Survivor: David Wiener


David Wiener was standing on the corner outside his family’s apartment house in Lodz at sundown on Nov. 15, 1939, when German trucks abruptly swarmed the Altshtot (Old Town) synagogue across the street. “Raus, raus,” Gestapo officers shouted as they disembarked with their Dobermans, dispersing bystanders. David stayed on the corner, watching, until a large blast rocked the synagogue, sending debris flying and igniting fires. “The war is here,” the 13-year-old thought to himself as he scrambled up the stairs to his family’s flat. The synagogue burned to the ground, devastating David’s father, a deeply religious man and Altshtot Talmud teacher, and forever altering David’s life. 

“Enough,” he concluded a couple of weeks later. “I need to escape from here.”

David was born in Lodz on May 30, 1926, to Moshe Chaim and Hannah Wiener, the second youngest of nine children.

The family lived in a seventh-floor walk-up apartment, consisting of one large room with an outdoor toilet. David shared a bed with three brothers.

Despite their poverty, David adored his close-knit family. Shabbat was especially joyous, the only time when the entire family gathered together. “Mother was happy, smiling like a queen,” David recalled. 

David began cheder at age 4, but at 8 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to live with his oldest brother, Yankel, in Krotoszyn, with its fresh air. Yankel and his wife, Irene, treated David like a son, giving him his own bed, a new bicycle and a custom suit every Passover. 

In the public school, boys often beat up David, accusing him of killing Jesus. One day, however, he smacked a tormenter on the head with his book bag and knocked out a second one’s teeth. One of the boys, Josef Kowalski, became David’s best friend, protecting him in return for tutoring help.

In June 1939, David returned to Lodz. 

The following November, as David was escaping the city, his father turned away, too overwrought to even say goodbye. His mother walked him to the staircase. “Go in good health,” she said. “Don’t forget who you are or what you are. God should protect you.” 

David, wearing a blue corduroy suit that he would not remove for two years and speaking fluent German, boarded a train for Warsaw, where he lived with a maternal aunt. 

But by October 1940, that apartment, then within the confines of the Warsaw Ghetto, was overcrowded, and David lived on the streets, where his body twice swelled up from hunger. The second time, a friend rescued him, taking him to his uncle’s bakery. David regained his strength, but lost his will to live. 

With nothing to lose, David jumped the ghetto wall at 3 a.m. one November morning in 1941, walking to the train station, where two young women on a bench beckoned to him. They hid him under their blankets and purchased a ticket to Deblin, Poland, for him. “They were angels,” David said.  

In Deblin, David lived with another maternal aunt and her family in a small house in the ghetto. The city’s Judenrat (Jewish council) assigned him to the labor force, where for 16 hours a day, he unloaded coal and bags of cement, many of them weighing 100 pounds, from arriving trains. 

Next, he helped build a German bunker. One day, the Polish foreman hit one of the Jewish boys. A Gestapo officer, Oberfuhrer Knaphaider, witnessed the commotion and kicked the foreman, dismissing him with a “Raus, schwein,” then putting David in charge. 

Later, in bitter cold weather, David worked on the railroad tracks. One day, a slow-moving train hit him head-on, leaving him unconscious. Two non-Jewish workers picked him up. One wanted to burn him. The other insisted on delivering him to his aunt, who covered him in blankets and held an ice-filled cow bladder on his head day and night. He slowly recovered.

Then, on Sept. 15, 1942, the ghetto residents were ordered to assemble in the central marketplace, where the Judenrat separated them into two lines. Knaphaider saw David standing in the left line, destined for Treblinka. “What are you doing here?’ he asked. “Raus, raus, to the right.” 

David was sent to a labor camp near the Deblin airport, where he cleaned barracks, built roads and worked in the kitchen.

On the morning of July 22, 1944, the camp was liquidated and the prisoners loaded onto a cattle train. But when it stopped in Czestochowa, and the guards opened the doors for some fresh air, David and a friend, Avram Cohen, escaped, running into the forest as two Gestapo officers pursued them. But the boys soon surrendered and were taken to jail. 

David was escorted into an office where a phonograph was playing “Meine Heine Sterner” (My Dear Little Star), a tune he can still hum today; two Gestapo officers began beating and interrogating him. David gave his name as Josef Kowalski, the name of his Polish-Catholic friend from Krotoszyn. 

Four days later, David and Avram were crammed into a cattle car headed to Birkenau. There, David was processed, given a striped uniform and a red star, as political prisoner Josef Kowalski, and tattooed with the number 189897. 

David was moved from Block 11 to Block 8 to Block 5, where his body became so bloated from hunger he wanted to die. But his friend Avram pleaded with him, “No, not you. You’re strong, David,” he said, which restored his will to survive.

In November 1944, David answered a call for mechanics and soon found himself standing in an assembly line in a labor camp somewhere in Germany, assigned to drill holes in Messerschmitt aircraft parts. The Czech prisoner next to him, realizing David wasn’t a mechanic, demonstrated what to do, but David nevertheless drilled through his own thumb.  

Later, David was transferred to a labor camp — “the worst,” he said — in Magdeburg, Germany, where the prisoners worked deep underground assembling mechanical parts. They slept less than a mile away, outdoors on concrete, in the cold and snow. Many froze to death.

In April, the prisoners were dispatched on a death march. One night, as Allied planes flew overhead, the German guards jumped into nearby ditches for cover. David and his friend Granek did the same, maneuvering a stone to cover them. In the morning no one noticed they were missing, and the group marched on. David and Granek crawled out and began walking. 

Eventually they reached a barn, where they stole three blackened sweet potatoes from a pig trough. “That was the best food I ever had in my life, better than steak and lobster,” David said. 

At 4 a.m., a few days later, awakening from a night in an open field, they saw American tanks headed in their direction and put up their hands. Seeing them, an American soldier called to a comrade, “Hey, Joe, do you speak Yiddish?” Joe appeared, looked at David and Granek and started crying. “He didn’t stop,” David said. It was April 13, 1945. David was free.

