Turned away in 1939: The voyage of the MS St. Louis

Hans Fisher vividly remembers his excitement on May 27, 1939, the day the MS St. Louis and its 937 refugees, most of them German Jews, reached Havana’s harbor in Cuba two weeks after leaving Hamburg, Germany.

“On that day, we got up early, all our luggage was packed. We put it in front of the cabin door, and the porters took it upstairs on deck, and then we all went on deck,” said Fisher, who was 11 at the time and traveling with his mother and younger sister.

[Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims:

Philly man, 89, arrested for Nazi-era crimes

An 89-year-old Philadelphia man, Johann Breyer, was arrested for abetting murder during his time as a Nazi guard at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Breyer, a retired toolmaker originally from Czechoslovakia who is also known by the first name John, appeared in court Wednesday, a day after his arrest. He is the oldest person in the United States to be accused of World War II-era Nazi crimes, according to The New York Times.

Federal officials arrested Breyer at the request of Germany, which issued a warrant for his arrest for complicity in the murder of 158 people at Auschwitz II-Birkenau and requested his extradition.

Breyer is accused of having served in the Waffen SS Death’s Head Guard Battalion from July 1943 to January 1945, where he worked as a concentration camp guard. All the guards were required to take an oath to implement the camp’s extermination protocols, making Breyer complicit in the murder of Jewish inmates.

The warrant for Breyer’s arrest from a German court in Bavaria was based on historical records, eyewitness statements, expert analysis and previous statements made by Breyer, according to the criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Breyer immigrated to the United States in 1952.

Oy vey: Holocaust Instagrams

Smiley selfies from Auschwitz and Buchenwald? They’re trending, apparently.

Blogger Hektor Brehl, writing for the German version of Vice magazine, has a piece about the tendency of young travelers to post pics taken at Holocaust memorials in which they show off their new sneakers and crack “uncool” jokes.

Brehl collected an array of examples. His 25 top offenders include a girl in mittens giving a thumbs-up sign (hashtags: #auschwitz #birkenau… #chilly #willy”), a grinning girl posed so a Jewish star appears to grow out of her head (#juden #arbeitmachtfrei #treblinka #zyklonB #feelgood), a smiling girl posing at the Treblinka memorial in Poland (#Look #cool #hot #treblinka #Poland) and a photo of the Berlin Holocaust memorial with the hashtag #instacaust.

Most of Brehl’s top 25 are girls posing cutely. But he also notes another trend in which gay men trolling for dates post selfies taken at the Berlin memorial.

“Instagram seems to work like a Polaroid filter for some people’s brains,” Brehl concludes, “turning off the #commonsense function.”

He wonders which memorial will be first to post a sign that reads, “Please instagram responsibly.”

Survivor: Julius Bendorf

The morning stillness was shattered in the German village of Ober-Ramstadt, as people started running through the streets, crying out that the synagogue was burning. Julius Bendorf, 23, could see the flames from his house. Later, around 1 p.m., a group of men broke into his father’s butcher shop at the front of the family’s house. The Nazis had already closed down the shop, as they had all Jewish businesses, but the intruders destroyed the counters, scales and other equipment. “These were men we knew really well, who bought meat from us,” Julius remembered. The men then entered the family’s living quarters, but Julius, his parents and brother had already escaped through the back door. The next day, the family returned to find their feather bedding shredded, their food tossed on the floor and the house in shambles. It was Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, and, as Julius said, “It all happened so fast.”

Julius was born on Jan. 4, 1915, to Josef and Dina Bendorf. His brother, Manfred, was born in 1919. Julius’ father owned the only butcher shop that sold beef rather than pork, though it was not kosher.

Jew and Christians had always mixed easily in Ober- Ramstadt, but that changed in the early 1930s. Julius stopped going to public school in 1931, when professors began making anti-Semitic remarks. He found a job in a Jewish bank, and then in a second one, until all Jewish businesses were forced to close in March 1938.

Julius continued doing sports, however. He excelled in gymnastics, as well as running and jumping. He even tried out for the 1936 Olympics, but after two weeks all the Jews were sent home.

On Aug. 15, 1939, Julius and Manfred were arrested and taken to a labor camp in Paderborn, Germany. There they cleaned streets and harvested wheat, replacing city workers serving in the army.

