WWII vet honored to receive Regis degree

A 93-year-old World War II vet who helped free Nazi concentration camp captives received an honorary degree from Regis University last weekend.

During a commencement ceremony Dec. 21, Sidney Shafner, who is Jewish, received a degree from president Jesuit Father John P. Fitzgibbons more than 70 years after he attended the Denver university.

“Sidney deserves this degree—he’s anything but average” said Nathan Matlock, associate director of the university’s Center for the Study of War Experience.

Shafner said he was anticipating the ceremony when the Denver Catholic Register interviewed him at his home in Aurora Dec. 18.

“I’m excited,” he said.

Shafner first came onto the Regis campus in 1943 as part of an elite group of American men selected for the Army Specialized Training Corps. He poured hours into his studies, lab work and also military training.

“I took it very seriously,” Shafner said when he was a student at 22 years old. “I didn’t want to be sent to the infantry.”

But the war changed that when the military decided Shafner and fellow soldiers were needed in Europe to help the war effort. He became a soldier in the 42nd Infantry Rainbow Division, one of two units credited with liberating the Dachau concentration camp in April 1945.

Along the way from Nuremberg, Germany, the soldiers were ambushed and shot at by planes overhead. Shafner’s heroic response of calling for backup earned him two bronze stars, he said.

“With God’s help they stopped firing on us,” he said as the troops took cover under their military vehicles.

The soldiers were not prepared for what they saw in Dachau, Shafner said.

Once they arrived, they were greeted by “these strange-looking people with strange-looking clothes, who were dropping like flies because their condition was so bad.”

The people were inmates at the concentration camp, as two young boys along the road had informed the soldiers. They entered the camp and freed the prisoners.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “It’s an example of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Shafner said the two boys, who were sent to the camps to work as laborers after their families were killed at Auschwitz, were offered food and clothing. They became their cooks and stayed with the infantry until the war ended.

“These kids remained with us for a whole year,” Shafner said. “They were like a part of our infantry.”

He befriended the two boys with whom he spoke German, and has remained in touch with one, Marcel Levy, ever since that historic day.

“Every two weeks he emails me,” Shafner said of his friend who lives outside Tel Aviv, Israel. “We’re very close.”

Shafner returned to Denver and married his wife of 68 years, Esther. They had three children together. Today they have seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Although Shafner never completed his engineering degree at Regis, he said he is grateful for the time he spent on the campus. He was joined at the ceremony at Regis by his family.


COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.