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Living history

Hamilton, Ohio – Man’s inhumanity toward man can be incomprehensible, bordering on unbelievable.

Unless you grew up with it.

Escaped it.

Fought it head on.

Lived to share your stories - for nearly a century now, no less - so others may understand.

Like Dr. Al Miller did during his Celebrating Self luncheon appearance Wednesday, Nov. 2, at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts.

The capacity audience sang Happy Birthday to Miller - who turns 100 Nov. 20 - but the tone of the ballroom quickly fell from festive to somber as he related his story of growing up Jewish in Berlin, Germany, as Adolph Hitler came to power.

“My memory has become deficient, but some things I will never forget,” Miller said. One of them was something his teacher told him in front of the rest of the class. “‘I think you will want to get into a concentration camp and I can help you to get there,’ is what he said. That is what we dealt with.”

On another occasion, Miller watched Nazi stormtroopers parade the streets of Berlin singing, “When Jewish blood spurts from the knife, everything works twice as well.”

Still, Miller wanted to stay in Berlin for three reasons – his friends, his sports and because he was stubborn.

“I don’t know what I wanted to prove, but I wanted to prove it,” he said. “I didn’t want to believe they could chase us away.”

Miller saw American Jesse Owens win four gold medals during the 1936 Olympics in his hometown; Hitler refused to shake the hand of a black man. He witnessed family businesses – established for more than 50 years – boycotted and eventually banned by the Nazis. He watched as up to 12,000 Jews a day were transported from their homes and murdered in concentration camps.

By 1937 – at the age of 14 – he finally fled Germany for Switzerland; his parents stayed behind, unsure of their fate. His brother escaped to England. It was nearly two years before the whole family reunited in Belgium, spent a few days in Holland and made its way to New York City.

Miller got a laugh when telling how he misplaced his papers upon arrival in the United States. A kindly immigration official helped calm him down and provided another lifetime memory.

“This is another thing I will never forget,” Miller said “He said, ’Sonny, you are now in the United States of America. You are in a free country now. Make something of yourself and we will be grateful you came to live with us.’”

He did. And then some.

Miller served in the U.S. Army from 1943 through the duration of the war. He returned to Germany as a Ritchie Boy, working in intelligence and interrogating possible war criminals. He opened an ophthalmology practice in Hamilton and worked 40-odd years caring for people’s eyes.

He continues to open eyes – and hearts – with his commitment to sharing his story of survival.

“I do the best I can,” Miller said.

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