On April 23, 1940, the two were transferred to a labor camp in Bielefeld, where they built air-raid shelters and removed the debris from bombed-out portions of the city.

Then, on March 3, 1943, the Bielefeld Jews were rounded up and packed into cattle cars. “They told us to bring suitcases, that they needed workers in the east,”

Julius said. But two days later, when the train arrived at Auschwitz, the Jews were shocked as SS guards, according to Julius, “came down on us like an avalanche.” Julius and his brother were taken to Buna-Monowitz, initially a forced labor sub-camp of Auschwitz that then became Auschwitz III, which consisted of factories being built by the IG Farben Company to produce synthetic rubber and gasoline.

Julius’ job was to help build a factory, by hand. His work included carrying cement and iron, and hammering cement to remove air bubbles. “You had to stay out of sight, so to speak, because they could shoot you at any moment,” he said.

On June 1, 1943, Manfred injured his knee and was taken to Auschwitz. He was cremated soon after, though Julius did not know this for certain at the time.

Beginning in August 1944, the Allies bombed Buna-Monowitz four times. As the planes approached, Julius and the other workers were chased out of the factories as the Germans turned on fog machines to obscure the targets. The Germans then ran for the air-raid shelters while the prisoners, confined by electrified barbed wire fences, sat outside. “We put our little metal food bowl on our heads,” Julius said.

As the Russians approached, in January 1945, the prisoners were lined up and marched out. “It was snowy and cold. And we had to pull the wagons of the SS soldiers,” Julius said. After two nights, they reached Gleiwitz concentration camp. Julius’ group was shipped off to Buchenwald and then Holzen, a sub-camp, where he worked in an airplane factory tunneled into a mountain.

As the Americans advanced, the group was returned to Buchenwald. Then on April 5, about 5,000 starving and ill prisoners were marched to Weimar and packed tightly on what became known as the “death train” to Dachau. The trip took three weeks as the train circumvented bombed-out railway tracks. Julius doesn’t remember arriving in Dachau, only waking up on a hospital cot and seeing American soldiers. He had been shot, sitting “most likely on a couple of dead bodies,” with his knees up when, he imagines, a drunken SS soldier opened the car door and randomly fired at the prisoners.

In July 1945, Julius moved to the Feldafing DP camp, and in November 1945, as a free man, he traveled to Frankfurt. Through the American soldiers, he found a job at Frankfurt’s Reichsbank. He also learned via the Red Cross that his brother had been murdered at Auschwitz, as well as his parents and grandmother.

In January 1948, Julius sailed to the United States and settled in Chicago, where he found work at the Revere Camera Company. He stayed 15 years.

In 1961, he met Jeane Liewen, a divorced mother of two girls, Toni and Margo. They married and moved to Phoenix in 1963, and then to Los Angeles in 1968, where Julius worked for Scientific Data Systems, which was sold to Xerox. He and Jeane later separated, but Julius remains close to his daughters and five grandsons.

Julius returned to Ober-Ramstadt in March 2010 with his entire family at the invitation of a high school teacher whose students every year research the history of Ober-Ramstadt Jews who suffered in the Holocaust. Julius spoke to the students and participated in a ceremony in which stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) — commemorative brass-covered concrete cubes — were laid in the sidewalks outside the Jews’ houses. Julius returned in June 2010 for Ober-Ramstadt’s 700th anniversary and was named an honorary citizen.

Today, Julius, 97, lives in a second-story walkup apartment. He goes to the YMCA three times a week for aqua-exercises and spends Sundays with his family.

Of the 73 Jews living in Ober-Ramstadt when World War II broke out, Julius is the only one who survived. “It was plain luck,” he said. “You had no power to do anything.”

Holocaust survivors in L.A. are still struggling

Joshua “Joe” Knobler used to go salsa dancing three times a week. He used to play cards with the guys every day. Now, 88, with both his health and finances failing, he sits home all day in his drab one-room apartment in Valley Village watching television.

“Television is my life,” he said.

A Holocaust survivor who spent five years in Buchenwald, Knobler was married and divorced twice; both spouses are now deceased, and he is estranged from his children. He leaves his apartment door open all day, but no one stops by to say hello.

Knobler says he doesn’t have enough money each month to buy food, get his clothes cleaned or purchase more than a single $5 can of bug spray to fight the cockroaches infesting his apartment.

