Teens can learn from Shoah survivors


Kids these days all have tsuris; everyone has stress. A computer breaking down, not having cell phone service, getting grounded, and not getting a new car for a 16th birthday are all things that upset teenagers and stress them out. Yet, these are probably the worst of their problems.

When a teenager gets a bad grade on a test or a parking ticket, he or she may think it’s the end of the world. For some of us, a “problem” is getting seven presents for Chanukah, not eight. However, 70 years ago, these so-called “problems” would have been luxuries for the millions of Jews and other minorities living, and dying, during the Holocaust.

I met one of those Jews, Dana Schwartz, through the Holocaust Memorial Project, a program sponsored by the California State Assembly. The goal of the project is to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive by having local high school students interview Holocaust survivors living in California.

At first, the project seemed like a good idea for community service. It was not until I sat down on a chair next to Schwartz in her Beverly Hills home and listened to her speak that I realized how much more I was getting out of this experience than just a few hours of community service.

In 1939, at the age of 4, Schwartz and her family were taken from their Polish home and sent to a ghetto. By the time the war ended, less than 1 percent of the Jews of the Lvov ghetto had survived. Each day there, when she wasn’t hiding from the Nazis, she watched Jew after Jew get tortured and killed. Soon, the Nazis started rounding up the Jews and took them to the railway.

Their destination was unknown to Schwartz at the time, and she did not want to find out. We now know these trains were, of course, taking the doomed Jews to concentration camps where almost all would die.

Schwartz and her parents hid in all kinds of places to stay away from the Nazis, most of the time under an apartment building. The days and weeks passed, but soon Schwartz and her mother were lucky enough to get false IDs, which allowed them to pass as Catholics. The two escaped and hid in another town, watching its Jewish population go from roughly 50 percent to zero. They ate mainly bread and water in that town until the war was over.

A few years later, they went back to their hometown and heard horrific stories about what happened to their friends and family, including Schwartz’s father, who was killed while she was in hiding. Schwartz couldn’t even go to school until years after that, due to her fears of Germans and her mental state from the horrors she had witnessed.

Soon thereafter, Schwartz and her mother were again fortunate enough to receive affidavits to come to Los Angeles, and she’s been living here ever since.
After interviewing Schwartz, I realized how fortunate I am to have freedom.

We’re fortunate to not go to bed each night unsure whether we will ever wake up. We’re lucky we don’t get scared each time a man walks in our direction, and we’re lucky we don’t live in fear that someone will find out we are Jewish and kill us.

What amazes me the most about Schwartz is how optimistic she is after going through the atrocities of the Holocaust. She still has pride in her Jewish heritage and won’t let anyone take that away.

“I want to survive in spite of Hitler and others who wanted to destroy us,” Schwartz said. She often speaks at schools. “I speak for those who can’t speak.”

The lessons that Schwartz, and the war itself, have taught me are to treasure each day and never take anything for granted. I feel as if I have much more of a Jewish identity now. Although we can never undo the Holocaust, we can still keep its story alive and keep the stories of the survivors alive too. It is especially important for my generation to know this history, for to most of us it is just history, not real people like Dana Schwartz.

Jonathan Kuperberg is a sophomore at Agoura High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; Deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

The Leah Doll


Tante Mina sat on her couch and slowly tore away the wrapping. When the paper fell and she saw the porcelain doll her nieces had molded, painted and dressed for her, her breath caught in her throat and she let out a little gasp. As Tante Mina continued to stare at the doll, Mali, my mother, told her 81-year-old aunt about the next step.

“Now you have to name her.”

“Her name is Leah,” Tante Mina said right away. Mali looked at her twin sister, Tova, slightly stunned.

“Tante Mina, how did you do that so quickly? It usually takes people a little while to let the doll’s name come to them.” Mali said.

“No, her name is Leah,” Tante Mina said again, “she looks exactly like my sister who died in the Holocaust, her name was Leah.”

Mali and Tova slowly sat down.

“My sister, Leah, had black hair, freckles and the same face as this doll,” Tante Mina said.

“Do you have a picture of her?” Tova asked.

“No, the only picture exists in my mind, and now here she is,” Tante Mina said gesturing to her heart and then to the doll sitting in her lap.

