Photo by David Miller

Survivor Celina Biniaz: The youngest of Schindler’s Jews


“Get in rows. March,” the block leader ordered the nearly 300 women in the Auschwitz barracks who had arrived from the Plaszow concentration camp only weeks earlier, in mid-October 1944.

Thirteen-year-old Celina Karp dutifully obeyed, though this was the first time in Auschwitz that she had been separated from her mother, who earlier that morning had volunteered to peel potatoes, along with 29 others, hoping to pilfer a few skins.

Celina and the others were marched to another barracks, where they were ordered to strip and form a single line. Dr. Josef Mengele stood facing them, pointing with a yellow pencil in one direction or another as each prisoner drew near. Most were shunted to his left, rapidly exiting the barracks. Celina was directed to his right, frightened to find herself on the wrong side. Then unexpectedly, Mengele ordered Celina’s group to repeat the inspection. This time, as Celina approached Mengele — “I don’t know what made me do it,” she recalled — she looked up at him and said, “Lassen sie mich.” (“Let me go.”)

He pointed to his left. She grabbed her dress and ran out, crying hysterically. “I’m 13 years old and I’ve just been given life by Dr. Mengele,” she recalled.

That was just one of the twists that allowed Celina to survive. Perhaps more famously, Celina is alive today, at age 85, because of the actions of Oskar Schindler, the Czech businessman memorialized in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List.” She is the youngest of the roughly 1,200 Jews Schindler rescued.

But she credits Spielberg, who brought to the screen so many of the horrendous incidents that she witnessed, with enabling her to speak about those experiences.

“I always tell Steven Spielberg that he gave me a voice,” she said. “I say, ‘You are my second Schindler. He gave me life, but you gave me a voice. Because for 40 years, I never was able to talk about it because I didn’t think that anybody would understand.’ ”

Celina Biniaz, since her marriage in 1953, was born in Krakow, Poland, on May 28, 1931, the only child of Ignac and Felicia Karp.

Both parents were accountants, and the family was comfortably middle class, living in a mixed neighborhood in a two-room apartment with a kitchen and bathroom. They celebrated Jewish holidays but were not strictly Orthodox. 

After Germany attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Celina’s parents decided that she would have to relinquish her beloved puppy, a white Spitz. Several days later, as they took the dog to the animal shelter, they saw from a distance three bombs fall on the radio station — the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Krakow — and ducked into a nearby building. They then continued to the shelter, where Celina painfully surrendered her dog.

Celina was eager to enter third grade, but schools didn’t open that fall. Additionally, Jews couldn’t work, and Ignac joined the many Jewish men who began walking eastward, fearing capture by the Germans. But as winter approached, he returned.

By that time, the Jews were being conscripted into slave labor. Celina and her parents worked, shoveling snow.

By late fall 1940, the Karp family, along with most of Krakow’s Jews, had been relocated to a ghetto in the city’s Podgorze section. Celina’s parents, who were given blue cards, or work permits, were assigned to work at a factory outside the ghetto that was owned by Julius Madritsch.

Madritsch, a 34-year-old businessman and anti-Nazi from Vienna, had been named administrator of the F.A. Hogo shirt factory in Krakow, which he relocated to Podgorze and converted to sewing army uniforms. Ignac, who had been an accountant for F.A. Hogo, became Madritsch’s accountant, helping him manage the business. Felicia worked as a bookkeeper.

Celina, meanwhile, worked in the ghetto, making envelopes and brushes. But as roundups increased, Celina’s parents, worried she would be apprehended, procured a blue card for her, falsifying her age as 12, two years older than she was. Celina joined her parents at the factory, sewing uniforms.

“[Madritsch] was an amazing human being,” Celina said. He and Raimund Titsch, his factory manager, hired as many Jewish workers as possible, training them and providing them with extra food and medications.

When the Krakow ghetto was liquidated on March 13 and 14, 1943, those working in the Madritsch factory, who were essential to the war effort, were transferred to Plaszow, which was then a labor camp, rather than deported to a concentration camp.

During the liquidation, Celina witnessed German soldiers swinging infants by the feet, bashing their heads against stone walls. “I kept asking my mother, ‘How could God allow this?’ ” she said. “I lost my faith.” The experience also reinforced her fear of authority, which has never left her.

In Plaszow, Celina and her mother lived in a women’s barracks, walking to and from the factory daily in groups of five. She often saw her father there.

Inside the camp, however, where Amon Goeth was the commandant, fear ruled. “He was a beast,” Celina said. She witnessed hangings, shootings and beatings.

During one of the selections, Celina watched as the Germans rounded up 10 or 15 children. They then trucked them up a hillside and shot them, while the German lullaby “Gute Nacht, Mutter” (“Good Night, Mother”) played on the camp loudspeakers. “So sadistic,” Celina said. “You can’t imagine.”

During that time, six children managed to hide in the latrines. Madritsch’s workers later smuggled them out to the factory under big coats, two with Celina’s group, and they were placed with Catholic families.

In September 1943, a new edict forbade prisoners from leaving Plaszow’s confines. In response, Madritsch opened a factory inside the camp.

A year later, as the Russians approached, the Germans ordered all factories in the Krakow area closed. Schindler suggested that Madritsch, who had become his friend, join him in relocating his factory to Czechoslovakia. Madritsch declined, but sent 50 or more of his workers, including Celina and her parents, with Schindler’s group.

The men were shipped out first. Two weeks later, the 300 women were loaded into cattle cars. A day and a half later, in mid-October 1944, the train came to a screeching halt. As the door banged open, the women heard, “Raus, raus” (“out, out”) and dogs barking. “All of a sudden, we realized we’re someplace we’re not supposed to be,” Celina said. “Auschwitz.”

The women were marched into a barracks marked “sauna” (bath) and told to strip. Celina’s hair was clipped very short, others were shaved, and all were shoved into the shower room. “This is when we don’t know … is it going to be water or gas?” Celina said. She was incredulous when water burst from the showerheads. “That meant we had another day.”

The women were given dresses and taken to a barracks. Mostly they remained inside, except for the three times a day they stood in roll call, often for hours in the cold.

A few weeks after Celina’s run-in with Mengele, the women were unexpectedly loaded into cattle cars, pulling into the town of Brunnlitz, 140 miles northeast of Prague, three days later. Schindler had secured their release with bribes.

The women slept in the attic of the factory, where components of V2 rockets were manufactured. “Schindler told us from the very beginning that nothing was going to leave that factory that would be useable,” Celina said. With her small hands, she was put to work cleaning the insides of the large machinery. She also worked on a lathe and a calibrating machine.

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered. Schindler escaped, but not before giving each family two bolts of fabric and five pairs of scissors to use as barter.

Two days later, the Soviets officially liberated the prisoners, and Celina and her parents walked and hitchhiked back to Krakow, a two-week journey. Celina was almost 14. She weighed 70 pounds.

Celina spent the summer being tutored and was accepted into high school in September. But four weeks later, a pogrom hit eastern Poland, and the Karps fled.

They were smuggled over the border into Slovakia and eventually reached the displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany. But after two weeks, having had enough camp life, they moved to Mindelheim, a small community about 20 miles east, where they shared an attic apartment with the widow of a Nazi.

Celina attended school in a semi-cloistered convent where an elderly nun, Mater Leontina, 90, taught her German and English. “She was the first human being who accepted me for who I was, a 14-year-old girl who needed help,” she said. Celina studied with her from December 1945 until May 1947, when she left for the U.S., and the two continued to correspond until Mater Leontina’s death at age 94.

Ignac’s brother, David Karp, who had sent affidavits for the family, met them when their ship docked in New York in June 1947 and drove them to Des Moines, Iowa, where he lived. Celina attended summer school, entering North High School for her senior year.

She attended Grinnell College, majoring in philosophy, and then Columbia University in New York, where she earned a master’s degree in education and where, in the international dormitory, she met Amir Biniaz. They married on Sept. 12, 1953, and moved to Wantagh, a town on Long Island, where Amir opened a dental practice.

In 1963, when their children — Robert was born in 1954, Susan in 1958 — were older, Celina began teaching elementary and learning disabled students. She retired in 1992. A year later, they moved to Camarillo, Calif. They now have four grandchildren.

The Holocaust taught Celina that “Evil can happen anywhere, with any human being, if you give it a chance.” But when Celina speaks about her experiences, which she has done since becoming active in the USC Shoah Foundation when it opened in 1994, she tells people:

“Don’t hate. Try to see the good in people. Nobody is better than anyone else.”

Survivor Fred Klein: ‘No name, no number’


The doorbell rang at 6:45 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, waking 17-year-old Fred (then Friedrich) Klein, who was at home in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, on vacation from art school in Prague. He heard a male voice address his father: “Alfred Klein, born May 17, 1887. Come with us.” Confused, Fred pulled his blanket over his heard. But he soon emerged from his room, making his way to the open front door, where he saw four Gestapo officers escorting his father down the circular stairway of their apartment building. “This is only for an interrogation,” one explained. As Alfred, fully dressed though unshaven, tipped his homburg to Fred in a silent goodbye, Fred had a premonition: This was the beginning of the end, and he would be the only survivor in his extended family. 

Fred, the only child of Hedwig and Alfred Klein, was born on Aug. 11, 1922, in Pilsen, an ethnic-German area of Bohemia. Alfred was a dermatologist as well as a master of the Grand Lodge of the German Freemasons. The family was assimilated and upper-middle class.

When Fred was 4 years old, two boys in a public park shouted at him, “Jew, Jew, you killed our Lord.” 

Fred ran to his mother. “I didn’t understand. I didn’t know I was a Jew,” he said. 

He grew up an introverted and bookish boy. At 18 months, and again at age 6, he fractured his collarbone, and his overprotective father forbade him to participate in sports. Later, when Fred was 13, Alfred encouraged his son to swim and hike, but Fred felt clumsy. 

Alfred also tried to shield Fred from the events unfolding in Germany. In October 1938, Germany annexed the Sudetenland, whose border was only a mile from Pilsen. Fearing that Fred would be barred from high school, Alfred sent him to Officina Pragensis, a private commercial art school in Prague, beginning Jan. 1, 1939.

Then, on March 15, 1939, Germany occupied the provinces of Moravia and Bohemia, which included Prague and Pilsen, but Fred remained in school.

In September, Fred and his mother learned Alfred had been sent to Buchenwald after being taken by the Gestapo. They also discovered he had been arrested as a Freemason, not as a Jew. (Alfred would die in the infirmary at Monowitz/Buna, then an Auschwitz sub-camp, on Nov. 17, 1942.) 

Despite increasing restrictions on Jews, Fred continued his studies in Prague until August 1941, when he was sent to a labor camp in Sazava/Velka Losenice, in Bohemia.

The 500 prisoners there worked 12-hour shifts building a railroad. Fred, unaccustomed to physical labor, struggled shoveling dirt into small rail cars, but somehow managed.

The following December, Fred was granted permission to return home. He had learned that transports would soon be leaving from Pilsen. And, in fact, on Jan. 18, 1942, Fred and his mother were among 1,000 Pilsen Jews loaded onto a passenger train and shipped to Theresienstadt. 

There, Fred joined a team of draftsmen who worked on statistics, drawings and monthly reports. One of Fred’s assignments was laying out the official route that the Red Cross commission would follow during its inspection visit on June 23, 1944. Fred revised the document 30 times.

Several months later, Fred was one of 2,500 men assigned to a transport. But before leaving on Sept. 28, 1944, he warned his mother not to volunteer for future transports. “You won’t be with me,” he said. (After the war, Fred discovered that his mother had volunteered for a transport just three days later and was immediately sent to the gas chamber.) 

Around Oct. 1, Fred’s group arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where strange men in striped uniforms hustled them out of the railway cars and into rows of five. As the men began walking amid the glaring lights and eerie quiet, Fred instinctively removed his eyeglasses, placing them in a pocket. Then, as the line dissolved into a single file, a German officer dispatched the prisoners to one side or the other. Fred was sent to the right. He noticed that many men were missing and that no one wearing glasses remained in his group.

