Photo by David Miller

Survivor Tomas Kovar: Hiding in Slovakia, awaiting liberation


The Germans were coming.

Nine-year-old Tomas Kohn, then living as Tomas Blaho, knew the drill. He headed to the front door of the cottage in Ponicka Huta, a village in the Low Tatras mountains in central Slovakia, where he and his parents were living as the supposed cousins of the home’s owners, Alexander and Maria Kur.

As Tomas’ mother grabbed a jacket for her son — it was March 1945 and chilly — Tomas pushed open the door, only to discover three German soldiers already climbing the steep alley leading to their cottage. He couldn’t wait for his mother without arousing suspicion — even with false papers, the Jews in Ponicka Huta didn’t feel safe — and instead walked directly across the alley, disappearing into the forest.

“They didn’t say anything or follow me,” Tomas recalled.

As he walked deeper into the forest, Tomas frequently looked behind him hoping to see his mother. Several hours later, he was lost, certain the Germans had captured her and were lying in wait for him.

Eventually, Tomas came across a woodcutter, who led him back. As Tomas exited the forest, he dashed into the cottage. He didn’t see his mother anywhere.

During the war, Tomas didn’t realize the extent of the dangers he and his parents faced. “They didn’t talk about it. Not during the war and not after the war, either,” he said. Instead, his parents changed the family name to Kovar, a non-Jewish surname, and the family kept a low religious profile.

As he grew up, Tomas didn’t want to hear about the Holocaust, in which many of his aunts, uncles and cousins had perished, and spoke only rarely about his experiences until five years ago, when he attended a talk by another Slovakian survivor at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Since then, he has told his story at the museum twice a month. “There are fewer and fewer survivors,” he said. “I want the people to know what happened.”

The only child of Ernest and Klara Kohn, Tomas was born on Feb. 18, 1936, in Nitra, Slovakia, the closest town with a hospital to the western Slovakian village of Zabokreky nad Nitrou, where his parents and 55 other Jewish families lived.

Ernest managed a large farm, which was owned by a Jewish man named Ernest Gruen. The family lived in Gruen’s unoccupied farmhouse.

Sometime in 1941 or so — about two years after Slovakia had declared its independence and allied itself with Nazi Germany — the farm was confiscated and given to a Mr. Kasicky (Tomas does not remember his first name), a private secretary of Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest who had become Slovakia’s president. Kasicky retained Tomas’ father as the farm’s manager.

By spring 1942, as the Slovak government began deporting its Jewish population, only the Kohns and two other families of men whom Ernest needed on the farm remained in Zabokreky.

After the Slovak National Uprising broke out on Aug. 29, 1944, and German troops began occupying the country, Kasicky could no longer protect the three families. They immediately loaded up a large wagon with some food and household goods and followed the partisans, who were headed toward the mountains.

After reaching Banska Bystrica, a city in central Slovakia, they proceeded uphill to a flat mountaintop area. The partisans departed, and the families settled into separate huts used to store hay. Other Jews hid, scattered across the mountains.

About a week later, townsmen from Ponicka Huta appeared, looking for items the partisans had abandoned. Ernest asked one of the men, Alexander Kur, if he could pay him to hide the three families. Kur, whose cottage was small, left to consult with his brothers-in-law and returned before nightfall, leading the families to the village, already occupied by the Germans.

The Kurs gave their small bedroom to Tomas and his parents, sleeping in the large living room with their three children. The other families each bunked with a brother-in-law.

During this time, according to Tomas, the Germans conducted roundups two or three times a week. Only occasionally did the Jews, who were being harbored in almost all of the village’s approximately 25 houses, have advance warning.

At a moment’s notice, Tomas and his parents could move the living room carpet, where a trap door and a few steps led to a small, dank cellar, a tight fit for three people. With more time, they climbed into an armoire, escaping out a hole in the back into a storage room. But the safest shelter was the forest, directly across the alley. “The Germans shied away from it,” Tomas said.

At some point, possibly in early 1945, the Germans began rounding up the men of Ponicka Huta to dig trenches. The men, Jews and non-Jews, began spending their days in a bunker they had constructed in the forest, essentially a large dirt hole covered with boards.

By February, the roundups had increased, and the men began living full time in the forest bunker. Everyone was waiting for the Russians, “like for the Messiah,” Tomas said.

Ernest was in the bunker on the day Tomas escaped into the forest without his mother. And Klara, Tomas discovered, had been hiding in the cellar. She emerged, grateful that the Germans had not captured her son.

A few nights later, at midnight, Russian soldiers knocked on the Kurs’ door. “We don’t want to destroy this town,” a Hungarian-speaking soldier told Klara, who spoke the language, explaining that they needed to find the German trenches. Klara took the soldiers to the bunker, and Ernest led them to the trenches.

The following day, sometime in mid- to late March 1945, Ponicka Huta was liberated.

Soon after, the Kohns returned to Zabokreky, where Ernest again managed the farm for Ernest Gruen. Tomas enrolled in public school.

On Sept. 24, 1945, a pogrom broke out in Topolcany, about 60 miles southeast of Zabokreky, spreading across the country. “Wherever they could find Jews, they were beating them up,” Tomas said. He and his parents quickly left, returning later that day and deciding they needed to leave Slovakia.

Finally, in January 1947, they boarded a ship in France, headed for Chile, where they had relatives.

Ernest rented a farm in La Florida, an area southeast of Santiago. Tomas attended Jewish school, Instituto de Hebreo. A year later, he transferred to Escuela Nacional de Artes Graficas, a boarding school in Santiago, graduating in 1956. He began working in the meat market his father then owned in Santiago.

In summer 1960, Tomas met Rita Bromet, who had moved to Santiago after the May 22 earthquake in Valdivia. They married on Jan. 27, 1963. By then, Tomas managed his own meat market.

Their daughter Jacqueline was born in November 1963 and son Bernardo in April 1965. Eleven months later, the family immigrated to Los Angeles, and their son Desidario was born in April 1968. They now have six grandchildren.

In Los Angeles, Tomas first worked as a meat cutter for Gelson’s Markets. Then, after a series of jobs, he and Rita owned Hallmark stores from 1978 to 2000, when Tomas began working as a Spanish-English interpreter assisting workers’ compensation patients. He retired in 2015.

Tomas, now 81, is trying to donate a piece of his history, a Torah that belonged to the Zabokreky Jewish community and that was safeguarded by the town’s Catholic priest during the war, to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Tomas’ family carried the Torah to Santiago, where it now resides in their former synagogue, La Sociedad Cultural Israelita B’nei Israel.

“It’s very old and will disintegrate,” Tomas said. “It should be in a museum where it could be more appreciated.”

Las Vegas - April 7. 2017

Rape, Recovery & Celine Dion


When I was in my 20’s I was the victim of a violent crime while living in Toronto. I spent a year in and out of the hospital, followed by a year in and out of court. My attacker was convicted of kidnapping, forcible confinement, aggravated assault, and rape. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison, never received parole, and when he served his sentence, was found to be a continuing danger to society and deported to his country of birth.

I have never written in detail about what happened, and never will. It was violent and continues to haunt me. It changed who I was, and while the scars will physically and emotionally never go away, I was not broken and have managed to not only survive, but do things I thought would be impossible, including getting married and having a son. I invested in myself, and years of therapy, to build a life blessed beyond measure.

Important to note what I went through is not the subject here. I share it only to give context. I do not share the details because they don’t matter, not because I am ashamed. I fought hard to recover from my attack and my advice to anyone with a similar experience, is to get help. There are people who will support and believe you. Do not carry it on your own. Be brave and get the help and justice you deserve.

When I was taken to the hospital, going in and out of consciousness, I was aware of what had happened and was trying to get as much information to the police as possible. I remember being naked on a table, having a rape kit done, and crying. It is the moment I remember most vividly. The nurse was trying so hard to make the situation manageable. She put music on to bring calmness to the room. That choice changed my life.

I heard what can only be described as the voice of an angel. She was singing in French and even though I did not understand anything she was saying, it felt as if she were singing directly to me. As I floated above my own body, watching it being violated again, I listed to the singer and felt embraced. I didn’t know what she was saying, yet felt like she was there to help me. It was the exact moment Celine Dion became a part of my life.

When I was in the hospital she was all I listened to. I learned all the words, to all her songs, in French. I don’t speak French, but I can sing in French! I made up the translations of what she was saying. Sometimes the songs were loving and encouraging, other times they were about revenge and killing my attacker. It was quite fabulous. Without any hesitation, and with complete certainty, I can say Celine Dion saved my life.

Since that fateful day, she has been a constant companion. Every milestone since then has included Celine. I danced to Celine Dion with my father at my wedding, and I listened to her when my son was born. She sang the mother-son dance at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, and is the background music on his montage video. She sat up with me the day my son got his driver’s license and I waited for him to get home. She walks with me every day.

I listen to Celine Dion when I am happy, sad, worried, tired, energized, strong, and weak. I have literally not spent one single day in the past 28 years without her being a part of it. Sometimes for just a minute, and other times for hours, she is always with me and I listen every day. I love her in ways only I can really understand. She was the light on my darkest day and I will love her for the rest of my life. She matters to me.

When I was first married my husband took me to see her in concert. She was opening for Michael Bolton and it was the first time I was going to see her in person. I cried throughout her show and found it difficult to breathe. Being so close made me happy, but sad. I don’t remember much of the show, other than the fact I knew every word, to every song, and looked like a creepy super fan who was certain nobody loved her like me.

I never saw her in concert again. It made me nervous to be near her, and ultimately gave me flashbacks that were very difficult. I loved her privately and continued to share my life with her. I sent her gifts to mark the birth of her children, and sent a birth announcement for my son. I wrote her when she married her beloved Renee, and again when he passed away. I wrote her when my attacker went to prison, and again when he was released.

It never bothered me that it might be weird or stalker-ish. I was simply reaching out to the person who brought me back to life. When I was diagnosed with cancer I decided to go and see her in Las Vegas. I was certain if I saw her she’d help heal me again. Ridiculous to be sure, but I knew it would make me feel better. My cancer was a beast, and I never made it that year. I turned 50, and again planned to go to Vegas to celebrate.

The ultimate gift to myself after surviving cancer would be to see Celine, but cancer returned and I was sidelined. I felt everything would be okay if I could get to her. Months ago I told my son I was finally going to see her, on my 51st birthday, and he wanted to come with me. He knows how much she means to me, and why, and wanted to be there for what would be an important moment in my history, so we made plans.

I bought airplane tickets, booked a room at Caesar’s Palace, and counted down the days until my birthday. I had waited years for this moment, and to share it with my son, the most important person in my life and the reason my heart beats, was everything. The day finally came and I was so excited I could hardly stand it. I was working in London and flew back just for 3 days so I could make the trip to Vegas with my boy. I was tired, but thrilled.

When we walked to the theater and I saw the first glimpse of a picture of her, I started to cry. I cried walking in, I cried when I sat down, and I cried continuously for the next 5 hours. Long after the show was over, I was still crying. Celine was remarkable and I would go back and see it every day for the rest of my life. Celine has an incredible voice and my son and me sat in awe of how wonderful she looked and sounded. Amazing.

I sang along with Celine and at the end of the show the woman next to me said it was impressive I knew all the words as there were songs she wasn’t familiar with. I sat holding my son’s hand, taking in the powerful moment. I had waited so long to see her, and wasn’t disappointed. She was everything I knew she would be and felt proud when my son told me she was insanely talented and he was blown away by her. It was a magical night.

At one point in her show members of the audience were able to go up by the stage. She shook hands and engaged with the crowd, but my legs were frozen and I couldn’t do it. I somehow felt I could not be that close to her or I might faint, or perhaps vomit. It was hilarious. All these years later, being close to her was overwhelming on some levels, and beautiful on others. It left me feeling thankful and excited for many things.

I’m not sure why I shared this today. Perhaps it is just as simple as wanting to say thank you. Thank you to Celine Dion for everything she did for me. I have always had the ability to count blessings and pride myself on being a compassionate and empathetic human being. I feel proud of the life I have built for myself, and my son, and now look at life with a new perspective having seen Celine.  I am better for having loved this woman.

If my sharing today helps one person, that squashes the fear of writing it. I am listening to Celine’s Falling into You album and feeling brave and free. It feels good.  I will probably regret writing it at some point, and want to delete it, but I will try to remain brave because I hope this inspires someone else to be brave. Trauma can be debilitating, but only if we allow it to be. It is important to let others know that blessings will come.

Thank you Celine. You saved me and I am grateful. It was an honor to see you in person, am blessed my son was by my side, and thrilled he is now a fan not only because of what you did for me, but your amazing talent.  I wish for you and your children all that you wish for yourselves, and more.  I still think I probably love you more than anyone else, but am happy so many love you. With love, admiration, and thanks, I am keeping the faith.

Ruth Moll. Photos courtesy of Cedars-Sinai

Kindertransport passenger shares a different kind of survivor story


It was not until a movie about the Kindertransport came out in 2000 that Ruth Moll began to consider herself a Holocaust survivor.

Moll was 10 years old when she and her two sisters boarded a train to escape Nazi Germany shortly after Kristallnacht in November 1938. They were among the 10,000 children saved in the Kindertransport, a series of rescues organized by Great Britain before World War II began.

So, unlike many of the stories recounted around Yom HaShoah, Moll’s evasion of Nazi persecution does not involve ghettos or concentration camps. But that does not make her experience less harrowing or, as she insists, less critical to relate.

“It’s very important for people to know,” Moll told the Journal after a memorial candlelighting at a Cedars-Sinai Yom HaShoah ceremony on April 21.

As a contrast, she cited the example of the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner that was filled with hundreds of European Jewish refugees but turned back from the United States in 1939.

“To think a country like America could have done that — it’s not very nice,” Moll said. “And that’s why I stress that if it wasn’t for England, I wouldn’t be talking to you today.”

Now 89, Moll volunteers in various nonclinical roles at Cedars-Sinai, where she was one of several survivors who participated in the memorial candlelighting. The event included an address from Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, before a crowd of 200 or so members of the extended hospital community.

Born Ruth Schmidt in Stuttgart, Germany, Moll enjoyed a traditional Jewish childhood before the horrors of Kristallnacht ravaged her community. She remembers hearing the sound of shattering glass from inside her home. Weeks later, the Gestapo came looking for her father, a successful businessman. Luckily, he wasn’t home.

Sensing the immediacy of the Nazi threat, the Schmidt parents sought to protect their three daughters, ages 12, 10 and 9 at the time. With the help of a wealthy aunt, they secured travel documents and tickets for their children on a train bound for the Netherlands coast. A ferry would take them the rest of the way to England.

The children were permitted one small overnight suitcase each; no sentimental items could be accommodated. But Moll managed to smuggle her wooden recorder, on which she had been playing children’s songs since kindergarten, in her bag. She has kept the instrument to this day.

“It meant a lot to me because I was the only one of the three of us [who played] an instrument,” she told the Journal. She joked that she would probably need some breathing practice before she could play the wind instrument again. “I’m an old woman,” she laughed.

She left home not knowing if she ever would see her parents again, and upon arriving in England, on Feb. 3, 1939, the Schmidt girls were met by a relative, who enrolled them in a Christian boarding school. Moll’s parents later gained passage to England, mere weeks before the war started, and while they were able to visit their daughters at the boarding school, the family was not fully reunited until after the war.

Unfortunately, many of the other children saved by the Kindertransport never saw their families again. That includes her late husband, Rudy Moll, whom she met after moving to California in the 1950s.

Moll’s flight from Nazi persecution was made possible in the aftermath of Kristallnacht when a group of British Jewish and Quaker leaders appealed to Parliament for the admission of unaccompanied Jewish children as refugees from Nazi territories. British authorities agreed to take in an unspecified number as temporary migrants, with the assumption that they would return to Germany once the danger had passed.