Weeks later, David traveled to Frankfurt, where Yankel found him. The two, the only survivors in their family, hugged and cried. In July 1946, David immigrated to the United States. He worked in Pittsburgh, cleaning and packing for a clothing company and then peddling clothes and household goods. 

A few years later, David moved to Los Angeles, where he sold vacuum cleaners and then jewelry and silverware door to door. After a job selling upholstery, he moved to Dawson Upholstery to learn the business. He also took night classes in English at Fairfax High School, where he met Renee Frelich, a survivor from Brussels. 

David was inducted into the army but discharged honorably after three months. He then moved to New York, where Yankel had immigrated and where Renee joined him. 

On Oct. 7, 1951, David married Renee, placing a drapery ring from Woolworth’s on her finger. It cost two cents, all he could afford. 

David and Renee’s daughter, Helene Frances, was born in February 1960, and son, Michael, in November 1963. 

In March 1952, David and Renee returned to Los Angeles, where David opened Cosmos Upholstery on Melrose Avenue. He later purchased a furniture store on Western Avenue, renaming it Fine Line Furniture. But after being held up at gunpoint in 1965, he liquidated the business. 

Next, David launched Western Fabric Co. in downtown Los Angeles, which he ran until 1979. He then founded DW Development, in which his son later joined him, constructing shopping centers and apartment buildings in Fontana. Now almost 90 and a grandfather of four, David still goes into the company’s Beverly Hills office daily.

Renee died in 2002. In 2006, David remarried a woman named Lila Gilbert, who died four years later. 

After the movie “Schindler’s List” opened in 1993, David, at his children’s insistence, began telling his own story. He later wrote a memoir, “Nothing to Lose But My Life,” which was privately published in 2007.

“I wanted my kids to know who I am,” he said.

Survivor: Henry Oster


Achtung,” a German officer shouted. “Attention.” Fifteen-year-old Henry Oster, then called Heinz, lined up with his mother in a Lodz ghetto courtyard on a mid-August day in 1944. He and the others gathered there had been instructed to report for special permits to help harvest the fall crops, exempting them from deportation. But suddenly the shutters covering the windows of the two German administrative buildings on either side were flung open, revealing soldiers with machine guns aimed at the approximately 800 Jews now trapped there. The ambushed Jews were herded to the train station and crammed into cattle cars.

Two days later, they arrived at Birkenau. “Schnell, schnell,” the guards shouted, “Hurry, hurry,” beating them with their batons. As Henry helped his mother down, she was abruptly whisked away. “I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye,” he recalled.

Henry was born in Cologne, Germany, on Nov. 5, 1928, to Hans and Lisbeth Oster. Hans was a vice president of a chain of small department stores, and the middle-class family lived in a luxurious apartment on Brabanterstrasse.

Henry’s first encounter with anti-Semitism occurred on his first day of Jewish day school, in 1934. As the children left for the day, Hitler youth, along with their parents, spat and swung at them with sticks. “I was more confused than frightened,” Henry said.

After the Nuremberg Laws were introduced in September 1935, Henry could no longer attend school and Hans lost his job. The family was forced to move to a small apartment consisting of only one bedroom and a kitchen. Soon, 11 friends and relatives who had also lost their apartments joined them. Henry slept on a slatted wooden bench in the kitchen. 

With no income, Hans joined a labor camp, where he received meager pay for helping construct the Siegfried Line, German fortifications opposite  France’s Maginot Line. 

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, which would become known as Kristallnacht, Henry was awakened by a terrible commotion outside. He and the others, including his father, who had returned home, looked out the window to see the Roonstrasse Synagogue in flames. Suddenly they heard banging on their front door, and an SS officer and two enlisted men entered the apartment. The SS officer looked at Hans. He then turned to the two soldiers, announced, “This is a mistake” and promptly left. Henry’s father explained that as vice president of his company, he used to meet with salesmen twice a year at a particular hotel. The SS officer had been the hotel doorman, whom Hans had consistently tipped for many years. 

In 1941, the Oster family received notice to report for resettlement on Monday, Oct. 20. But the Saturday night prior, German soldiers broke open their apartment door and escorted them to a collection center. 

Two days later, they were loaded onto passenger trains, one of two transports of approximately 1,000, each headed to the Lodz ghetto. There they were squeezed for living quarters into a small room with 10 other people. 

Hans was assigned work repairing the electric fence that surrounded the ghetto. Lisbeth, Henry’s mother, worked in a factory drilling holes in metal plates that were fastened to the soles of military boots. And Henry worked on an agricultural detail, spending 12 hours a day planting and harvesting.

One day in July 1942, Hans returned home early from work, physically depleted and near starvation. He lay down on the floor, and then quietly died. “You were as much afraid as you were sad and sorry,” Henry said of his father’s death.

Henry and his mother moved to another room, this one shared with 19 people.

At work, Henry had become acquainted with two brothers, both inexplicably strong and well fed, who occasionally handed him a slice of bread, always on a Monday. One Sunday, when Henry was forced to watch the weekly hangings for the first time, he realized that the brothers were the hangmen, and the bread was their payment. “This was about the only kindness I experienced in all those years,” he said. 

After Henry arrived at Birkenau, he was processed and sent to a barracks, where he and the other prisoners endured cruelty and endless roll calls. He learned to be invisible.

But about a month later, hearing that youngsters were being recruited, he ran into the courtyard — to this day he doesn’t know why — and uncharacteristically shouted, “Ich spreche Deutsch (I speak German).” He was selected as one of the 131 boys who were tattooed — Henry became B-7648 — and taken to a barracks in Auschwitz. 

The next morning, the boys were marched to the horse stables, where each was assigned three or four mares. Henry, however, because he spoke German, was put in charge of the stallion, Barbarossa, as well as two pregnant mares. The boys worked 12- to 16-hour days caring for the horses and helping them produce foals for the German army. 

Late one afternoon, Henry was in the field when one of his mares went into labor, dropping to the ground in a recessed area. Henry heard the 4 p.m. siren, knowing he would be late for roll call but was unable to leave. When he heard soldiers and dogs searching for him, he put his cap on a branch and raised it up. A soldier shot at it. “I’m here with the horse,” he yelled in German. The soldiers soon understood the situation.