As the men marched close to a barbed-wire fence, women prisoners shouted at them in Hungarian to throw their food over the fence. The SS began firing at the women, but they continued lunging for the food. “I was terrified. It was my first idea that this was a very bad place,” Fred said.

The men were then assembled in a large room to be processed. Afterward, Fred was given a dirty black yarmulke, a black overcoat with a bullet hole through it and stained with dried blood, rags for socks, a shirt with red electrical wire for buttons and a tallit for underwear. 

The men, however, were not tattooed. Fred doesn’t know why. But without a number, he was not traceable.

 At Birkenau, Fred spent hours standing at appel (roll call) and enduring semiweekly selections. He also didn’t eat much. He was never given a metal cup and resorted to using his yarmulke, which the soup seeped through. 

Several weeks later, desperate to leave, Fred volunteered for a forced-labor detail. He and about 150 others were transported to Friedland, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen in Lower Silesia (Poland). 

While most prisoners worked in Friedland’s propeller factory, Fred, having disclosed he was an artist, was invited by the commander to work in the administrative building. There, he re-inked numbers on the prisoners’ uniforms, watering down the bottle of black ink to ensure he would have to ink each number twice, guaranteeing himself extra work. He also numbered the latrines and barracks.

When he ran out of projects, the commander commissioned a watercolor rendering of the camp, without the barbed wire, to send to his wife. Fred complied. 

But late that night, he was awakened by an SS soldier who, grabbing his neck, escorted him to a sign outside that read: “It is strictly forbidden to draw or photograph. You will be shot without warning.” Fred was certain he would be executed, but his only punishment was a transfer to the propeller factory. 

There, Fred worked 12-hour shifts bending propeller blades on a hydraulic machine. He had a quota of six blades per shift, but because of his weakened condition, he could manage only two.

One day in early May, the commander called all the prisoners to appel. “You will now be handed over to the civilian guard,” he said. “I hope you cannot complain about bad treatment.” Civilians manned the watchtowers, and the SS distributed the remainder of the food: a loaf of bread, two pounds of cooked potatoes, a liter of thick soup and a pound of margarine for each prisoner.

Then, on the night of May 7 or 8, the prisoners discovered that the civilian guards had also departed and the barbed wire was no longer electrified. They cut a hole and escaped. 

Fred, who weighed just 70 pounds, fled to the nearby hills with his cousin Bobby. “I was barely able to walk. I was dying,” he said. The next day, they walked into Friedland, which was deserted except for a young Soviet soldier who directed them to a German house where they found clothing and food. But Fred, too ill to eat, slept for 24 hours. When he woke, Bobby was gone. 

Eventually, Fred moved into the commander’s house. There he found a piece of paper, dated weeks earlier, ordering the commander to destroy the camp and its inhabitants, an order he had disobeyed.

 “He was very decent,” Fred recalled, adding that he has always wanted to nominate him as one of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations but does not have his name or corroborating evidence.

Several weeks later, Fred returned to Pilsen, the only survivor, save for Bobby, of his extended family of 35 who had not emigrated before the war. He remained in Pilsen until the communist coup in February 1948, when he decided to leave.

With a 10-year wait for a U.S. visa, Fred contacted cousins in Argentina, and immigrated to Buenos Aires in June 1949. He worked as a commercial artist and later as a general manager for Hochtief Construction.

On Jan. 26, 1955, Fred married Susi Kaminski. Their daughter, Helen, was born in September 1957.

In 1963, the family immigrated to Los Angeles, where Fred worked as a commercial artist before joining Agnew Tech-Tran, where he specialized in machine translations. The company was acquired by Berlitz, and Fred became head of the German Department of Berlitz North America. He retired in 1990. 

In his semi-retirement, Fred volunteered at UCLA’s Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars, assisting German students to settle in Los Angeles. Fred, now 93, also wrote a book, “No Name, No Number,” which is available on blurb.com.  

“I don’t live in the past,” he said. “The past lives in me.”

Survivor: Klara Wizel


“Seven, eight, four, five. Write that down,” Dr. Josef Mengele instructed a nearby guard as a naked and painfully thin Klara Wizel — then Iutkovits — stood before the Auschwitz doctor in yet another selection, her drab, gray dress draped over her right arm, her tattooed left arm outstretched. The 17-year-old was immediately whisked away, past her two older sisters who were lined up behind her, and taken to a bathhouse holding 60 or 70 girls destined for the gas chamber. Klara’s sisters Roshie and Hedy soon appeared at the building’s barred window, crying and screaming, “Klara, don’t be afraid. You’re going to be OK.” But Klara sat stone-like, wanting to die. 

“I figured if I’m alive, I’m going to suffer more,” she recalled. But she couldn’t get out the words to tell her sisters, whose screams soon faded as German guards struck them with whips, sending them away. It was December 1944.

Klara was born on Jan. 15, 1927, in Sighet, Transylvania, in northwestern Romania. She was the ninth of Ignatiu and Frida Iutkovits’ 10 children. 

Frida, along with Klara’s oldest brother, Joseph, ran the family business, a wholesale/retail operation that sold dried fruits, cooking oil, flour and nuts. The entire family assisted, although Ignatiu, a Torah scholar and, according to Klara, kindhearted man, mostly studied. 

The business afforded the Modern Orthodox family a luxurious lifestyle, including a five-bedroom house two doors down from Elie Wiesel, who was a childhood friend. “We were a very, very happy family,” Klara said. 

Klara attended public school but learned to read and write Hebrew with a tutor her parents hired. When not in school or spending time with her family, Klara enjoyed bike riding, ice skating, reading and, most of all, going to the movies. 

Life started to change in August 1940, when Germany transferred Northern Transylvania to Hungary as part of the Second Vienna Award. More than 10,000 Jews lived in Sighet at that time, about 39 percent of the population. 

Klara’s father was forced to cut his beard to avoid being physically harmed. And by 1941, Klara was forced to leave school.

Sometime in 1942, a Hungarian judge revoked the family’s franchise to supply the province of Maramures with cooking oil. Soon after, the entire business was confiscated. “Mother was heartbroken. The business was in her blood,” Klara said. 

Meanwhile, Klara’s brother Lazar escaped to Russia, while her brothers Joseph and Haskell were drafted into slave labor. 

Then, on March 19, 1944, the Germans marched into Hungary. “When they came in, everything was going very bad,” Klara said. 

On April 20, Sighet’s Jews, along with Jews from neighboring towns, were forced into a ghetto. Three families moved into the Iutkovits’ house, which was inside the ghetto boundaries, but less than a month later, they were told to pack some clothes and food for resettlement.  

Klara, her parents and five of her siblings were all on the first transport, which departed on May 16. They were crammed 70 people to a car, with no water or toilets. “It was very frightening,” Klara recalled. 

On the third night, the doors slammed open at Birkenau, and the prisoners were ordered to line up in rows of five — men and women separately — where they were surrounded by soldiers with guns and dogs. Klara stood with her mother and sisters Hedy, Roshie and Ancy. Mengele soon approached them. “You look alike. You’re sisters, aren’t you?” he asked. “Yes,” one of them answered. He sent Frida and Ancy to a waiting bus and dispatched the other three to a different line. “You’ll see each other tomorrow,” he assured them. 

Klara, Roshie and Hedy were processed, given gray dresses and taken to a barracks.

The next day, Klara asked the block leader when she would see her parents. The kapo pointed to the chimney. “See that fire there? That’s where your parents are,” she said. Klara thought she was crazy, but soon learned the truth. “We were falling apart, crying, screaming,” she said. 

Klara was taken to work in a field of cut wheat, where she was ordered to gather the grain into 5-pound bundles and knot them. On the first day, a guard noticed her knot wasn’t done correctly. “Versagerin,” he yelled, “failure,” and he began hitting her with a club as guards with dogs circled them. “It was so horrible and frightening,” Klara said.

Next, she was transferred to a textile factory, where she braided strips of leather. She was treated less poorly, though she continued to lose weight.

By December 1944, the gas chambers and crematoria were working day and night. Klara and the other girls selected by Mengele were moved from the bathhouse to a small brick building to wait their turn. The girls eventually cried themselves to sleep, but Klara, who was prepared to die, remained awake. She was worried about her sisters and began to look for an escape. Noticing that the building was constructed of adobe bricks, she pushed on a few to see if any were loose. Then she noticed a chiseled area under a window. She pulled at a brick until she pried it out and chipped away at others. Soon, she created a narrow passageway and slid her body outside.

Klara made her way to a block that housed prisoners being relocated. Finding an open window, she climbed inside and discovered a group of girls showering. She removed her dress and joined them. Afterward, she and each of the other girls were given a dress, a piece of salami and a loaf of bread. 

In the morning, the girls, all more robust-looking than Klara, were loaded into cattle cars. “What is this muselmann [a survivor on the verge of death] doing here?” Klara heard one girl ask. She didn’t answer. She was sick and couldn’t eat. Later, she managed to trade her bread and salami for some sugar, which she savored. 

Three days and nights later, they arrived at the Weisswasser concentration camp, a private munitions factory in Czechoslovakia. When they’d disembarked and were waiting to be counted, Klara fainted, awakening in the infirmary where a Jewish female doctor took a liking to her. Six weeks later, she was cured. “The doctor gave me life,” Klara said.

At the doctor’s request, Klara was given a good job, burning the rubber tips off pieces of wire. She was also well fed and slept in a single bunk bed with a pillow and blanket. 

But one day in early May 1945, as the girls stood at roll call, no guards appeared. Finally, the block leader went to the Germans’ office. “I guess we are free. Nobody’s here,” she reported. 

“I couldn’t believe it. Am I free?” Klara recalled thinking. “I was turning around. Nobody’s following us.” 

Klara made her way to Sighet, where she went to Wiesel’s house, which had become a gathering place for returning survivors. When Baya, Elie’s sister, came back several months later, Klara learned that her own sisters Roshie and Hedy were alive. They made plans to seek her sisters out. 

In Prague, Klara went to the train station daily in hopes of intercepting Roshie and Hedy. But the one day Klara skipped was the day they passed through Prague. Later, however, the sisters learned that Klara had survived and wrote to her. 

Klara traveled to Cluj, where her sisters were visiting a cousin. “It was an unbelievable happiness. We were crying and screaming,” she said. A month later, they returned to Sighet.

Meanwhile, Klara had been given a letter in Satu Mare to deliver to Ezra Wizel, a second cousin of Elie Wiesel, for Ezra’s brother. She tracked Ezra down and they began dating, marrying on Dec. 10, 1947.

Klara and Ezra remained in Sighet but wanted to escape the communist regime. Finally, in early 1951, they were able to immigrate to Israel, then to Montreal later that year. Their daughter Fraya was born in November 1954, and daughter Judy in October 1956. In 1967, the family relocated to Los Angeles to be near Roshie.

While in California, Klara learned that her brother Lazar had survived the war and was living in Russia. She and her sisters helped him immigrate to Canada, where Hedy lived.

Klara, now 88, has four grandchildren. She continues to work in real estate investments. 

A documentary about her life, “Auschwitz Escape – The Klara Wizel Story,” created by Danny Naten, was released in 2009, and a biography, “Auschwitz Escape – The Klara Wizel Story,” was published in 2014.  

Klara credits Roshie and Hedy with her survival. 

“I think God wanted me to live, but, believe me, I didn’t want to live. But I felt bad for my sisters, because they were crying for me. I’m alive because of them,” she said.


CORRECTION [12/31/15]: The original article had incorrect titles for Danny Naten's documentary and biography.

Survivor: Guta Peck


Guta Peck nee Kasz was sitting on the sole latrine inside her Auschwitz barracks one evening in early September 1944, when a drunken SS soldier picked her up. He carried her the length of the overcrowded building — “You become like a stone; there’s no way out,” she recalled — to the small quarters he shared with some soldiers at the opposite end. But Guta, almost 19, spied the barracks supervisor, a Czechoslovakian survivor. “Please save my life,” she begged. The supervisor began speaking with the drunken soldiers and motioned for her to leave. “Just get out of here,” he said. Guta ran to her mother, who had watched the abduction from an upper bunk. “She was scared to death,” Guta said. 