Jewish organizations inside Germany and its territories planned the extraction, prioritizing especially vulnerable children, such as orphans, and organizing the travel from major cities like Prague, Vienna and Frankfurt, where Moll and her sisters were dropped off at the train station by the family maid.

Ruth Moll as a child

Ruth Moll as a child

Overall, around 10,000 children made it safely to England, mostly by train and ship, with a few arriving by airplane. The Kindertransport ceased operating in May 1940, when Dutch forces surrendered to the German army, making the last leg, the ferry, unnavigable.

“England was the only country who was willing to open their doors to save 10,000 children,” Moll said, “and they would have saved more if they would have had the money.”

Still, since she never saw the inside of a concentration camp, she never thought of herself as a Holocaust survivor. “Into the Arms of Strangers,” a documentary about the Kindertransport, changed her perspective.

“Now when people ask me, I tell them I’m a survivor,” she said. “It seems to have some kind of impact, which is really what I’m happy about.”

She sees the rescue effort that saved her life as a moral imperative for future generations, one that’s never been more pressing than today. With this in mind, she talked about the refugee crisis in Syria and Europe, saying that people today aren’t listening to what’s going on in Syria and noticing the parallels with the Holocaust.

“I’m scared for what’s happening in the world, for myself,” Moll said. “Because we said never again, but who knows?”

Photo by Carla Acevedo-Blumenkrantz

Survivor Av Perlmutter: ‘Angel’ watched over him


“Where’s Adolf Perlmutter?” one of the German soldiers shouted, bursting into Suzanne Cohen’s house in Amsterdam in March 1943, rushing past a 15-year-old boy living there who was known as Avraham or Av.

Upstairs they found one of the Cohens’ sons, in his early 20s, and ordered, “You come with us.” On their way out, they grabbed Av, realizing he was the one they were looking for — his official name was Adolf — and led both young men into a police van. They headed to the Jewish Theatre, which had been converted to a detention center from where Jews were deported to camps.

“The moment I came in, I was thinking how to get out,” Av recalled. He noticed that pairs of German soldiers at the exits changed shifts regularly. At one door in particular, they actually abandoned their post to fetch their replacements. He mentioned this to the Cohen son, who deemed it too dangerous to try escaping. “They’ll shoot us,” he told Av.

Av was undeterred. In the middle of the night, when the exit was left unguarded, he calmly walked out and ran.

Avraham Abba Perlmutter, who was given the name Adolf by the Austrian government, was born on Aug. 28, 1927, in Vienna, to Chaim and Malka Perlmutter. His sister, Thea, was three years older.

Chaim owned a textile store, providing the family with a middle-class, very observant life. Every morning, Av prayed with his father in the small shul located on their apartment building’s first floor.

Av was a self-described “wild child.” At 6, he was asked not to return for a second year in Jewish school because of his misbehavior. He attended public school and played soccer with neighborhood boys.

Av’s life changed on March 12, 1938, with the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. Two days later, Av followed the crowds to one of Vienna’s main streets, where he witnessed Hitler riding by in an open car.

Av’s non-Jewish friends began beating him, and he no longer attended school. The following fall he enrolled in a Jewish middle school.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht began. The Perlmutter family’s store was plundered.

Two months later, Av’s parents arranged for him and Thea to leave for the Netherlands on a Kindertransport — a rescue operation for children — to join Av’s aunt and uncle, Anni and Aby Bachrach. “It was like an adventure,” Av said.

They arrived in Wijk aan Zee, a village on the North Sea coast, where they spent two months at a Catholic campsite run by nuns before being transferred to a series of refugee camps. Then, in December 1939, after a bout with diphtheria, Av was released to Sientje and Joop Van Straten, relatives by marriage, who lived in The Hague, 40 miles south.

Thea, meanwhile, was transferred to a Youth Aliyah camp east of Amsterdam in Loosdrecht, with a plan to join her parents in Palestine, where they had immigrated illegally in June 1939.

Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. And while Av continued attending school, playing soccer and celebrating his bar mitzvah, anti-Jewish measures were enacted gradually.

On Oct. 7, 1942, after non-Dutch Jews were ordered to move from coastal areas, Av was sent to Amsterdam, where he was placed with Suzanne Cohen and her adult sons, within 2 miles of where Anne Frank and her family were already hiding. His relatives in The Hague were all murdered later in Auschwitz and Sobibor.

After Av escaped from the Jewish Theatre in March 1943, he ran back to the Cohens’ house, where he hid in the backyard.

The next morning, Ellie Waterman, a member of an underground organization founded by Dutch Christian Joop Westerweel, coincidentally showed up. “It was a pure miracle,” Av said. Thea had asked the group to find a hiding place for him.

“I was very Orthodox Jewish and I strongly believed that an angel of God was guarding me,” Av said.

Waterman told Av to meet him at the train station. After a series of stops and train changes, Av exited at what he believes was Zutphen, a city in the east-central Netherlands, where Waterman led him to the house of an elderly couple.

After dinner, as German soldiers approached, Av hid in a bedroom closet. As one of the soldiers approached, Av began hiccuping out of fear and nearly choked, smothering the noise. The German opened the closet door and slammed it, cursing. “Fortunately for me, he didn’t look very much,” Av said.

The couple then hid him in a backyard coal bin. But after the Germans returned a second time, Av left, not wanting to endanger the couple.

Despite the late hour, Av knocked on a nearby door. “I’m Jewish. Can you hide me?” he asked the young man who opened it. The man, who had a wife and small child, concealed him behind some boxes in the basement.

“I was very Orthodox Jewish and I strongly believed that an angel of God was guarding me”

“These Christians who were hiding Jews were extremely courageous, because if they were caught hiding a Jew, they were treated like a Jew,” Av said.

The next morning, Waterman found Av and arranged for Dutch Christians in several cities to hide him. Then, sometime during the summer, Av was placed in a boarding house in Rotterdam, where two boys were staying, as well as a teacher, who taught Av English and French.

One day in September 1943, the boys heard the familiar pounding of German boots and quickly hid in a prearranged spot. After the Germans left, they split up, believing they would be safer.

Av wandered for about 20 minutes before a German soldier stopped him, asking for identification and summoning a police van. He placed Av in the partitioned back, guarded by two Dutch police officers. Thinking the policemen might be anti-Nazi, Av slid toward the rear doors of the van as the police officers talked. Av partially opened one door and when the van slowed, he jumped out.

After running several blocks, he stopped a man on the street who took him home and contacted Joop Westerweel. An aide to Westerweel arranged for Av’s last placement.

Av traveled to Venlo, in the southeastern Netherlands, where a pastor, Henricus Vullinghs, met him at the train station and transported him on the back of his bicycle 5 miles north to the home in Grubbenvorst, a town within 3 miles of the German border where Peter and Gertrude Beijers lived with three of their six adult children.

Forty-two of the village’s 240 families, all Catholic, were hiding Jews. Pastor Vullinghs told his parishioners that they were assured a place in heaven if they saved a Jew.

As Av grew close to the Beijers family — he called the parents Mom and Pap — he began helping on the farm, becoming expert in growing asparagus.

After the Allies invaded Normandy in June 1944, they advanced toward Germany and by September were approaching Grubbenvorst.

When several German soldiers moved into the Beijers’ house, Av hid in the stable. Pap then built him a more secure hiding place, a concealed hole in the hill behind the barn. Av lay on his back all day, with red ants for companions, venturing out only in the evenings.

On Nov. 22, 1944, the Allies liberated the village of Sevenum, about 5 miles west of Grubbenvorst, launching a heavy barrage eastward toward the Germans’ defense line.

That night as Av joined the Beijers in their neighbors’ basement, the Germans forced everyone out, planning to evacuate all town residents across the Maas River to Germany.

Afraid of entering Germany, Av remained in Grubbenvorst, hiding once again in the stable. With British artillery shells exploding ever closer, he left, reaching the street just as a shell landed on the stable, demolishing it. Again, Av said, “I knew at the time that the angel of God was with me.”

As the pounding continued, Av crawled along toward the British line, feeling for mines. Suddenly someone shouted, “Halt,” as Nazi soldiers jumped out from the roadside. “Where are you going?” one demanded. Av pointed to a nearby house. Just then the British began firing, and Av pushed himself free and ran, despite the mines and the bullets flying past him.

He reached a farmhouse where he found the entire Beijers family. The bridge over the river had been destroyed, thwarting the Germans’ evacuation plans.

Two days later, Av persuaded one of Beijers’ sons to accompany him to Sevenum, now in Allied hands. They arrived on Nov. 26, 1944, which Av considers his liberation date. “I felt fantastic,” he said.

Wanting to help the British army, Av worked as an interpreter for a month as soldiers directed the locals in rebuilding the bridge. At Av’s request, one soldier sent a letter to his parents in Palestine. In January, the Jewish Brigade came for Av, to reunite him with his parents. Av said goodbye to the Beijers.

Years later, he submitted their names and that of Pastor Vullinghs to Yad Vashem, which recognized them in 1994 as “Righteous Among the Nations.” The Perlmutter and Beijers families have remained very close.

Av arrived in Haifa on July 16, 1945. Soon after his father picked him up, his aunt told him that his mother had died of an adverse penicillin reaction the previous January, two weeks before his letter arrived.

Weeks later, Av was living in Tel Aviv with his father and assisting in his small jam factory when they learned that Thea, who had been captured and sent to Auschwitz, had survived.

In 1947, Av joined the Haganah, the Jewish underground, but was badly injured in a motorcycle-truck collision. He was discharged as a wounded war veteran on Nov. 8, 1949, and made his way to the United States.

He entered the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1951 to study aeronautical engineering, graduating in June 1954. After earning  a master’s degree at Princeton in 1956, he accepted a job at Kellett Aircraft Corp. in Philadelphia.

A year later, Av met Ruth Gitberg at a synagogue social. They married on Aug. 31, 1958, and had four children. He later earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

Av and two colleagues at Kellett formed their own company, Dynasciences, in 1961. When Dynasciences merged with Whitaker Corp. in 1969, Av moved his family to Los Angeles and worked in engineering and other ventures until he retired in 2015.

Av is now 89 and the grandfather of five. He wrote an autobiography, “Determined,” which was published in 2014, and a Dutch version, in collaboration with the Beijers family, will be released this spring.

For 20 years, Av has been speaking about his experiences — at museums, schools and synagogues.

“I always like to tell my story in hopes that it helps others, especially children.” he said. “I tell them that regardless of difficulties, don’t give up.”

David Benson (left) and his brother, Andrew Benson, accompany their grandmother, Holocaust survivor Sidonia Lax, on the 2015 International March of the Living. Photo courtesy of David Benson.

Who will tell survivors’ stories when they’re gone?


In the spring of 2011, David Benson, found himself walking with his grandmother, Holocaust survivor Sidonia Lax, down the “black path” that once led to the crematorium at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. It was Lax’s fifth trip with the annual International March of the Living as a survivor, with the Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) teen delegation, his first as part of a large family contingent with the BJE Los Angeles adult group.

As they headed toward the massive circular mausoleum that now stands at the end of the path, holding the ashes of some of the approximately 59,000 Jews and 19,000 non-Jews who were murdered there, Benson, then 35, found himself alone with his grandmother, then 83, for the first time during the trip. Something came over him, something that he can’t explain to this day, and he vowed, “As long as you want to come on this trip, I will come with you. And I’ll come in your stead when you can’t anymore.”

Benson’s sacred promise to his grandmother represents a welcome response to a mounting challenge facing museums, historians and educators as survivors of Nazi-era atrocities grow old and die, taking their firsthand accounts with them: How will their memories be kept alive for future generations? More and more, it is the survivors’ descendants — their sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — who are taking on that responsibility, and beyond them, anyone who hears their stories.

It also is spurring wider efforts to record survivors talking about their exploits for posterity, much in the way the USC Shoah Foundation videotaped more than 50,000 testimonies of Jewish survivors between 1994 and 1999 and how the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is continuing to expand its collection of more than 12,000 audio and video recordings of Jewish survivors.

Benson is one of the many children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of survivors — known within the Holocaust community as Second, Third and Fourth Generation — who are stepping up to tell the survivors’ stories as educational programs, institutions and museums worldwide prepare for a world without survivors.

For the past five years, Benson has left behind his wife, his two young children and his business for a week to accompany his grandmother to Poland. This year, after 10 March of the Living trips, Sidonia is unable to participate. And although David cannot attend this year because of preparations for Sidonia’s 90th birthday and other conflicts, he already has signed up to lead an adult group next year.


“As long as you want to come on this trip, I will come with you. And I’ll come in your stead when you can’t anymore.”

— David Benson, to his grandmother, on a march of the living trip to Poland


He knows his grandmother’s story intimately, how she and her parents had been crammed into a small cellar bunker with 35 people in the Przemysl ghetto in Poland for three months in the fall of 1943. An escape plan for her family failed, and her mother was captured and later murdered. A few days later, her father slipped out of the bunker in search of a smuggled apple for his severely undernourished daughter. He never returned.

Benson has followed his grandmother inside her former barracks in Birkenau, one of six camps in which she was imprisoned, where she’s pointed and said, “This is the bunk where I slept.”

“There’s nothing like someone, firsthand, standing there and saying that,” said Monise Neumann, director of the BJE Center for Teen Experiential Education, who has led 12 trips with the BJE Los Angeles delegation. “You can’t duplicate that.” Still, she said, “David serves as an amazing kind of figure as we transition from firsthand witnesses.”

Seven decades ago, at the end of World War II, approximately 3.8 million European Jews were alive, according to research by demographer Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today, among Jews who were in camps, ghettos or hiding under Nazi occupation, only 100,000 worldwide are alive, including 14,000 in the United States, Amy Wexler, public relations manager for The Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, said via email.

In Los Angeles, extrapolating from the 1997 Jewish Population Survey, in which survivors self-identified, demographic researcher Pini Herman estimated the current number of living survivors at 3,000, excluding child survivors, those born Jan. 1, 1928, or later.

But even among the living survivors, many are ill or memory-impaired. And others, especially those born toward the end of World War II, survivors by definition, simply were too young to consciously recall their Holocaust ordeals.

In 2016, the BJE Los Angeles March of the Living delegation had only five survivors, the smallest group since it began participating in 1988. And these were mostly child survivors. This year, six are participating, all child survivors.

Over the years, staff members have become the storytellers for the next generation. Freddy Diamond, a survivor who accompanied the group five times over 10 years, used to stand outside Block 11 of Auschwitz, telling students the story of how his brother Leo, a member of a little-known resistance group, was tortured and hanged in front of 15,000 inmates. When Diamond could no longer attend, Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE associate director, stood outside Block 11, holding a photo of Diamond and relating his story. Now Neumann tells it.

“Look, it’ll never be the same,” Neumann said. “But because of the way the stories are being told, people will tell you that they’ll always remember them.”

In more recent years, Neumann and others have recorded survivors recounting their stories at different locations in Poland. Staff members carry these narratives on their digital devices.

Neumann also enlists the help of Third and Fourth Generation survivors who are March of the Living participants. In 2015, Caroline Lowy, then an 18-year-old student at Milken Community Schools, stood near a cattle car on the Auschwitz-Birkenau tracks and talked about how her great-grandfather Hugo Lowy arrived at Auschwitz in April 1944. He was dispatched to a line of men selected to work, but he refused to part with his tallit bag, which a guard grabbed and threw to the ground. When the guard turned his back, Hugo retrieved the bag, refusing to go anywhere without his tallit and tefillin. The guard beat him to death.

Caroline had attended the dedication of the cattle car in 2010, which had been restored and donated to Auschwitz-Birkenau by Hugo Lowy’s son, her grandfather Frank Lowy. She felt honored to retell the story to her peers, though it was difficult. But, she said, “I have a duty as a young Jewish person to keep telling the stories.”

