Survivors’ stories create fabric of Shoah quilt

Twelve months after her concentration camp was liberated, Ann Spicer, newly married, was leaving Germany for good. It was May 21, 1946. Her husband’s little brother was the first to board the train in Stuttgart that would take the makeshift family to the first ship out of Hamburg headed toward America.

Philip, 13, flashed a grin as he climbed into the wooden car, on whose side someone had stuck a paper sign: “America, here we come.” Spicer’s husband snapped a photograph.

“We didn’t even know where we were going,” Spicer recalled recently. “We knew we were going to America. It was the first time I was on a ship, going to a land that I didn’t know anything about.”

Spicer’s experience is not unique among the more than 100,000 Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States after the war. But she has chosen to share her memories this year in a unique way — by contributing this photograph to a “Shoah Quilt” project put together by Mount Sinai Memorial Parks in honor of Yom HaShoah.

Mount Sinai’s staff last year asked members of the L.A. Jewish community to create personalized squares for a quilt that would memorialize the Holocaust, its victims and its survivors.

“We wanted to do a quilt, similar to the AIDS Quilt, to commemorate the Shoah on the 60th anniversary of Israel,” said Len Lawrence, general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries. “It would be a quilt of hope, looking forward, not of misery.”

They sent out blank pieces of fabric to those who answered a series of ads soliciting contributions, with few guiding instructions.

“We said, ‘Commemorate who you want, the way you want,'” Lawrence said. “It’s a very personal commemoration of people, places or things. It was really up to the individuals.”

As submissions began to pour in, Mount Sinai employees realized the project addressed a widespread need for a venue in which to honor names and faces that might otherwise go unknown. Word of mouth carried news of the project across the country. Contributions also came from Canada, Israel and England. So many squares were submitted — an “overwhelming” total of 156, Lawrence said — that they had to assemble three quilts.

Contributor Wendy Brogin of Sherman Oaks said she was thankful for the chance to tell the story of how the Holocaust affected her life.

Both her father’s and mother’s families were decimated in concentration camps, but they each found a way to survive, she said. Her father was able to escape Germany through an arrangement to teach tailoring on the Isle of Man.

“The Holocaust almost toppled our whole family, but we survived,” said Brogin, who translated that notion into an embroidered family tree with a chop mark at the base. She, her husband and their three children all helped sew their relatives’ names onto the tree.

“This was an opportunity to make a statement,” Brogin said of the Shoah Quilt. “My biggest concern is are my children going to know about it? Are their children going to know about it? I wanted to spread the message that this happened and that it must never happen again, so it’s not repeated and it’s not refuted.”

Preserving the legacy of the Holocaust ensures that future generations of Jews will know the value of their heritage, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple told a packed Kamenir Chapel at Mount Sinai Simi Valley on May 4, before unveiling the quilts to a crowd of contributors, their families and guests. But simply recalling the names of those who perished is also a “holy act” in itself, he said.

“Because we remember them as people who died, we often forget that they were people who lived. Even if we remember only a name, that is a powerful tribute.”

Wolpe encouraged attendees to read aloud the names printed on the panels of fabric, stitched in thread, written in marker and surrounded uniquely in each piece by buttons, sequins, tallit strings, a crocheted piece of lace or a Star of David made of popsicle sticks. One square features a burning candle; another, train tracks; one has a dove with an olive branch; and near the blue silk border of the third quilt, a photo transfer of Ann Spicer and her husband, Edward, with the caption: “From martyrdom to freedom.”

Spicer was born in Radom, Poland, and was a teenager when the Nazis came to her town. She watched her family of six unravel through a series of ghettos and concentration camps in Poland and Germany.

“They took away everything from us — the light, the food, the way of being with families,” she recalled. “There were horrors that happened overnight.”

After surviving hard labor, hunger and disease at Auschwitz, separated from her parents and siblings, Spicer was put on a train to a camp in northern Germany where she was liberated in 1945.

She was liberated by four young American soldiers. Ironically, the first thing they asked her for was soap so they could wash up. “I looked at them, and I became hysterical, because I hadn’t seen soap in six years,” she said. “You suddenly become free, and you don’t know what to do with that freedom. I had no money, no clothing, and nobody left. But somehow, we managed.”

Spicer met her husband in Stuttgart, where she had stayed on to work for UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency). They were married in December, and with her little brother-in-law the following May, they sailed to the U.S. to build a new life.

“When I heard about this project, I thought it was a beautiful idea,” said Spicer, a Westwood resident who in the 1960s helped found the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “Our time is very short. I try to pack in as much information as I can that will stay with somebody, and they will say, ‘I knew this person.’ That’s the essence — that somebody can live on to tell the story.”

Assembling the vast collection of memories was no easy task, said Marlene Alonge, who designed the quilts.