Guta was born Oct. 20, 1925, to Sara and Benjamin Kasz in Lodz, Poland. Older sister Fredda was born in 1923, younger sister Brenda in 1930.

Benjamin was a businessman who sold and installed radio antennas, and their middle-class family lived in a three-room apartment. They were “very Jewish,” according to Guta, celebrating Shabbat and attending synagogue on Jewish holidays. But on Saturdays, Guta usually met her friends in the park or at the movies. 

Anti-Semitism was always present. From an early age, Guta knew that, to avoid being beaten up by Polish boys, she should never walk alone on certain streets. 

The family spent summers in the village of Wisniowa Gora, where they rented a room from a farmer, with Benjamin joining them on weekends. “These were the best days of my life,” said Guta, who loved walking in the forest, picking berries and playing with friends. 

But life changed on Sept. 8, 1939, when the German army occupied Lodz. After that, Guta rarely ventured outside, and by early February 1940, the Jews were ordered to relocate to a ghetto.

Guta’s family, including her grandmother and a cousin, occupied a small house — two rooms and a kitchen — which had been vacated by a gentile friend of Benjamin. Food was scarce. “We were always hungry, always talking about food,” Guta said. 

Guta went to work in a factory, cutting rags and weaving them into large rugs while standing on scaffolding. 

Deportations were a constant threat. Guta remembers seeing people rounded up in the surrounding blocks. “You never knew when,” she said. 

Deportations were halted in October 1942, resuming in June 1944, as the ghetto was being liquidated. Guta and her family were deported on Aug. 29, 1944, in the last transport leaving Lodz. 

When the prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, they were ordered to form two lines — men in one, women in the other. There was no selection.

The women, after sitting in a field all day, were processed and, with little space available, assigned to a barracks in the men’s section, with 200 or more prisoners crowded together. The first few nights, some men –—Guta doesn’t know who they were — entered the barracks and raped some of the women. Guta heard screams as she and her sisters huddled in an upper bunk, their mother covering their heads. 

There was no work at Auschwitz, only standing at roll call for long hours twice a day. After two weeks, the entire transport was shipped by cattle car to Stutthoff, which, Guta said, “was worse than Auschwitz.” 

There the women were placed in a large barracks, where they slept on a bare floor. Their main occupation became picking lice and, again, standing in endless roll calls.

In late November 1944, the transport was shipped by cattle car to Dresden. They learned that the group, originally about 500 men and women, had been specially selected by Hans Biebow, the chief Nazi administrator of the Lodz ghetto, who had been responsible for setting up the ghetto factories. Biebow had profited handsomely from the factories and had relocated two of them. Guta’s group, primarily Jews who had worked in the ghetto’s metal factory, were being sent as slave laborers to a munitions plant.

The company, owned by Bernsdorf & Co., was housed in a beautiful building, with the women living in a huge room with bunk beds and cold running water. Plus, the kitchen staff brought them buckets of hot water for washing. “Maybe 10 of us used the same bucket,” Guta said. “We were so excited.” 

The women worked in the basement, where Guta remembers operating some kind of machine. For lunch, they were brought a kettle of soup. Guta always tried to grab the empty kettle to return it to the kitchen upstairs, where she could peek into the men’s quarters in hope of seeing her father. 

One day, she saw him lying on a cot in the sick room. She walked in and started to talk, but he remained motionless. She sensed he had just died, so she ran out to tell her mother and sisters. “We were all hysterical crying,” she said. 

On the night of Feb. 13, 1945, as the Allies began heavily bombing the city, the SS entered the women’s barracks and urged them to retreat to the basement, but they didn’t budge. “We didn’t care,” Guta said. The following night, however, windows started shattering, and the women hurried down the stairs. 

The next day, the SS walked the women through the city, where Guta saw parents fleeing with their children, two English pilots lying dead on the ground and rubble everywhere. They spent the day on a field. When they returned, they were crammed into a shed behind the destroyed factory.

Right away, Guta and some other prisoners were taken to work rebuilding the post office, moving bricks from one place to another. After a few weeks, however, with the Russians approaching, the women were transferred to various camps. 

Eventually they were loaded onto a train, which was forced to stop in Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia, because of bombed-out tracks. They disembarked, but Fredda, who was sick, remained inside. Guta never saw her again.

The women were dispatched on a death march. There was no food, but once, when they were confined to a barn with no SS in sight, Guta and two young women sneaked out and went house to house, begging. They were given soup, bread and other foods. “The Czech people were wonderful,” Guta recalled.  

Then, on May 8, 1945, they awoke to discover that the Germans had fled. Russian soldiers soon rode up on bicycles. The women, despite their weakened condition, ran out to greet them. “It was just an unbelievable moment in our lives,” Guta said.  

The Russians provided food and medical care. And in a suitcase discarded by a female SS, Guta found clothes and shoes that fit her perfectly. “Right away, I looked normal,” she said. The Russians then put the women on a train headed to Poland. 

Stopping in Prague to change trains, they met some young men returning from Poland. “Don’t go back. They’re killing the Jews,” they warned. Guta, Brenda and Sara remained in Prague, where they were treated well and where Guta met Henry Peck. 

But as the communists took control, Guta, Henry, Brenda and Sara traveled to Germany’s American zone of occupation, settling in Plattling. Guta and Henry married on Dec. 16, 1947. 

Sara wrote letters to the Forverts, the Yiddish version of the Forward newspaper, searching for family that had earlier immigrated to the United States. Kasz relatives responded, sending letters and packages. 

They applied for visas and arrived in New York in June 1949. A few days later, they traveled to Los Angeles, settling in a small, furnished apartment in Boyle Heights. Guta and Henry’s daughter, Elyse, was born in June 1950, and their son, Jeff, in July 1954.

Henry worked at a cousin’s furniture store and later managed an upholstery factory. In 1959, he and a partner opened their own upholstery factory, Hart Manufacturing, in downtown Los Angeles. 

Brenda, who had come to the United States earlier and lived with a family in Atlanta, died of intestinal strangulation in 1950, at age 20. Henry died in 1986. 

Until her interview with the Journal, Guta, now 89 and the grandmother of one and great-grandmother of two, had never told her story in its entirety. “I couldn’t talk about it,” she said. But she agreed to talk at her granddaughter’s request.

“If my granddaughter is interested, then I have to do it,” Guta said. 

Survivor: Joseph Alexander


Half the people in the cattle car were already dead when the train pulled in after midnight to the station in the Polish city of Oswiecim (Auschwitz). It was February or March of 1943, and 20-year-old Joseph Alexander — known then as Idel Aleksander — stepped over the bodies as best he could, joining the lineup outside as ordered. A German officer, whom he later learned was Dr. Josef Mengele, walked down the line, dispatching each prisoner to one side or the other. Joe was sent to the left, where guards announced the group would be trucked 6 kilometers to the camp. But as he looked around, he saw only elderly and sick people. He had already spent two years in forced labor camps, learning to align himself with the biggest and strongest prisoners. He waited until Mengele moved farther away and then, taking advantage of the darkness, dashed to the other side, squeezing into the line. “The next morning I found out those other people were going straight to the ovens,” Joe recalled. 

The second youngest of six siblings, Joe was born to David and Chana Aleksander on Nov. 20, 1922, in Kowal, a small town in Central Poland. (He changed his name to Joseph when he became a U.S. citizen in 1956, taking his deceased brother’s name.) 

The family was Modern Orthodox and lived in a house across from the town square. David’s store, which carried men’s work clothes and underwear, occupied the front of the house. “We had a nice, comfortable life,” Joe recalled.

Joe attended both public and Jewish schools, each half a day. After school, he played soccer with his Jewish teammates or spent time with friends. He didn’t notice any anti-Semitism until after Kristallnacht, in November 1938.

Then, in early September 1939, German soldiers entered Kowal. “We weren’t frightened. At the time, we didn’t know what’s going to happen,” Joe said. 

But just two weeks later, the soldiers gave all the residents living around the square — most of them Jewish and owners of family businesses — 10 minutes to report to the square. They were then marched to the train station. Joe’s family and two others were somehow spared. “I’ll never know the reason till the day I die,” Joe said. 

Rumors immediately surfaced that the Germans planned to return in three days for the remaining Jews, but Joe’s father wasn’t waiting. The family loaded up two large horse-drawn wagons and left for Blonie, a small town about 15 1/2 miles west of Warsaw, where relatives lived. The family rented an apartment there. 

Two weeks later, Joe was sent to a forced labor camp in the nearby Kampinos Forest. He worked six days a week building a canal, standing in water without rubber boots, and he contracted blood poisoning. He was allowed to return home on weekends, and, after four or five weeks, he refused to go back. Local police came to the house, searching for him, but one officer, a friend of the family, protected him.  

By mid-October 1940, the Jews of Blonie were relocated to the newly created Warsaw Ghetto. Four months later, hearing that the Germans had not returned to Kowal, Joe’s father decided that Joe; his older sister, Ester Sara; and younger brother, Azik, should go back. They left in March 1941, bribing the guards to escape. “It was the last time I saw my parents, my brother Yosef and sisters Shlamis and Malka Laya,” Joe said. He never discovered their fates. 

The siblings reached Kowal safely, but three days later, all Jewish men ages 16 to 60 were ordered to report immediately to the schoolhouse. Joe joined the several hundred men taken by passenger train to Posen, a city in west-central Poland where more than 20 labor camps were constructed between 1940 and 1943. Initially, he was quarantined in Eichenwald for three weeks. 

Joe was then transferred to Steineck, where he worked building a dam, digging out dirt and shoveling it into mine carts. 

While at Steineck, Joe received a letter from Ester Sara informing him that Kowal’s Jews had been transported to the Lodz ghetto and that Azik had been taken to the death camp Chelmno, where he was placed in a van and gassed. 

Joe was then transferred to Golnau. There, he dug trenches for sewer lines and also climbed into the concrete pipes and cemented the seams. 

He was later sent to Remow, where he laid cobblestone on the streets, and then Fort Radziwill, where he performed odd jobs. At Kreising, his last camp in Posen, Joe dug sewer trenches and laid railroad tracks for a new airport. 

In all six camps, Joe was always able to procure extra food and to avoid physical beatings. “That is the one thing I always tried to stay away from,” he said. 

Once Joe arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, he was processed and tattooed with the number 14284. In the camp, a tailor from his hometown invited him to help sew clothes for a kapo in exchange for extra food. “Somehow, I think the man upstairs was looking after me,” Joe said.

A few months later, around June 1943, Joe was transported by cattle car — along with a couple thousand men, he estimates — back to the Warsaw Ghetto.

The prisoners worked dismantling the ghetto buildings after the uprising and cleaning and stacking bricks. At one point, Joe contracted typhus and sat shivering behind a pile of bricks. Fortunately, the kapo in charge of Joe’s group was a kind man.

In early August 1944, as the Polish Home Army tried to wrest Warsaw from Nazi control, the prisoners were evacuated. They walked for three days and then were shipped by cattle car to Dachau, arriving on Aug. 6, 1944. 

Two weeks later, Joe was sent to Kaufering I, the first of Dachau’s network of newly established satellite camps. He worked in the fields digging potatoes. Shortly afterward, he was transferred to Kaufering VII, where he worked in a kitchen for German guards, overseeing a group of 10 men. He also sewed for his two German supervisors, who gave him extra food.

In late April 1945, the prisoners were returned to Dachau and dispatched on a death march. At one point, a bridge was blown up just as Joe had crossed it. “We knew American troops were right behind us,” he said. 

That night, the German guards disappeared. German police then moved the prisoners into the village of Königsdorf, where, the next day at 1 p.m., Joe saw his first American tank. “We were free,” he recalled.

Joe immediately left with a group of eight friends, and by late May they arrived at the Landsberg am Lech displaced persons camp. Joe, however, having had his fill of camps, opted to live on a farm in nearby Epfenhausen, but he still spent his days at the camp. He began buying and selling food, including flour, eggs and chickens, and later traded items on the black market. “I had it very good,” he said. 