My family talks about everything. We laugh, giggle and involve ourselves in one another’s lives. But for everything that is talked about and laughed at, there is the same equivalency of things not being said. For all of our plans and hopes, my family’s past is never mentioned. It is known, understood and remembered but never talked about. It’s a past farther back than how I’m related to a certain person. It’s all the stories of my relatives who lived and died during the Holocaust.

When I was younger I would ask questions about why some of my great aunts had never had children, and my mother would start to answer and then emotion would take over. Her eyes would start to water as she quickly explained how their bodies never recovered from what happened during the war. I was given the facts but the details were hidden behind tears and sadness that my family would rather repress then delve into again and again.

Of course, growing up, I learned in school what the Holocaust was and heard all of the horrible stories about what happened during those dreadful years to millions of Jews. The most education I received on the subject outside of school was through a trip to the Museum of Tolerance, and from the movie, “Schindler’s List,” which my mother made me go see with my dad.

There is the famous saying when it comes to the Holocaust — never forget. As long as we never forget, these horrible things can never happen again. However, there is a distinct difference between never forgetting, and remembering and honoring the lives lost.

The Holocaust survivors in my family, like Tante Mina, don’t mention the hardships they endured or the family they lost. It is something that they keep inside, never forgetting, yet never revealing. The faces of their lost loved ones, like Tante Mina’s sister, Leah, exist only in their memories, growing fuzzy with time yet always hovering near them.

When my mother called me and told me about Tante Mina’s doll, I could hear the emotion in her voice: “Isn’t that weird, of all of the choices of doll molds, of hair colors, eye colors, styles of clothing, it all turned out to be the image of the sister she lost in the Holocaust. A sister we didn’t even remember existed in the first place.”

Leah now sits on Tante Mina’s dresser in the Jewish Home for the Aging. A small, freckle-faced doll with black, braided hair, a straw hat and a beautiful green dress, a sense of loss behind her green painted eyes yet an aura of hope around her. She’s a constant reminder of the sister she had and serves as a guiding force, watching over Tante Mina as time passes, a presence to remind her that she has never, and will never, be alone.

An amazing connection can exist between past and present that, if strong enough, will present itself in ways never thought possible. This mystic connection graced my family when a doll was created that, unbeknownst to those who created her, also had a past.

There is so much sadness, pain and secrecy in the past that holds onto people’s souls for the duration of their lives. Although it is hard to recount these memories of loss, it is such an important first step to remembering and honoring — the past of who lived — while also being dedicated to not forgetting those who died.

Caroline Cobrin is a writer living in Van Nuys.

 

Escape to Shanghai Saved Refugee’s Life


At a time when the world shunned them, an estimated 20,000 Jewish refugees from Russia, Germany, Austria and elsewhere made their way to Shanghai before World War II. Jews in this forgotten corner of the world survived on donations from the Joint Distribution Committee, whose financial support paid for three meals a day, then two and then one.

As difficult as life was for Shanghai’s Jews, it was certainly better than the alternative, said Michael Berenbaum, director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute, which explores the religious and ethical implications of the Holocaust. The Jews in China "didn’t know the language and were impoverished," he said. "But comparatively speaking, they were free. The people they left behind died."

By the late 1940s, Shanghai’s Jews had largely immigrated to the United States and Israel, closing a little-known chapter in Jewish history. Most of them have since succumbed to old age and illness, taking their memories to the grave.

In San Juan Capistrano though, 80-year-old Kurt Wunderlich remembers. The spirited, retired music shop owner — "I like the Beatles and Stones, but most of the stuff today is crap" — recently described his wartime experiences to a visitor at his modest but comfortable Orange County home.

Wunderlich, a diminutive man with a strong, direct gaze, escaped from Germany in 1939 with his lawyer father, Felix. They fled soon after the Nazis sent his father to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin for one week for the crime of being Jewish. The elder Wunderlich was released only after promising to leave Germany within six months.

But where to go? Almost no countries, including the United States, wanted Jewish refugees. China was an exception. So Wunderlich and his father were among the 459 Jews who chartered a ship built for 200 and sailed on an arduous, nine-week journey to Shanghai. The Nazis permitted each passenger to leave with only one suitcase and $4.

Wunderlich’s mother, Margarete, had planned to meet up with her son and husband within months. She never made it. Through a German friend, Wunderlich later heard that she had died in the death camps or poisoned herself before boarding a train bound for them. No one is really sure.

