Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
The Houston community said farewell to a gentle giant March 8. Walter Kase became one of the best known spokesmen for the need for mutual respect among people who come from very different backgrounds. He told his story of confinement in a Nazi concentration camp thousands of times wherever people were willing to listen.
His early childhood in Poland was typical of many boyhoods around the world. He and his younger sister were free to play with both Jewish and non-Jewish children in their neighborhood. As children they worried more about winning the next soccer or volleyball game than their religious differences.
That all changed one day in late 1940. That day their family was moved into a Jewish ghetto. In 1941 they and their neighbors were summoned to the town square. He and his parents had to watch the Nazi’s shoot his eight-year-old sister for the crime of being little. He survived because his father had him stand on a stone so he’d appear taller than his twelve-year-old height.
After that day Kase lost contact with his mother until the war ended. He and his father stayed together through the horrors of Auschwitz. They survived but his father died in the hospital a month later from the extreme deprivations they’d both suffered.
How does anyone go on after that? Walter went on by eventually immigrating to Kansas where he got an education and started a business career. He married and with his wife raised four children. He eventually moved to Houston. However, memories of the starvation and constant cruelty traveled with him wherever he went.
Walter Kase became a familiar figure at school assemblies, conferences, and workshops. Each time he spoke he told of the atrocities he endured as a teenager. Each time he delivered the same message that we need to learn to respect each other. It’s estimated he told his story over a thousand times. Houston Holocaust Museum Executive Director Kelly Zuniga reports he “Spoke with passion about the importance of respect and dignity and seldom ended a talk without bringing tears to those listening.”
I heard him speak once about the heartless deprivations and humiliations inflicted on him and other concentration camp prisoners day after day. What has stayed with me is how gentle and kind he was. That and his closing statement that we need more women in leadership because mothers and grandmothers would not be so quick to send their sons and grandsons off to war.
Rest in Peace Walter Kase. May your story lead to increased civility and decency. Thank you for your powerful witness among us.