During this time, he briefly returned to Kowal, where he discovered one cousin, Mark Alexander, who had survived. 

In May 1949, Joe immigrated to the United States, settling first in Harrisburg, Pa., and then, in January 1950, moving to Santa Monica, where Mark lived. He worked in Mark’s uncle’s military uniform store in Riverside for a short time, and from October 1950 to 1956, he ran a tailor shop at George Air Force Base in Victorville. The following year, he opened a tailor shop at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert.

In 1957, Joe returned to Los Angeles to open his own business, and while his business partner readied the space, he traveled back to Harrisburg. There, he met Adelle Edelstein, whom he married two weeks later, on July 14. Their daughter, Helen, was born in June 1959 and their son, David, in January 1962. 

Joe’s store, L.A. Uniform Exchange, was located on Melrose Avenue. He worked there selling and tailoring military uniforms until 1994, retiring at age 72. Adelle died a year later.

Joe, now 92, has one grandchild and a longtime girlfriend, Reeva Sherman.

The sole survivor of his immediate family, Joe does not know how he managed to survive. “Maybe luck,” he said, “and trying to stay out of trouble.”

Sophie Zeidman Hamburger, survivor, 94


Sophie Zeidman Hamburger, 94, of Los Angeles passed away at home Oct. 10th with her family by her side. A Holocaust survivor, Sophie inspired many people with both her courage and her warmth.

Sophie was born in Bedzin, Poland, in 1919 and was trained as a tailor before World War II broke out. In 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she worked in a munitions factory until she was sent on a death march shortly before the camp was liberated in January, 1945.  She escaped and managed to survive the last months of the War in hiding. When she returned to her hometown after the War, she found only devastation and incomprehensible loss. 

We first met Sophie when she was ninety-two years old. She was part of UCLA’s “Bearing Witness” program and a class organized around Holocaust testimony.  The program is a collaboration between the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, Hillel at UCLA, the Jewish Family Service’s Café Europa (an organization focused on support and community for survivors), and the LA Museum of the Holocaust. It provides a unique opportunity for university-age students to recognize the value of eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust and participate in the effort to document the life experiences of Holocaust survivors.  

The shining smile on Sophie’s face created a bond that made us feel like family. Every Wednesday Sophie would greet us and recount her story.  We knew that the listeners were not just those of us present in the room with her, but all the future generations who would have the chance to learn about her story. She was a beautiful, articulate, and inspiring woman who we are grateful to have known. Sophie cared deeply about creating bonds between generations, between the past and the present, for the sake of a better future. In the hospital, she said to her son, “I guess I won’t be able to do UCLA’s [Bearing Witness] program this year.”  She was deeply committed to meeting students, telling her story, and inspiring hope through education, outreach, and an ethic of respect. 

Her story can be heard at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust as part of the museum’s audio guides. The story was recorded by UCLA undergraduate students in 2012 who interviewed her and documented her life journey.  Her story is a testament not only to survival but also the indelible compassion of the human spirit.  This is the gift she left with all of us who were lucky enough to meet her and to everyone who is fortunate to hear her story. 

Sophie Zeidman Hamburger was a member of Temple Beth Israel. She is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Funeral services were held Oct. 13 at Mt. Sinai Hollywood Hills.

Survivor, storyteller, celebrity, sage: Elie Wiesel at 85


When talking about Elie Wiesel, who turns 85 on Sept. 30, it is far too easy to fall into a list of superlatives. 

As a child who survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps, Wiesel witnessed more death and more horrors than most human beings ever will. A onetime journalist who wrote for Hebrew- and Yiddish-language newspapers, starting in the 1950s, Wiesel has gone on to publish more books than most writers ever do, including “Night,” which has become the second-most widely read work of Holocaust literature in the world. He’s received more awards and honorary doctorates and rarified accolades than most university professors might dream of — including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 — and has, quite possibly, met with with more world leaders than any Jew in history. 

In a wide-ranging interview earlier this year, Wiesel talked to the Journal about some of the lesser-known parts of his remarkable life, including his years working as a journalist, and he expressed concern about what he saw as an increased tendency toward violence in today’s world. Softly, speaking in a contemplative tone, Wiesel used mostly short sentences and never moved to touch the shiny platter of pastries on the table before him. 

But when I offhandedly called him a “public figure,” he swiftly shot down the characterization. 

“I don’t consider myself as a public figure,” Wiesel told me. “I am a teacher. A writer and a teacher at the same time — for me, writing and teaching are the same.”

Not knowing exactly what to make of Wiesel’s comment, I called Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who has known Wiesel well for 35 years. 

“It’s an inaccurate statement,” Berenbaum said. A professor at American Jewish University and an expert in the development of historical museums and films, Berenbaum wrote his doctoral dissertation in the 1970s about Wiesel’s work and later worked with Wiesel on the council that created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. “There’s nobody else who would argue that.”

Indeed, countering Wiesel’s humble assertion isn’t difficult; the survivor’s forceful objection to President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to the Bitburg Military Cemetery, where members of the SS are buried, is but one instance of Wiesel publicly challenging a world leader. 

And wherever he goes, Wiesel is certainly accorded treatment befitting a public figure. I met him in April on the campus of Chapman University in Orange County, where he was spending his third consecutive year as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow. On my way to the quiet room in the school’s main library where we were to meet, I passed a poster for Wiesel’s three staged discussions taking place during his weeklong stay there, as well as a glass case in the lobby displaying more than a dozen of Wiesel’s published books and a bronze bust of the author near the entrance to a library room devoted to Holocaust studies. 

Among today’s living Jewish leaders, Berenbaum said, Wiesel is unique. 

“Wiesel is probably the only major American Jewish thinker who is an international figure of world renown without either billions of dollars or an institutional base,” Berenbaum said. “Wiesel’s moral power base is directly related to the moral stature that has been accorded to the Holocaust, and to Wiesel as its most eloquent living survivor voice.”

Unlike, say, philanthropists Ronald Lauder or Charles Bronfman, or the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, or any rabbi one can think of, Wiesel has served as a voice for the voiceless, a voice for the Jewish people and the Jewish state, a voice against genocide, a voice against Holocaust denial — and he’s done all this on the strength of his own reputation, his conviction and his writing. 

One could liken him to others who survived totalitarian regimes and then went on to lead — figures like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel — but unlike those two men, Wiesel seems to feel, or at least project, more discomfort with his own present-day moral authority and power. 

Wiesel also rejects any characterization of him as a “Holocaust author.” 

“I’ve published 16-plus books; maybe three or four deal with that subject,” Wiesel said. “My classes? When I began my career, at City College in New York and then Boston University, only the first two years I taught what you call ‘Holocaust literature.’ I don’t teach it anymore. I don’t know how.”

Such a statement might surprise many of Wiesel’s readers, largely because most of them are very familiar only with “Night,” first published some 55 years ago in French. Wiesel is fully aware of this, of course; at Chapman, he signs the copies of what most of the undergraduates first read in high school. Indeed, some high school teachers feel so strongly about the book’s instructional value that they have their students read it twice. 

Although Wiesel says he does not cover his own writings in his classes, others who study and teach Holocaust literature have devoted years — and numerous pages in scholarly journals — to dissecting the narrative of “Night,” and have expended a lot of energy on the question of how to classify the book. 

“If you want to get Wiesel angry,” Berenbaum told me, “all you have to do is call ‘Night’ a novel instead of a memoir.”

“ ‘Night’ is not a novel, it’s an autobiography,” Wiesel told an interviewer for the Paris Review back in 1978. “It’s a memoir. It’s testimony.”

Wiesel also told that interviewer that he still had the 860-odd-page Yiddish manuscript that later became the book. Left unmentioned in that interview was the version of that Yiddish text that was published, in 1956, two years before “La Nuit,” under the title “Un di velt hot geshvign” (“And the World Was Silent”). 

In 1996, Naomi Seidman, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, closely examined the slim French volume alongside Wiesel’s Yiddish-language account, and found “Un di velt” to be an angrier work than “La Nuit,” from its first pages through to its end. 

Among Seidman’s examples: Wiesel dedicated both books to the memory of his father, mother and younger sister, Tzipora, but in “Un di velt,” he mentions his parents’ names, Sarah and Shlomo — and mentions explicitly that all three “were killed by the German murderers.” 

Seidman also noted significant differences in the ways each book reveals Wiesel’s writing process: In the Yiddish memoir, he starts to write immediately after liberation, while the French text says he started writing only after a 10-year vow of silence. 

Seidman’s article provoked much conversation and debate — at the time, Eli Pfefferkorn, a Holocaust survivor, called her close reading “an attempt to undermine the authenticity of ‘Night’ as witness testimony.” (Pfefferkorn has since told Seidman that he’s changed his mind about her article and about Wiesel.) Holocaust deniers have used the scholarly debate over discrepancies for their own dubious purposes. As for Wiesel’s own reaction, Seidman said she’s never spoken with him about it. 

“I heard he was angry after my essay was published, and tried to call him, but couldn’t get through,” Seidman wrote to me in an e-mail earlier this month. “Later I sat across from him at a dinner party, and hoped he wouldn’t catch my name.” 

Whatever Wiesel’s influence may have been before, it was Oprah Winfrey’s decision, in 2006, to select “Night” for her book club, which put the book on the best-seller list for the first time and afforded Wiesel a new level of recognition. 

The awards for Wiesel haven’t stopped coming. Named three times by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, Wiesel is set to also receive Israeli President Shimon Peres’ Medal of Distinction this year. 

At Chapman, though, Wiesel brushed off his celebrity. 

“I have everything; what can I want?” Wiesel said. “I love teaching — I have teaching obligations; I love writing — I write. What else do I need? Honors? I have enough. Pirke Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] said, ‘If you pursue honors, they run away.’ I have, thank God, all the highest honors that a human being can get. So what? Has it changed me?”

I asked — perhaps foolishly — if it had. 

“No,” Wiesel said, his voice dropping into its lowest register. Look, if Auschwitz hasn’t changed me, you think honors can change me?”

Some have speculated that those honors may have changed the way people approach Wiesel, though. 

“I have found that Wiesel tends to be ‘celebrated’ rather than questioned in any probing way,” Gary Weissman wrote to me in an e-mail. An assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, Weissman has written about “Night” and about the challenges of teaching Wiesel’s text. 

“Many are investing in treating — and experiencing! — Wiesel as a holy figure, rather than as a complex and real human being,” Weissman wrote in his e-mail. 

Weissman said he hasn’t ever spoken with Wiesel; indeed, many of those who have looked critically at Wiesel’s work nevertheless hold the man in high esteem. 

“I have met him several times, but always too briefly to receive much of an impression,” Harold Bloom, a professor of English at Yale University, wrote in an e-mail. “I regret that his writing to me seems to possess neither cognitive nor aesthetic elements that cause me to meditate further. His has been an honorable life and I respect him.” 

Even Seidman called Wiesel “a very impressive man,” and said that in her 2006 book, “Faithful Renderings,” she had revised her essay about Wiesel in ways that were “much more generous” than she had been 10 years earlier.

“I think I was too judgmental,” Seidman wrote in an e-mail.

It’s hard to stand in judgment of Wiesel, especially today, when he is received around the world in the manner of a visiting sage. Indeed, every word Wiesel says can make news — as I found on April 16, one day after the terrorist attack that targeted the Boston Marathon. At the time, very little was known about the bombers or their motives; in that environment, my reporting that Wiesel, in our interview at Chapman, had called on President Barack Obama to appoint “a special commission of educators and philosophers and social philosophers and thinkers” to investigate the attacks, instantly became news. The short blog entry was shared 700 times on Facebook; Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison asked Wiesel about the commission when she met him later that week. 

Over the course of his life, Wiesel has been approached with these big kinds of questions, and he’s addressed them in his writings. His next book, Wiesel told me, will be about a philosophy of teaching and friendship.