Knobler used to make a decent living as a tailor. His industrial Singer sewing machine sits in the corner of his one-room apartment, now overcrowded with a queen-size bed, a hospital bed, a dresser and a couch. He explains that the sewing machine is broken; he can’t afford a new needle.

He receives $939 in SSI (Supplemental Security Income) each month and pays $639 in rent. Of the $300 remaining, he spends $30 for the telephone, $60 for cable television and another $30 for medication, mostly for pain pills. He’s had two back surgeries, one only 10 months ago, and lives with debilitating chronic pain. He has $2.44 in the bank.

“I don’t get from nobody,” he said.

But that’s not exactly true; Knobler has been a Jewish Family Service (JFS) client for the past 10 years, part of the Survivors of the Holocaust Program. He receives eight hours a week in home care services, a monthly $100 Ralphs gift card and $50 a month in taxi vouchers. Additionally, a bag of groceries from SOVA is delivered to his apartment once a month.

Knobler, in fact, receives $2,500 a year in support services, an amount that has been capped for all indigent Holocaust survivors by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which provides $914,000 to JFS in Los Angeles annually to assist needy survivors.

But Knobler has actually received $5,300 in services already this year, thanks to two funds specifically earmarked for emergencies and other essentials for the estimated 3,000 poverty-stricken Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles.

For Knobler, these additional expenses included ambulance transportation (not reimbursed by Medi-Cal because of an unknown glitch in his citizenship papers filed in 1951, a problem being rectified by JFS) and new glasses.

One fund was created by Roz and Abner Goldstine, longtime JFS board members, who donated $250,000 after reading about the plight of Los Angeles’ 3,000 indigent Holocaust survivors in a story last year in The Jewish Journal.

The fund, donated through The Jewish Federation’s Premiere Philanthropy program, provides $50,000 a year, with the first year’s contribution matched by a grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

With the Goldstine fund and with the ongoing $2 million Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund created six years ago by money manager and former Jewish Federation chair Todd Morgan, JFS is able to provide indigent survivors with additional home care hours (usually a weekly maximum of eight) and to cover such emergency expenses as utility bills, medications, transportation and other necessities.

“The need is great,” said JFS Associate Executive Director Susie Forer-Dehrey, adding that last year’s Jewish Journal article “shed light on how important it is to take care of survivors.”

In addition to the Goldstine’s gift, Forer-Dehrey noted that The Journal story triggered more than $20,000 in additional donations, much of it in small amounts, including one envelope with two crumbled dollar bills.

There are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles, according to Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon. Of these, 3,000 are determined to be financially needy, a figure based on a United Jewish Communities Report published December 2003, which found 25 percent of Holocaust victims in the United States living in poverty.

The Claims Conference defines needy as someone with income no more than 200 percent above the federal poverty level. In 2007, for a single person, that amounts to $20,420, with no more than $20,000 savings. For a couple, the amount is $27,380, with no more than $30,000 in savings.

And, perhaps surprisingly, the number of indigent survivors is increasing, more than six decades after the Holocaust.

“The whole population is living longer, and so are Holocaust survivors,” said Paula Fern, director of JFS’ Holocaust Survivor Program. Of the approximately 600 survivors that JFS is assisting, many are in their 80s and 90s, and five are more than 100 years old.

Fern explained that as they become older, they become frailer. As a result, they need more home care, which includes help with laundry, cleaning, bathing, grocery shopping, doctor visits and errands.

Also, according to Fern, survivors suffer from many more chronic illnesses than most elderly people, including heart disease, diabetes and asthma and breathing diseases. These are debilitating as well as costly, as they necessitate an average of 10 to 15 prescriptions monthly.

For survivors living on fixed incomes, these expenses add up. Plus, rents, as well as the cost of food, transportation and utilities, are increasing.

“There is a huge lack of affordable housing,” said Fern, who noted that there is great resistance among Holocaust survivors to enter assisted-living facilities, whose institutional settings, no matter how cheerful and home-like, trigger unpleasant memories.

While JFS helps survivors with their psychosocial needs, Bet Tzedek addresses their legal issues. It is, in fact, the only Jewish legal services agency that offers free assistance with reparations, pensions and other benefits from Germany and other European countries.

Currently, Bet Tzedek has about 750 open files in their Holocaust reparations program.