Survivor John Adler and daughter Eileen Eandi speak at the Museum of Tolerance last June. Photo by Jane Ulman

Survivor John Adler and daughter Eileen Eandi speak at the Museum of Tolerance last June. Photo by Jane Ulman

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center opened in 1977, the organization sent survivors into the community to share their stories. And survivors have been speaking at the Museum of Tolerance, the Wiesenthal Center’s educational arm, since it was opened in 1993. Currently, the museum boasts a roster of 45 survivor speakers.

“There really is a difference when it is the survivor standing up and telling their own testimony,” said Elana Samuels, director of museum volunteer services at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

When survivor John Adler, now 93, came to Samuels more than three years ago, he said with tears in his eyes, “I can’t speak anymore. I have to retire.” Samuels suggested they approach his daughter, Eileen Eandi.

Eandi, 67, had wanted to become involved with the museum. Plus, she said, “I wanted to do this for my father. I wanted to be involved in carrying the story forward.”

Eandi researched her father’s experiences, putting together a timeline and selecting photographs, and then worked with Samuels and Emily Thompson, a Museum of Tolerance intern at the time, to present the story in a creative but compassionate way.

In her presentation, Eandi focuses on her father’s growing up in pre-Holocaust Germany as a child and teenager. Adler’s family moved to Breslau in 1933, where they lived on a main street that contained the headquarters of the local chapter of Nazi stormtroopers, who emerged every morning marching and singing. They then hung out in the cul-de-sac where the Adler family’s apartment building stood, forcing Adler to pass them on his way to school every morning.

In 1937, when Adler was 14, the Jewish school he attended closed. No longer able to use its sports field, Adler and his best friend went to a local public field, where one day they were accosted by three Nazi youths on bicycles. Adler and his friend bloodied their noses and the young Nazis hastily retreated. But several visits later, the boys were met by older Nazi youths who punched Adler, breaking his glasses and his bicycle. He limped home.

After this experience, followed by Kristallnacht in November 1938, Adler joined a hakhshara, a kind of kibbutz where he learned agricultural skills necessary for immigration to Palestine.

Adler’s parents left for Shanghai in February 1939, and Adler, not quite 16, left for Palestine on Aug. 30, 1939, two days before Germany invaded Poland. He joined a kibbutz, and at 18, he enlisted in the British army.

At the end of every presentation, Adler rises and answers questions. “The mood changes totally when my father stands up. There’s nothing like having this person in front of you,” Eandi said, adding that people want to hug him, shake his hand and be photographed with him.

Eandi doesn’t know what she’ll do after her father no longer can accompany her, unsure how effective her talk will be without him. But Adler’s plan is that his daughter will speak for him for a long time, followed by his grandson, Matthew Eandi. “I don’t ever want [the Holocaust] to be forgotten,” Adler said.


“The mood changes totally when my father stands up. There’s nothing like having this person in front of you.”

  Eileen Eandi, daughter of a holocaust survivor


Using the experience of Eandi and Adler as her model, Samuels reached out to other Second and Third Generation descendants to form a group called Looking to the Future, which first met in November 2013. And while some of the participants are working with various media to carry forward a parent’s or grandparent’s legacy — including film, photography or memoir projects — Samuels wants to make sure that storytelling remain the centerpiece of these efforts.

“Clearly, the most important program we offer is our witness to truth testimony, where every day we are open, visitors have the opportunity to sit in a room and hear primary testimony,” she said.

As the Looking to the Future group envisions a future without survivors and focuses on building the next generation of speakers, Samuels acknowledged that it’s also important to incorporate compelling video testimony, such as footage from a USC Shoah Foundation interview. “You need that emotional connection,” she said.

These Holocaust eyewitnesses, who are now revered, were shunned in the first two decades after World War II, sociologist Arlene Stein writes in her book “Reluctant Witnesses.” Even those who wanted to speak were told to keep quiet and move on with their lives. Only the survivors — and there were few — who had fought in wartime resistance were celebrated.

But by 1962, as survivors testified at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann trial, revealing the enormity of the horrors they suffered, the world became more receptive to hearing their stories. Through the 1970s, the Second Generation, whose lives had been overshadowed by the Holocaust, came of age. And as they sought to carve out their own identities amid the social and political upheaval in the United States, they prodded their parents to talk about their Holocaust pasts.

In 1993, the film “Schindler’s List” opened to wide acclaim. “It made the Holocaust more accessible to the general public and it gave the average survivor greater confidence to be able to speak,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Today, survivors are viewed as heroes. They have taken on a mantle of moral authority as, even in their 80s and 90s, they continue to share their narratives, to testify to what really occurred, to thwart Holocaust deniers and to encourage people to love, hope and create a better world.

And Holocaust museums and organizations worldwide are stepping up their programs to provide them with speaking opportunities. Last month, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began a program called “First Person, Conversations With Survivors.” It includes two sessions a week with survivors and continues through Aug. 10.

Survivor Pinchas Gutter answers questions during filming of USC Shoah Foundation’s “New Dimensions in Testimony” project. Photo courtesy of USC Shoah Foundation

Survivor Pinchas Gutter answers questions during filming of USC Shoah Foundation’s “New Dimensions in Testimony” project. Photo courtesy of USC Shoah Foundation

“I tell my story for the purpose of improving humanity, drop by drop by drop,” said Pinchas Gutter, an 84-year-old survivor originally from Lodz, Poland.‭ ‬But for decades after the war, Gutter was silent, afraid to burden his children with his sad stories. Then in 1992, historian Paula Draper approached him in Toronto, where he has lived since 1985, convincing him of the importance of giving testimony.

“I cried. I was shaking. It was very, very difficult,” he recalled. It wasn’t until 10 years later, when Gutter was the subject of a documentary called “The Void: In Search of Memory Lost,” filmed in Poland and directed by Smith before his tenure at the USC Shoah Foundation, that he could talk more easily about his time in the Warsaw Ghetto and in six concentration camps, including Majdanek, where his twin sister, at age 10, and his parents were murdered. “It was cathartic,” Gutter said of his participation in the film. Since then, he has spoken and continues to speak, all over the world.

And now, thanks to a USC Shoah Foundation project called “New Dimensions of Testimony,” Gutter will live on as an interactive survivor, in a life-size, three-dimensional video display in which he presents his story and then answers direct questions, making eye contact with the audience. “That never existed before in any other context before this project,” said Smith, explaining that the project uses automatic speech recognition software to access a databank of more than 1,500 questions that Gutter has previously answered.

But what’s missing in these interactive encounters, Smith explained, are the nuances of conversation, both in body language and in personalization. Still, Smith believes the audience engages with the witness, not the technology. “What we’re trying to create is something that is a little more natural in terms of how we inquire about the past of an individual,” he said.

The project is still in the trial phase, with the interactive Gutter, currently in a two-dimensional format, now on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie as well as Holocaust museums in Toronto, Houston and Terre Haute, Ind. Twelve additional English-speaking Holocaust survivors and one Mandarin-speaking survivor of the Nanjing Massacre, which occurred Dec. 13, 1937, through January 1938, have been interviewed, a process that takes days. Those videos have yet to be edited.

Gutter hopes many more survivors will be able to participate. He doesn’t want the Holocaust to become just an academic endeavor, with possible distortions and inaccuracies. “When you see a documentary, it doesn’t have the same effect on you,” he said. “I’ve watched people interacting with me [on the two-dimensional projected image] and, believe me, the effect it has on them, they will never forget it.”

The USC Shoah Foundation, always has been focused on preparing for a time when there will be no survivors. Over the years, foundation officials have learned, Smith said, to trust audiences with the stories, sharing them on social media and entrusting students and teachers with the testimony. “The more we trust them to own the story, the more likely they are to tell the story to their own generation,” Smith said.

Currently, the USC Shoah Foundation is in the second year of a five-year project called the Visual History Archive Program, in which it will share and augment 53,000 video testimonies, including survivors of other genocides, with scholars, educators, descendants of survivors and organizations. “This gives us an opportunity to work with multiple audiences on figuring out how they best want to use this content or contribute to this content in the future,” Smith said.

Currently, 1,815 USC Shoah Foundation testimonies can be accessed online at vhaonline.usc.edu, and in Southern California, the full collection can be viewed at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), Chapman University and the USC campus.

Additionally, with what Smith called “a tight deadline,” the USC Shoah Foundation is continuing to work with survivors to find other ways of telling their stories, engaging them in the process so that it’s a partnership in figuring out the best ways to enable their voices to live on. “That’s very much at the heart of the mission and something we share with the survivors themselves,” Smith said.

Beth Kean, executive director of LAMOTH and herself a Third Generation survivor, is uncomfortable talking about the loss of survivors. “Yes, that’s a fact,” she said, “but there are hundreds, probably thousands, alive right now, so let’s do whatever we can to engage with them even more.”

Survivors always have been at the heart of the museum’s mission. In fact, it was a group of survivors, who were then calling themselves former German prisoners, who met at Hollywood High School while taking English classes and  founded the museum in 1961. It was to be a place where they could tell their stories and a place that charged no admission.

That hasn’t changed. Today, there are about 35 core survivors who speak in the Sunday Survivor Speaker Series and whenever a school, law enforcement or teacher education group comes to visit.

Over the past several years, the museum has reached out to more survivors, particularly child survivors, and worked to connect all of their survivors with as many students as possible in a variety of what LAMOTH calls “Art and Memory Programs.” In these activities, students and survivors interact in less traditional, more informal settings.

Children and grandchildren of the survivors also play an important role in keeping memories alive.

3G@LAMOTH is a program founded in 2013 by Third Generation survivors Rebecca Katz and Caitlin Kress. The members, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, work on ways of carrying forward their grandparents’ legacies, meeting regularly for narrative workshops, film screenings and other events.

Marissa Lepor, a 3G@LAMOTH board member, and her grandmother, survivor Sarah Jacobs, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Marissa Lepor

Marissa Lepor, a 3G@LAMOTH board member, and her grandmother, survivor Sarah Jacobs, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Marissa Lepor

Marissa Lepor, 23, a 3G@LAMOTH board member, found strength confronting her life challenges — although not comparable, she pointed out — by learning about her grandparents’ Holocaust travails. Her grandmother, Sarah Jacobs, now 92, was 3 when her mother died in childbirth and 15 when she lost the grandmother who raised her. Three years later, Jacobs was taken to Landeshut and then Peterswaldau, both subcamps of Gross-Rosen concentration camp. After the war, in 1950, she and her husband, Max Jacobs, immigrated to Los Angeles, where they raised a family.

Now Lepor brings together 3G members and other interested millennials to an event she calls Startup Stories, which began in the summer of 2015. There, Lepor briefly recounts her grandparents’ stories and interviews two or three Holocaust survivors about how they dealt with the challenges of rebuilding their war-torn lives.

“Learning from [the survivors] is really a privilege,” Lepor said.

“It’s really important today for the 2Gs and 3Gs especially to be stewards of that history. We have this responsibility to retell our parents’ and grandparents’ history,” Kean said.

Other programs at LAMOTH are aimed at young people who may not have a familial connection to the Holocaust.

L’Dough V’Dough, launched in 2012, brings together students elementary school age and older, as well as adults, to braid and bake challah while sharing stories and sometimes personal artifacts. “It’s transformative for these students,” Kean said.

And in Voices of History, students in various high schools and colleges reflect on and retell survivors’ testimony, which they condense into short films that are used in teacher-training workshops on the Holocaust and in school classrooms.

In the summer of 2015, for example, students in a digital storytelling workshop at Harvard-Westlake School toured the museum and later filmed survivor Dana Schwartz as she related her story. The students then produced an eight-minute, mostly animated film, “The Story of Three Rings,” depicting Schwartz’s life as a 6-year-old confined with her parents in the ghetto in Lvov, Poland, in November 1941. When deportations began four months later, the family hid in a cramped hole. Then, with false papers her father had procured, Schwartz and her mother escaped to a nearby town, posing as non-Jewish Poles until the war’s end.

Students also interpret these narratives through music, photography and theater.

This year, LAMOTH teamed with students from Santa Monica High School’s theater department to present “Voices of Survivors,” in which students performed some of the more chilling scenes from the lives of four survivors. During the eight-week project, the 35 students visited the museum, where they learned about the Holocaust and then met with the survivors in preparation for scripting their scenes, with help from Writer’s Room Productions, and performing them on March 22.

What does it mean for an elder who was a child in the worst possible moment of Jewish modern history to be connected to a child who’s living in a time and place of unprecedented prosperity?” That was the question Samara Hutman, director of Remember Us: The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project and The Righteous Conversations Project, asked.

And that became the genesis of The Righteous Conversations Project, which began in 2011, connecting teenagers with Holocaust survivors. Since then, the two generations have come together at various synagogues and schools for discussions, filmmaking and other creative workshops, and social justice work, which includes relating the survivors’ experiences to current issues and filming more than 60 public service announcements on subjects such as bullying, Islamophobia and racial discrimination.

“The central piece is the reciprocity of the exchange,” Hutman said, explaining that the students then become the stewards of the survivors’ stories, finding a way to honor and carry forward the their words. “There’s love and memory that doesn’t leave.”

Survivor Helen Freeman, 95, who has taken part in Righteous Conversations Project workshops since the organization’s founding, understands the power of these intergenerational encounters.

At the culmination of a summer 2012 workshop, Freeman told participant Trey Carlisle, then a 13-year-old student at Aveson Global Leadership Academy in Altadena, something that she has continued to tell students at subsequent workshops:

“Because of the way you have listened to me and because of the work you have done hearing me,” she said, “I now feel that I can die in peace.”

Stephen Smith and Helen Colin

Stephen Smith’s quest to find survivor from Bergen-Belsen liberation film


Last summer, I watched the disturbingly iconic reel of black-and-white footage that revealed the shameful truth of Bergen-Belsen.

The grainy footage, which many of us have seen, was taken at the concentration camp in Germany, a few days after the liberation on April 15, 1945. It offered one of the first glimpses into the hell that was the Holocaust. Under the armed command of liberators from the British Army, SS men are seen unloading the skeletal corpses of the Jews they’d murdered from the back of a pickup truck, and carrying them to a mass grave.

I was struck by two things I hadn’t noticed before:

First, the reel shows a woman screaming at the SS men laboring under the gun of the liberators.

Second, in an extraordinary moment of reckoning, a young Polish-Jewish woman named Hela Goldstein — who appeared to be the same woman who’d been screaming in the earlier shot — steps up to a microphone and delivers, in German, a short account of what had transpired at the camp, while standing against the backdrop of a massive open grave.  As I watched her interview — which lasts all of 93 seconds — it occurred to me that this was likely the first audiovisual Holocaust survivor testimony ever recorded on camera.

I wondered if Goldstein was among the nearly 54,000 Holocaust survivors who later gave their testimonies to the USC Shoah Foundation, whose Visual History Archive features a powerful search engine.

Thanks to the remarkably detailed work of the archive’s indexers, I was able to locate a woman in Houston named Helen Colin. Colin had previously been known as Hela Goldstein — and she was liberated at Bergen-Belsen. I called a friend at the Holocaust Museum Houston, who provided contact information for Helen’s daughter Muriel. After connecting with Muriel, I immediately booked a flight from Los Angeles to Houston.

The next day — June 8, 2016 — I arrived at Helen’s house for the purpose of interviewing her for the USC Shoah Foundation again. In her first interview, recorded in 1996, Helen had never mentioned the statement she’d made to the British film crew at Bergen-Belsen, where 50,000 innocents (including diarist Anne Frank) were murdered during World War II.

I filmed the 93-year-old Helen watching her 1945 testimony. Then I asked her what it was like to stand in front of a microphone as a woman in her early 20s and speak about what had happened.

“I was very, very scared,” she said, adding that the British officers had forced the SS men to listen.