But even today, it’s often Wiesel’s stories that have the greatest impact on listeners. In our ranging conversation, Wiesel and I talked a lot about journalism. Long before he became a celebrity, Wiesel filed stories in Yiddish and Hebrew, first in Paris and later in New York. He told me about the weeks after Kennedy was assassinated, when he put in 18-hour days as the New York-based correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot. Back then, Wiesel said, he used to wire his stories from the offices of Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). He used Hebrew to write shorthand — and still does today. 

From that comment about handwriting, Wiesel shifted into a story of a notebook that his sister recovered from Sighet, the town where he grew up. In that yellowing book, Wiesel found an essay he had written in 1941, when he was 13 years old, called “Reflections on the Interpretation of the High Holidays Liturgy.” 

Meshugge!” Wiesel said, laughing at his former self, an ambitious adolescent, an innocent who knew nothing of what was to come. 

“All of a sudden,” Wiesel continued, “there is one page, which is out of the blue.” 

It was a record of the credit that his family — which owned a small grocery store — had extended to people in their town. 

“All of a sudden, I see there, in the store, [the name], Akiba Drumer, who takes six bottles of this and this. Another thing, another person, a whole page of names,” Wiesel said. “Akiba Drumer; I wrote about him in ‘Night.’ I described about how he came to my father in Auschwitz, he said: ‘In three days, I will be gone. Please say Kaddish.’

“And he owes me six bottles of something in this little book!” Wiesel continued with a chuckle. “So, first of all, I forgave him the debt.”

As readers of “Night” will remember, Drumer’s prophecy comes true — Google his name today and you’ll find links to notes for the many middle and high school students who have to write about the book. Wiesel, who has lived to embody the memory of Drumer and the millions of others killed in the Holocaust, is as powerful and influential as he is precisely because he can, in a few words, bring Drumer into a library’s conference room, just by mentioning a 70-year-old list of names.

But as powerful as Wiesel’s stories are, they cannot match the real-life impact of the events they relate on the man before me. I heard a story of a notebook; Wiesel feels its power. 

“I kept it,” Wiesel told me. “And I had palpitations the whole day. I couldn’t read. That little book — and I was 13 when I wrote it.”

Sam Weiss, Holocaust survivor, 83


In the early morning following Father's Day, Sam Weiss died after a long illness, surrounded by his family. One more Holocaust survivor whose voice is forever lost to the world, he was 83. He is survived by Margarita (Malke), his beloved wife of almost 56 years, his daughter Vivian (Chavi) and his son Leonard.

All who knew him and loved him agreed that it was a miracle he survived this long.

Vivian, describing her parents’ relationship at the Levaya service, spoke directly to her mother: “Outside of the business you ran together, I can’t recall a single time when my father ever called you by your real name. It was always 'mommy,' in true European fashion, or 'sheifele'. A wife of 56 years in exactly one week from today, with whom he fell in love and proposed to after a mere three weeks of meeting in Mexico City. His mind knew who he met, but his heart knew who you were. The last few months have been the hardest of your life. As much as you were pushed, you pushed back harder and stronger with your love and tenderness for him. You have been a true tzedaikis as you have loved and cared for dad.”

Vivian continued, “He lead a life that few other men have lived, as a boy, as a son, as a brother, as a survivor who numbered among those unlike any other group in history; and, perhaps his most important roles while on this earth, an incomparably loving husband and father.”

Leonard recalled a line derived from a Beatles song that Sam repeated often: “Leonard, Vivian, and Mom, I love you a whole wide world full!” Leonard’s response was: “Daddy, with wide open arms and a smile, we love you a whole wide world full!” As others affirmed unanimously, Sam “was a mensch with a capital M!”

At the service, Vivian began her father’s story: “My father was born November 27, 1929, in Velky Sevlush, a small town in Czechoslovakia. He was the second born and the second son of Yitzchak Yehuda and Chava Weiss. He was named Mordechai Shimon after both grandfathers with the promise of his mother, z”l, that he would be known by both names. He wore both names with pride even though he was known by his friends and family after the war as either 'Shimi' or 'Samele.’ ”

“Before being taken by the Germans, my father was thrust into bearing some of the responsibilities of his family’s needs. He was the one who, while wearing the gold Jewish star armband announcing his Yidden status, ran clutching coupons to get food rations so his mother and siblings could eat, hoping to stay in the good graces of the store owners. He was the one who took the broken-down bicycle left by his Uncle Moshe Meyer and rode to the end of the city, where he tentatively approached the farm ladies hiding in the fields camouflaged under heavy clothes and shawls to sell their small amounts of butter, sunflower oil and kernels of corn, so his mother and younger siblings had something to eat. The cost of being caught: being beaten to a pulp at a minimum, if not immediate death or deportation to one of the camps.”

Vivian went on: “When a little older, on May 29, 1944, we knew that he, along with his Mother and six younger siblings, were transported to Auschwitz where, on Shavuot, the holiday during which we celebrate the giving of the Torah, he was separated from them and they were immediately gassed. His older brother, Arye, olev hashalom, hid during the war with false papers. Between 1944 and 1945, Sam was in five different camps (Birkenau, Funf Teichen, Kitrich Traiben, Guerlitz, Camp Zittau).

“On Liberation Day, May 9, 1945, Sam found out through the occupying Russians that he could walk away from the camp to freedom. Three weeks later, after recovering from malnutrition, he traveled by train to Liberec and later to Budapest where he found one of his uncles and his brother Arye. He learned that Arye and another uncle had found pictures of his parents home in Velky Sevlush. Searching for more family, Sam traveled to Germany to the offices of Jewish Affairs. Finally locating an aunt in New York, he sailed from the port of Bremenhaven to America, arriving on Dec. 25, 1947, in the middle of the worst three-day snow blizzard of the century.

“A free person again, he lived and worked in the Bronx until he joined his brother in Los Angeles in 1956. A year later, he traveled to Mexico City where he met his future bride, Margarita (Malke). They were married within three weeks. They would return to Los Angeles and work together as business partners from 1957 until their retirement in 2000. 

“While my father wasn't one to speak about his experiences in the 5 camps he was prisoner and victim to,” Vivian said, “he did meet with people from the Spielberg Foundation and, after a lot of prompting, he wrote approximately 10 chapters surveying his life from childhood through the few years after the war. It is those beginning chapters in which he speaks of the bastardly, inhumane murderous manacles and the nefarious and sadistic hands of the Nazis. It is in those chapters where he says 'it was a tsunami, dark and cloudy time for the Jewish people' and that 'there was no one we could to turn to ameliorate our painful daily miserable existence.'

“Despite the horrors of your youth,” Vivian was talking to her father now, “I have met few men so genteel, loving and dedicated to your wife and children. I grew up watching the kind of husband you were. You held mom’s hand and kissed it publicly well past your 50th year of marriage. Your 56th wedding anniversary would be next Tuesday and there is no doubt that you were as in love with her at the end, as much as you were on day one.”

Four years ago, a cousin, Uzi Fridman, took Sam and Margarita back to Germany to make a one-hour film about Sam’s experiences as a survivor. Vivian concluded: “I cried at the showing of that video: 'that as time kept moving forward and the years kept passing, those who could stand and say “I was there!” would be fewer and fewer, and that one day soon there would be no one to stand in response and say “Yes it did!”

“We are one day closer to that now. And while there is now one less voice to be heard, the lingering echo of that voice, my father’s voice, will fulfill our hearts and sustain our memories. Your parents have so, so much to be proud of, as do we. We love you.”

Leonard: “When all is said and done, God will say with a big smile and open arms, 'Faithful and humble servant, Welcome Home!' My Dad finished his earthly task and now he is welcomed home.”

Later, his family and close friends gathered at Sam and Margarita’s home for the shiva to mourn the loss of this remarkable man. Their shawls wrapped around their shoulders, yarmulkes adjusted, prayer books in hands, long gray beards combed and stroked, the men crowded in the living room to prepare to recite Kaddish. But before they began, some could be seen still talking among themselves. Sam, the one they would honor, had survived to come alive in the room once again. Always filled with stories he could recount with a merry smile at the drop of a hat, Sam had a surprise!

Just three months earlier, as life was waning from him, and the battery of illnesses that had been assaulting him over the past year were winning, Sam confessed to his sheifele that he was actually five years older than his known age!  He felt his long held secret would have prevented her from dating him, let alone marrying him, so many years ago.  This secret he preserved almost to his last day was folded as a surprise into the whispered conversation that opened the Kaddish.

Survivor: Lidia Budgor


The cattle car pulled up to the Auschwitz platform. As the doors opened, German soldiers with guns and barking dogs began pushing out the more than 100 Jews arriving from the Lodz Ghetto. “Raus, raus,” they shouted, “Out, out.” Lidia Budgor — then Lola Gryngras — fell and cut her lip as she exited, but she kept walking. Her two younger brothers were sent with the men. She continued with her mother, two younger sisters and two aunts. As they neared the gate, Lidia’s brother Chaim ran up to them, planted a kiss on his mother’s cheek and ran back to the men’s section. Minutes later, Lidia’s mother and two sisters were directed to the left and Lidia and her two aunts to the right. “Everybody right away was sent to the gas chamber,” Lidia recalled. It was August 1944. Lidia was 19.

Lidia was born on Aug. 23, 1925, in Lodz, Poland, to parents Berl and Mariem Gryngras. She was the oldest of five siblings.

The family was Chasidic and lived in one large room with a small kitchen. The two aunts, Lidia’s mother’s younger sisters, lived with them. Lidia’s father had a successful business selling silk threads and fabrics.

Lidia attended Jewish school until age 14. Her father also hired tutors to augment the children’s Jewish studies. 

In early September 1939, Lidia’s mother and siblings were vacationing at their summer cottage near Lask, Poland, while Lidia was home preparing for school. One day her father unexpectedly returned from work around noontime. “Daughter, the war broke out,” he announced. He left to fetch Lidia’s mother and siblings.

“That was the end of normalcy,” Lidia said. 

Almost immediately Lidia’s father could no longer go outdoors for fear of having his beard cut off or being beaten up. Plus, the Nazis had confiscated everything in his office. He had only some pieces of fabric and thread at home. 

During the day, Lidia’s mother tried to sell fabric or thread. Lidia, who was blond and “looked like a little Polish girl,” stood in long lines to buy bread with whatever money they had. 

In early February 1940, the Germans established a ghetto in Lodz, and the family of nine moved into one room. But Lidia, who had a job assigning ghetto apartments, found her family a bigger room with a kitchen. Lidia also befriended the Jewish police, gaining “protectzia” for her family. 

Lidia then worked in the ghetto’s meat distribution center, cutting ration coupons. Sometimes she managed to procure a piece of meat or a horse bone to bring home for soup. She also smuggled home horse fat in her armpit. 

One day in spring 1944, however, Lidia was denounced by another Jew for stealing a bucket of horse guts. She was fired from her job and given a new job pulling wagons filled with human excrement. 

Lidia complained to ghetto commissioner Aron Jakubowicz at the Central Office of Labor Workshops. He dismissed the new job assignment and gave her a loaf of bread. “I had a lot of chutzpah,” she recalled.

For a long time, Lidia and her family were shielded from deportations. But in August 1944, as the ghetto was being liquidated, the family was taken to a prison on Czarnieckiego Street that also served as a transit station to the death camps. “We knew about Auschwitz. We knew even about the gas chambers,” Lidia said.

One day Lidia glanced across the barbed-wire fence at the men’s quarters and saw her father with a group of men sitting on the ground, all with their hands atop their heads. It was her last look at her father, who was transported to Auschwitz. Soon after, Lidia, her mother, siblings and two aunts were shipped there.

Ten days after arriving at Auschwitz, Lidia was sent by open train car to Stutthof Concentration Camp, 34 kilometers east of Gdansk, Poland.  She was given a job cutting bread. She worked and slept in the back of a women’s barracks, where a big table with a cutting machine was stationed in front of a window. 

One day an ill-looking girl wrapped in a ragged black blanket walked under the window. Lidia pushed out some breadcrumbs, which the girl caught in her blanket. She came back every day, and Lidia continued to give her crumbs and pieces of bread. “I saved her life,” she said.
A couple of months later, Lidia contracted typhus and was thrown back into the barracks where she was very sick.