In Shanghai, the bewildered 14-year-old and his father settled in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, teeming with 5,000 other refugees. They lived in abandoned schoolhouses, 120 to a room. Wunderlich said he endured those grim conditions for nine years.

Shanghai’s Jews, as best they could, though, tried to recreate the rich cultural lives they had left behind.

"Jews opened operas, nightclubs, restaurants," Wunderlich said. "There were clubs. There was soccer. We found things to do."

But life was by no means carefree. Violence and danger lurked.

Wunderlich remembers a young friend who used to bicycle around Shanghai. A truckload of Japanese soldiers grabbed the boy and his bike; he was never seen alive again. Another time, a Japanese soldier put a gun to Wunderlich’s head for violating the prohibition against gambling. Instead of killing him, the drunken soldier punched him in the back.

In 1943, American bombs destroyed a Japanese radio station in Wunderlich’s neighborhood, killing 17 Jews and wounding 53 others. He remembers pulling limp bodies from the rubble. Around the same time, Wunderlich said he contracted dysentery and nearly died after losing 20 pounds from his already skinny 100-pound frame.

A couple years later, chaos descended on Shanghai, when the Japanese evacuated the city after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that ended World War II. For three days, Chinese looters ravaged the city, stealing everything they could, Wunderlich said.

"Nobody wanted to stay there one day longer than necessary," he said.

But stay he did. In 1948, Wunderlich and his father finally emigrated and arrived in San Francisco, where the younger Wunderlich met his future wife, Jane. The couple, who married in 1950, later moved to Houston and then Mexico City, before making their way to Southern California. The Wunderlichs had three children. His wife did in 1994.

Today, Wunderlich lives a relatively quiet life. He remarried in 2001, wedding Nenita, a Filipina he met on the Internet, who is in her 40s. He lives on dividends from mutual funds, a monthly Social Security check of $836 and reparations from the German government.

Looking back, he finds it difficult to believe that he survived when so many others perished.

"I’m not a religious person, but I think God has looked out for me," he said.

Jewish Groups Help Sept. 11 Victims


The stench in New York after Sept. 11 reminded Julia Millman of Europe.

"I have seen it. I know what it’s all about," said the 76-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen.

In addition to losing her 40-year-old son, Ben, in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center — he was a construction worker on the 101st floor of Tower One — Millman said the death and devastation revived gut-wrenching memories of her family’s murder in the Holocaust. As a young girl, Millman was forced to tie a rope around her dead mother’s neck and drag her gassed body to a pile of other victims. Now those old feelings of motherlessness and abandonment have returned.

"If it wasn’t for my social worker that tried to console me, that tried to help me in my sorrow, I don’t know if I would be here today," Millman said.

Millman is one of thousands who have received assistance from Jewish social service agencies for traumas associated with Sept. 11. For the most part, they praise the aid they received.

The Jewish community launched a massive, coordinated effort to help both Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the attacks. The UJA-Federation of New York raised funds in New York, where two of the planes hit, and the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella group of North American federations, raised funds throughout North America.

In areas affected by the attack, Jewish federations and their affiliated social service agencies also received government grants or private funding from foundations and/or individual donors. The funds have been used to provide support groups for victims and those re-traumatized by the incident, including Holocaust survivors or new immigrants. The funds also were used to provide cash assistance and job counseling and to help victims navigate the bureaucracy to obtain financial aid from government and private agencies.

The UJA-Federation of New York, one of 13 major charities comprising the 9/11 United Services Group, a resource for victims in New York City, has been at the center of the Jewish communal response. As of mid-August, the federation had raised $7.6 million in special funding for its agencies to expand services for Sept. 11 victims.

Of that sum, $2.1 million came from the UJC, which plans to add another $166,000 in the coming weeks, and $3.5 million came from The New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund. The UJA-Federation raised the other $2 million.

On a smaller scale, the American Jewish World Service, an international development organization, distributed more than $650,000 to community-based organizations providing assistance to undocumented and low-income workers unable to obtain relief from mainstream sources. The organizations that received assistance included the Arab-American Family Support Center, Chinese Staff and Workers Association and American Pan-African Relief Agencies.

For its part, the UJC has raised $5.28 million, dispersing $3.9 million of it for immediate needs. It plans to disperse the rest by the end of the year for long-term services, such as tuition assistance and additional trauma counseling.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — in the city where the third plane hit the Pentagon — received $100,500 from the UJC. The UJC also allocated funds to hard-hit New Jersey commuter areas like Monmouth County, which received $210,600, and Bergen County, which received $133,121.