Another time, returning from work, the boys encountered a huge commotion at Auschwitz’s main gate. As they passed, German officials detained the last four boys, including Henry, and shoved them and a group of older men into an enclosed courtyard. The four boys were thrust against a back wall as soldiers began firing machine guns into the crowd. The man in front of Henry was hit and fell on him, and the boys were soon encircled by dead and dying men. They managed to make a run for a nearby door and escape safely to their barracks. 

In December 1944, the boys were transported to Plawy, a new Auschwitz subcamp. Then, in mid-January 1945, in bitterly cold weather, they were dispatched on a death march and loaded into open cattle cars two days later. The following day, Allied planes strafed the train, thinking the prisoners were German troops. Henry was not hit. 

On Jan. 23, 1945, the train arrived at Buchenwald, where there was little food and only occasional work in a quarry, purposelessly moving chunks of granite. By late March, the weakened prisoners mostly lay in their barracks. Then, on April 11, Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army liberated the camp. 

After spending several months recuperating, Henry was transferred to an orphanage in Ecouis, France. Late that summer, he learned that his maternal uncle, Herbert Haas, had seen Henry’s name published in the Los Angeles B’nai B’rith Messenger. He and his wife, who had left Cologne in 1939, invited Henry to live with them.

Henry arrived in Los Angeles on April 20, 1946. He attended Belmont High School and also worked in his uncle’s gas station on Wilshire Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles. Henry’s education continued at UCLA and then at the Southern California School of Optometry. In 1957, he opened his own practice in Beverly Hills, selling it in 2007. He continued working full time at Kaiser Permanente, retiring in January 2014. Henry also volunteered at the Ambulatory Care Center at Cedars-Sinai for 50 years.

In 1998, Henry met Susan Fishman, and they married on May 6, 2001. He has four stepchildren — two from Fishman and two from a previous marriage. He has six step-grandchildren. 

Henry began telling his story at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 1976. In 1993, he moved to the Museum of Tolerance, where he continues to speak regularly. 

Henry’s memoir, “The Kindness of the Hangman,” written with Dexter Ford, was published in July 2014 and is available at Amazon.com. Additionally, with artist Toni Scott, he is raising funds to construct a sculpture that he hopes will be displayed in perpetuity at the Museum of Tolerance. Fashioned after a plywood piece he created at the Ecouis orphanage, it depicts a man in chains breaking through walls to freedom (freedommemorialsculpture.com).

Of the 2,011 people transported from Cologne to the Lodz ghetto, only 23 survived. Of those, Henry is one of only two still living. “I have more mazel (luck) than anyone could expect,” he said. 

SCI-Arc exhibit reconsiders a future for Auschwitz


The word Auschwitz connotes more than just the concentration camp in Poland that carries the name. It’s shorthand for the horrors of the Holocaust and evidence of man’s capacity for extreme inhumanity to man.

And perhaps because the place is such a symbol, nearly 70 years after World War II ended, a sometimes heated debate continues among historians, architects and archaeologists about how to properly preserve the site of the atrocities, including the neighboring site of Birkenau, or Auschwitz II.

Two Los Angeles-based architects, Eric Kahn and Russell Thomsen, partners in IDEA Office, developed their own unsolicited proposal for the site. Although Kahn died in June, Thomsen carried on, and now the fruits of their work are on display through Nov. 30 at the downtown campus of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in an

Survivor: Stella Esformes


It was 1944, and Stella Esformes — then Sterina Haleoua — was looking forward to watching the national Independence Day parade in Larissa, Greece. She had even purchased a new pair of beige and brown shoes for the occasion. But the day before the event, in the early morning of March 24, she was awakened by the sound of boots walking outside her family’s apartment, followed by loud knocking on the door. “Open up,” a voice demanded. It was an interpreter, accompanied by two German soldiers. “Come with me,” he ordered. “Take some clothes, food and your valuables.”

Stella and her parents were put in a large, open truck, which  made multiple stops as the soldiers rounded up more families. “We were crying. Nobody was talking,” Stella recalled. 

Stella was born on April 15, 1926, in Salonika, Greece, the only surviving child of Avraham and Rosa Haleoua. The couple’s previous four daughters all died between the ages of 1 and 3, before Stella was born. 

The Haleouas, who spoke Ladino, lived in a house they shared with another family. Avraham worked selling horses in Larissa, about 90 miles away. He returned home every weekend or two. Rosa was employed as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family, also coming home on weekends. A neighbor cared for Stella. 

Stella lived in a vibrant Jewish community where she had many friends and enjoyed celebrating Shabbat. 

At 6, she attended Jewish kindergarten. The following year, however, her mother lost her job and they moved to Larissa.

Stella didn’t speak Greek, and she didn’t attend school immediately. Instead she learned to crochet and embroider from Rosa and picked up some Greek while shopping at a neighborhood market.

At 9, she enrolled in first grade, where the children teased her because of her age and poor command of the language.  After second grade, she left school and apprenticed for a seamstress. While there, she sewed several dresses for herself, replacing the one dress she had been wearing every day. 

On Oct. 28, 1940, Italy invaded Greece. With bombs dropping, Stella stopped working. Some months later, a neighbor took her own two sons and Stella to live in a village in the mountains, where Stella felt safer. But on March 1, 1941, an earthquake struck, severely shaking the house. Stella’s father came for her that day.

The Greek army pushed the Italian forces into Albania, winning the war. “We were so happy,” Stella recalled. But then Germany attacked Greece on April 6, 1941, occupying it by April 30.

Not much changed initially for the Jews of Larissa, according to Stella. But by 1943, they were issued identification cards and required to check in with German officials weekly. And on March 24, 1944, they were rounded up. 

The truck delivered Larissa’s Jews to a large, empty garage. Additional trucks brought more Jews from Yanina, Volos and other surrounding towns. “We were crying and crying,” Stella said. 

The Germans took everyone’s valuables. One woman handed Stella a gold necklace with three diamonds to hide, which she embedded in her coat hem.

A week later, at midnight, the Germans marched the Jews to the train station and loaded them into cattle cars, where they sat on the floor “bumper to bumper,” Stella said. 