Here she was, staring her former captors in the face, with a camera rolling, telling the world what they’d done. Despite the presence of the British Army, she feared reprisal in the form of a sniper’s bullet from the guard tower above. But it was unoccupied.

Helen also confirmed that she was, indeed, the woman who’d been screaming at the SS men, who were grabbing and dragging bodies by the feet. What was she saying?

“I says, ‘You are not allowed to drag on this gravel such a precious people. They may be my family, they may be my mother, father — who knows?’ ”

She ordered the SS men to “immediately” begin carrying the bodies over their shoulders, to afford the victims a shred of dignity. The Nazis complied, as can be seen in the footage.

“They did it because the British were surrounding me,” she said.

April 15, 1945, was not just the day Bergen-Belsen was liberated; it was also Helen’s 22nd birthday. And as it happens, April 15 is my birthday too.

We bonded that day at her home, made even more hospitable by her lovely daughter Muriel, so eager to ensure that her mother’s story be told.  After the interview, Helen and I agreed to get together again, but this time for the purpose of celebrating our birthdays, on April 15, 2017.

That was not to be. Helen died just weeks after our interview. So, in lieu of the party we’d planned, this piece will celebrate her memory.

With Yom HaShoah just a few days away, when we recall the testimony of survivors, Helen Colin’s legacy rebuts a longstanding popular misconception — that Holocaust survivors were silent after the Holocaust. Many did speak, but in fact their words all too often fell on deaf ears.

As that young woman stood in front of her captors with the dead piled up behind her, it took courage to speak. Helen that day was prepared to speak even though she feared lethal retaliation. But survivors have felt other fears: that words may be twisted for nefarious purposes; that their memories might not be respected; that they must re-live the trauma.

Helen, like all the survivors who have shared their stories — who lost her mother, father, younger brother and little sister to the Holocaust — was among the brave. Happy birthday, Helen.

Photo by David Miller

Survivor Celina Biniaz: The youngest of Schindler’s Jews


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by David Miller

Survivor Dana Schwartz: Dark past can’t hold back this ‘American girl’


“Don’t hug him. Don’t kiss him. Say goodbye like you hardly know him,” Lusia Schapira instructed her 7-year-old daughter, Dana (then Danusia), as they re-entered the ghetto in Lvov, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), from which the two had recently escaped.

No longer wearing their Star of David armbands and posing with false papers as Christian Poles, they had come to say farewell to Syd Schapira, their father and husband, under the guise of conducting some small commercial transaction. As they stood with Syd near the guardhouse, Dana politely said goodbye, tensely holding her shoulders and arms and suppressing an urge to scream. “I was very painfully aware that I may never see him again, and I can’t hug him,” she recalled. Syd walked away; Dana and her mother exited the ghetto. It was June 1942.

Dana, who was born on Jan. 30, 1935, was an only child. Her university-educated parents both worked for the Polish national lottery, owned by a man named Sam Safir. The family was upper-middle class, living in a comfortable apartment with several servants.

When Dana was 4 1/2, in September 1939, her nanny uncharacteristically allowed her out of her stroller to play in the park, where she spotted a beautiful daisy. Though forbidden, she stepped on the grass and picked the flower just as a loud boom exploded. Terrified, Dana was convinced that God was expressing his anger at her. She then noticed that everyone was running, and she hurried back to her nanny. A man came by with a large, white dog. “Go home,” he said. “The war has started.”

Soon after, Syd rented a car and driver, and the family set out for the Romanian border, which Syd hoped to cross by bribing a guard. Dana was frightened only when shooting erupted, as when a biplane strafed their car, forcing them to jump into a cornfield to hide.

When they finally arrived at the border, at the bottom of a hill below a small guardhouse perched halfway up, Syd paced back and forth, listening to Lusia tally the possessions they would relinquish if they left. These included their Persian rug, their paintings and the silver they received as a wedding present. Syd yielded to his wife’s wishes, and they returned to Lvov.

Not that he found solace. The Soviets, who occupied Lvov in accordance with the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, conscripted Syd into the army. He soon escaped but was pursued by the Soviets and forced into hiding. “You must never tell them where father is hiding,” Lusia warned Dana. “Otherwise you may never see him again.” More than once, people questioned her, but she never revealed his hiding place in the attic. “I was always proud that I did not give him away,” Dana said.

Dana was confined mainly to the family’s apartment. But one day in the summer of 1941, with the Germans now in control of Lvov, she was playing with the janitor’s children when a Nazi soldier approached her, steering her to a landing between two floors. There, with a gun in one hand, he began sexually abusing her with the other. Despite fears he would shoot her, she made a run for it, bounding up the stairs to the safety of her apartment.

Several months later, Lusia answered a loud knock at the door to find a tall German officer, accompanied by two lieutenants, who proceeded to inspect the apartment. “We’ll take it,” the officer announced. “Be out in half an hour.” After the Germans left, each member of the family packed a small valise, and they walked to the ghetto. Dana remembered how her parents strode straight ahead, their shoulders erect in a show of courage.

Inside the ghetto, the family shared a 1 1/2-room apartment,  plus a kitchen, with Dana’s uncle, paternal grandmother and another elderly woman. “I learned how to do nothing,” Dana said.

Occasionally venturing outside with her mother, Dana noticed three stains on the side of her apartment building. Later she learned that German soldiers had taken three toddlers by the ankles, trying to splatter their heads against the wall on the first swing. “Everyone drew away. It was horrifying,” Dana said.

Around March 1942, Syd announced that an aktion, a roundup and deportation of the Jews living in the ghetto, was imminent and they needed to hide. He first found a place for the older women. Then, at night, he carried Dana to the courtyard where he and Lusia crawled behind three stone steps attached to a walkway. There they lay on the dirt floor with eight or so others, venturing out only at 3 a.m. every day to stretch and drink water.

Dana had been hiding a week or two when Lusia offered their former neighbors, a Ukrainian couple, a ring in return for taking Dana for a week, knowing she would be safe. The couple put her in a bedroom with only a large pile of newspapers. After seven days, the husband returned her to the courtyard.

Dana sat on the stone steps, whispering to her father that she was back, careful not to reveal the hiding place. “Go down to the cellar,” he instructed. There, in the basement of their apartment building, she found her mother, who herself had spent the week in hiding. When the lengthy aktion was over, the three returned to their apartment.

Two months later, Dana and Lusia had false papers that Syd had purchased, enabling them to leave Lvov. (As a circumcised male, he knew he couldn’t pass as a Christian.) Lusia drilled Dana on her new name, Danusia Marysia Schabinska, and taught her Catholic prayers.

After Dana and her mother bid farewell to Syd, they made their way to the Lvov train station, where they met a farmer Syd had paid to take them to his village, Zaklikow, about 130 miles northwest of Lvov. The farmer told other villagers that these were his cousin’s wife and daughter, people he felt obliged to assist.

Another farmer rented them a space in his livestock barn. For food, as they were starving, Lusia approached the baker, bartering her silk dresses, platinum watch and engagement ring for a daily piece of bread. (In 1989, after a trip to Zaklikow, Dana succeeded in buying back her mother’s ring from the baker’s daughter.)

Meanwhile, Syd had been taken to the Janowska labor and transit camp on the outskirts of Lvov. There, he smuggled out three letters to Lusia and Dana, informing them, in the last letter, that “Syd is planning to take a vacation,” code for an escape. Dana and her mother never heard from him again.

Finally, in the summer of 1944, the Soviets liberated Zaklikow. Dana and Lusia hitched a ride in the back of a Soviet military truck to Lvov, where they found no surviving relatives and where a man Lusia had recently met rented a room for them.

One night, a drunk Soviet army officer attacked Lusia in the courtyard of their building, holding a gun while trying to rape her. Dana, then 10, was the only one who responded to Lusia’s calls for help. She jumped on the officer’s back, kicking, scratching and disorienting him, enabling them both to escape. The next morning, Lusia told Dana, “I am going to take you to America.”

Around June 1945, Dana and Lusia moved to Bytom in western Poland, and from there, in 1946, they immigrated to Sweden.

In Stockholm, Lusia remarried. “It was not a happy marriage,” Dana said, but her mother’s husband had a green card, enabling them to fulfill their dream of immigrating to the United States. On Dec. 7, 1949, they arrived in Los Angeles, where Sam Safir, Lusia’s former employer at the Polish national lottery, now lived.

In the U.S., Dana, then 14, had two wishes: to become an American girl, like the other teenagers she saw wearing Levi’s jeans, and a flamenco dancer. She took flamenco lessons for only a few weeks but, more important, attended school, graduating from high school in June 1952.

Lusia died of cancer four months later, and Dana, with the help of Safir, who became her guardian, attended college. She became an elementary school teacher, working from 1958 to 1961.

During this time, Dana met Wilbur (Bill) Schwartz, an American physician, and married him on Nov. 22, 1959. “I was finally safe and in love,” she said. The couple had three sons: Steve, born in 1961; Rick, in 1963; and Jonny, in 1969.

When Jonny was 5, Dana began to volunteer at The Maple Counseling Center in Beverly Hills. She returned to school, earned a master’s degree in psychology and worked as a licensed therapist from 1980 to 2013.  Bill died in November 2014.

In 1994, when the USC Shoah Foundation was founded, Dana began conducting interviews and training interviewers, including those who spoke Polish and Swedish. “I loved my work,” she said.

She also has been active with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust since the 1970s and currently is a member of the Survivor Advisory Board as well as a regular speaker.

Dana, now a grandmother of six, feels blessed to have so many rich memories.

“I’m not just an American girl like I wanted to be,” she said. “I’m also that person who went through all that stuff. And it lives with me. It’s the foundation of who I am.”

Survivor Michele Rodri: Shuttled from place to place until danger passed


On a Thursday afternoon in April 1942, Michele Rodri (née Rosenberg) was playing hopscotch with three non-Jewish girlfriends outside her family’s home in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine when two SS officers approached them. 

“That’s a beautiful child,” one of them said, lifting Michele’s chin. 

Danke schoen,” answered the 7-year-old, who was fluent in German, French and Yiddish, which was her first language — and who also was wearing a yellow star.

The officer then blew a whistle, summoning a German military truck with a canvas-covered cargo bed that pulled up beside them. As the soldier hoisted Michele over the truck’s tall tailgate, she glimpsed the silhouette of her mother in their living room window being steered away from the partially opened drape. 

The truck was packed with adults and some children, crowded together on benches lining the sides or on the floor, many of them crying. “They were making a roundup, a razzia,” Michele said. A woman came over and held her. “Don’t cry,” she told her in Yiddish. But Michele did not feel reassured. “I was very scared,” she said.

Michele was born on March 26, 1935, to Chaim and Hana Rosenberg, who had moved to Paris from Krakow, Poland, around 1920. She had three older brothers: Abel, born in 1922, David in 1923 and Maurice in 1925. 

Chaim owned a business manufacturing threads. “He was very kind and generous but very strict in terms of behavior,” Michele said. Hana cared for the family. “She was an angel,” Michele said. “She could do anything.” 

The family, who was comfortably middle class and religiously observant, lived in a two-story house in a quiet, residential neighborhood, with a garden in back. The neighbors, who were mostly Christian, knew the Rosenbergs were Jewish, but, Michele said, “Everybody lived very harmoniously.” Her family was well-respected, and her father and brothers were especially friendly with the town’s police commissar, Monsieur Sigean.

Everything changed, however, when Germany attacked France on May 10, 1940, eventually entering Paris on June 14. 

Soon after, Michele’s older brothers, Abel and David, joined the Maquis, the French resistance. “They were very patriotic,” Michele said of her brothers, though she didn’t know their destination at the time. Her youngest brother, Maurice, remained at home to help the family. 

The few Jewish students who attended Michele’s public school began being harassed. Other children refused to sit with them or accused them of killing Jesus. Michele, however, was never physically harmed. 

In 1942, when the German military truck transporting Michele pulled up to Drancy, an internment camp in a northeast Parisian suburb of the same name, she and the others were led into a large hall, with the children clustered in one area. They were fed coffee and a piece of worm-infested bread in the morning — “I picked [the worms] out,” Michele said. “I had to eat the bread” — and in the evening, “horrible” soup with rutabaga or potato peelings. During the day, they were allowed outside in the yard, where they played ball. 

Michele talked only to a 5 1/2-year-old girl named Nicole, the daughter of a non-Jewish political prisoner, whose mat lay next to hers. The girl constantly wept, but, Michele said, “I felt a little humanity.” 

One day in July 1942, after Michele had been at Drancy for three months, she saw her oldest brother, Abel, walk in, wearing an SS uniform. “He looked at me — he had these beautiful green eyes — and I knew I was not supposed to move,” Michele recalled. “Schnell, machen,” Abel said in perfect German to the SS soldier following him, one who worked at the internment camp. “Let’s do this quickly.” Abel pointed to Michele and Nicole. “I want these two children,” he said.

Michele and Nicole followed Abel and the SS soldier outside, where what looked like an official German car awaited. “Get in,” the driver ordered, pushing them a bit roughly into the back seat. Abel sat in the front, silent. Finally, after they had driven several kilometers, he turned to face the girls. “I’m going to take you to safety,” he said. 

They drove to a convent, which Michele believes was near Grenoble. There, she and Nicole lived with the nuns, attending public school in the town, though Michele didn’t talk to other girls, afraid she would divulge her identity. At the convent, Michele sang in the choir, which she loved. But she refused to kneel, as she had heard her father say, “Jews don’t kneel,” and she feared something terrible would happen. Meanwhile, the nuns, who were otherwise mostly kind, punished her for each transgression, lashing her lightly with a martinet, a leather whip, which she found embarrassing. 

One day her youngest brother, Maurice, visited her. “It was really dangerous,” Michele said. He had come without wearing his yellow star or telling their parents. But he brought her a pair of roller skates, something she had long coveted, that he had purchased on the black market. “They were so beautiful,” Michele recalled. 

Then, after 13 months at the convent, Michele and Nicole were picked up by a man who drove them to a small villa in Épinay-sur-Orge, a village about 20 miles south of Paris, where they lived with Monsieur and Madame Godignon, an older couple who had agreed to take the girls in exchange for money from Chaim, Michele’s father. 

Madame Godignon was very strict, slapping the girls if they broke a glass and feeding them meager portions, even though Chaim had paid handsomely for their room and board. “I was always hungry,” Michele said. And while Michele found extra pieces of bread at the bakery when she was sent there on errands, she also suffered stomachaches from eating unripe fruit from the backyard trees. “You dirty Jews have all the money,” Madame Godignon taunted her on a daily basis.

Monsieur Godignon, however, showed the girls kindness, such as tucking them into their beds every night. “He had a heart,” Michele said. And one day in fall 1943 or spring 1944, he took Michele to the train station to see her mother, who had undertaken the dangerous journey to visit with her daughter for only the few minutes the train was stopped. Hana hugged and kissed her — “My whole neck was full of tears,” Michele said — and also brought her a meatloaf sandwich, Michele’s favorite. 

In late August 1944, Michele was listening to the radio when she heard Winston Churchill announce that Hitler had capitulated and American troops had reached the outskirts of Paris. Soon after, her parents and two older brothers came to fetch her.  

Once home, Michele looked everywhere for Maurice, thinking he was playing hide-and-seek. She then learned that he had been picked up while riding the train to school in May 1943. A non-Jewish friend who had been riding with him reported to Chaim and Hana that the Germans had boarded the train, ordering all the males to drop their pants. Maurice and the other Jewish men were rounded up and taken to Drancy. 

After Maurice’s capture, Monsieur Sigean, the police commissar, protected Chaim and Hana, who hid in their house behind blacked-out windows. He also brought them food that he bought on the black market with money Chaim gave him. 