Barry Swartz, vice president of UJC consulting, said the federation system did a "remarkable" job of quickly coordinating a response to the crisis. "We told federations right away, if families need money, they’re to disburse the funds, and we would reimburse" them, he said.

Several direct service providers said they were pleased with the response from the organized Jewish community. There wasn’t "one second that we felt that we were out there alone," said Jeff Lampl, executive director of Jewish Family Services of Bergen County. That was mainly due to the federation system and the local federation, "which immediately supplied us with a small amount of money to get going," he said.

The agency’s client pool "doubled almost overnight" after Sept. 11, Lampl said. "Almost to this day, taking care of these families has become the central concern of this agency," he added.

Many of those who received services praised the response. Robin Wiener, who lost her brother, Jeff, 33, in the attack on the World Trade Center, said the sibling support group she attended — sponsored by the Jewish Social Service Agency of Greater Washington, the primary Jewish organization responding to local victims there — was "amazing." The sibling support group, sponsored by the agency, was formed following a February gathering of friends and family members of Sept. 11 victims.

The "emotions you go through and the loss that you feel is a loss that is unique to the relationship you had," said Wiener, 38. "My brother and I were very close and very similar in many ways, and I just always assumed he’d be there."

Weiner’s brother, a senior financial executive, had been about to leave on a vacation in Spain with his wife and had been planning a family, she said. It "breaks my heart for him, what we lost together.

"I never realized how small our family was until now," she said. To know there are other people out there going through the exact same thing" is "kind of eerie, but it’s also extremely helpful."

Robert Alonso praised the Jewish Child Care Association, which helped his family. When the planes hit, Alonso’s wife, Janet, 41, managed to make a quick phone call from the 97th floor of Tower One to tell her husband that she loved him. The call was their last conversation. The sudden death of his wife, the family’s primary breadwinner, left Alonso and his two young children — one of whom has Down’s syndrome — reeling.

The Jewish Child Care Association has provided weekly meetings with a psychologist for Alonso’s children Robbie, 2, and Victoria, 3. It also has helped him obtain the maximum government funds for his family.

Gregory Hoffman, 37, said he "would not have survived" without the Twinless Twins of Sept. 11 program, which he and his wife, Aileen, created. Since his identical twin, Stephen, a bond broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, was killed in the World Trade Center, Hoffman says he feels like Tower One before it fell — still standing but "out of balance," separated from its twin and with a gaping hole inside it.

To date, the Hoffmans have identified and contacted 38 twins who lost siblings in the attack. Six of them participate in the weekly support group meetings led by a twinless twin, and 22 have participated in social outings. Many of the participants have become close friends.

For Marjorie Judge, caseworker Joan Kincaid, director of the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged’s Pets Project, has been "exceptional." Judge, 82, who lived four blocks from the World Trade Center, was evacuated from the building and prevented from taking her cat. Police later rounded up the pets in many buildings, but not in Judge’s.

One week later, aided by police and Judge’s building superintendent, Kincaid entered the evacuated building — dark from failed electricity and reeking of rotten food — and climbed eight floors to rescue Sheba, who was waiting, parched, at the door. All that for a cat Kincaid "hardly knew," Judge said.

While many victims praised the Jewish communal response, some had complaints. Several family members of victims in Washington said there was no outreach from the organized Jewish community, except for their synagogues, according to the Washington Jewish Week. The federation defended its work, saying it was the first agency in Washington to hold a memorial service for victims, and that the Jewish Chaplaincy immediately called the families of Jewish victims to offer help.

The federation has dispersed the nearly $500,000 dollars it raised in its Sept. 11 fund to Jewish and non-Jewish agencies, according to a federation official. UJC funds were earmarked for Jewish needs, the official said, adding, "We really did everything we could."

Wiener, of the sibling support group, saw it differently. There was "plenty of comfort, but not a lot of information," she said.

And while Millman raved about her nurse, Rebecca Bigio, she also complained that "she’s not enough." Bigio said she and a social worker visit Millman at least twice a month and call frequently. But Millman, an ailing widow, said she needs more attention so that she won’t "feel so alone and so lost."