After seven days, the train pulled up to the Birkenau platform. When the doors of Stella’s car opened, the girls and boys were separated, and the older people were directed to board trucks standing nearby. “Stella, come with us,” Avraham pleaded. “No, Daddy, I’m going with the girls. We’re going to work,” she answered. She assumed they would meet later. 

The girls were marched to a large room where female capos tattooed Stella with the number 77137 and cut her long hair. Nazi guards then ordered the girls to undress and shower. Stella carefully folded her coat with the gold necklace, planning to retrieve it after her shower. But they exited through another door, and Stella was handed a thin dress and a pair of wooden shoes. 

The girls were next taken to a barracks. The first night, Stella couldn’t stop coughing and couldn’t sleep. “I was nervous,” she said. 

The next day, she met a girl from Salonika. “Where are our parents?” Stella asked her. “Your parents went where my parents went, to the crematorium,” she answered. Stella thought the girl was crazy, but she subsequently heard the same story from others.

After being quarantined for 40 days, the girls in Stella’s barracks went to work. Stella was assigned to unload potatoes from a train and then cart them by wheelbarrow to the camp. 

One day, Stella stole three potatoes, wrapping them in her headscarf and putting them between her legs. As the group returned from work, a capo saw her walking oddly and ordered her to open her legs. The potatoes fell out, and the capo struck her three times on the head with a heavy baton. 

The group then stood at roll call where a German guard called out her number and directed her to the sidelines. “I was crying. All my friends were crying,” Stella remembered. Everyone feared she would be taken to the crematorium. Instead she was reassigned to clean the latrines and the open sewer, where she later found a mezuzah that she hid in a piece of bread.

In January 1945, as the Russians approached, Stella and others were evacuated in cattle cars to Bergen-Belsen, a 17-day trip. They were given a blanket and placed in tents. 

Some weeks later, the group was transferred by train to Gellenau, a women’s labor camp in Germany’s Silesia region. Stella worked on a machine, standing on her feet from evening to morning, every night. One morning after work, she fainted; she had contracted typhus. Her friends wanted to bring her to the hospital, but Stella refused, returning to work that evening. “I didn’t want to be taken away,” she said.

In March 1945, Stella was shipped to Mauthausen. The first night, she was assigned a barracks filled with sick people. She climbed into a bunk next to a Hungarian woman, who was dead by morning. 

At Mauthausen, Stella traded her mezuzah for additional soup. One day, while fetching her extra portion, a Hungarian woman said, “What do you need soup for? You’re free.” 

Stella walked up a hill, where she saw American soldiers tossing chocolates and cigarettes to the newly freed prisoners. “We were very happy,” she said. It was May 5, 1945. Stella was 19 and weighed about 85 pounds. 

Stella remained at Mauthausen, which became a displaced persons camp. Then, on July 28, the Americans departed and the Russians took command. That night, when Stella was sleeping in a room with 35 girls, Russian soldiers knocked on their door. The girls took refuge in the barracks with the Jewish men, who protected them, and left the camp the next day. 

Stella headed for Salonika, where she lived with her cousin Sinto and a group of young people. There she met Yomtov (Joe) Esformes, who was nine years older and the only survivor in his family. They married on July 14, 1946; Stella wore a rented dress and borrowed shoes. 

In April 1947, their son, Elias, was born, followed by daughters Flora in July 1951 and Rose in September 1958. 

In October 1951, Stella and Joe received a visa to immigrate to the United States. They settled in Los Angeles, seeking a mild climate for Joe, who had contracted asthma in the camps.

The Jewish community helped the family financially. Then, when Flora was 3, in 1954, Stella began working in a window blinds factory. She took a leave when Rose was born and retired in 1963. Stella then helped Joe in the small produce market he had opened in downtown Los Angeles. He sold it in 1969 and died on Oct. 13, 1989. 

Stella, now 88, has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She is active in Jewish Family Service’s Café Europa and UCLA’s Bearing Witness program. 

While Stella was in Birkenau, a French prisoner read her palm, telling her she was going to be liberated, marry a red-haired man and have three children.

“Believe it or not, that’s what happened to me,” Stella said. 

Palestinian students say Auschwitz trip was ‘for educational purposes only’


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Despite the frequency with which students from high schools and colleges worldwide visit Holocaust death camps, it was no simple matter for Issa Jameel when he was asked whether he wanted to visit Auschwitz. For Jameel, a Palestinian master’s student from Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, the opportunity was laced with political and nationalistic issues his peers don’t have to deal with. According to Jameel, it was only when he realized it would be an important educational experience to learn about the Jews in the Holocaust during World War II that he was convinced and signed-on as student coordinator for the trip.

“Until when will we keep hearing the Israeli narrative of what happened?” Jameel asked The Media Line in the library of the American Studies department on the Al-Quds campus in the Abu Dis neighborhood of Jerusalem. “Why don’t we find out for ourselves?” he asked.

The result was the first delegation of its kind; a March trip by 27 students to Poland’s Auschwitz and Birkenau camps led by Professor Mohammad Dajani Daoudi, dean of the American Studies program. 

“I was not shy to admit that I was going and I was not afraid to say so because I was going to learn. As a Palestinian, I feel for others because we are suffering,” he said.

“The idea is to study empathy in order to affect feelings of reconciliation,” Dajani explained to The Media Line. “We are exposing Palestinian students to what happened during World War II — in particular, the Holocaust concentration camps. At the same time, we are taking 30 Israeli students to visit Palestinians who suffered as a result of the 1948 Nakba,” he said. 

The visit was funded by The German Research Foundation and sponsored jointly by a program called “Hearts of Flesh, not Stone,” a project of “Wasatia,” (Moderation), of the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany; and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel.

Jameel says he was not taught about the Holocaust in school, and says all he had heard were general comments that “what the Nazis did was ‘heinous.’ “Relative to us as Palestinians, the Holocaust is seen as a catastrophe on the humanitarian level.”

As a second-year master’s student, Jameel had prepared by reading a book about the Holocaust authored by Dajani, but the reality was greater than his expectations. “The picture of the horrible event is not complete until you see the place in front of you,” he said.

