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Jewish Journal

Broke but hopeful, one survivor says it’s ‘better than Auschwitz’

by Jane Ulman

November 22, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Walter Essinger today. <small>Photo by Jane Ulman</small>

Walter Essinger today. <small>Photo by Jane Ulman</small>

Last Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, Walter Essinger did not attend any community vigils or synagogue commemoration services. Instead, the 73-year-old survivor spent that day, April 26, being interrogated by Ventura County detectives. He was then arrested, handcuffed and eventually booked into the Ventura County Jail.

During the night, unable to sleep and "treated like a common criminal," Essinger was transferred to four different cells before he was released on bail the following morning.

"There was absolutely no reason to arrest me," said Essinger, a materials scientist who otherwise has a clean record and who claims the incident stemmed from an unwarranted eviction and a rushed move from the 5,000-square-foot laboratory in Simi Valley he rented for his semiconductor manufacturing business.

But despite his protestation, Essinger was indicted in August by the Ventura County Criminal Grand Jury on five counts of "knowingly and unlawfully" disposing of chemicals such as acetone and sulfuric acid. On Nov. 3, he was sentenced to three years probation, 200 hours of community service and fines totaling just over $17,000. He barely escaped a 90-day jail sentence. "They were after me," he said. "There's a rat here."

Essinger, who lives on a Social Security pension of $1,180 and who was represented by a public defender, doesn't know how he's going to pay the fine, with $300 due every month. Meanwhile, he is continuing to seek the services of an attorney to help him.

But for this Holocaust survivor, adversity and close calls are nothing new. Born in 1935 in Munich, Germany, Essinger spent his first three years living on Bienerstrasse, across from Hitler's offices. His mother, Selma Salomon, who was third-generation Jewish Dutch, witnessed the comings and goings of Nazi soldiers and feared for their future. In 1938, she packed a small valise, gathered up 3-year-old Walter, who never saw his father again, and boarded a train for Holland.

"My mother was brilliant. If not for her, I would have died in the gas chamber," Essinger said. But while this lively, bon vivant from a wealthy textile family may have saved his life, she filled it with fear and abuse, beyond that of the Holocaust, leaving a legacy of paranoia and nightmares and a belief that money is evil.

After leaving Germany, Essinger spent four years in Holland. But in 1942, he, his mother and his new common-law stepfather, Walter de Beer, were on the run again. This time they escaped by bicycle, with Essinger riding on the handlebars of his stepfather's "green, high-tech" bike, across the border into Belgium. There they threw away the bikes and, taking refuge under a bridge, ripped off their yellow stars. Essinger recalls his mother rubbing his jacket with a stone to erase the star's outline.

After that, they traveled from city to city, making extended stops in Brussels; Paris and Nancy, France; and Bern and Montreux, Switzerland. They were always one step ahead of the Nazis, always sitting separately on buses and trains in case one of them was captured. Essinger carried the money, diamonds and other jewels that were sewn into his jacket.

"I was like a little dog, doing whatever my parents told me," he said. Essinger remembers many close calls. Once they traveled by bus to Besancon, France, a place they heard was safe. When the bus stopped in the town center, however, three Nazi soldiers with machine guns and German shepherds greeted the vehicle. But while the other passengers exited the front door of the bus, Walter and his parents escaped out a side door, abandoning their belongings on board and running into a nearby hotel, where they found shelter.

"It was unbelievable luck, like God looked after us," Essinger said.

But much of the time he was left to fend for himself, hanging out on the streets of unfamiliar cities and scrounging for food. Also, he remembers being berated and physically abused by his parents. He says his mother was a "very evil woman," and his stepfather was an amateur boxer who used to beat him and who, several times, chained his hands together and forced him to stand with his arms raised.

"What saved me was my love for radios," Essinger said.

He found them in hotel rooms, and in Switzerland his mother bought one for him.

After the war, Essinger returned to Amsterdam, where he finished the lyceum and studied radio repair and electronics. But by then, his mother had borne two more children with De Beer, and he was "in the way." In 1952, his mother dropped him off in Israel, where he served three years in the army and then ran a radio store in Haifa. After 10 years, he immigrated to Los Angeles with a wife and two young children.

In the United States, he repaired radios for a living and then returned to school, earning two master's degrees in electrical engineering at UCLA. He worked for several electronics companies. He then helped develop the idea for flat-screen laptop monitors, co-founding Sigmatron Nova, a technology company headquartered in Santa Barbara, in 1982 and creating several components that were patented.

"I was living the American dream," said Essinger, who resided with his wife and three children in a 3,000-square-foot house on a quarter-acre in the hills of Thousand Oaks. "I also owned a couple Cadillacs," he added.

But life again took a series of unfortunate turns.

Leaving Sigmatron Nova in 1986, he worked for another company that subsequently went bankrupt. In 1990, he divorced and sold his house.

A year later, he and a partner began a new electronics company, called Elume, manufacturing semiconductors for biomedical and life-sciences applications.

But one morning, he awoke not feeling well. It turned out he needed coronary artery bypass surgery, and, because of what he believes was an allergic reaction to iodine, a subsequent valve replacement. All told, he spent 30 days at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, to the tune of $248,000. He said he had no insurance -- "I'm a dreamer," he said in defense -- and paid $175,000, essentially his entire net worth.

By 1997, he became the sole owner of Elume, moving to the Simi Valley facility. He had six employees and gross income over $500,000 a year. But in 2005, he discovered that a part-time business manager was embezzling money from him -- about $150,000 total, Essinger estimated -- and secretly selling equipment. As a result, Essinger couldn't pay his rent. And through a series of what he characterizes as misunderstandings, he was evicted, even after trying to pay the back rent with a cashier's check. He was given only one week to leave. With little money, using rented trucks and day laborers, he hastily evacuated thousands of pounds of equipment into four storage units. In the rush, he left behind -- completely inadvertently, he claims -- $75,000 worth of equipment and about 20 gallons of chemicals, resulting in the recent conviction.

"Walter is a good man," said Barbara Creme, his "significant other" and the former director of Valley Alliance's Jewish Community Relations Council. But he said he feels abandoned by some parts of the Jewish community and his relationships with his own children are conflicted.

Recently, Essinger discovered four Swiss bank accounts that belonged to members of his father's family. He is working with the office of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) to try to expedite these funds, but, according to Berman's district director, Robert Blumenfield, the money may not amount to more than 43,000 Swiss francs, the equivalent of $36,000. And that needs to be split among Essinger, a half-brother and a cousin.

Essinger said he has also found at least $250,000 in Holland, which belonged to his mother's family. However, he doesn't have the financial means to travel to Holland and to pay the court costs, which he says are $25,000 up front. His mother, who died a recluse in Switzerland at age 86, disinherited him. And he is estranged from his De Beer half-siblings, who now live in Switzerland and Florida.

"I know money is evil. I saw it with my parents. They had millions, but wouldn't give me 25 cents," he said.

In addition, working through Bet Tzedek's Holocaust Services Project, he is looking into what other Holocaust reparations might be available.

Meanwhile, Essinger is working. He has relocated his company to Oxnard and, with one employee, hopes to rebuild his semiconductor business. Plus, he still finds comfort in his radio collection.

"I'm not complaining. I'll be OK," he said. And he compares himself to others who were sent to the death camps. "If I think of one day spent in Auschwitz, my life is nothing compared to that."

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