Louise Greilsheimer, vice president of agency and external relations of the UJA-Federation of New York, who coordinated its response to Sept. 11, said complaints are inevitable. "You are always, with this quantity of people, going to find issues," she said. But, she added, "I haven’t heard one horror story in the Jewish community."

"I truly believe the agencies came together and put together not only a coordinated approach," but one that was thoughtful, caring and ongoing, Greilsheimer said. "We’re staying here to follow up and to be able to work with communities that need the support."

The Art of Memory


Artist Tobi Kahn is obsessed with memories of the Holocaust. His abstract landscapes depict recollections of a haunted time and place he never experienced. Simple shapes conjure rivers and roads that snake through still valleys, serene at first glance, disturbing upon reflection. Mountain peaks thrust from brooding waters, in a palette of muted browns, golds and blues. Almost always, the paintings are devoid of people. “Sky and water always stay the same,” Kahn says, “no matter how well- or ill-behaved we are.”

The memories that preoccupy Kahn are of horrors that took place before he was born.

“I grew up in Washington Heights, N.Y., a neighborhood in which everyone’s grandparents were either killed by the Nazis or got out,” says Kahn, whose retrospective, “Metamorphoses,” opened last weekend at the Skirball Cultural Center. And memories are all that are left of his own family’s 400-year history in Germany. While Kahn’s parents and grandparents escaped the Holocaust, two of his father’s siblings perished. The artist is named for an uncle, a medical student and anti-Hitler activist who was one of the first Jews murdered in 1933.

A second conflict in Kahn’s life emerged when he was a budding artist growing up in an observant Jewish community that valued language over the visual. Jews, after all, are the People of the Book; words, not images, are believed to provide the path to the Divine. But even as a child, Kahn thought that “the visual can be a benediction.” Entering his Orthodox synagogue on Yom Kippur, when the sanctuary was covered with white fabric, “was like going to heaven,” Kahn, now 47, says. At the age of 10, the young artist tried to create a replica of the Holy of Holies, the chamber the high priest entered only on Yom Kippur, described in Leviticus.

“Very early on,” Kahn says, “I learned that the visual is how I ‘breathe.'”

His first artistic medium was the camera, which Kahn took with him during three years of yeshiva study in Israel. Upon his return, he enrolled at Hunter College and began photographing sections of demolished South Bronx apartment buildings, with their burned-out walls and exposed, colorful bathrooms. He began painting on the “ruins” to enhance them, courtesy of his budding preoccupation with memory. “I tried to turn these places where people had once lived into something spiritual,” he says.

When a professor suggested that the painterly photographer try painting, Kahn enrolled at the Pratt Institute and studied with George McNeil, a founder of the American Abstract Artists Group. He began creating white-on-white images and his first landscapes, based on his travels, ranging from Norway to the Negev. Kahn’s big break came when he was one of a handful of artists selected to participate in the Guggenheim’s landmark “New Horizons in American Art” show in 1985; he has since had more than 25 solo exhibitions.

Since the early 1990s, Kahn’s timeless, transcendent landscapes have been increasingly influenced by cell formations and fractal geometry — the notion that shapes repeat themselves over and over again in nature. Fingerlike shapes may convey tides sweeping around land masses or cells under a microscope. For the Orthodox artist, the concept is a manifestation of the Divine.

Other Kahn landscapes are influenced by the legend of the Golem, especially those in which giant heads seem to loom from sheer rock and silhouettes lurk in gray waters.

Kahn, who in earlier years thought that he had to play down his Jewishness to be taken seriously in the art world, has also created Jewish ritual objects and a series of “shrines” based on his lifelong fascination with the Holy of Holies. Each shrine is a small box that houses a sacred object in its dark, innermost chamber: In “Lifanah,” a bronze angelic figure resides inside a red-and-black space that’s reminiscent of a Greek temple; “Ziba II” is a tall, narrow structure housing a humanoid “relic.”

The shrines, like all of Kahn’s work, have names that are invented by the artist, names that are secret. “Once, I revealed what a title meant, and it ruined the painting for me for six years,” Kahn says. “I couldn’t look at the piece in the same way. It just didn’t have the same mystery anymore.”

“Tobi Kahn: Metamorphoses” is showing at the Skirball Cultural Center. Curator of fine arts Barbara Gilbert will discuss the exhibit on July 8, 8 p.m.; July 11, 2 p.m.; and Aug. 5, 6 p.m. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.