Asked about those, like the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas that denies the existence of the Holocaust, Jameel says, “No, it did happen, because to deny a reality is to deny its existence.”

“This trip confirmed my perceptions that the deprecating value of a human being the torture of a human being, the killing of a human being, and punishment of a human being because of religion or roots, is a text book definition of a crime,” he said.

On the Hearts of Flesh Facebook page, trip participant Nasser Al-Qaddi wrote, “My impression at this place is, I felt disgusted and real dehumanization; and how Nazis acted mercilessly with illegal inhuman decision to exterminate Jews and other prisoners.”   

Prof. Dajani says the purpose of the trip was in order to hear both sides, and by listening to the suffering on both sides, help create empathy.  “Empathy brings reconciliation,” he explained.

As might have been expected, angry feedback against Dajani and his students did not wait for their return home. Palestinians immediately utilized social media including Facebook to lash out against the trip. New vitriol continues to appear frequently on the sites.

“My brother called me from Palestine and asked, “Don’t you know; you and your delegation are spies?” Jameel said. He relates that his brother went on to explain that an article written in the Israeli daily, Haaretz, about the trip to Auschwitz released by an influential Arab news agency but translated incorrectly. Jameel admonished his brother to ignore the rumors.

“I told my brother to tell everyone he knows that we visited the Auschwitz camp and we saw the tremendous suffering of what happened during the Holocaust,” he said. “And we, as Palestinians, know the meaning of what it means to suffer,” Jameel added.

 Asked whether the visit was a gesture in opposition to the “normalization” campaign in which any cultural or educational contact with Israeli institutions is severely discouraged, Jameel replied that the journey was “purely an educational trip,” and that “visiting the Holocaust is something and normalizing is something else.”

Jameel also says he was not afraid to share his feelings about the Israelis with Dajani. “I told Mr. Dajani that we don’t want Israelis to come with us, as that would seem to show them we are trying to satisfy them. And so we won’t be case studies. I did not want Israelis to look at me and say he is sympathizing [with me when] he is not.”

Jameel said that at one point during the trip he felt he was being manipulated into feeling guilty for what happened to the Holocaust victims. “On the trip, there were Jews whose grandparents witnessed the Holocaust. They were talking from an educational standpoint and then suddenly switched to an emotional perspective. When we saw that they were personalizing the Holocaust, we decided we did not want to listen anymore and asked for another guide at the Holocaust museum to tell us – factually – what had happened: different than the emotional and personal narrative because we were coming to learn,” he said. “My emotions should come from within me, without force, and not having had someone direct my emotions.”

The contingent included twelve Palestinian women. Shahd Swaid, a 22-year old English Literature major told The Media Line that the pressure not to be part of the group began before their departure. Swaid said she was told that, “There will be much dialogue against you [and accusations] that you are going to normalize,” she said. “I was asked, ‘Why are you going?’ My response to them was to ask ‘How are you comparing something you did not see and something you did not live?’ I wanted to go to imagine what happened so I can answer not just [my friends] but the other people.”

Swaid told The Media Line that she went in order “to see the torture that took place and the suffering.” She said the extent of her knowledge about the Holocaust was what she read in headlines and what she had seen in movies. But for Shahd, it was also a reminder. As did other Palestinian students, she related feelings of identification with life under an occupying power.

To those who criticized the delegation for going, Swaid said the opposition stems from ignorance.

“Those people do not read to understand. They react without listening,” she said.

“[Those opposed to the trip] are mixing politics with education, said Dajani. “It’s an education-only experience; a learning process.”  His profile picture on Facebook is that of a candle with words reading, “Holocaust Memorial Day.”

“We are studying the Holocaust. People are trying to impose politics on this experience. We are not asking them to normalize or not to normalize. Not to be with or against. Just learn the facts,” he said.

“They (the critics) are politicizing education in the hope of making more of indoctrination. We are against that. We believe in advancing the knowledge of students; breaking taboos and putting a crack into ignorance,” Dajani told The Media Line.

The students who went on the trip had praise for Dajani and admiration for his “courage” to organize the experience.

Dajani says despite the criticism he has received, he is planning a second trip if funding can be arranged.

Survivor: Betty Cohen


During her first night in Birkenau, on May 22, 1944, Betty Cohen — née Beppe (Rebecca) Corper — slid out of her lower bunk and stepped outside to use the toilet. Just 23, she had arrived that morning with her parents, aunt and grandmother, as well as her fiance and his family, from Westerbork, a transit camp in northeastern Netherlands. Everyone had been immediately separated; only Elizabeth, Betty’s fiance’s sister, remained with her. Once outside, Betty stared at flames rising toward the sky. “If you came with your family,” a nearby guard told her, “they were gassed and now they’re being burned. You might as well say goodbye.” 

Betty was born on March 23, 1921, in Amsterdam, to Louis Corper and Heintje Corper-Hamel. Her brother Jaap was born in 1912, and Ies in 1914. When Betty was a toddler, the family moved to Hilversum, 20 miles southeast of Amsterdam.

Betty’s father worked for his wife’s family’s wholesale businesses. The family was well off, and Betty led a privileged life. She attended public school and afternoon Hebrew school classes. 

After finishing sixth grade at age 12, Betty attended a vocational school, where she learned to cook, sew and care for infants. 

On May 2, 1940, while tea dancing in Amsterdam, Betty met Abraham Cohen (called Appie in Holland and, later, Al). She saw him again on May 8 at a friend’s wedding. 

Two days later, on the morning of May 10, Betty was awakened by bombs exploding at the nearby Loosdrecht Airport, as Germany attacked Holland. Five days later, Holland capitulated. 

Soon after, Betty was fired from her department store job. All Jewish businesses were confiscated, and curfews were enforced. “It was getting scary,” Betty said.

In early 1942, all Dutch Jews were ordered to move to Amsterdam. Betty and Al were already engaged, and a gentile neighbor hid Betty’s trousseau in her chicken coop. Betty, her parents and grandmother moved into two rooms in the Jewish quarter.

At night, Betty and her family often heard screaming as Gestapo officers wrested people from their homes. “We were shivering. We were scared it could happen to us,” she said.