After the war, the Rosenbergs, who had changed their name to Lambert, learned that Maurice had been murdered in Auschwitz. Michele’s parents never recovered from that news. Hana lit a yahrzeit candle for Maurice every day for the rest of her life. And, Michele said, “There isn’t a day that I don’t think about him.”

In addition to Maurice, Michele lost 207 relatives in the Holocaust, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and first and second cousins. Her two grandfathers, who lived in Krakow, were hanged, separately, by the Nazis because they were Orthodox. 

In 1956, Michele traveled to Los Angeles to visit her brother David, who was living there at the time, and stayed. The following year, she married Robert Lazaruk, and their son, Kirk, was born in December 1958. The couple divorced in 1960. 

On July 4, 1962, Michele married Jack Cohen-Rodriguez (aka Rodri), a survivor from Holland who had been imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen. She helped Jack in his various businesses, including representing sports figures and running a medical oxygen company. 

Jack died in 2004, preceded by Chaim in 1972, Hana in 1984 and David in 1996. Abel died in 2014. For Michele, now 81, her family members, including her son, daughter-in-law and grandson, are most precious to her.

Around 2009, Michele began talking about her Holocaust experiences, first at the Stephen Wise Religious School and later at various public and private schools as well as the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “I want to speak as long as I’m here,” she said. 

Michele encourages the young people she addresses to speak up, as citizens of the world, if they see something that is not right.

“Being silent,” she said, “is the most terrible thing.”

Magda Kahan: Saved, ‘because I had somebody’


“Give us your jewelry.” The two Hungarian men startled Magda Kahan — then Meisels — and her mother, who were standing in the kitchen of a small house they shared with another family in the Munkacs ghetto. It was a late morning in April 1944, and they had been living in the ghetto only a day or two. Magda, then 18, handed over her small diamond ring, and the men led her and her mother outside to a horse-drawn carriage. They rode in silence, unaware of their destination.

“It was just terrible,” Magda recalled. Plus, she knew her mother was worried about her older brother. They pulled up to the Great Beit Midrash, and the two women were taken to the basement, where Magda saw shoes and clothing strewn everywhere, and splattered with dried blood. The Hungarians locked them in the basement and left them alone with no bathroom and no food. “It was so frightening. We didn’t know what was going on,” Magda recalled. 

Magda was born on Feb. 9, 1926, in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia (now Mukacheve, Ukraine), to Helen and Isidore Meisels. Her older brother, David, was born in 1923. 

Isidore ran the family business, which sold Persian carpets and some fabrics. The family was comfortable, moving into a new and larger apartment when Magda was 12. “I had everything,” Magda said. “I was spoiled.”

The family was conventionally Orthodox, celebrating Shabbat and Jewish holidays. “We had the beautiful-est family. We were very, very close with all the aunts and uncles and cousins,” Magda said. 

She attended Czech public schools and then Hungarian schools after November 1938, when the Hungarians occupied Munkacs. Her father soon had to relinquish his business to a non-Jewish friend, though he continued working there. Other restrictions followed.

Then, on March 19, 1944, Germany occupied Hungary, entering Munkacs the following day. Isidore, who had always been a community leader, was appointed to the Judenrat, the Jewish Council.

Soon after, two German soldiers moved into the Meisels’ apartment, the officer taking over the living room while his assistant took the maid’s room. “They were gentlemen,” Magda said. Still, when the family conducted a seder in the bedroom on the evening of April 7, they had to be very quiet. “It was very short and very sad,” Magda said. 

On April 19, Magda and the other Munkacs Jews were relocated to the ghetto, and a day or so later, she and her mother were kidnapped. 

But after spending less than an hour in the temple basement, they saw Isidore at a window. “David is hiding. They didn’t get him,” he told them. “And don’t worry. Wherever they take you, you won’t be there long.” 

An hour or two later, the Hungarians returned, transferring Magda and Helen to the Kallus brick factory. There they met three women whose husbands were also members of the Judenrat. Magda learned that they were all being held hostage until the wall around the ghetto, which ghetto residents had been ordered to construct, was completed. 

Three or four days later, they returned to the ghetto.

Then, on May 17, the ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were marched to the Sajovits brick factory, a two-hour walk. “That was a horrible thing,” said Magda, who recalls sleeping on the ground in an open shed. 

Finally, on May 23, 1944, the extended Meisels family was loaded onto the last transport leaving Munkacs. Because Isidore was in the Judenrat and another cousin was a pharmacist with some influence, the 32 relatives were allotted half a cattle car. Three very pregnant women occupied the other half.

On May 26, the train arrived at Auschwitz. “Heraus, heraus” (out, out), men in striped uniforms shouted, ordering the prisoners to line up, men on one side and women and children on the other. As the Munkacs Jews hurried out into the cold morning air, Magda was holding her mother’s hand. Then she dropped it. “I’ll see you later,” she said, running to catch up with her cousins and young aunts who, she figured, were headed to work. “I didn’t even kiss her,” Magda recalled.

The young women were taken to a huge room, where they were ordered to undress and then shower. Afterward, they entered another room, where they were shaved. “When will I see my parents?” Magda asked the man shaving her. “If you’re lucky, tonight,” he said. 

The women then stood naked for several hours before being given dresses. Finally, late in the afternoon, they were taken to Lager 24, where they slept on wooden planks with no blankets. 

Two days later, Magda lay in her barracks. She knew it was Shavuot, and the enormity of her circumstances hit her. “I started to cry and cry and cry, and that’s when I knew I lost everybody,” she said.

Meanwhile, Magda, her two aunts — her father’s younger sisters, Petyu and Serene —- and her two cousins — Maca and Petyu’s daughter, Baba — made a pact to stick together. “I think that’s what saved me, because I had somebody,” Magda recalled. They also decided that they had to leave Auschwitz or they would die. 

Sometime in August, the five women volunteered for a work detail. They were taken to a building where they changed into pajama tops and skirts. They then waited and waited while rumors circulated that no trains were available, and the kapos finally ordered them to again undress. “We figured we are going to the crematorium if we are naked. We were just very sad. It was too late to cry,” Magda said. But soon they were handed striped uniforms and loaded into open cattle cars. 

After a two-day ride, on Aug. 21, the women arrived at Unterluss, a subcamp of Bergen-Belsen that held about 600 women. They slept on bunk beds with a blanket, and each received a small dish and spoon. 

Once, suffering from a cough, Magda was told to stand on the sideline during appel (roll call). A female guard came by, a woman Magda described as “so mean and so beautiful.” “What are you doing here?” the woman demanded. She then slapped Magda across the face. “Go back to work,” she ordered. That was the only time, Magda said, that she was struck.

In Unterluss, Magda worked cutting down trees, which she and three other women had to carry to a designated spot. Other days, she moved large rocks from one place to another, or pounded wood into smaller pieces with a mallet. “For nothing,” Magda said. “Meaningless work.” 

Whenever the prisoners heard airplanes overhead, which happened occasionally, the Germans locked prisoners in their barracks and fled to their bunkers. “We were happy. We were begging God to send the bomb here,” Magda said.  

Then, on the morning of April 12, 1945, they heard a big explosion. A prisoner’s German boyfriend unlocked their barracks door, and they were liberated. But after celebrating only a few hours of freedom, German civilians from the village approached with rifles. “You are liberated, but we can’t leave you here,” they said, cramming the approximately 500 women into trucks.

Arriving at Bergen-Belsen — “a place no one should know about,” Magda said — they saw dead bodies lying everywhere, which they were ordered to remove. The women refused, knowing that the corpses were disease-ridden. They were then put in a barracks where people were dying all around them and where Magda’s stockings immediately filled with lice. “This is it. I’m just dead,” she told herself. 

But on Sunday morning, April 15, Magda was outside the barracks when she heard loudspeakers announcing, “You are liberated.” The British army had freed them.

That first night, Magda and her cousins slept in a clean German barracks, and her aunts, who had contracted typhus, were hospitalized. A month later, the five of them traveled to Prague.

At one point, Serene and Maca decided to go back to Munkacs. Magda declined to join them. “I had such a beautiful memory of my hometown. I just didn’t want to lose that,” she said.  

Magda went to Sighet, where most of her surviving relatives convened. (Of Magda’s 32 relatives who boarded the train to Auschwitz, 12 first cousins and two aunts survived.) But after seven months, she returned to Prague in preparation for moving to the United States, where three uncles and one aunt had immigrated before the war.

Magda arrived in New York on March 24, 1947. She attended school in Williamsburg to learn English and also worked in a candy shop owned by her mother’s brother.

In April 1948, Magda met Jerry Kahan on a blind date, and they married on Dec. 5, 1948. Then, in January 1951, they moved to Los Angeles, where Jerry had a cousin.

Magda and Jerry had three daughters: Monica, born in February 1951; Susie, in November 1953; and Debbie, in October 1955. Jerry died in January 2011. Magda now has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. 

“I always knew I’m going to be liberated. I just felt it,” Magda said. “Only in Bergen-Belsen for two days, did I think I’m going to die.” 

Sidi Grunstein Gluck: More than half a dozen camps, then liberation


“Whose child?” Dr. Josef Mengele demanded, looking down at Sidi Grunstein’s younger sister, Vera, age 6, who stood before him flanked by Sidi, 21, and their mother, tightly gripping their hands. No one spoke, and Mengele quickly dispatched them to a line of women and children. It was early June 1944, and their transport from Velky Sevlus, Czechoslovakia, had just pulled up to the Auschwitz-Birkenau platform, where they had been abruptly separated from Sidi’s father and three of her brothers. As Sidi continued walking with her mother and sister in the direction Mengele indicated, a man — “I don’t know who he was,” Sidi said — suddenly grabbed her, throwing her into another line. “Everything was happening so fast, I didn’t have time to even think about it,” she said.

Sidi was born in Velky Sevlus, Czechoslovakia (now Vynohradiv, Ukraine), on July 28, 1922, to Pinchas and Shari Grunstein.  She was the oldest of six children, two girls and four boys. 

Well-to-do, the family lived in a large house, where Pinchas’ dental office and waiting room occupied the front rooms. While not strictly observant, the Grunstein family celebrated Shabbat and Jewish holidays. 

After completing Jewish elementary school, at 12, Sidi was sent to the Hebrew Gymnasium in Munkacs. There, in addition to the literature and history classes she loved, she was selected to take after-school art classes with the principal, himself an artist. These were her first formal art classes, although, she recalled, “I always scribbled and drew pictures.”

In March 1939, the Hungarians occupied Velky Sevlus, renaming it Nagyszollos. Still, the family was able to live a relatively calm life. Sidi, in fact, graduated from the gymnasium in 1941, at 18, then returned home to work tutoring children. 

One day in 1942, Sidi’s mother summoned her from the backyard to meet a visitor, a rabbi’s wife. “Show the lady your hand,” Shari said. Sidi refused, extending it only after Shari insisted. The woman traced two long, straight lines along Sidi’s palm, explaining that she rarely saw a hand like Sidi’s, and that she would live a long time and go to America. “That fact may have actually kept me alive,” Sidi said. 

On March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary, and the following month, the Jews of Velky Sevlus were ordered into a ghetto. All eight Grunsteins lived in one room, sleeping on the floor. 

In May, as evacuations from the ghetto began, Sidi’s next-younger brother, Jean, decided to go into hiding with some friends. He asked to bring Sidi and two brothers with him, but his father refused. “Either you survive or we’ll survive,” Pinchas said, determined to keep the family together.

Soon after, on June 3, Sidi’s family, except for Jean, was marched to the train station and loaded onto the last transport leaving Velky Sevlus, huddling together in a corner of the cramped cattle car. “I want you to remember one thing,” Pinchas told his children. “What you put in here,” he pointed to his head, “no one can take away.” 

After Sidi was separated from her family at Auschwitz — “I never saw them again,” she said — she and the other young women selected to work were processed. They spent two nights sleeping outside near the latrines, and then were then transferred to an empty barracks, where they slept on the floor. 

On the morning of June 9, guards awakened the prisoners by hosing them down and then loading them onto cattle cars. They traveled two days to Riga, Latvia, where they were marched to a concentration camp, which Sidi believes was Kaiserwald and where she worked in a factory disassembling batteries. 

Soon after, Sidi and others were moved, again by cattle car, to Dundaga, a subcamp of Kaiserwald in northwest Latvia, and a few days later to Kurbe, another labor camp. There, they built their own tents and filled potato sacks with pine needles to serve as mattresses. 

After three or four weeks, the prisoners were marched farther north to Poperwahlen, a labor camp where they worked cutting down trees. On Sidi’s birthday, a girl ran away. The guards found her, brought her back and beat her. The block leader, a Jewish girl from Germany, then pulled Sidi from the line, and, perhaps because Sidi had been working next to the escapee, beat Sidi, as well.

But after several weeks, with the Soviets approaching, the Poperwahlen prisoners were marched to the port city of Libau, then transported by ship to the Stutthof concentration camp, 22 miles east of Danzig. Sidi heard that Esther Solomon, her best friend from Velky Sevlus, was in another section of the camp, and the two met at a wire fence that divided their sections. At Esther’s invitation, Sidi decided to join Esther’s group, somehow sneaking into her camp.

But the person whose place Sidi was supposed to be taking had not left the camp. And at the next appel (roll call), the guards counted and recounted, finding one person too many. Finally, somebody pointed to Sidi, who was pulled from the line, beaten with a baton and returned to her camp. When Sidi later ventured to the fence to speak with Esther, she learned Esther’s whole group had been taken away. 

Around October, Sidi was transferred with others to Sophienwalde, a Stutthof subcamp in eastern Poland. As the cold weather set in, Sidi was put to work building a railroad that, she believes, went nowhere. Then she was assigned to work for three female SS officers who lived in a barracks adjoining hers, cleaning and cooking for them. 

In February 1945, as Sophienwalde was being evacuated, Sidi refused to go, remaining instead in the barracks with the SS women. “I don’t care what happens. I’m not going to march again,” she told them. Sidi heard shooting. When it stopped, she and other prisoners who had hidden emerged, rejoicing. But Soviet soldiers soon arrived and, continuing to hold them prisoner, trucked them to the Lauenburg concentration camp. 

Then, on March 10, 1945, Lauenberg was officially liberated by the Soviets. But soon after the prisoners were freed, Sidi said, she and a group of 10 friends were all seized and raped by Soviet soldiers. Sidi doesn’t remember where her rapist dragged her, but she recalls crying and saying, “We were praying to be liberated by you. And this is what you do to us.” The soldier responded that she was free and would go on to live her life. “We’re still soldiers,” he said. “We could be killed tomorrow.”

A couple of weeks later, suffering from a high fever and infection caused by the rape, Sidi was hospitalized for four weeks or more. 

Sidi then traveled to Velky Sevlus. She didn’t find any relatives, but she did learn that Jean had survived. As she made her way to see him in Bucharest, Romania, she changed trains in Satu Mare, where she ran into him as he was switching trains to visit her in Velky Sevlus.

Later, with Jean focused on reaching Palestine, Sidi sneaked across the border to Prague, where, keeping a promise to her father to finish her education, she studied art at Charles University. 

Then, under the sponsorship of an aunt, Sidi immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York on April 8, 1948. 

Later that year, Sidi moved to Schenectady,  N.Y., where she taught preschool and Hebrew school until 1951. During this time, she worked hard to lose her accent so people wouldn’t question her about her background. 

After a stay in Montreal, Sidi returned to New York, in June 1952. The following year, on July 4, she met Peter Gluck, a survivor from Czechoslovakia. They married on Dec. 23, 1956, and moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Peter worked as a chemical engineer at the Battelle Memorial Institute. 

Sidi again taught preschool and Hebrew school. She then enrolled at Ohio State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in education in 1963, a master’s in painting in 1968, and a master’s of fine arts in 1971. 