Holocaust survivor Rosalie Greenfield fills out claims for reparations from the Hungarian government
Holocaust survivor Rosalie Greenfield fills out claims for reparations from the Hungarian government during a summer 2006 clinic run by Bet Tzedek. Photo courtesy of Bet Tzedek

“Justice moves slowly,” said Wendy Marantz Levine, deputy director of litigation. She explained that some cases have been open 10, 12 and even 15 years and are still awaiting responses.

Israel Trip Reunites

The two men walk as one — in steady step, shoulder to shoulder, their words a torrent of Yiddish.

There is much to catch up on since the former neighbors and schoolmates last met. That was more than 60 years ago, when the transports, fear and separations that characterized Jewish life during World War II reached their Polish hometown.

Allen Greenstein, 78, is from Los Angeles; Haim Fligelman, 82, lives in Tel Aviv. The two old friends found each other again last week as they took their seats on a tour bus in Israel.

In their respective cities, they both attend Cafe Europa, a club for Holocaust survivors, where members gather for concerts, lectures, conversation and coffee. A group from the Los Angeles chapter currently is in Israel, touring the country and meeting their Tel Aviv counterparts. Members have been exchanging stories and looking for people linked to their past.

"We lived on the same street but have not seen each other since the war," a beaming Greenstein exclaimed. "So it was quite a surprise to meet him on the bus."

The two grew up in Opatow, a town with a large Jewish population before the war. They went to the same school and were members of the same Jewish youth group. Once the war began, many of the town’s Jewish youth, including both of them, were sent to work in munitions factories. They both spent the final months of the war in Buchenwald.

Both lost family members. Greenstein was one of 12 children, but only he and three others survived the war.

Today, Fligelman is a retired carpenter with 17 grandchildren.

"It helps relieve one’s nerves," he said of his weekly visits to the Tel Aviv Cafe Europa.

Cafe Europa first began in Los Angeles as a project of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and later became the model for the club of the same name in Tel Aviv. Both are funded by the Los Angeles Federation.

At first, connections between members were forged through letter-writing. Then technology stepped in, and several video conferences were held.

Last week, 14 members of the Los Angles club landed in Israel. This week, the groups are meeting face to face for the first time, traveling through the Judean Desert and the Galilee together. For this week’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah, they were scheduled to attend Israel’s official ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

At a Jerusalem hotel, members from both clubs met and exchanged life stories. They described their homes, neighborhoods and lives before the war, remembering those whom they were close to during the Holocaust and recalling liberation from the camps. They each wore name tags noting their names and hometowns.

Lidia Budgor of Los Angeles — originally from Lodz, Poland — leaned toward Hinda Sobol, who came to Israel from Lithuania. Budgor told Sobol about the affluent neighborhood where she grew up and of the courtyard at the family home.

"When I came back, after the war, it looked like a garbage can," she said, shaking her head.

Nearby, Sophie Hamburger of Los Angeles and Hella Konstabler of Tel Aviv exchanged stories. Tears filled Konstabler’s eyes as they discovered a connection: Konstabler became good friends in Israel with one of Hamburger’s cousins from Poland.

"I know her whole family," bubbled Konstabler, as the two, speaking in Yiddish, tried to trace the connection further. They patted each other’s hands and laughed.

Rena Drexler surveyed the scene. She survived three and a half years in Auschwitz and then settled in Los Angeles, where she and her husband opened a kosher deli in North Hollywood. They worked there for 45 years and built Drexler’s Deli into a thriving business.

"Everybody has a life story here," she said, in recounting her own story after the war. "I’m proud we accomplished so much."

After the war, "there was no one waiting for us. We married people. We did not know what love was; there was no romance, no graduation from school," she said, her voice beginning to trail off.

Her arm bears the scar where she had her tattooed concentration camp number removed.

"I did not want to see the number any more," Drexler said. "I wanted to live a free life."

Eva David, 77, also from Los Angeles, was in Israel hoping to meet a pair of sisters who she befriended as a girl in a Hungarian ghetto before her family and their family, the Daskals, were deported to Auschwitz on the same cattle car. She remembers boarding the train crammed with about 80 people and seeing a sign attached on the outer door: "Fit for eight horses."

On the train to Auschwitz, the two families sat next to one another on the floor. One of her final memories of her father is his pulling a bag of chocolates out of his pocket and distributing them to her, her sisters and the Daskal children. Her mother gestured for him to stop — he had his own children to feed — but he looked up and said, "But these are hungry children, too."