Betty’s father sought a way to escape to Switzerland. In the meantime, he found hiding places for the family in Hilversum. 

In April 1942, Betty, Al and Al’s brother, Jerry, moved into an old cottage consisting of two small rooms and an attic. It was owned by a man named Dirk, who was in the resistance and who brought them food every morning. 

Al’s sister, Elizabeth, soon arrived. Dirk then brought an older man with two unmarried daughters, who smelled bad, Betty remembered. The man’s two sons, ages 7 and 8, also joined them. 

Betty, Al, Jerry and Elizabeth slept in the attic. The others slept downstairs. Then Betty’s parents, grandmother and aunt moved in, as did two other couples that Dirk brought, bringing the total to 17 people. 

“Everybody was scared and miserable,” Betty said. She and Elizabeth kept busy cooking and washing for the eight members of Betty’s and Al’s families. Al’s and Betty’s fathers wrote diaries, Jerry drew pictures, and Betty’s mother knit. At all times, they had to whisper to avoid being heard by people in neighboring cottages.

Two years after they moved in, one early morning in April 1944, the Gestapo broke down the front door. “Raus, raus,” they shouted. “Out, out!” One soldier climbed the ladder to the attic with his gun drawn. “Macht schnell,” he said, “Hurry up.” They took what they could carry and left.

They were eventually taken to Westerbork, where Betty worked sewing hats and gloves for German soldiers. 

A month later, on May 19, 1944, Betty’s and Al’s families were crammed into a cattle car, where they huddled together. “Where we’re going is not so good,” Betty’s father said during the trip. “We may not see each other.” Betty and her parents kissed and hugged, as Betty sobbed. They held onto each other until the train doors opened. 

Betty, Elizabeth and the other women were taken to a bathhouse where they were ordered to disrobe and shower and were sprayed with disinfectant. They were tattooed with numbers and given rags and wooden shoes to wear.

The next morning, after seeing the crematorium flames, Betty and the other women were taken back to the bathhouse. Their hair was shorn, and they were given a second number. 

Work was only sporadic. They spent long hours standing at appel, roll call, every morning, frightened as the guards randomly selected 50 to 100 people daily, dispatching them to the crematorium. “God was watching me,” Betty said. 

Although single, Betty one day responded to a request for married women. Along with 29 others, she was moved to a brick hospital building, with bunk beds with clean sheets and pillows. 

But Betty soon learned they were there to be sterilized. On four occasions, she was placed on an operating table while doctors sprayed a liquid vaginal solution. The process was painful, though ultimately ineffective.

On Jan. 18, 1945, as the Russian front approached, the prisoners were evacuated on a death march. With no shoes and her feet wrapped in towels, Betty walked in the snow and cold with seven Dutch women from the hospital. “We stuck together like glue. We were a family,” she said. 

After several days, they were taken by cattle car to Ravensbrück, where they were crammed 10 to 12 people to a bunk, in an overheated barracks with no food and people dying daily. “We were half-crazy,” Betty said.  

A month later, as they heard bombing in the distance, they were loaded into open cattle cars and taken to a small camp in Parchim, Germany.

Then, on May 4, they were forced on another march. That night, as darkness fell, Betty fell asleep huddled in a field with her seven friends. When they awoke, the guards and dogs were gone. It was May 5, 1945. “We cried. We hugged each other,” Betty said. 

The girls walked to a farmhouse, where a farmer offered them a barn. The next morning the Russians arrived, moving the farmer to the barn and the girls to the house. There they gorged themselves on food they found in a huge pantry. 

Betty soon left and eventually returned to Hilversum, where she was reunited with Al. She learned that many of her aunts, uncles and cousins had survived, but Al had no one. 

On Oct. 4, 1945, Betty and Al married and moved into their own house. They raised Louis, the young son of Betty’s brother Ies and his wife, Herta, who had both been captured and killed. 

A few years later, on Feb. 1, 1948, Betty, Al and Louis immigrated to the United States, arriving in Hoboken, N.J. They immediately traveled to Atlanta, where Herta’s sister, Elsie, and her husband, Ike, lived with their son, Alan.

In late April 1949, both families moved to Los Angeles. Betty and Al’s son, Jerry, was born in June of that year and their daughter, Hedy, in 1953. Louis went to live with Elsie and Ike. 

Al died on Feb. 9, 1974. 

Betty now has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She remains close to Louis, who has two children and two grandchildren. 

Betty, 92, goes to the Westside JCC’s gym four times a week. She volunteers at the UCLA Medical Center gift shop one day a week, as she’s been doing for 40 years, and she attends Torah study at Wilshire Boulevard Temple on Saturday mornings. She recently spent three weeks in Holland visiting family. 

For the past five years, Betty has been speaking at the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

“I tell people to never forget to say goodbye,” she said. “You never know what can happen to your mother. You never know what can happen to you.”

Yom HaShoah: An eternal nation, bound together by our faith


A few months after my bar mitzvah, my father disappeared.

We didn’t know what had happened to him.

In our apartment in Budapest, there was a couch under the window and I would stand on it day after day looking into the street, watching, waiting for my father to appear.

In a way, I waited for almost 50 years.

In all that time, I never forgot him.

Even in my dreams.

As I slept, I would feel him bending over me.

And I would wake relieved that he was there … and then confused that he wasn’t.

I had this dream on and off for almost 50 years.

It was only when my family found out what happened to him that the dreams stopped.

Once I knew what happened, I wanted to do something.

I wanted to honor his memory. 

But mostly, I wanted to stand in the place where he perished to see if I could feel him.

So here I am, with all of you in Birkenau.

I know he was also here, under this same sky.

Just like almost half a million Hungarian Jews, he came to this place in a wagon, and almost immediately after arriving, disappeared as smoke into this sky

I was 13 when I lost my father and now I am 82 and, you know, I still miss him.

To the young people here today, I want to say that your mother and father always matter — even when you get to my age.

And honoring your parents matters very much while they are alive — and when they are no longer with us.

I still feel the loss of my father, but there is something I have gained.

You see, there were things about him that i did not know. 

I knew he was a good man, a good father, a religious Jew who believed in God.