In 1972, Sidi and Peter moved to Los Angeles, where Sidi taught art at Charles Drew Middle School from 1975 to 1992. 

Peter died on Jan. 28, 2015. 

Sidi’s artwork, which consists primarily of abstract and often large oils, acrylics and prints, has been displayed in exhibitions as well as private and institutional collections. Only one painting, “The March,” directly depicts the Holocaust. “I did not try to tell my sad story in my artwork,” she said. 

Until Aug. 14, more than 20 of Sidi’s oil paintings and prints, made from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, are on display at the Alice-Rice Gallery in Laguna Beach.  

While Sidi, now 94, has always answered specific questions about her Holocaust experiences, she has agreed to be interviewed in depth only twice: by the USC Shoah Foundation in 1995 and by the Jewish Journal for this profile.

“I didn’t think too much about what happened to me, but at night I was always crying in my heart for losing everybody,” she said. “To this day, I’m still dreaming how I lost the family.”

The Alice-Rice Gallery is located at 484 N. Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. For more information, call (562) 480-6177. 

Jacob Bresler: Riding out tribulation and making it to liberation


Mid-morning on Sept. 1, 1939, Jacob Bresler was playing at the one-pump gas station near his family’s apartment in Uniejow, Poland, rolling the metal rim of an automobile wheel with a wire stick, when a bomb suddenly exploded at the town hall, diagonally across the street. As Jacob took cover under the gas station canopy, he saw several German Stuka dive bombers streak past, dropping bombs on the city, and the Polish peasants fleeing eastward with their wagons and livestock. 

Ten minutes later, when the bombing subsided, the 11-year-old ran home along a street strewn with dead bodies and mangled animals. Inside the family’s apartment, now filled with shattered glass, Jacob’s father gathered the family together. “We are not safe here,” he said. “We have to leave the city.”

Jacob was born in Uniejow on July 3, 1928, the fifth of six children — four sisters and an older brother — born to Chaim and Rachel Bresler. The Modern Orthodox and musically gifted family lived in a one-room apartment, so in 1937, Chaim rented a second room nearby, where Jacob and three of his siblings lived. 

Chaim ran a general store and supplied textbooks to the town’s schoolchildren. He also served as a representative of the kehillah, tending to the welfare of Uniejow’s 500 Jewish families. 

Jacob attended public school as well as cheder. At age 9, he also began working evenings as an apprentice for his uncle, making leather shoe uppers and riding boots for the wealthy.

While anti-Semitism was always present, the situation worsened after 1933, as his father’s store began losing customers and the book franchise was confiscated. So, on Sept. 2, 1939, the day after the Stukas bombed Uniejow, the family fled by foot, unsure where to go. Still, Jacob said, “We thought we would soon be back.” 

The family walked all night, finally finding space in an overcrowded barn. A few days later, at Chaim’s suggestion, Jacob and Rachel returned alone to Uniejow to check on the situation, discovering that the store and their primary apartment had been stripped bare. 

On their second night back, Polish forces attacked the Germans. But when Jacob and others went out to greet the temporarily victorious Polish troops, they found the town square littered with hundreds of massacred men — Polish and Jewish hostages the Germans had released and then machine-gunned before departing. Soon after, the Germans recaptured the town.

Jacob and Rachel rejoined the family, but a week later, with Polish troops no longer attacking the occupying German forces in Uniejow, they all returned home, moving everyone into the children’s apartment. And with both his father and brother, Josef, emotionally paralyzed, the burden of supporting the family fell on 11-year-old Jacob. 

Jacob found work in a Polish restaurant, and he supplemented the food he received as payment by collecting cigarette butts discarded by German soldiers and bartering the tobacco.

In January 1940, the Germans asked Chaim to collaborate with them on Jewish affairs, essentially helping to implement their decrees. He refused and soon after was transported to the Poznan labor camp. 

In March 1941, the Jews of Uniejow all were relocated to a ghetto, where Jacob lived in a small room with his family. He was permitted to work for his uncle, making riding boots for the German army. 

Then, in late October 1941, the Jews were resettled in the Jewish Colony, comprising six villages confiscated from the Poles. 

In May 1942, Jacob’s sisters Hinda, 18, and Golda, 16, on the advice of Hinda’s fiancé, reluctantly volunteered to be part of a female transport to a labor camp. Jacob later learned they had been shipped to the Poznan camp but were later gassed at Chelmno. 

When the Jewish Colony was liquidated on July 28, 1942, Jacob and his remaining family were marched to Nowy Swiat, where a selection landed Jacob, then 14, with the women and children. He was looking to escape when a column of men, including Josef, walked by. “I’m going with my brother,” he told his mother, slipping into the line.

Jacob was among a small group selected to clean up the Jewish Colony, going house to house bundling up the inhabitants’ possessions. “It tore our hearts out,” he said. 

Afterward, he was sent to the Lodz ghetto, where he lived with Josef and was assigned to cut wood in a factory. But he was caught stealing and was transferred to another factory, which produced wood shavings used to stuff mattresses for the German army. Jacob continued to steal whatever he could, trading the items for food.

On March 14, 1943, Jacob met a transport arriving from Poznan, on which he hoped to find his father. As the prisoners were marched through the gates, he ran among them. “Are you Chaim Bresler? Are you?” he asked. Finally a man said, “I’m Chaim Bresler; who are you?” Jacob identified himself, falling into his father’s arms. 

After being initially jailed, Chaim lived with Jacob and Josef, who shared their food as Chaim was not allotted a ration card. About two weeks later, Jacob returned from work to find his father gone. “I cannot eat up all your bread. I am going back to the prison,” Chaim’s note read. 

The next day, on March 30, 1943, Jacob went to the prison, speaking to his father through the wire fence, pleading with him to reconsider. But Chaim was adamant. “Do everything in your power to survive. For me, it is too late,” he said, adding that they were being shipped out the next day. Father and son kissed through the fence. Heartbroken, Jacob vowed to survive. 

Jacob’s next job was delivering wood to the ghetto’s elite residents, who rewarded him with food for performing extra chores. He also stole wood. “We were not hungry or cold,” Jacob said. 

After the ghetto was liquidated in August 1944, Jacob and Josef found themselves in the second transport headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, after being processed, Jacob and other male prisoners were marched outside naked and ordered to wait. Twenty-four hours later, they were given uniforms and taken to a barracks where they slept on the floor, too crammed to stretch out. 

After 14 days, Jacob, Josef and others were shipped by cattle car to Kaufering VII, a Dachau subcamp being constructed in the Bavarian forest. They lived in underground earthen huts, spending 12-hour days building latrines and gravel roads. 

Three weeks later, they were transferred to Kaufering IV, where they worked building underground factories for Messerschmitt jet fighters. Jacob was assigned to carry 50-kilogram sacks of cement up a ramp for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. After working one day, he realized the job would kill him and he managed to hide during all his remaining shifts.

Three months later, Josef was transferred to Kaufering I, the first time since 1941 the brothers were separated. Jacob saw Josef only once, admonishing him to keep on living. “If this is life, I don’t want it,” Josef responded. He died shortly before liberation.

In November 1944, Jacob was sent to Kaufering III, then Kaufering XI and the following month to Landshut. At the end of January 1945, he was transferred to Muhldorf, where he was again forced to carry heavy cement bags up a steep ramp and again found hiding places.

Jacob, along with two boys, was then transferred to work at a convent, a 5-kilometer walk each way, working for nuns who ran a home for the mentally disabled. There, for the first time in six years, he was shown compassion.

In mid-April, the Muhldorf prisoners were loaded on a cattle train, which finally, on the morning of April 29, stopped at Tutzing, 25 miles southwest of Munich. Amid rumbling in the distance, someone screamed, “Americans!” The train doors opened, and Jacob, too weak to walk, crawled toward the approaching American troops, kissing the steel tracks of their tanks.  

That evening, the prisoners were transported to the Feldafing displaced persons camp, where, three weeks later, Jacob was hospitalized for two months with typhoid fever. 

In September, Jacob moved to the Landsberg am Lech DP camp. There, he learned that Dora and Sam Samuels, friends of his parents, were searching for him. With their help, he immigrated to New York, arriving on Dec. 25, 1947. “That family became my loving family,” he said. 

In 1950, Jacob, then 22, was drafted and sent to Germany as part of the NATO occupation force. Discharged in 1952, he attended Hunter College, majoring in television and theater. From 1955 to 1960, he lived in Vienna, where he studied music and film and where, on May 24, 1960, he married Edith Antonides. Jacob and Edith moved to New York, but returned 20 months later to Vienna. There, Jacob co-produced an Austrian television show and sang opera. 

In 1968, Jacob and Edith moved to Los Angeles, where Jacob opened three Italian restaurants, which he ran successively until retiring in 1985. Their daughter, Rachel, was born in September 1971. Jacob and Edith now have two grandchildren. 

Since 1985, Jacob has devoted himself to writing books. His autobiography, “You Shall Not Be Called Jacob Anymore,” the title taken from Genesis 32:28-29, was published in 1988 and is available on Amazon. He also returns to Vienna annually and has lectured about the Holocaust in both Austria and Germany. 

Jacob was also featured in the BBC radio documentary “Lost Children of the Holocaust,”  which first aired in May 2015. 

In his 1995 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Jacob said, “People are repeating history. They haven’t learned a thing.” Twenty-one years later, he said, he believes nothing has changed. 

Holocaust survivor finds peace in art


Eva Nathanson doesn’t feel the same guilt her parents did for having been spared an anonymous death at the hands of Nazis, when so many others perished.

Instead, she feels a compulsion to never spend a moment wasting time and to treat every minute of life as the miracle it is.

Sitting in her kitchen, just steps from Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, she was surrounded by evidence of that attitude: art projects she led with her two grandchildren, ceramic sculpture of her own fashioning and a cabinet full of handmade Judaica, for starters.

Art, and especially the metalwork at which she excels, is more than just a way for Nathanson, 75, to keep busy. Instead, she called it “occupational therapy” that helps her deal not only with the everyday stressors of life in Los Angeles, but also the lasting impact of a childhood interrupted.

Her privileged upbringing ended unceremoniously one day toward the end of 1942 when a contingent of Hungary’s fascist enforcers barged into her grandfather’s living room in Budapest, and Nathanson, a toddler, went into hiding with her mother. Although almost everybody in her family was killed, including her father, a family friend helped Nathanson and her mother survive until the end of World War II.  

In the years after the war, instead of processing the time she spent in perpetual fear cramped into small, dirty spaces, Nathanson instead encountered a repressive Stalinist society in Budapest where free expression was discouraged. 

As a result, she feels as if the trauma of her earliest years never truly left her: Nathanson tries not to sit with her back to a door and experiences severe claustrophobia, a remnant of time spent in close quarters during the Holocaust years.

“I actually think that everything I do and have done somehow was affected by the first primitive feelings I must have had,” she said. “Especially since after the Holocaust in Hungary, there was no therapist you could go to.”

Although she had long found therapy to be helpful, she still searched for “something to bring out my other energy.” In the freedom and catharsis of sculpture and painting, ranging in theme and style, she found that something.

“It was getting rid of some of the emotions I wasn’t able to express,” she said. “And I found that it was very therapeutic.”

Where Nathanson moves beyond the realm of an inspired amateur is the jewelry she sits down to make two evenings a week. Fetching a box full of rings she crafted in various adult art classes, she picked through them one by one. The styles were as diverse as the methods she uses, but one of her favorites involves encasing a small object in a mold and then burning away the object and replacing it with silver. The box was full of silver molded into the shapes of figurines, flowers, seashells and even succulents she picked from her garden.

“The teachers, they always joke about the fact that there’s nothing sacred to me,” she said, laughing. “I’ll burn anything.”

Nowadays, Nathanson wields serious tools that could easily visit injury on even a much younger person, and although she feels comfortable with them, she nonetheless prefers the controlled environment of a classroom. “It would be very difficult to get insurance when you have boiling metal in the house,” she explained.

She’s come a long way since the younger of her two children was born 50 years ago. Back then, Nathanson — who has a master’s degree in business administration and spent 40 years as a hospital administrator, but took time off when her children were young — found herself isolated and somewhat bored after moving with her small family to the San Fernando Valley after years of living in West Hollywood.

“All the neighbor women were watching television and drinking coffee and gossiping, and that just wasn’t me,” she said. “So I decided I needed to do something for myself.”

Artistic sensibilities ran in her family: Her mother was able to sell needlework for food while in hiding during World War II, and her stepfather’s masterful carpentry made him enough of an asset to the Hungarian communist authorities that they refrained from deporting him after the war, despite his outspoken dissent. (Some of his chairs and tables still sit in her home today.)

So Nathanson wasn’t breaking ranks when she enrolled herself in classes for painting, then sculpting, then ceramics. Soon, she moved on to silversmithing, not least, she said, because “schlepping big pieces of sculpture” was not an option for a mother raising two children in close quarters.

“About 35 years ago, I walked into a jewelry class and I said, ‘Teach me something,’ ” she said.

Nathanson now sells some of her jewelry — which she refers to as “wearable art” — on the crafts website Etsy (etsy.com). 

“I do sell a little, but I’m not a good salesperson,” she said. “I can’t sell anything. I mean, if people want to buy it, I let them buy it.”

Although she’s sold some art, Nathanson said she was privileged never to have had to rely on her art to support herself. Now retired from her job at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a cancer center in the Valley, she keeps busy as an event coordinator for her Jewish Renewal congregation, B’nai Horin, and volunteering as a lecturer at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and at various theaters and playhouses in Los Angeles. 

In spite of the odds against her even having survived the war, she said she’s grateful to have achieved all she did and doesn’t take anything for granted.

“I feel that I have to make sure that I repay the fact that I’m alive — that I do what I was put on the earth to do.”

Marthe Cohn: A Jewish spy infiltrates Nazi Germany


“Go. Now!” 

Marthe Cohn (nee Hoffnung), was crouching in a forest, dressed in a skirt and jacket, with white socks covering her silk stockings. She took a deep breath and grabbed her suitcase, taking leave of Georges Lemaire, the Swiss intelligence officer who had accompanied her to this spot on the Swiss-German border. Marthe began crawling through the underbrush toward the stretch of road patrolled by two German sentries. She waited until they met midway and reversed direction, so their backs were to her. 

This was her cue. She was to pose as Martha Ulrich, a German nurse searching for her fiancé, but she was suddenly paralyzed by fear, overcome by the enormity of her mission, so she just lay there for more than two hours. Then she thought about a captain named Mollat, the French officer who had overseen her previous 14 missions to infiltrate enemy territory, all unsuccessful, and who had doubted her abilities.

She rose, pulling herself up to her full 4-foot-11 height, and walked to the road. “Heil Hitler,” she greeted the sentry coming toward her, presenting her papers. “Go on your way,” he said. 

It was April 11, 1945, two days before Marthe’s 25th birthday.

Marthe was born on April 13, 1920, in the French Lorraine city of Metz, the fifth of Fischel and Regine Hoffnung’s eight children. An observant family, they lived in a comfortable five-bedroom apartment, supported by Fischel’s photofinishing business.

Marthe spoke fluent French and German and attended the Lycee de Jeunes Filles, but she disliked school, preferring to read at home. At 17, she left school and worked at her sister Cecile’s hat salon.

After Kristallnacht, Marthe and her family feared for the Jews in Germany. Still, she said, “We never thought Hitler would do that to the French.” Nevertheless, in August 1939, at the request of the local government, the family relocated to Poitiers, a city southwest of Paris, where they opened up a wholesale clothing business. 

Life continued fairly normally until May 10, 1940, when Germany invaded the Low Countries and France. Two months later, the Germans occupied Poitiers and appropriated the Hoffnungs’ business, but not before Marthe and Cecile had removed their valuable inventory.

