Nat Shaffir just won’t give up

Nat Shaffir of Silver Spring climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in August. Photo courtesy of Nat Shaffir

It was a struggle, but the 82-year-old Silver Spring retiree made it: a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain in the world.

“It was great,” said Nat Shaffir, who will celebrate his 83rd birthday in December. He is believed to be the only Holocaust survivor to have made the climb.

It was August, below freezing on the ice-capped summit of the mountain in Tanzania that is 19,341 feet above sea level. The climb is challenging.

“But for the elderly, the risks are heightened,” Shawn Richard, expedition coordinator of Ultimate Kilimanjaro, the tour operator, wrote in an email. “The dangers of being on the mountain increase as they are more inclined to be injured, become ill, or just get fatigued. … Our guides paid close attention to him to ensure his health and safety,”

As the oldest of his trip’s eight hikers, two of whom did not complete the journey, Shaffir was called “Babu,” Swahili for grandpa.

Shaffir was affected by the high altitude, as oxygen levels decreased as elevations rose.

“I lost my appetite. I couldn’t eat enough,” he recalled. He pushed himself to eat — but “I lost 11 pounds.” And, he said, “I didn’t sleep well.”

He kept a slow pace on the eight-day climb.

Foods provided on the hike were mostly high in carbohydrates for energy, and meats, fruits, vegetables and more were included. “Nat ate a special vegetarian diet to keep kosher during his trek,” Richard wrote.

Shaffir, who is observant and is affiliated with Kemp Mill Synagogue, said he ate a lot of grains, peanut butter, power bars and the like.

Richard wrote that Shaffir “performed very well on the mountain and should be very proud of his accomplishment.”

In Shaffir’s mind were his father’s words to him as a child in Romania during the Holocaust, a message he has imparted to his own five children and 12 grandchildren: “Never give up.”

Shaffir thought “I’m here, I’ve done three days, then I’ve done four days, five days — I’m close to the summit,” he said. “The guides, they knew Nat is going to do it.”

For the final leg up, the group started at 11 p.m. from an elevation of 14,000 feet. Shaffir said he reached the top at 11 a.m. and soon headed down.

“You take a picture — you can’t stay very long up there. The air is very thin,” he said.

Shaffir’s struggles began in 1942; a priest’s weekly stop at his family’s dairy farm was not for the usual donation. The priest arrived with a police officer and two soldiers, pointed at Shaffir’s family and “said ‘These are Jews,’” Shaffir recalled. He was just shy of his sixth birthday.

They were sent to the ghetto in Iasi, to a room in a house shared by four families. His parents were forced into menial labor; Shaffir and his two sisters were barred from school – though a rabbi and his wife secretly taught ghetto children.

In 1943, Shaffir’s father was taken by authorities — Romania had joined the Axis alliance — for slave labor for a railway. Preparing to leave, he said life would get harsher before better. “He said five words to me that would stay with me for the rest of my life: “Nat, take care of the girls.’”  The child’s response: “I will.”

My father said, ‘Remember, don’t give up, never give up,’ and that kept me going. I never gave up.”

Shaffir used his wits. He offered to pump kerosene for an attendant who gave out the ration to ghetto residents so the man could stay in his warm booth – the attendant probably was nursing a hangover, Shaffir later concluded – and his efforts were regularly rewarded with extra winter heating fuel. “It kept our family a little more comfortable. I was always thinking how to keep my family alive,” he recalled. Sometimes he received a bit of food too.

A bottle of slivovitz for the attendant got him another food ration card for a family of four.

Iasi was liberated by Soviet troops in 1944.  Shaffir’s father returned to the ghetto, soon learning the family farm had been divided among the priest, the police officer and the local mayor, Shaffir said.

They learned that 32 of their relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. The family immigrated to Israel in 1950. A decade later, a surviving uncle on Long Island sponsored Shaffir to immigrate to the United States.

Closer to sea level, Shaffir raises dahlias in his Silver Spring yard.
Photo by Andrea Siegel

In 1998, he was a married family man in the Washington area — he and Merryl are now married 49 years — when a professor said his daughter ran the Marine Corps Marathon.

“I said if she could do it, I could do it,” he recounted. “I was already 65 years old.” Shaffir had taken up short-distance running years earlier.

Since 1999, he has completed three Boston Marathons, and his ninth Marine Corps Marathon last year. “My knees gave up. I said I’m hanging up my sneakers, now I’m hiking.”

That led to Kilimanjaro.

For years, the farm lad in him has made time to cultivate more than 100 dahlias — his wife loves them, he says — and grow figs and vegetables in his Kemp Mill yard.

Ashley Wilbur, 21, of Potomac, said her grandfather inspires her, and like others in her family, she’s learned from his example.

She, her brother, sister and some out-of-town cousins watched Shaffir run the Marine Corps Marathon last fall. “It was very inspiring to watch him, and you could see that it was hard for him,” she said.

His never-give-up message also has shown her the value of attitude in overcoming difficulties.

“I’ve learned that you can do whatever you set your mind to,” she said.

His Holocaust experiences are a family and cautionary story to his children and grandchildren — “I hope that they will be able to carry the torch for me when I am gone” — and  others.

Since 2010, after selling an internet business, he has volunteered at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — leading tours, helping visitors, speaking to groups that have included foreign military, students, judges, law enforcement trainees and others. His museum “First Person” conversations have been viewed hundreds of times on YouTube. He has spoken at schools, religious institutions and military bases, and been interviewed by news outlets.

“I guess I think of Nat as living life to the fullest despite his early childhood,” said Diane Saltzman, director of the Office of Constituency Engagement. “He’s all in on everything he does,” she said, noting that “He is able to share what happened to him and what the lessons are that people can learn.”

Among the lessons: “You have to speak up. You can’t remain silent,” Shaffir  said.

And never give up.

Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer.

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