Soon after, with the Russian army approaching, the Germans sent Lidia and other prisoners on a death march toward the Baltic Sea. It was January 1945, a bitterly cold winter, and Lidia had a blanket full of lice, broken wooden clogs and a high fever. While walking one day, a girl in a white raincoat brought her some bread. Lidia recognized her as the girl in the black blanket. The girl also filled Lidia’s tin cup with snow several times a day, to help lower her fever. Lidia named her “the white angel.”

After six weeks, those who survived the march — about 1,000, Lidia estimates — were taken to a barn on an estate in Kolki, Pomerania. It was cold and miserable. 

“The white angel,” whose name was Mary, was assigned to the kitchen. She brought Lidia with her, giving her a hot bath and food. 

In March, hearing that the Russians were coming, Lidia and Mary, along with two other girls, hid in a pigsty on the estate. A few days later, they heard tanks rumbling by and saw German prison guards running into the woods. It was March 10; they had been liberated.

When Lidia walked out of the pigsty, she thought, “I’m free.” Then she wondered, “What for?” She knew she had no family. 

A few weeks later, Lidia and the other girls were living in a beautiful house that had belonged to Germans in Słupsk, Pomerania. 

A Lithuanian Jew, also a former inmate at Stutthof, brought meat to the girls’ house. His name was Wolf Budgor, and he had his eye on Lidia. The attraction was reciprocal, and the two married at the end of 1945. 

One evening, members of the Haganah, a Jewish military organization, knocked on the door. The Russians were coming for Wolf and Lidia, and the Haganah members smuggled them to Vienna.

Lidia and Wolf arrived at the Bindermichl displaced persons camp in Vienna in winter 1946. About a year later, they moved to the Wegscheide displaced persons camp near Munich. Their son, Aaron, was born there on July 6, 1948. 

Finally, in 1952 they received a visa to the United States, moving to Dallas. In 1956 they relocated to Vineland, N.J., and in 1959 they moved to Los Angeles.

In 1960, Lidia opened her own retail clothing store, called Lidia’s, in West Los Angeles. She closed the business in 2008. 

Lidia was a founding member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. She also established the Lodzer Organization for survivors from Lodz and was a frequent speaker at schools and synagogues.

Wolf died on Jan. 1, 2000. Their son is married with two grown children.

Today Lidia is 87, serves on the board of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and is an active member of Jewish Family Service’s Café Europa. 

“I always had this indestructible spirit. I had chutzpah, and I tried in every shape and form to save my family,” Lidia said.

Students, survivors engage in righteous conversations


On a crisp, spring Thursday last April, Milken Community High School looked like a ghost town. The senior class had been dismissed until AP exams, and many were in Poland on March of the Living; the freshman were all on a class trip; a good chunk of the sophomore class was finishing up their Tiferet fellowship semester in Israel; and the remaining students were participating in a weeklong experiential learning program called Tiyulim (Hebrew for “journeys”), which offers students the opportunity to engage in a range of psychically enriching, barely academic activities that have included everything from New York theater trips and volunteering in New Orleans’ estuaries, to cooking classes and environmental cleanups. But on this day, 14 students had passed up surfing and sushi making to spend five straight days hanging out with Holocaust survivors.

As part of the Righteous Conversations Project, these teens would spend two days getting to know three survivors and their stories, and they would get to ask all the burning questions that books and films can’t answer — from the profound (“How did you keep your faith?”) to the banal (“When did you use the bathroom?”). Afterward, they would break into groups, and for the next three days, write, shoot and edit their own public service announcements (PSA) connecting Holocaust stories and themes to contemporary issues of injustice.

Their journey began as most high school activities do: in a classroom, with a lot of talking. Rachel Kaye, Emma Bloom, Esther Julis and Olivia Knight were lolling about in shorts and sweatshirts waiting for the camera equipment to be set up so they could get started. 

“We’re talking about media and how it affects young girls today,” Bloom, 17, announced. “Although you wouldn’t automatically relate that to the Holocaust, we can draw connections to the stories. We were talking about how quickly girls are growing up …”

They had come up with the idea after hearing about one survivor’s teenage experience: Helen Freeman, 91, was nearly their age when she was deported to Auschwitz. Imagining and absorbing her fate, they were inspired to re-examine their own lives. Who would they have been at Auschwitz? Who are they today?  

“There’s just a lot of pressure — like with Facebook,” Knight, 17, added. “We all agree people kind of create an image of themselves and put up a front. They try really hard to be something that they’re not.”

Freeman, they knew, was imprisoned because of her identity. Unlike them, she had no choice but to own the part of her that endangered her life. “We wanted to touch upon [body image] because we thought it was something important that related to us,” Knight said. “No one really talks about it.” 

Today they had. They talked about everything — Freeman’s story, the consequences of silence, even the “hot list” a group of boys put together in middle school, listing in order the prettiest girls in their grade — and how, for the girls who’d found themselves left off of that onerous list, there was hurt and shame. 

On the classroom blackboard, the girls had scrawled their own list: “I thought I was fat; wore longer shorts; never wore a bathing suit; edited my pictures; disliked braces; disliked the way my face looked. And then, finally, their message: Physical insecurities will pass.” 

If the connection between the Holocaust and an eighth-grade “hot list” seems a stretch, that’s partly the point: By linking these discrete challenges to self-worth, a grand, incomprehensible injustice connects to all the smaller ones. “Kids have to start from their own lives,” said Samara Hutman, co-founder and executive director of the Righteous Conversations Project. “And this gives them the opportunity to raise the issues they feel need to be spoken about.” After all, hatred begins in the steady, subtle hardening of human hearts, the Righteous Conversations Project teaches, and remembrance is better served with vigilance than reverie.

At its core, the Righteous Conversations Project is about preserving and perpetuating Holocaust memory — but it does so in a contemporary and meaningful way, combining Jewish history, social justice and modern media. “Dear Thirteen-Year-Old Me” is the PSA that resulted from the above conversation, and it will be gifted to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, where it is expected to play to a much wider audience. 

As the Jewish community prepares for the grim reality that soon there will be no more living survivors, the act of repeating and recording witness testimony has become more imperative than ever. In the 1990s, Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation undertook the significant task of interviewing nearly 52,000 survivors, creating 105,000 hours of testimony in 32 languages from 56 countries. But so far, concern for how the testimonies might be manipulated on the Internet has precluded the foundation from making much of its vast archive public. Enter the Righteous Conversations project, which has stepped in to tackle the transmission of these remarkable legacies, while also offering an inspiring example of how to transpose them for the next generation.

Created in 2011 under the umbrella organization Remember Us, organizers of the Righteous Conversations Project have spent the past two years introducing Jewish and non-Jewish teenagers to Holocaust survivors to develop a new text for second-hand witnessing — doing what author and survivor Elie Wiesel defined as: “To listen to a witness is to become one.” Still in a relatively nascent stage, this work has received both attention and support: In September 2012, the Jewish Community Foundation awarded the project a three-year cutting-edge grant for $225,000, and Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation committed another $40,000.

This is not your run-of-the-mill Holocaust program, said Rachel Levin, executive director of the Righteous Persons Foundation, who said she receives “many, many” funding requests related to Holocaust education and memory. “What really struck us about Righteous Conversations Project is the profound exchange between the teens and these survivors — and that this exchange led not only to conversation about what happened during the Holocaust, but also, what are the lessons of that experience that are relevant for today?” 

A Righteous Conversations Project PSA group at the 2013 Milken Tiyul workshop.

In early June, Levin will meet with Spielberg to decide whether to renew — or possibly increase — the project’s funding. One thing they have to their advantage, she said, is scalability. She likes that “the conversations are not limited to the people who are present in the room for the program,” but will be brought to thousands of other people through the PSAs. “Righteous Persons Foundation has a particular interest in using media to tell stories and amplify messages — and that’s what this project does,” Levin said.

The Project was created when a group of Harvard-Westlake parents and students decided to expand upon Remember Us, the Holocaust B’nai Mitzvah Project. Samara Hutman and her daughter Rebecca had participated in Remember Us, which provides b’nai mitzvah with the name of a child who perished in the Holocaust to say aloud at their simcha. The Hutmans found the experience so inspiring they gathered a group of mothers and daughters to discuss how to go further. Remembering children who never made it to b’nai mitzvah age was one thing, they reasoned, but what about the treasure trove of survivors still living in their midst? In February 2011, with Samara Hutman at the helm of Remember Us, the Righteous Conversations Project launched its inaugural event at Harvard-Westlake, a live dialogue pairing three teens and three survivors. The following June they had their first workshop.

“Our project starts at this portal moment for a young Jew,” Hutman said. “It’s this portal moment of entering adult life and the complexities of the world. And we invite them into a very deep conversation about our world and its history; and I think young people crave truth, and they crave meaning.”

I first caught up with the project a year ago, in June, during a weeklong workshop at Harvard-Westlake that included 23 teens from seven Los Angeles schools, both Jewish and not, as well as students from San Francisco and Philadelphia. For five days at a cost of $495 (eight students were on scholarships), the students took over Harvard-Westlake’s art building — equipped with multiple editing suites, classrooms and even a small theater — and were given unlimited access to the school’s state-of-the-art equipment. 

In one room, eight students were wrapped around a giant editing suite discussing survivor stories and their relationship to human trafficking. They had just learned that Harry Davids, 71, the survivor sharing his story that day, was an infant in Holland in 1943 when his parents passed him to resistance fighters, who smuggled him to safety. “For years, I wasn’t able to sleep properly,” Davids told them. “Classmates shunned me. I was considered damaged goods.” The group had decided their PSA would address modern slavery.

“A lot of Americans think, ‘Oh, that’s very distant for me; it’s going on in Africa and Asia — but that’s false,’ ” said Sawyer Kroll, a student from Milken Middle School. He sat relaxed with his arm draped over a chair, baseball cap turned to the side and a silver Star of David dangling from his neck. “Human trafficking is also going on in the cities we’re living in and in the neighborhoods we’re driving by,” he said emphatically. “Slavery is not just of the past.”

In their ensuing PSA, “History Lesson,” a teacher grills his students on the history of American slavery: “What was the first battle of the American Civil War? What famous abolitionist worked in the underground railroad?” But when he comes to the question, “When did slavery end in the United States?” the students answer with dates. That’s when the teacher turns to the blackboard and lifts a pull-down map of the world: scrawled in chalk underneath is the jarring message: “WRONG. Slavery in America has not ended.” 

This was the first time Davids and Freeman, both frequent participants in the project, had seen this PSA. When it ended, Grace Warner, a 15-year-old from Crossroads School, turned to the group and said, “It didn’t dawn on me till this week that the survivors we were talking to were children [during the Holocaust].” She looked at Davids and Freeman and said, “It’s amazing to see how you guys pulled through something like that. Finding out history in a classroom doesn’t mean a lot, but when you hear the emotion of the survivors, it really impacts you. It makes you want to do something.”

Cheri Gaulke, the head of Harvard-Westlake’s Upper School Visual Arts Department, is the project’s artistic director, and she helped secure the space for use. “The whole idea just clicked for me,” Gaulke said. “I’m really passionate about teens learning how to use media to affect the world, because that’s the world we live in. And teens need to be not just consumers of media, but makers of media. I liked the idea of giving them the tools of advertising to sell an idea, rather than a product.”

At every Righteous Conversations workshop, Gaulke teaches an intensive media literacy lesson that, in Hutman’s words, shows teens “how to flex their moral conscience and moral outrage through media.” In practical terms, it equips them with a media vocabulary to enable them not just to conceive ideas, but also to visualize them. 

Where Righteous Conversations departs from most other forms of Holocaust chronicling is in its call to action. It is a model for tikkun that comes directly from the Torah: just as with the recounting of the Exodus story, the act of digging deep into a formative ancestral pain is meant to awaken in future generations the pain of others. 