He worked as a travelling salesman and he was modest.

I never realized that he had strength — the spiritual strength — to take on the brutal guards here in Birkenau.

No matter how hard they hit him, he protected the sanctity of his tallit and tefillin.

They could break his body but they could not break his spirit.

The tallit and tefillin were part of him, part of his personal relationship with god and he was ready to die for them.

And he did.

He did so in front of others who knew what was in his little bag and who tried to stop him from protecting it.

In front of all his people, he fought for his faith with a spiritual courage I never knew he had.

You see, my father was an ordinary man.

But in extra-ordinary times, people do extra-ordinary things, if they have it in them in the first place — well,  he certainly did.

Hugo’s legacy lives on in four generations. Besides me,  three grandsons and a great-granddaughter represent them here today.

Also here today are two people who are important to my father’s story.

Allan Lowy, who you just saw on the film, is the son of Meyer Lowy who witnessed what happened to my father and told us about it.

Meyer Lowy was not a relative but grew close to my father on this journey and lived to tell the story.

And Dr. Roland Huser, from Germany, is also here with us.

We found the wagon at his museum and he gave it to us to restore and place it here in Birkenau.

Three years ago when the wagon was brought here, I had the privilege to place my own tallis and tefillin in the wagon, to replace those torn from my father’s hands.

For me, this helps to heal the brokenness of the past.

Some two centuries ago, Rabbi Nachman of Breslev taught, “If you believe the world can be broken, then know that it can also be fixed.”

Fixing means understanding what happened, healing the pain, and building a better future.

The Nazi’s wanted not only to destroy the physical presence of the Jewish people, but to wipe us out spiritually as well, and leave no trace.

But look at us here today.

Perhaps all those Hungarian Jews, including my father, who disappeared into this sky are looking down on us today.

They see how young, how strong, and how full of promise you are.

They see how the plan to break and crush us, has made us stronger.

Throughout history, others have tried to destroy us as a nation but none have succeeded.

We are an eternal nation, bound together by our faith.

Am yisroel chai!


Frank Lowy, co-founder of the Westfield group, delivered this speech at the March of the Living ceremony held April 8, 2013 in Auschwitz, Poland.  The ceremony honored his father, Hugo Lowy, who was murdered in the concentration camp.  The speech followed a six minute film entitled, “Spiritual Resistance” which tells the story of Hugo Lowy. The video begins at 1:11.

Record numbers visit Auschwitz


The Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp attracted a record number of visitors in 2010.

Some 1.38 million people visited the site in southern Poland, up from 1.3 million in 2009, the Auschwitz memorial museum announced Wednesday.

More than a half-million Poles visited the site, as well as 84,000 British citizens, 74,000 Italians, 68,000 Germans and 63,000 French nationals, according to a statement released by the museum. About 59,000 Israeli visitors came to the site.

Some 850,000 of the visitors ranged from schoolchildren to university students.

About 1 million Jews were killed in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

L.A. ghetto fantasy emerges from visit to Israel


My mother was worried sick that her son was about to visit Israel at a time when Hezbollah rockets were raining down indiscriminately. To me, the danger seemed comparatively negligible.

My mom lives in San Diego. She had no idea that in the two weeks prior to my trip abroad, gang shootings had claimed three lives on the street where I lived in West Los Angeles. I would probably be safer anywhere but in my own L.A. neighborhood, where a gang war could erupt at any time.

I embarked on the Anti-Defamation League’s Campus Editors Mission to Poland and Israel in August, very excited and willing to learn about anti-Semitism. Perhaps, the most powerful experience for me about trip was when we visited the death camps in Auschwitz and Birkenau. I’d watched many Holocaust movies and seen tons of photographs related to the Nazi atrocities, but to actually visit the site where millions of people were marched to their death was something entirely different.

It was just like comparing the effect of listening to a rap song about mothers crying over dead gang members that used to be their innocent children, to being 9 years old, hidden in a bathroom with your cousins, crying because a mob of angry men with guns are trying to bust in through your front door. The trip made the stories real.

I wished I could take a group of college newspaper editors on a trip to the kinds of places I grew up in.

I could just hear the guide:

“Welcome to Slauson Avenue in Los Angeles, otherwise known as the Slauson ghetto. This street is one of the strongholds of the Culver City Boyz, a gang of approximately 800 mostly Chicano males. The housing projects, which you can see to your left, were recently attacked by the Venice 13 gang, and two members of Culver City were shot and killed. A war has been declared between the two gangs.”

The tourists then take pictures of the large graffiti letters, “CE X CE,” on a wall, which marks the territory of the Culver City gang.

“Now, if you follow me and look to your right, you’ll see a picture of a young man and boy on the sidewalk surrounded by flowers, candles and wooden crosses. The man, age 18, was a Culver City gang member who was shot down last week. The boy, age 9, was caught in the crossfire while riding his bike.”

I’ll have the man’s younger sister talk to the group. She’ll tell them about how she held him in her arms for an hour while he bled to death, until the ambulance finally came and hauled his lifeless body away. The police investigation: gang-related murder; case closed.

After the tours, I’ll organize interactive plays about domestic abuse, about families in which the most responsible person is just an alcoholic, and, just for fun, I’ll enroll them in a school where the main lesson is that they are nothing but potential criminals whose brightest hope of a future is not being welfare recipients.

If some of the participants get testy and refuse to accept this, their classmates will be ordered to verbally abuse and ridicule them. I’ll limit the abuse to just that and inform them that in a real-life situation, the abuse could turn physical and even fatal.

My fantasy visit to experience the conditions of the ghettos of Los Angeles may never happen. But the trip I took to Eastern Europe and Israel was no fantasy. It gave us a taste of the Jewish experience of suffering in Poland and renewal in Israel.

After visiting the Yad Vashem museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, I was overcome with emotion. So many atrocities were committed against the Jewish people, and yet they have risen above it.

The tours they lead of their neighborhood tell a story of triumph over oppression, over poverty, over injustice. It is painful and confusing to compare them with my fantasy tour of my neighborhood.

How did the Jews overcome all their years of oppression? Was it their culture? Their religion?