Marthe later secured a job as an interpreter at the Poitiers town hall, and on April 13, 1941, she met Jacques Delaunay, a lapsed Catholic and medical student. Their paths would cross again.

The following August, Marthe and the other Jews in her office were let go, at gunpoint. Marthe then enrolled in the local Red Cross nursing college. 

Meanwhile, Adjutant Wilhelm Hipp, a member of the German security police, visited the Hoffnungs’ house every evening to make certain they were adhering to curfew. On June 17, 1942, he barged in and snapped, “Which one is Stephanie?” When Marthe’s next-youngest sister stood up, he announced, “You’re under arrest.” 

Stephanie had been helping Jews flee into unoccupied France, less than 25 miles to the south, and was sent to an internment camp. Marthe tried to help her escape by having her transferred to a hospital from which she could be rescued, but that plan endangered the entire family. Marthe decided that the family would attempt to flee at the same time.

Several months later, carrying forged documents and dressed as French peasants, the family headed to Saint-Secondin, which bordered the unoccupied zone. Once there, Fischel and three others immediately set out while Marthe waited.

Early that evening, with Marthe’s grandmother propped on a bicycle and Marthe and her mother flanking her, they proceeded down the main road. Near the border, they came upon small houses where local farmers, poor French peasants, sat outside chatting and relaxing.

Marthe became worried. She knew they had been offered huge sums of money to report escapees. But as she approached, she saw them kneel down to pray for the family’s safe passage. Marthe cried, bowing her head in thanks. “It’s the most beautiful human story that I lived through,” she recalled.

The group reunited at Usson-du-Poitou, but Stephanie never arrived. The next evening, they had to depart for Arles. Marthe learned two weeks later that Stephanie had been transferred to Drancy, another internment camp.

On Nov. 11, 1942, the Germans occupied Vichy France. By this time, Marthe was living in Marseilles, continuing her nursing studies.

Marthe saw Jacques briefly in February 1943 and at Passover. They met again in July in Paris, where he was taking his medical exams and she had procured a summer job. He told her he was in trouble. His small resistance unit had inadvertently killed a French doctor, a Nazi collaborator, in a kidnapping gone awry. He had also helped attack a German supply train. 

Soon after, Jacques was arrested. In November 1943, Marthe learned he had been executed the previous month. Devastated, she vowed never to marry. 

Soon after Paris was liberated on Aug. 25, 1944, Marthe joined the French army, where she was assigned to the 151st Infantry Regiment and sent to the Alsatian front. 

Three weeks later, in a chance meeting with the unit’s commanding officer, who had been seeking German-speaking personnel, she was asked to help with intelligence work. She enthusiastically agreed.

Marthe began memorizing German ranks, insignia and armaments. And she became Martha Ulrich, a German nurse from Metz, who was desperately searching for her fiancé, Hans, a soldier in a front-line unit. “I knew the Germans, and I understood what would work in Germany,” she said.  

She began spying on Jan. 20, 1945, interrogating Alsatian civilians and German POWs. 

Under the command of Mollat, the captain, she was sent to infiltrate the enemy on Amselkopf mountain. But after trudging four miles at night through heavy snow, she was accosted by two soldiers who pointed their bayonets at her. They were French soldiers; the intelligence guide had sent her on the wrong path. 

Another day, she was crammed inside a claustrophobic personnel carrier with a driver and gunner when fighting broke out and the Sherman tank in front of them erupted in flames. “I thought I would die,” Marthe said, but they managed to escape.

Finally, on her 15th attempt, Marthe successfully crossed the border from Switzerland into Germany, where she began picking up information about enemy troop movements. 

One day, on her way to visit a contact near the Westwall, also known as the Siegfried Line, a series of fortifications along Germany’s western front, Marthe met Sgt. Maj. Helmut Werner, a rabid Nazi. They began to talk, and Werner invited her to return to the Westwall in a few days, promising her a guided tour. 

On her way back to the Swiss border to send a report to her unit, Marthe was descending a mountain deep in the Black Forest when she spied a huge German army encampment below. “Mon Dieu!” she said to herself, taking a full mental picture. She reached contacts at a farm near the Swiss border two days later, dispatching a report the next day.

Several weeks later, Marthe returned to the Westwall to discover soldiers leaving, as the section had been disbanded that morning. She hurried to Freiburg and relayed the information to a commandant named Petit, of the Second Zouave Battalion, who was able to revise his entire plan of attack and invade Germany sooner. 

Soon after, Marthe came across a convoy of German ambulances waiting for safe passage into Switzerland. A senior medical officer offhandedly told her the exact location of an entire German armored division hiding in the Black Forest, waiting to ambush the French army. Marthe thought it might be the encampment she had seen. 

Marthe reached the farm the next afternoon and delivered a message alerting the Allies. 

After Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, Marthe remained in Germany, working intelligence for the French army until January 1946. During this time, she learned that her sister Stephanie had been transported to Auschwitz on Sept. 21, 1942. 

In February 1946, Marthe set sail for Indochina, a dream she and Jacques had shared.She worked as a nurse, returning to France in December 1948. 

In December 1953, while enrolled in nursing school in Geneva, she met Major Lloyd Cohn, an American medical student. After spending New Year’s Eve together, Marthe said, “I felt truly happy for the first time in years.” 

In June 1956, Marthe and Major sailed to the United States. On Jan. 30, 1958, they married in a civil ceremony in St. Louis, where they were then living. They followed up with a Jewish ceremony on Feb. 9, 1958, at Major’s parents’ home in Brooklyn. 

Marthe and Major lived in New York, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh before settling in Los Angeles in 1979. Their son Stephan Jacques was born in December 1960, and second son, Remi Benjamin, was born in April 1964. They have one granddaughter. 

In 1945, Marthe was awarded the Croix de Guerre. This was followed by the Medaille Militaire, awarded in 2000; the title Chevalier de l’Order de la Legion d’Honneur in 2005; and the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, for helping Germany become a democracy, in 2014. 

Marthe’s 2002 memoir, “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany,” (written with Wendy Holden) is available on Amazon. A documentary on her life by German filmmaker Nicola Hens is scheduled for release later this year. And at 96, Marthe maintains a full schedule of traveling and speaking. 

In all her talks, Marthe attributes her success as a spy to luck.

“L-U-C-K with capital letters,” she said. “I always met the right people at the right time. Sheer luck. No other reason.”

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 Fred Klein: ‘No name, no number’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holocaust survivor, 81, suing El Al over request to change seats


An 81-year-old Holocaust survivor is suing El Al airlines after she was asked to move her seat because a haredi Orthodox man refused to sit next to her.

The Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center said it will sue El Al in a Tel Aviv court this week on behalf of Renee Rabinowitz of Jerusalem, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Rabinowitz, a retired lawyer who made aliyah a decade ago and had been visiting family, agreed to switch her seat in business class on the December flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Israel. A flight attendant offered Rabinowitz a “better seat” closer to first class, according to the Times.

“Despite all my accomplishments — and my age is also an accomplishment — I felt minimized,” she told the newspaper. “For me this is not personal. It is intellectual, ideological and legal. I think to myself, here I am, an older woman, educated, I’ve been around the world, and some guy can decide that I shouldn’t sit next to him. Why?”

Rabinowitz added that the flight attendant “treated me as if I was stupid” in trying to make the switch.

The Israel Religious Action Center, which spent two years looking for an appropriate test case on switching seats, reportedly needed a case in which the flight attendant was actively involved in making the switch.

Its attorney said in a letter to El Al that Rabinowitz had felt pressured by the flight attendant to switch her seat and accused the airline of illegal discrimination. It is seeking about $13,000 in compensation from the airline.

In response, the airline offered Rabinowitz a $200 discount on her next El Al flight and said the flight attendant had told Rabinowitz that she was under no obligation to switch seats, which the airline said she did without complaint, according to the Times.

“El Al flight attendants are on the front line of providing service for the company’s varied array of passengers,” El Al said in a statement. “In the cabin, the attendants receive different and varied requests and they try to assist as much as possible, the goal being to have the plane take off on time and for all the passengers to arrive at their destination as scheduled.”

Jack Lewin: Witness to the liberation of Auschwitz


Newly arrived and, at 17, one of the oldest among the 1,000 boys in Birkenau’s Block 22, Jack Lewin – then Yanek Levin – was incensed as he watched the Polish block leader and his Jewish deputy, a man named Wolkowicz, divvy up the bread rations, cutting the small, hard loaves intended for four prisoners into five portions and pocketing the extras. Jack gathered together a couple of boys and reported the injustice to some higher-ranking Jewish kapos, who entered Block 22, approached the Polish man and Wolkowicz and warned, “It’s not nice to steal from kids. Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?” As soon as they walked out, Wolkowicz glared at Jack and then grabbed him, ripping off the Polish army officer’s belt with its studs and heavy buckle that Jack had somehow acquired and furiously beating him, as blood gushed. After 10 minutes or more, some boys pulled Wolkowicz away and hid Jack in another barracks. “If not, he would have killed me,” Jack recalled. 

Born on April 13, 1927, in Lodz, Poland, Jack was the only child of Dinah and Hershel Levin. The family lived in a one-room apartment, where Dinah worked as a seamstress and Hershel ran his house-painting business. To this day, Jack can recall the sound of his mother’s thimble clinking against her wedding band, as well as the smell of his father’s paintbrushes. 

Jack was brought up with no religion — Dinah and Hershel were the first in their families to reject an observant life. Still, Jack attended the private, secular Medem school, where he acquired a life-long love of the Yiddish language and literature. 

A highlight of Jack’s childhood was attending a summer camp affiliated with the Jewish Labor Bund for a month in July or August 1939 in the nearby village of Zondlowice. He especially remembers the day the campers assisted the Polish peasants in the straw fields. “The sun was baking and the freedom outside was beautiful,” he said.  

A month or two later, on a morning in early September, Jack walked to the newsstand to pick up a copy of the Yiddish newspaper Folkzeitung, which had not been delivered. The headline read: “Hitler’s Hoards Cross the Polish Border.” 

“Little did we know what was awaiting us,” Jack said. 

On Feb. 8, 1940, the Jews were ordered to relocate to the ghetto. Hershel rented a horse and wagon, and Jack sat atop the family’s possessions, his parents walking alongside as they joined a miles-long procession of wagons and people on foot lugging their belongings. 

After initially living with his maternal grandparents in their one-room apartment, Jack and his parents moved into their own quarters. Jack attended school. 

In 1941, with no money and no job, Hershel volunteered for work in a labor camp in Poznan, leaving on May 1, his 15th wedding anniversary. For a few months afterward, Jack and his mother received some letters and checks, then nothing.

Toward the end of 1941, Jack, 14, was hired as an apprentice in a fur factory. There he performed menial tasks and also learned to use a fur machine, stitching together the pelts that would line military coats. “I’m a member of the working class,” he proudly told his mother. He also stole small pieces of fur, which he hand-stitched to make vests and then sold, earning enough to buy a loaf of bread. 

For Jack, the constant hunger was the worst. “I cried myself to sleep from hunger,” he said. 

In August 1944, Jack and his mother were rounded up with thousands of other Jews and crammed into cattle cars. A half day and a night later, the prisoners arrived at Birkenau, where they were lined up for a selection. Jack watched as Dr. Josef Mengele directed his mother to the right. She walked away slowly, hunched over and appearing 100 years old. “I can still see her,” Jack said. 

Soon after his beating by Wolkowicz, in August 1944, Jack was tattooed with the number B10237 and trucked with a group of 14- to 17-year-olds to Trzebinia, a work camp 19 kilometers from Auschwitz.

Jack first worked carrying bricks up scaffolding to build walls around a nearby oil refinery. Then he worked constructing a 35-foot-thick roof for a German bunker. Most problematic, however, was the commandant, SS Unterscharfurher Wilhelm Kowol, who smacked Jack every time he saw him, which was almost daily, sending him flying to the ground. 

On Jan. 17 or 18, Trzebinia was evacuated and Jack and the other 800 or 900 prisoners were marched out, five abreast in deep snow with no food. A day and night later, they reached Auschwitz. 

There, Kowol asked for 100 volunteers who couldn’t walk. Jack volunteered, assuming he would be placed in a wagon. But immediately he was surrounded by muselmanner (living skeletons), and he knew he was headed for the gas chamber. Somehow, he found this comforting. He imagined he would rejoin his family and, most pressing, he could sit down. “That’s all I wanted,” he said, explaining that each step of the march had felt like a knife cutting him. 

But instead, the guards escorted the 100 prisoners into barracks, dropping Jack off at Barracks 28, the surgical hospital, where inside he found bunk beds, copious glasses of milk and other food, and no guards. 

Once he felt better, Jack remained in the hospital, tending to sick people and cleaning toilets. “I just needed food,” he said. 

During this time, he learned that Kowol had marched the rest of the group to Rajsko, a village near Trzebinia, shooting anyone who sat down.

On Jan. 27, around 2 p.m., Jack ran outside to see Russian soldiers on skis, wearing white sheets over their uniforms as snow camouflage. “They were the most beautiful sight in the world,” he said. 

Jack remained in Auschwitz until mid-March when he returned to Lodz, rooming with some friends and working as a runner for a Polish newspaper. 

Soon after arriving, Jack spotted Wolkowicz. He jumped him, and a nearby police officer arrested him. But without a second witness — and no one would testify — the head jailer was forced to release him. 

Around August, Jack traveled to Germany, scouring the country for surviving family members. He found no one from among at least 40 relatives. 

Then, after a brief stint working for the American military in Furth and staying in the Feldafing displaced persons camp, Jack joined a group of people moving to Brussels, arriving on Feb. 6, 1946. He found work as a machinist for a furrier. 

The following November, Jack met Regina Szwarcfeld. “I don’t remember if it was love at first sight, but it was pretty close,” he recalled. They married in a Jewish ceremony on May 8, 1947, and again, after acquiring proper papers, in a civil ceremony on June 24, 1950. 

But Jack wanted to be as far away from Europe as possible, so he and Regina immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, arriving on Nov. 6, 1950. Their daughter Dinah was born in October 1952 and daughter Sylvia in November 1960.  

Jack again worked in the fur trade, spending 10 years with a large firm and five years managing a small fur factory and store. 

One day, Wolkowicz unknowingly walked into the store. “Do you remember me?” Jack asked. Wolkowicz was speechless. Jack followed him across the street to his tailor shop, where Wolkowicz’s wife begged Jack to leave him alone, explaining that he had a heart condition. “I just want him to know that I remember him,” Jack said. “That I’ll never forget.”

In Melbourne, Jack pursued an active Jewish life, performing in the David Herman Yiddish Theatre Group and participating in the Yiddish Cultural Centre. 

But while Australia had — and still has — a big place in Jack’s heart, he and Regina moved to Los Angeles to be near Regina’s aunt. They arrived on Aug. 14, 1965, during the Watts riots. 

Jack initially worked as a shipping clerk for the clothing manufacturer Tots to Teens. Five years later, he started his own business, selling ladies sportswear at swap meets in Colton and Chino and retiring in 1990.

Jack began composing Yiddish poetry seriously in the 1970s. Several of his poems were published in Kheshbn, the literary journal of the Los Angeles Yiddish Cultural Club (available online). Other poems appear on YiddishPoetry.com, under Contemporary Poetry. 

Jack served as a speaker at the Museum of Tolerance for more than 20 years, only stopping two years ago after a surgery. Now 88, he spends his time reading and enjoying his family, which includes a granddaughter and three great-grandchildren. 

Jack credits “sheer coincidence” for his survival. Still, he never gave up hope. “If you lose hope, you’ve lost everything,” he said. 

At his request, Jack Lewin was interviewed by the Shoah Foundation on Jan. 27, 1995, the 50th anniversary of his liberation from Auschwitz. This Jewish Journal profile appears 21 years later, once again commemorating Auschwitz’s liberation.