Gaulke, who is not Jewish, said her own daughter, Xochi, had participated in one of the workshops and discovered a profound connection with a survivor, John Gordon, now deceased. “Gordon, who passed away, was sharing how he was liberated and then came to America. He said that for a long time he was ‘living in the closet’ as a Jew — he was afraid to tell his co-workers that he was Jewish. And as a daughter of lesbians, my daughter really connected with that,” Gaulke said. “Individuals come to the universal from the personal, and it’s the personal that transforms society.”

Several students who participated last summer said they’d never before been exposed to the Holocaust. Trey Carlisle, then a 13-year-old student at Aveson Global Leadership Academy in Pasadena, said that on the night before the workshop, he and his family had watched “Schindler’s List” for the first time. “I started crying a bit at the end,” he said, explaining that as a descendant of African slaves, he found that the enslavements of the Holocaust recalled his own ancestral struggle. But after meeting with survivors, he seemed more optimistic. “I was so amazed,” Carlisle said. “The survivors were more cheerful than anybody I ever met before. Whatever happens in the past,” he realized, “it doesn’t define us. We’re all survivors every day.” 

For Maxine Malekmehr, a junior at Milken, the experience held a different lesson: “We live in a society where we’re so comfortable,” she said. “We’re sheltered, we go to private school — everything is given to us. And hearing about the atrocities [survivors] went through in the Holocaust, I struggle envisioning that pain; it just doesn’t seem real.”

By the end of the 2012 workshop, the students had created five PSAs on a range of themes, including bullying, animal cruelty and censorship or Holocaust denial, almost all of them sharing a concern with human dignity. At a ceremony the following November, the PSAs were donated to thematically related organizations — “It’s Not Just One,” about ocean pollution, went to Heal the Bay; “All Animals Matter” went to the Humane Society; and “Words Can Hurt,” about abusive language, went to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In addition, all of the PSA are submitted to film festivals across the country where many have screened and won awards.

 “What is so compelling about the work they’re doing,” the Righteous Persons Foundation’s Levin said, “is that they’re responding to the need of the day.” One day, in the not-too-distant future, everyone knows that these righteous “conversations” will no longer be possible. “Either there will come a time where they’ve done the work they need to do,” Levin said, “or they’re going to adjust and morph into something that responds to the needs of the day, whatever that looks like in a number of years.”

Cece Feiler, a co-founder of the project and a daughter of survivors (her mother is Helen Freeman), said she is confident that when the survivors are no longer around, these students will continue to tell their stories. “All these young adults are now witnesses,” Feiler said. “They’re witnesses because they met my parents. They saw my mother’s number. They can go out and talk, too.”   

But for now, Hutman doesn’t want to imagine what the project will look like down the road, if it means a world without the survivors she now calls her friends. “People die,” Hutman said. “We all do. But our legacies do not; that lives on. And the work we’re doing now is an attempt to create meaning out of these encounters while we still have the opportunity.”  

This summer, the program will offer expanded seven- and eight-day workshops at both Harvard-Westlake and Milken; the former has already reached capacity with 30 teens enrolled.

The transience of the survivors’ presence has added even more urgency to the axiom, “Never Forget.” At the conclusion of last summer’s workshop, survivor Idele Stapholtz turned to the group assembled and offered her plea: “When we’re all gone,” she said, “we count on you to say: ‘We
met this woman. She’s a survivor. And it did happen.’ ”

Survivor: Hedy Fingerman


The cattle car doors opened onto the Auschwitz platform and Hedy Markowitz, abruptly separated from her mother and younger brothers, was pushed along a walkway. She was first detained at a building where two Jewish prisoners shaved her head, and was then ushered into another building and ordered to undress. She took off the pink and blue plaid suit that her mother’s friend had sewn for her 16th birthday. She then carefully removed the tiny photo of her father that she kept hidden under the yellow star and tucked it inside her blue shoes, which her mother had bought to match the suit. Minutes later, she emerged from the shower to find the clothes gone and the photo missing from her shoes. Hedy was 17; she had not seen her father since she was 9.

Hedy was born on Feb. 11, 1927 on her grandparents’ farm in Lipca, a small town in Subcarpathian Czechoslovakia. Soon after, her parents, Moishe and Pearl Yosowitz Markowitz, moved to Venif (Vonyhove), where her three younger brothers were born. Growing up, Hedy loved to watch her mother bake. She also loved to visit her maternal grandparents on their farm.

In 1936, Hedy’s father, struggling to make a living with his general store, moved to Belgium to start a new business. He later tried to return to Venif, but German troops had already invaded Belgium. (Decades afterward, Hedy learned that her father had joined the Belgium underground but was captured and sent to Auschwitz.)

In summer 1941, having traveled to the grandparents’ farm, Hedy’s family, along with all the Jews of Lipca, were rounded up and transported by cattle car to Jasina. But the Hungarian government, which had taken control of Subcarpathian Czechoslovakia, ordered the train to turn back. Hedy, her mother and brothers returned to Venif, where, during this time, almost all Venif’s Jews had been sent to Ukraine.

“It was like a cemetery. You didn’t see anyone outside,” Hedy said.

After Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, persecution of the Jews intensified. In early April, Hedy’s grandparents and the other Jews of Lipca were taken to Auschwitz and killed. Days later, during Passover, Hungarian soldiers ordered Hedy’s family to leave their house. Hedy’s mother sent Hedy to the attic for food. A soldier followed her, frisking her for concealed valuables. Hedy, her mother and brothers and the town’s few remaining Jews were marched to nearby Bustino, loaded on cattle cars and taken to the Mateszalka ghetto in eastern Hungary, where 17,000 Jews were crammed together. Hedy’s family, along with two other families, shared a windowless attic. They remained there for six weeks, with Hedy rarely leaving the attic.

In May, Hedy’s family was shipped to Auschwitz. She was processed and taken to a barrack. Her Aunt Muncie, her mother’s younger sister, however, recognized her and moved her to her barrack. “She took care of me like I was her daughter,” Hedy recalled. At roll call every morning, Muncie put Hedy in the middle of the five-person row, where she was better protected.

During the days, Hedy mostly stayed in her bunk or walked around outside. Sometimes she wandered near the train platform where she saw cattle cars being unloaded and babies torn from their mothers’ arms. “I was so scared while I was there. God closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see, because it was hell,” she said.

Seven weeks later, Hedy and Muncie were transported to Bergen-Belsen in northwestern Germany and, a short time later, taken to separate labor camps.

Hedy’s labor camp was near the Landsberg-Lech Air Base in Bavaria. During the days she was sent with a group of women to dig up potatoes, supervised by an elderly German soldier with a gun. But he told the women he was worried about his own son, also a soldier, and did not work them very hard. He also led them to safe places during bombing raids on the air base.

Six months later, in January 1945, Hedy, wearing only a thin dress and cardboard shoes, was put on a forced march to Bergen-Belsen. She walked 17 miles a day, subsisting only on black coffee, and arrived at Bergen-Belsen six weeks later, her toes frostbitten and her body barely able to move. “It was such a mess there. I was walking over dead people to go to the bathroom,” she said. Then, on April 15, women prisoners rushed into Hedy’s barracks, bringing coffee and tea and shouting, “We’re liberated.”

Hedy was taken to a hospital, where she had surgery on her right shoulder. Three weeks later, feeling better, she walked down the hospital corridor and looked out the window. “I wonder if there is a world out there,” she said to herself. She saw women sitting on the grass talking and was reassured. She looked again, saw her Aunt Muncie and cousin Gizi and screamed. “They came running because they had given up on me,” Hedy said.

In fall 1945, Hedy, Muncie and Gizi left for Sweden. Hedy was hospitalized for additional recuperation and was then sent to a Jewish school for girls. About a year later, a great-uncle brought all three to the United States and they settled in Cleveland, where American cousins lived and where Hedy worked as a dressmaker. 

Hedy met Jack Fingerman a few months later. He had come from Poland in 1939, the only surviving member of his immediate family and, Hedy said, “the most wonderful man.” They married on Sept. 13, 1947.

Their daughter Pearl was born on July 10, 1949, and a month later they moved to Los Angeles to be with Jack’s aunt and uncle. Their daughter Evie was born on Feb. 25, 1952.

Hedy and Jack moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1953, raising their daughters and becoming active members of Valley Beth Shalom.  Jack died in November 2002. Today Hedy, 85, enjoys spending time with her daughters, son-in-law and two grandsons, and baking her much-requested rugalach.

Hedy always wanted to write a book. “What they did to the Jews, it should never happen,” she said.

Survivor: Sara Gilmore


The train carrying about 1,600 Jews from the island of Rhodes pulled up to the Auschwitz platform in mid-August, 1944. Ezra Hanan, along with all the other men, was corralled into one line. His wife and six children were pushed into another.

Amid the chaos, Miriam Hanan went looking for her husband, handing the baby to 15-year-old Sara. Sara remained in line with her older sister, who was holding their toddler brother and their two younger sisters, 8 and 4. People were frantically asking questions. Sara turned to a prisoner standing nearby. “What about the children?” she asked. “They will be killed right away,” he told her. The younger girls understood and began to cry. Sara started screaming. Her mother returned and took the baby from Sara’s arms. But as Sara and her sisters hysterically tried to explain, Sara’s mother and siblings were directed to the left. Sara was sent to the right. “Sara, come this way,” her mother yelled. Sara halted. A German soldier slapped her face and pointed her to the right.

“That night we saw the fire, and it smelled horrible,” Sara said.

Sara Gilmore, née Hanan, was born on May 26, 1929, on the island of Rhodes, the second of six children in a comfortable, observant Sephardic family. But things began to change in 1938 when anti-Jewish laws were enacted, and about half of Rhodes’ 4,000 Jews departed the island, which was under Italian control. In September 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies, the Germans took full command of Rhodes.

During that time, Sara’s family spent many nights in their bomb shelter. Then, on the first day of Passover 1944, bombs began falling in the morning and continued relentlessly. Their house and Sara’s father’s businesses were destroyed. The family moved to a farmhouse they owned in the countryside.

On July 18, 1944, Sara’s father and all the male Jews of Rhodes age 18 and older were ordered to report to the Air Force Command Center. They believed they were being sent to a work camp but instead were detained there.

The next day, the women and children were ordered to report and to bring all their valuables, as well as food and a few personal items. Along the way, Sara saw a close friend of her father’s, who had attempted to run away, hanged outside his house. When they arrived at the Command Center, they were told to wait outside. They sat on the cement in the rain the entire night.

The next day, they were herded into the building — “like sardines,” Sara said — where they were stripped of all their money and jewelry. When Sara told a soldier she needed to write down what she was giving him, expecting to get it back, he smacked her across the face. “You had nothing left,” Sara said.

Three days later, the group was marched to the harbor and packed tightly into three old cargo vessels. They endured an eight-day voyage to Greece, then were immediately taken to the Haidari concentration Camp, outside Athens.

At Haidari, the Jews from Rhodes were contained in a large outside area, with no shade from the blazing sun and no water. Eventually, the guards brought out buckets of water, calling up people individually. Sara’s turn came, but as she approached the buckets, a German guard swung a billy club, hitting her hard on the back. Still she managed to bring some water to her younger siblings.

The next day, everyone was brought inside the building, where the women and teenage girls were subjected to a vaginal search to make certain they weren’t hiding any jewelry. “It was humiliating. The girls were all hysterical,” Sara recalled. A day or two later, the entire group was crammed into cattle cars and taken on a suffocating 13-day journey to Auschwitz, where only about 400 escaped the initial selection.

After Sara was separated from her family at Auschwitz, she was taken with the remaining women for processing. She was forced to undress, and her head, underarms and groin area were shaved. She was ordered to pick one dress from a pile of clothes, without regard to size, and was given no underwear or shoes. Finally, at about 3 a.m. she was taken to a bloc with three tiers of wooden bunks, with no mattresses or blankets and barely an available spot.

Sara became very sick at Auschwitz, spending much of her time in the hospital, where she was left for almost dead at one point. She was eventually sent back to the bloc and to hard labor, digging trenches in the snow, with no shoes and frostbitten feet. She became sick again and was sent back to the hospital, where she lay for three weeks, weighing less than 70 pounds when the Soviet army liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945.