I became desperate in Yad Vashem.

I wasn’t looking at history in there; I was looking for answers.

Argenis Villa is a student at Cal State Dominquez Hills, where he writes for the student newspaper. He recently returned from the Anti-Defamation League Campus Editors Mission to Poland and Israel.

Teens Take a March to Remember


 

David Grossman, 18, wanted to make the Holocaust more personal. Eliya Shachar, 18, wished to understand her grandmother’s pain. And Max Kappel, 17, wanted to find a tangible place to comprehend the Shoah.

They were among 51 teenagers from Los Angeles who took part in last week’s March of the Living 2005 in Poland, which retraces the nearly two miles from Auschwitz to Birkenau, following the path of concentration camp inmates forced to walk to the gas chambers. They were accompanied by survivors for whom that trail once meant death, including Nandor “Marko” Markovic, 82, a Holocaust survivor, and his wife, Frances, who squeezed into the slow-moving and untidy line of about 20,000 people from almost 50 countries.

The annual march began in 1988, bringing together teens and seniors, Jews and non-Jews and an ever-decreasing number of survivors. Their walk commemorates Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, which took place this year on Friday, May 6, an appropriately chilly, gray day with intermittent heavy rain.

Before the day was over, the teenagers would encounter both the expected and the unexpected and find hope amid the recounting of the horrible.

A shofar sounded to begin the march.

“This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen — all these people headed to the same place for the same reason,” said Dganit Abramoff, 16, one of 32 students from Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. Fifteen others were from Milken Community High School and four from other high schools.

Their small clusters interspersed with participants from South Africa and Siberia, France and Canada, as the students struggled to follow the “L.A. Youth USA” placard held high by 6-foot-4 Yoni Bain, 18.

Some teens found themselves walking alongside 37 boy scouts, ages 13 to 20, dressed in tan military-style uniforms, from Opola in southern Poland.

“We came here because we know there’s pain here,” said scout Michael Hoffman, 16.

Sara Warren, 17, marched with her mother, Jackie Heller, one of 25 adults in the Los Angeles contingent. They talked about Heller’s grandmother, who hid in eastern Poland during the Holocaust and who lost her entire family.

“I never thought so many people cared,” Warren said.

The sea of matching navy blue Jewish star-studded jackets was partially hidden beneath brightly colored rain ponchos and opened umbrellas. Many marchers chatted loudly; some occasionally sang.

Sometimes, the march more closely resembled a disorderly walk-a-thon than a commemoration of victims and survivors coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Some students did not consider the march sufficiently somber, but “the very normalcy of the march is its miracle,” said Phil Liff-Grieff, associate director of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Jewish Education, leader of the L.A. adult group.

The atmosphere turned more solemn when the road curved up toward and then over railroad tracks that brought more than 1.3 million people to this notorious death-camp complex. Marches became more sober still as they approached Birkenau’s front gate, where they listened to a reading over loudspeakers of the names and hometowns of those murdered.

Survivor Markovic, who lives in Los Angeles, was participating in his second March of the Living. He suffered from an inflamed ankle and was usually flanked by students eager to help. But he and his wife concentrated on assisting a teenager near them who was feeling sick but was determined to participate.

Markovic spoke frequently to the students about his life, about how the Nazis invaded his shtetl in former Czechoslovakia in 1941 and took his father. A year later, when he was 16, they came for him, along with his mother, brother, two sisters and other family members, shipping them by cattle car to Birkenau.

After a couple weeks, he and his brother were transferred to a series of work camps and then, as the war was ending, sent on a forced death march. After many weeks, Markovic collapsed, desiring death. He felt his brother kiss him goodbye. Sometime later, he felt an SS soldier put a gun to his head. But the soldier relented, saying: “For you I won’t waste a bullet. You are dead already.”

When Markovic next opened his eyes, Lt. Hirsh, an American soldier, was looking at him. Hirsh gave him pancakes and took him to a hospital. Afterward, Markovic reunited with his brother and one sister, eventually settling in Los Angeles.

“You give me hope,” Markovic confessed to the students. “I know you are inspired because you see a broken heart standing before you telling you to not forget.”

Ari Giller, 18, an Asian adopted into a Jewish family, had always felt disconnected from his Jewish heritage, but he found a link through Markovic.

“It’s pretty intense how he went through this huge ordeal and came out a faithful Jew with a good attitude,” Giller said. “He makes me feel good about humanity.”

To many students, the march highlighted the week in Poland. But it was just one part of a physically and emotionally challenging — and occasionally uplifting — six days filled with horror and history, tears and epiphanies.

Noah Mendelsohn, 17, sobbed suddenly upon first seeing the five brick ovens in the crematorium of Majdanek, the death camp near Lublin that the group visited on the first day.

“I could hear the screams and see the nail marks inside,” he later explained.

The teens were also moved by Irving Silverman, 85, of Tucson who accompanied them to the synagogue in Tykocin, a former shtetl near Bialystok and home to Silverman’s parents before they immigrated to the United States in 1908. This was Silverman’s first trip to Poland.

“I’m not a survivor, but I feel I’m representing all the dead members of my family who could never do this,” he said. “Every Jew has to do this.”

Warren, the student traveling with her mother, visited the grave of her ancestor, Reb Yom Tov Lipman Heller, in the cemetery adjoining the Remu Synagogue in Krakow. There, Rabbi Steve Burg, Los Angeles chaperone and director of the National Council of Synagogue Youth, explained that Reb Heller was a venerated, prominent 17th century rabbi and author of the Tosafot, a commentary on the Mishneh.

“Your heritage always feels like it’s so far away, but today, for the first time, I feel that I can grasp it,” Warren said.

Burg has led four previous March of the Living trips.

“Before you get on that plane to Israel,” he told his students on the last full day in Poland, “decide on one new change for yourself…. I don’t care if you decide to wear a kippah, pray or become a campus activist — that’s between you and God — but you must decide on something.”

A core goal of trip was to turn history into personal memory, said Stacey Barrett, director of youth education services for Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education and leader of the Los Angeles teen group. She told the teens: “You need to take on the task of becoming witnesses to the Shoah for the next generation.”