In Memoriam Zwi Nigal
It was with great sorrow that we learned of the death of Zwi Nigal. Just last April, the Austrian-born Holocaust survivor and first Simon Wiesenthal Prize laureate was roundly congratulated on his 100th birthday. Now the voice of this tireless contemporary eyewitness has fallen silent forever.
Zwi Nigal was born in Vienna in 1923 under the name Hermann Heinz Engel. As a youth he lived through the segregation of Jews in the classroom, daily degradation and harassment and, finally – when, in December 1938, a woman turned up his family's flat in Große Stadtgutgasse in Vienna’s 2nd District and claimed it for herself – expulsion.
Later on, during his work as a contemporary eyewitness, Zwi Nigal shared his memories and feelings about that life-changing day with students at a high school: “My father was lucky, he found a room somewhere and a handcart to carry our belongings away – amid the jeers and shouts of bystanders, amid buildings decked out from top to bottom with the Nazi swastika.... And as I pulled the handcart I thought: This is what my uncle died for [in the First World War; comm,] for Austria? This is what my father served all his life for [on the state railway; comm.]? This is what they call patriotism?” That’s when the then 15-year-old decided that he was “done with Austria”.
In January 1939, 16-year-old Hermann Heinz Engel fled to Palestine with the Youth Aliyah. From 1941 fought against Nazi Germany in the 10th company “The Buffs”, which later became part of the Jewish Brigade of the British Army and he took on a Hebrew name, Zwi Nigal.
He had to leave his parents behind in Austria.
His father Theodor Engel, a retired senior inspector at the Austrian Federal Railways, was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and onwards to Auschwitz in October 1944. He did not survive.
His mother, Jeanette Engel, née Hirsch, managed to flee Vienna in 1940. She was interned on Mauritius until 1945 and then emigrated to Palestine, where she passed away in the late 1980s.
In 1946, Zwi Nigal returned to Vienna as a British soldier, but he no longer wanted to live there. He went to Palestine, joined the paramilitary underground organisation Haganah and fought in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. He served as a soldier in the Israeli army from 1948 to 1966.
Zwi Nigal always felt that that he wanted to pass on what he knew to future generations. After his retirement, he worked as a contemporary eyewitness, delivering lectures to around 1,500 students in Germany and Austria every year. He had a lot to tell with them.
In 2018, when he visited his former school in Vienna’s 2nd District, he recalled his experiences as a schoolboy in 1938 and how he witnessed the “Anschluss” first hand: “I heard Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg’s farewell address to the nation on the radio. He ended it with the words ‘God save Austria’, and then the Austrian national anthem rang out. I will never forget that moment.”
At Zwi Nigal’s former family home at Große Stadtgutgasse 34, there is a memorial plaque commemorating the Jewish residents of the building who were expelled or deported and murdered during the years of Nazi terror. One of the names is that of Zwi Nigal’s father, Theodor Engel.
In 2021, Zwi Nigal and three other contemporary eyewitnesses were awarded the Simon Wiesenthal Prize for civic engagement to combat antisemitism and educate the public about the Holocaust. It was a much belated but highly-deserved tribute that he received from Austria.
Zwi Nigal and his story live on in our memories.
- Theodor Otto, Jeannette and Hermann Heinz Engel iin the remembrance project "Große Stadtgutgasse 34" (in German)
- Report and video of Zwi Nigal visiti to the high school Gymnasium Zirkusgasse in 2018 (in German)
- Entry on Theodor Engel in the database of prisoners at Auschwitz
- Pres release on the Simon Wiesenthal Prize 2021