Sara, considered an Italian citizen, became one of 25 women forced to work for the Russian soldiers, traveling with them, scrubbing houses in villages they appropriated, cooking their meals, washing their lice-ridden uniforms and enduring their verbal abuse. “They treated us just like the Germans,” she said.

Finally, at the end of May 1945, she was freed from the Russians and eventually sent to Italy, where she lived with one of her mother’s friends for two years. A cousin living in Los Angeles, seeing her name on a list of surviving Jews of Rhodes, which numbered just 150, sent for her.

Sara was married and divorced twice; she raised her son, Jeff, born in 1963, and daughter, Maureen, born in 1966, in the San Fernando Valley. For 28 years she worked at Tarzana Pharmacy.

Today she describes being 82 as “a hard age.” She’s not well, and many of her friends are gone. But she enjoys her four grandchildren and says she feels fortunate.

“The biggest lesson I learned was to survive on my own,” she said.

Fading Numbers


“Zayde, what are those faded numbers on your arm?”

Without completely understanding, I quickly realized that I had revived painful memories of Auschwitz as tears slowly ran down my grandfather’s cheek. Little did I know, back when I was 6 years old, that my grandfather’s ability to tell his story would change my life.

Presumably, it would be safe to assume that everyone is educated about one of the most well-documented events in history. But in fact, many Jews, especially those of my generation, are either misinformed or uninformed about the Holocaust. Surprisingly, I know of very few Jewish day schools or high schools that offer a Holocaust education course.

In my own 10 years in Jewish day schools, every year for Yom HaShoah, a Holocaust survivor would come and tell us his or her story. This year, as Yom HaShoah approaches, my school, YULA, an Orthodox high school, will be taking the entire high school to the Museum of Tolerance, which, like YULA, is part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

However, I have never been offered a Holocaust education class. Last year at Emek Hebrew Academy, as the vice president of the student council, I appealed for a junior high trip to a Holocaust museum. The administration felt that the students were too young and immature for such graphic education.

As a grandson of four Holocaust survivors, I have heard the stories firsthand. My adolescence has been saturated with Holocaust education — stories of how my grandparents escaped working camps, survived concentration camps such as Dachau and Auschwitz, were separated from their families or hid for long periods.

Because this is my family’s story, I have always felt a responsibility to make the story of the Holocaust well known among my peers and have written Holocaust poems, essays and historical fiction to inform my fellow classmates. At the young age of 14, I recognize the importance of Holocaust education in our Jewish day schools, or the lack thereof.

To understand the extent of this gap in our educational system, I conducted a survey among my classmates at YULA. Among 40 students, only 53 percent knew what Kristallnacht was — 40 percent did not know, and 7 percent tried to answer and got it wrong.

My guess is those numbers are even worse among non-Jewish youth, since our public schools offer very little Holocaust education and the students do not have grandparents at home telling their stories.

Recently, MTV launched a campaign to inform viewers about the Holocaust. An MTV representative stood in the middle of Times Square asking random people what they knew about the Holocaust. People gave various answers ranging from, “When a few thousand Jews died” to “When Jews light candles and receive presents.”

An uninformed mind leaves a person with an easily manipulated mind. For those who know nothing about the Holocaust, it is just a matter of time before they are taught a falsehood and buy into Holocaust denial.

The chances of another Holocaust occurring are slim, with the State of Israel, historians, Holocaust museums and Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, which has recorded over 50,000 Holocaust survivor testimonies. But anti-Semitic outbursts are not as uncommon as they should be.

A 2005 Anti-Defamation League national poll revealed that although the percentage of those holding anti-Semitic views declined from 17 percent in 2002 to 14 percent in 2005, the fact still remains that roughly 35 million American adults hold strong anti-Semitic views.

With many Holocaust survivors entering their 80s and 90s, we cannot rely solely on their stories to keep the story of the Holocaust intact. For the uninformed, a charismatic preacher of Holocaust denial will seem much more believable than a recording of an old woman telling her story. For this reason, now is the perfect time for Holocaust deniers to initiate mass manipulation; for this reason, now is the perfect time for us to initiate mass education.

The least we can do is initiate Holocaust education within our own day schools. In the near future, I will be meeting with the principals of YULA to discuss a monthly or even weekly Holocaust education class to supplement the modern Israel class taken by seniors. Eventually, I hope to take my case to the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), asking for a new requirement of a Holocaust education class in all BJE-approved high schools.

We have the history. We have the facts. We have everything we need to stop Holocaust deniers right in their tracks. I invite every Jew, no matter what sect or religious status, to take a stand in this campaign and fight for Holocaust education.

Ever since my eyes met with the faded numbers on my Zayde’s arm, I wondered what would happen when those numbers are gone forever. What will happen when my Zayde’s piercing but important voice telling his story can no longer be heard? What will happen when there are no Holocaust survivors to come into our schools and tell their stories? Will we be prepared?

Adam J. Deutsch is a ninth grader at YULA High School.

 

Misused by Gibson, Instructor Charges


"It’s all — maybe not all fiction — but most of it is." — Hutton Gibson, Mel Gibson’s father, on his opinion that the Holocaust has been exaggerated. Newsweek, March 1, 2004

"I have friends and parents of friends with numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps."

— Mel Gibson to Peggy Noonan in Reader’s Digest, March 2004

At 90 years old, Michel Thomas remains the world’s premier foreign language teacher. Titans of business, foreign ambassadors and the stars of Hollywood readily pay $25,000 for three days of private instruction with Thomas, usually from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. over a single weekend.

The fee includes two days of follow-up with his teachers. In the late 1990s Thomas taught Mel Gibson his weekend Spanish course at Gibson’s home in Malibu.

"I am outraged, absolutely outraged," Thomas thundered over the phone from London, when I interviewed him in late February. He is in England recording the final CDs for his complete courses in French, Spanish, German and Italian for the prestigious British publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

"After having twice escaped deportations to Auschwitz, for Gibson to say I had a job in the concentration camp and survived the concentration camp like everybody else. To misuse me, to use me is an outrage," Thomas said.

I asked if he has spoken to Gibson since the quote appeared.

"No. Abe Foxman of the ADL asked me to write Gibson a letter," Thomas replied. "But I don’t know if I will."

Thomas explained that he and Gibson got on very well, and Gibson later brought his two sons to Thomas’ Beverly Hills office to take taped language courses there. They never discussed the Holocaust, but Thomas said, "He knew I was a Holocaust survivor, and I did send him my book. Whether he read it is another thing."

I first met Thomas in the early 1990s, when he approached me at a UCLA seminar about writing a book about a small part of his life — his service with the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). After fighting in the French Resistance, he was assigned in August 1944 as a French liaison officer with the 45th Division of the U.S. 7th Army, serving with combat counterintelligence.

Thomas was nominated for a Silver Star for combat bravery. Later, he became an agent in the CIC, and he established a network of agents behind enemy lines.

On April 29, 1945, Thomas joined the troops in the liberation of Dachau, where he took historic photographs of the crematorium workers. Two days later, he captured Emil Mahl, the "Hangman of Dachau," near Munich.

Around this time, he received a report that a convoy of SS trucks was en route to a paper mill south of Munich. After the liberation of the city, Thomas raced to the mill and prevented a mountain of Nazi documents, including the worldwide membership card files of the Nazi Party, from being turned into pulp. These documents formed the core of the Berlin Document Center, the world’s foremost repository of Nazi personnel documents, which played a vital role at the Nuremberg trials.

In the many weeks and months I spent with Thomas, he let me inspect a mound of historic original documents, many of which he carried constantly with him in a briefcase, never letting them out of his possession.

My book proposal about his wartime experiences made the rounds of publishers. None questioned its veracity, but they felt similar stories had been done, and they would have trouble "breaking it out" commercially.

In spite of his remarkable life, Thomas has remained virtually unknown, remarkable itself, considering that his language students have included business tycoons Edgar Bronfman Jr., Henry Kravis and Saul Steinberg. Grace Kelley, Woody Allen, Barbra Steisand, Otto Preminger, Warren Beatty and Emma Thompson are among the legion of Hollywood luminaries who have studied with him.

Thomas’ revolutionary technique allows no note taking, no memorization drills and no homework. Holding his secrets close to his chest, he talks about dissecting language into minute parts. "It took me many years to see on what basis to reassemble them," he said.

Herbert Morris, a UCLA professor of law and humanities and former UCLA dean of humanities, took the private weekend course with Thomas and said that he retained an equivalent of a year’s instruction from it.

Thomas has always been caught in the tension between seeking the bright lights of recognition and the shelter of privacy, but he has opted primarily for the latter. It is only in the last half a dozen years, after almost five decades of guarding the secrets of his language system, that Thomas allowed his tapes and CDs to be sold commercially.

Previously all students not in private instruction entered his language centers in Beverly Hills or Manhattan and listened to the interactive tapes there. All cassettes were never allowed out of the office.

In 2000, Thomas’ extraordinary life story was finally publicized in "Test of Courage" by British author Christopher Robbins and published by Simon and Schuster. Robbins took a broader and wiser approach than my own, incorporating the language system and Hollywood angle to give it more marketing punch.

The book was favorably reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, then months later, on April 15, 2001, the Times published a long profile on Thomas. Headlined "Larger Than Life," the article cast doubts on the veracity of Thomas’ wartime experiences, clearly implying that Thomas had fabricated or exaggerated them.

Refused a retraction and advised of the long odds of prevailing in a libel case, Thomas nonetheless sued the Times for defamation in October 2001. He has fought the paper fiercely ever since to get it to acknowledge the well-documented facts of his life.

Thomas was denied a trial by a federal judge’s curious pretrial ruling that the article was not defamatory. Although the article, she said, implied Thomas had lied about his past, "no reasonable juror or reader could find that was the message the defendants intended to convey."

Alex Kline, a San Francisco private investigator, helped prepare the defamation case for trial, locating World War II comrades and extensive archival evidence to further bolster the documentation in Robbins’ book. (He created a Web site at www.michelthomas.org that contains the original historical data.)

On Feb. 19, 2004, John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, spoke at a UC Berkeley symposium — "Selling Out the First Amendment: The Collision of News, Entertainment and Politics." For a videotape record of this event go to (webcast.berkeley.edu/events/archive/html).

At the symposium, Kline asked Carroll why neither he nor anyone else at the paper had responded to the nearly 400 letters they have received, which include 130 signatures of members of the 180th Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, Thomas’ regimental association, respectfully requesting that the paper correctly re-report the story of Thomas’s life. Carroll’s verbatim response was:

"I hate to get into this one, but I figure we’re going to since we’re here at Berkeley. We published a story awhile back, by a very clever reporter named Roy Rivenburg, about a man who published his autobiography. And, if you read the autobiography, you’d be amazed you’d never heard of this man, because he pretty much single-handed won World War II for us. It was a preposterous book, and our review of it was an investigative review. It debunked many of the claims in this book and had some fun doing it, had a few laughs at the author’s expense. When you put yourself out in public and make claims that are preposterous, and publish a book on it, you’re like to get a reviewer who will look into that and set the record straight. I’m very proud of that story, we haven’t retracted a word of it, we don’t intend to because it was true."

Rivenburg is primarily a humor and feature writer for the Times.

He currently teaches courses like "The Mechanics of Biblical Journalism" for a Christian Fundamentalist group called The World Journalism Institute (WJI). The WJI’s mission, posted on the Web, reads in part: "In this age of mass secular media, the mission of the WJI is to overcome the eclipse of God by providing counterthrust to the secular media and tepid Christian media."

The Los Angeles Times has printed nothing about the legal skirmish with Thomas.

My guess is that once such a lawsuit is filed against a newspaper, the plaintiff becomes an enemy of the First Amendment, and they circle their wagons. Your concern is not to be fair but to win.

But having won and extracted your legal fees from the pocket of the plaintiff, as the Times did, does your journalistic obligation to tell the truth end? That is a question the Times does not seem to want to address.

Thomas has found himself in the unenviable position of having the Los Angeles Times question the facts of his life, while Gibson appropriated those same facts to diminish the enormity of the Holocaust.

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