

Thus, Bierhoff took startling action. Just before the liquidation, he poisoned his young daughter -- a mercy killing to save the child from an infinitely more brutal death at the hands of the SS.

"Soon afterwards, Herbert Bierhoff was shot by the ghetto Kommandant, and his wife died in the concentration camp, Stutthof," says Ziering, who survived the war along with his mother and brother.

But Bierhoff's deed haunted Ziering, and the obsession intensified over the years, with the birth of the survivor's own children and grandchildren. In Ziering's dreams, the faces of his children and grandchildren transform into the face of Ellen Bierhoff.

In his semi-autobiographical play, Ziering recounts many of his own remarkable experiences from World War II.

In December 1941, 13-year-old Ziering and 1,000 other Jews from Kassel, Germany, marched under police escort from the Schillerstrasse Gymnasium to the main railway station in town. They were deported to the Riga ghetto, where Ziering lived until he was transported to Kaiserwald and, eventually, to the Kiel-Hasse concentration camp after a forced death march. At Kiel-Hasse, the teenager was saved by a virtual miracle in the spring of 1945.

One day in late April, an SS officer took him to the camp's morgue. He forced Ziering to remove civilian clothing from corpses and informed him that he would be departing with the Swedish Red Cross the next morning. "We hardly slept that night," Ziering recalls, "because we expected the worst." But the following day, white trucks with the Swedish Red Cross flag arrived at the camp, where "the SS was frighteningly civil and even made a farewell speech...as if we were leaving a vacation resort," Ziering recalls in the play.

Later, the survivor learned that Count Bernadotte of Sweden had negotiated with Himmler to exchange a few thousand Jews for a few million dollars.

Ziering immigrated to the U.S. in 1949; he married Marilyn, an American-born Jew, in 1953, and four years later, he earned his doctorate in physics from Syracuse University. The survivor worked in the aerospace industry before he and Marilyn moved to L.A. and founded their international medical supplies company, Diagnostic Products Corp., in 1971. Ziering, a past president of Temple Beth Am, now serves on the board of the University of Judaism and is co-chair of the L.A. section of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Over the years, however, he never forgot the terrible dilemma of Herbert Bierhoff. "I thought about it for 50 years, and then I decided I must put it in writing," the survivor says of his play, which seeks to answer Ziering's owns questions about whether Bierhoff's actions could be forgiven by God. Writing the play has provided some closure, he says. "But I still dream about it," he admits.

For tickets, which are $10, call Mindy Cohn at (310) 440-1209.

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