"This is the last recollection we have of our father," said David, who worked as a seamstress in Los Angeles. She said the youngest of the Daskal children were gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz.

"At least they went to their deaths with the sweet taste of chocolate in their mouths," she said.

Esther Fruchter, 81, was the only one to survive the war from her large Warsaw family, which included four siblings, parents, many cousins and aunts and uncles. This was her first trip to Israel.

"You could give me a ticket to London, Rome or Paris, but it is nothing to compare to being here in Jerusalem," she said. "Israel is our home. Thankfully, we have a country where we can stand with our heads held high."


My great-uncle, Jacques Graubart, came to town last weekend. Jacques, a fit and vigorous 79, has always been the superhero against whom I’ve measured my life. Jacques entered the Resistance when he was 19 and rowed hundreds of Jews to safety from occupied France into Switzerland. He was caught frequently by the French and escaped every time but the last time. Incarcerated by the Nazis in a series of concentration camps, Jacques survived a death march of prisoners that began with 1,400 and ended with himself and only three others alive.

He emerged from Buchenwald undaunted and became one of the world’s leading diamond dealers. Deeply involved in Israeli politics, his closest friends include prime ministers and ambassadors, journalists and best-selling authors. After quadruple bypass surgery, he still skis faster than teenagers. He is the real James Bond.

Jacques and my 4-month-old daughter, Chynna Bracha, met and hit it off. Chynna is purity, trust and a blissful unawareness. The world Jacques knew in the camps is one of horror and depravity. One day, Chynna may develop the need to understand evil. For now, though, the silent merging of the two worlds — the horrors Jacques knew and Chynna’s innocence — was almost vertiginous for me. They met instead on the common ground of love.

That weekend, Jacques perused two family photograph albums from the 1930s that my grandmother had spirited out of Europe on her own Holocaust odyssey. Jacques identified dozens of relatives and friends in the photos, almost all of whom were killed by the Nazis. To our surprise, one of the photos turned out to be the group picture from my grandparents’ wedding.

Seated in front of the wedding couple are their parents, my great-grandparents, whom the Nazis would kill seven years later. In fact, the Nazis would kill everyone in the photo except my grandparents and Jacques, the young boy standing at the extreme right. Unaware of the fate that would befall them, they looked like the cast of a Broadway play destined to close out of town.

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” that evil exists because there are places in the universe that God hasn’t fully completed. These untamed pockets of chaos and disorder rain down harm on the innocent. But this explanation implies that God is less than all-powerful, and there is something deeply unsatisfying about that. Either God is everything or God is nothing. I can’t imagine that a divinely inspired universe could spin along for millions of years with so great a design flaw.

Of course not everyone believes in the existence of God. The great scientist, Richard Feynman, was a skeptic; he wrote that Earth seemed like an unlikely setting for the fight between good and evil. With all due respect, I disagree. I think Earth is an outstanding backdrop for that never-ending conflict.

The rabbis of the Talmud had a lot to say about evil. They posed the unanswerable question tzaddik v’ra lo, Talmudic shorthand for “How can evil befall the righteous?” They offered at least three responses: First, that sufferers would find bliss in an undefinable afterlife. Second, that in times of universal moral imperfection, good and evil fall randomly in the world; not because God isn’t in charge, but because we’re collectively too sinful to merit individual judgment. And third, Jews often receive joint reward or punishment because we are so tightly bound to one another.

Yet all these answers — Kushner’s, Feynman’s, the Talmud’s — are ultimately unsatisfying, because evil has to come from somewhere. It has to have an author, and so far, that author remains silent.

I brought the wedding picture to a photo refinisher who turned out to be a Holocaust survivor himself. He was a small boy in Belarus when the Nazis invaded his town and killed all the Jews — two-and-a-half hours after his family had escapec on foot, tipped off by a gentile neighbor. How appropriate — and yet how bizarre — that this man would be enlarging that wedding photo.

The enlargement will hang on the wall of our home, and one day Chynna Bracha will be old enough to ask me the story of her forebears in that photo, posing with hope and joy at the prospects for this new Jewish couple. I’d rather she asked me about the birds and the bees. I don’t know how to explain evil to a child, my child. I don’t even know how to explain it to myself.