Holocaust Survivor Owes Her Life to a Nazi Officer’s Great Dane

Nina Dinar, 93, has loved dogs since childhood and that saved her in a Nazi labor camp in Poland

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Nina Dinar and a Great Dane that was brought to her home.
Holocaust survivor Nina Dinar and a Great Dane that was brought to her Kiryat Ono home.Credit: Itai Bar-Joseph
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Nina Dinar from Kiryat Ono fulfilled a dream this week, a strange-sounding one to anyone not familiar with her amazing story. Dinar, who turns 94 next month, wished to hug a Great Dane, “like the one that saved me during the Holocaust.” For two hours she stroked, hugged and patted the backs of two dogs that were brought especially to her house.

The moving encounter was orchestrated by Tammy Bar-Joseph, who in recent years has been investigating an unusual branch of history: dogs in the Holocaust. Along with many testimonies of Nazis using dogs to attack Jews, she is documenting less-known stories having to do with Nazi-owned dogs saving Jews. This is how she reached Dinar, hearing for the first time her rescue story.

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Dinar was born in Warsaw in 1926. Ever since she was a child she loved and raised dogs. “Even though it was said that Jews don’t have dogs, I grew up with some,” says Dinar, speaking to Haaretz this week. “Even my grandmother had dogs.”

First memories

Her first memories are from when she was three, sitting happily on a sofa with a German Shepherd at her side. Eighty years ago, when World War II broke out and Warsaw was bombed, her dog “went crazy with fear,” she recalls. Her mother asked some soldiers in their yard to shoot it, thinking the dog would be dangerous to the public. “I buried it with a neighbor in a bomb crater on Jerosolimskie (Jerusalem) Street,” she says.

Even later, when her family was deported to the ghetto, she continued raising dogs. “I took a dog from a neighbor who had two. It was really hard to raise them,” she says. She doesn’t know what happened to it in the end.

Adolf Hitler with and Eva Braun, 1942.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Her father was murdered in April 1942. A year later, when the ghetto uprising began, Nina and her mother moved from cellar to cellar, “thanks to our Jewish underground,” she says.

Later, when the Germans attacked the bunker they were in, Nina and her mother were caught and deported to the Majdanek death camp. They took with them a suitcase full of photos, jewels and whatever else they could, but the Germans later stole these. They were in the camp for four months, lifting heavy rocks. One day Nina was injured by gunfire while working. From there, the two were taken to the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, in which Jews worked as slave laborers in a German armaments’ factory.

The Nazi officer's dog

Here is where her remarkable story begins. When Nina and her mother arrived at the camp, they were sent to the parade ground, presided over by a Nazi officer, Dr. Artur Rost. “He stood there with his dog, a white Great Dane with black spots. I loved dogs, so I called it. I didn’t even whistle, I only did like this (she demonstrates a lip-smacking sound). What a great dog,” she says.

And then, in contrast to numerous stories about vicious attack dogs used by the Nazis, the dog left its owner and turned to Nina, “the wounded, barefoot, pathetic Jewess standing in the ranks,” she says. For a few minutes she stroked it and it licked her. The women around her told her she was mad since the dog was probably trained to attack Jews. The officer was also surprised by what he saw.

Over the following months Nina had to do hard labor. There too, “the dog would always find me wherever I was,” she says. When it came close, she petted it. The special tie between her and the dog, whose name she didn’t know, caught the attention of its owner, the Nazi officer. Nina says he gave her some of the dog’s food as a supplement. Perhaps that is how she survived there despite the inhuman conditions, while her mother died of hunger.

In August 1944, as the Russians were approaching, the Germans decided to evacuate the camp and kill the weakened workers. Nina was sent to a group marked for death. Weighing only 32 kilograms, she was swollen from hunger, hairless and suffering from several maladies.

And then, like in a fairy tale, the Nazi officer arrived with his dog. Rost checked to see if there were enough people in the group marked for death. He didn’t identify Nina. “It was impossible to recognize me,” she says. However, the dog recognized her immediately and went to her. Rost took her out of the condemned group and put her in another one, of those destined to live. “Come here, you’re going this way,” he ordered.

Thus, because of a Nazi officer’s dog, Nina survived. She was later sent to Buchenwald camp in Germany, subsequently escaping a death march. In 1948 she came to Israel. After marrying and having two children, she returned to raising dogs. “I never feared dogs; they sense it when someone loves them,” she says.

Never recounted the story

Dinar had never told her story before outside her family. Bar-Joseph, who met her as part of her historical research, posted the main parts of the story on Facebook, the post going viral this week. Bar-Joseph, a dog-lover herself, turned her love of canines into the subject of a unique academic study – dogs in the Holocaust – which will be the main part of her thesis in pursuing a degree in cultural studies at the Open University.

“The Nazis used 200,000 dogs during the war, for policing, deterrence and guarding, but also as attack dogs, tormenting and killing Jews,” Bar-Joseph says. “Many survivors have described how Nazi dogs were present at many waystations of the Holocaust, as well as describing the traumas inflicted on them by Nazi dogs.”

These testimonies, backed by photographs, films and terrifying drawings, enlarged the image of the vicious dog during the Holocaust. Among the more “famous” ones was Rolf, the dog belonging to Amon Goeth, commander of the Plaszow concentration camp, memorialized in Schindler’s List, and Barry, a dog belonging to Kurt Franz, commander of Treblinka, which was also trained to attack inmates.

Nevertheless, by analyzing and documenting memories of survivors Bar-Joseph has found that there are other stories as well. “These describe dogs that helped Jews, sharing their kennels, or food, or even protecting them and saving them,” she says. Nina’s story, in this context, “allows us to move beyond the standard image of Nazi dogs and relate to dogs as man’s loyal friend.”

Not unique

This is a rare story, but not unique. Bar-Joseph found 10 more cases of dogs saving Jews. “All the children who were saved by dogs were dog-lovers who raised dogs before and after the Holocaust, and their ability to relate to dogs helped them communicate with Nazi-owned dogs, helping the dogs save them and survive.”

Another story Bar-Joseph discovered was of Roman Schwartz, also a survivor. Amon Goeth set his dog on Schwartz, who was caught stealing potato peels. Schwartz, a dog-lover, ordered the dog to halt and sit. Goeth was impressed and spared his life. “These stories are another facet of survival stories,” she says, “affording a different kind of memory, stretching the boundaries of the more established and known memories.”

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