Survivor: Klara Wizel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klara credits Roshie and Hedy with her survival. 

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


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

Roman Polanski, 10 other Hollywood Jews open up about surviving Holocaust


The Hollywood Reporter is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust with a feature on 11 survivors who went on to careers in American entertainment. The project, released Wednesday morning online and in print, includes moving video interviews with all the subjects, including director Roman Polanski and sex therapist Ruth Westheimer.

Director Steven Spielberg, the founder of the USC Shoah Foundation, wrote an essay for the feature. Below is a look at each subject’s testimony.

Roman Polanski, 82, director of seminal films like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown” and “The Pianist”

Polanski, whom the U.S. has repeatedly attempted to extradite from Europe on sexual assault charges, is wary of speaking to American reporters. But he spoke to Peter Flax, an editor at THR, for an hour about his Holocaust experience.

Polanski tells the story of the first person he saw killed: “Some old woman was crying and wailing in Yiddish — I didn’t quite understand because I did not speak Yiddish,” he says. “And at one moment she was on all fours, and suddenly there was a gun in the hand of that young SS man, and he shot her in the back, and the blood came out, like the little fountain that we have in the offices, you know, a bulb of blood.”

Flax was also allowed to view Polanski’s five-hour testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation, which has never been made public. He describes Polanski’s narration of the video, which filmed him walking through his native Krakow, Poland.

“He points out the spot where he slipped through barbed wire to escape the ghetto, tours the first ghetto apartment his family called home and muses about how opposite sides of a city street could demarcate life and death,” Flax writes.

Branko Lustig, 83, Academy Award-winning producer of films like “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator”

When the British army liberated Auschwitz, where Lustig was a prisoner at age 12, the sound of their bagpipes made him think that he “had died finally, and that was the angels’ music in heaven.”

Years later, he met Spielberg when the director was developing “Schindler’s List.”

“He kissed my number [from the concentration camp, tattooed on Lustig’s arm] and said, ‘You will be my producer.’ He is the man who gave me the possibility to fulfill my obligation,” Lustig says.

Meyer Gottlieb, 76, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films and producer of films like “Master and Commander,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Tortilla Soup”

After leaving Poland as a child in the early 1940s, Gottlieb didn’t visit his native village — where most of his relatives were forced to dig their own graves before being shot by the Germans — until six decades later, in 2008.

“The truth of the matter is that the weapons of massive destruction are not bombs — they’re hatred, intolerance and bigotry,” he tells THR.

Robert Clary, 89, film, TV and stage actor best known for his role on the sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” set in a German POW camp

Clary credited his natural joie de vivre and energy with sustaining him in the Buchenwald concentration camp as a child. He sang and performed with an accordionist for German soldiers every Sunday.

“Singing, entertaining and being in kind of good health at my age, that’s why I survived,” he says. “I was very immature and young and not really fully realizing what situation I was involved with … I don’t know if I would have survived if I really knew that.”

Leon Prochnik, 82, screenwriter and editor, known for adapting the script of the play “Child’s Play” into a film directed by Sidney Lumet

Prochnik grew up the son of a chocolate factory owner in Krakow. He nicknamed the tub that filled with melted chocolate “milka” and thought it had magical powers. When he repeatedly visited it to steal chocolate, great things would happen: One time, his father connected with diplomat Chiune Sugihara, the “Japanese Schindler” who help thousands of Jews leave Europe. Another time, a Nazi officer missed a Jewish prayer book in a search of the factory.

Ruth Westheimer, 87, sex therapist and TV and radio talk show host

Ruth Westheimer reflected on her Holocaust experience to The Hollywood Reporter. Photo courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter

By the time the legendary sex guru was 10 years old, she would never see her deported parents again. By the time she was 17, she had moved to British-controlled Palestine to train as a sniper in the Haganah, a precursor to the Israel Defense Forces (even though she only stood 4 feet 7 inches tall).

“Looking at my four grand-children: Hitler lost and I won,” she tells the magazine.

Curt Lowens, 90, film and stage actor known for portraying Nazi characters, including the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele in the Broadway play “The Deputy”

After escaping Berlin and taking on a new identity in a small town in Holland, Lowens (née Loewenstein) joined a three-person Dutch resistance cell that saved 123 Jewish children by delivering them to families who hid them. After V-E Day, Lowens received a commendation from then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for rescuing two fallen American airmen.

Bill Harvey, 91, cosmetologist to the likes of Judy Garland, Mary Martin, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Liza Minelli

After being transported from Auschwitz to Buchenwald on a frigid cattle car, Harvey fell unconscious and was left for dead in a pile of corpses stacked by the crematorium. Someone pulled him out days later. He was 21 years old and weighed about 72 pounds.

“My humble explanation for all the tragedies and the bad people who want just to kill is that maybe there have to be some bad things in order to appreciate all the good things that this world gives you,” Harvey says.

Ruth Posner, 82, founding member of the London Contemporary Dance Company, actress and former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company

One day, while living in the Warsaw Ghetto, Posner and her aunt casually crossed from the Jewish to the Aryan side of the street. They shed their yellow armbands and assumed new identities. She would escape and keep her story secret for decades.

“Now when I talk about it, it seems like I’m describing my role in a play,” Posner says.

Dario Gabbai, 93, actor in the 1953 war film “The Glory Brigade”

Gabbai is likely the last living former member of the Sonderkommando, a set of Jews forced to assist the Germans with various morbid tasks in the concentration camps.

“I have inside some stuff I can never tell,” Gabbai says. “I saw so many things. Even now, I like to cry to get it out of my system. But it doesn’t go out.”

He recalls one time seeing two of his friends from his native Thessaloniki, Greece, in line outside a gas chamber. All he could tell them was the best way to stand inside to minimize their suffering.

Celia Biniaz, 84, supporter of the USC Shoah Foundation whose testimony was included in the DVD version of “Schindler’s List”

Biniaz was on the list of Jews saved by Oskar Schindler. When Liam Neeson was first cast for the film, some involved in the production thought that he was too handsome for the role.

“I told them that Mr. Schindler was very handsome, so he gets the job,” Biniaz said.

Survivor: Marianne Klein


“Get out, move,” Nazi and Arrow Cross soldiers shouted in German and Hungarian as they burst into the crowded four-story Swedish safe house in Budapest, Hungary, on Jan. 8, 1945. Marianne Klein — then 13 and called Marika Roth — had escaped to the house only days earlier. Shattering any illusion of immunity, the soldiers herded the residents onto balconies overlooking the building’s courtyard and ordered them to stand with their arms raised. 

“People were shouting and screaming,” Marianne recalled. Suddenly, soldiers in the courtyard began firing. Marianne dropped to the floor, feigning death as bloodied bodies fell around her. After the shooting ceased, she lay motionless, even when a soldier kicked her sharply in the ribs to ascertain whether she was dead. “All I wanted was to survive so I could see my father,” she said. Later that night, convinced she was the only survivor, she sneaked down the stairs and made her way to a park alongside the Danube River, where she hid under a bush.

Marianne was born in Budapest on Nov. 24, 1931, to Erzsebet Weisz and Joszef Roth, a gambler by profession who afforded his wife and only child a comfortable life. Erzsebet, with her aristocratic aspirations, provided Marianne with a German nanny, piano lessons and excellent schooling. Marianne felt loved, although her parents’ marriage was strained and they separated when she was 6.

In early 1940, Erzsebet contracted tuberculosis. Ill and also fearing for Marianne’s safety amid increasing anti-Semitism, she placed her in a convent, where Marianne tried to adjust to the regimented life and teasing by other students. Gradually, she became familiar with Catholicism and took comfort in staring at the crucifix, identifying with Jesus’ pain. She was drawn to Saint Therese of Lisieux, who, like Erzsebet, had suffered from tuberculosis.  

While Erzsebet had forbidden Joszef to visit Marianne, he occasionally appeared at the convent’s garden gate when the students were out walking. There, he and Marianne were able to chat briefly. Then one day, hearing how unhappy she was, he hoisted her over the fence to freedom. 

When Erzsebet discovered that Marianne was living with Joszef, she moved Marianne to a children’s institution. But its owners were abusive, and, after a few weeks, Marianne escaped, returning to her mother. 

Soon after, Erzsebet persuaded her father, Karoly Weisz, to take Marianne. She lived with Karoly and his 94-year-old father in a small, filthy room in the working-class neighborhood of Angyalfold, or Angels’ Pasture, where Karoly made Marianne do the cooking and cleaning and treated her with contempt. But Marianne’s great-grandfather was gentle and kind. When he died in his sleep on Dec. 9, 1940, “He took a piece of my heart with him,” she said. 

By fall 1942, Karoly felt Marianne was too great a burden, so Erzsebet moved her to a Jewish orphanage with 200 girls. Now almost 11, Marianne enjoyed the purposeful environment, with school, chores and friends. 

At Friday night services, Marianne, a choir soloist, was assigned a front-row seat in the balcony. From there she could see her father, who was forbidden to visit her but who attended the public services. He always hid a care package — cookies and a note — in the lobby for her. 

On March 31, 1943, Marianne learned her mother had died. She felt an immense loneliness. 

A year later, on March 19, 1944, German troops invaded Hungary, seizing the orphanage for offices. Marianne fled to her father. Three months later, they and all of Budapest’s Jews were forced to move into yellow-star apartments. 

One night, German soldiers forcibly entered the apartment building where Marianne and her father lived, ordering the men and boys to line up in the courtyard. From her second-story balcony, Marianne threw kisses at her father, who returned them. Then she watched as he was marched away, recalling that he had recently promised, “No matter what happens, I’ll always come back to you.” 

Soon after, Nazi soldiers rounded up the remaining residents in Marianne’s building, marched them to a nearby park and stole their valuables. Marianne slipped away after dark, eventually finding her way to the Swedish safe house. 

After surviving the safe house massacre, curled up in the snow under a bush, Marianne woke to the sound of soldiers shouting, “Attention. Remove your shoes.” She heard people screaming and crying. Shots followed, then the sound of bodies splashing into the Danube River.

That night, Marianne hiked to her grandfather’s apartment in Angyalfold. But his apartment was boarded up and a neighbor informed her that her grandfather had been dragged outside and executed a week earlier.  

With nowhere to go and the Russians bombing the city nightly, Marianne, calling herself Maria Nagy, made her way to a different shelter each night. Finally, she found a deserted fourth-floor apartment where she cut off her lice-infested hair, nursed her feverish body and subsisted on moldy bread. 

Not long afterward, in mid-January 1945, she heard people shouting and dancing in the streets. Russian soldiers had liberated the area. A few days later, her scalp covered with scabs and her feet wrapped in newspaper, Marianne made her way back to Budapest, where she hoped to find her father. In the meantime, she stayed with her grandmother and other relatives, despite their inhospitality.

Marianne made regular visits to Budapest’s train station, where survivors were returning, and their names were posted at the entrance. Sometime in the spring, she learned that her father had been deported to Bergen-Belsen, where he died shortly before liberation. She remained in denial. 

By November 1945, as Marianne came to accept that her father was not returning, and as she watched the Russians gaining political control, she knew she needed to leave Hungary. She joined a Zionist group, hoping to join the fight for independence in Palestine. After a stopover in Ulm, Germany, however, in an austere and crowded displaced persons camp, she instead moved to Paris in spring 1946. 

There, Marianne, now 15, was accepted into a Canadian adoption program, and a year later, she traveled by ship to Montreal. But no adoption match materialized, so she was placed in foster care and sent to work sewing men’s shirts.

During this time, she befriended a boy she had met on the ship, a troubled lad named Frank. She became pregnant and, unwilling to give up the baby, married Frank in October 1948. Their daughter, Elizabeth, was born two months later and their son, Harry-Joszef, followed in May 1950. But Frank was uninvolved and increasingly abusive. 

In 1953, having separated from Frank, Marianne moved to Toronto with her children, supporting her family by working as a waitress. Frank tracked her down a year later and demanded to visit the children in daycare, which Marianne had no legal right to refuse. He took them out for a walk one day and never returned. 

Marianne hired an attorney to locate the children. She also worked on improving herself by reading and attending modeling school. Two years later, she learned that Frank had brought the children to the Jewish Welfare Bureau in Montreal, declared her an unfit mother and had them placed in foster care. Marianne was allowed to write to them and later to visit them. She returned to Montreal. 

Her relationship with the children, awkward at first because they had been brainwashed by Frank, slowly improved. Finally, in 1963, when she was in a marriage-like relationship with a former boss, Robert Rossignol, and could be an at-home mother, she qualified for full custody. 

But Robert gave up his fashion business and moved the family to a farm, where they struggled financially. He, too, began acting cruelly toward Marianne. Her children, Elizabeth and Harry, now in their 20s, moved out, and then Marianne left, as well, finding work in various hospital administrative jobs. 

In 1978, Marianne moved to Los Angeles, where, over the years, she worked as a model for Juschi, a Beverly Hills boutique; as a special-events coordinator for Occidental Petroleum; and a director of membership for the Century City Chamber of Commerce. 

In 1978, while taking creative writing classes at Beverly Hills Adult School, Marianne met Leonard Lipton. They remained together until his death in 2010. 

After Leonard died, Marianne began volunteering weekly at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. She also paints — her work was exhibited at Santa Monica’s Edgemar Center for the Arts in 2013 — and she has written scripts for two romantic comedies. 

Now 83 with one grandchild, Marianne has written a memoir, “All the Pretty Shoes,” which was published in 2011 (alltheprettyshoes.com) and is available on Amazon (under the name Marika Roth). The book is meant to honor Leonard and leave a legacy for her children. But she doesn’t enjoy discussing her childhood tribulations.  

“I prefer to look into the future than behind me,” she said.

Photo by David Miller

Survivor: David Lenga


David Lenga was riding a streetcar in Lodz, Poland, on Sept. 1, 1939, traveling across town on an errand for his mother, when the city’s air-raid sirens began blasting. The streetcar halted abruptly, and within minutes the 11-year-old saw German warplanes swooping down, machine-gunning civilians as they scattered in all directions. “Bodies went flying,” recalled David, who ran through an apartment courtyard and took alleyways back to his house. Inside, he found his father, mother, brother and grandmother huddled around the radio. His father somberly gathered everyone together. “This is the beginning of a horrible time,” David’s father told them.

David was born in Lodz on Dec. 3, 1927, to Abraham and Sarah Lenga. His younger brother, Nathan, was born in 1931. Abraham was a chemical engineer who owned and operated a wholesale tannery factory in Strykow, 11 miles south of Lodz.

David enjoyed a very comfortable life with a loving family. He attended public school, which was predominantly Jewish, as well as cheder, and played on his school’s soccer team. But anti-Semitism was always prevalent. “You could feel it in the air,” he said.

On Sept. 8, 1939, David watched in distress as his non-Jewish neighbors and friends welcomed the German soldiers marching into Lodz, accompanied by tanks and half-tracks flying swastika flags.

In mid-September, the Gestapo, now occupying the city, confiscated the tannery factory, keeping Abraham in charge while moving the family to Strykow’s Jewish quarter.

In April or May of 1942, the Germans liquidated the Strykow ghetto, herding the town’s Jews into the cemetery, where they were held for two days and two nights with no food or toilets.

On the third day, Abraham, who was very ill, was sent to a labor camp. The family didn’t expect him to survive. The other family members were transported to the Lodz ghetto, where David worked in a clothing factory managed by Abraham’s oldest brother, Chil, and became a full-fledged tailor.

In a large aktion the following September, Sarah was spared, but David, now 15, Nathan and their grandmother were selected for deportation and temporarily crammed into a warehouse just outside the ghetto along with hundreds of other Jews.

While sitting in the warehouse, David heard someone calling his name. Bewildered, he approached the front door, which a guard opened a crack. “Run for your life,” the guard instructed. David asked for his brother. “He will come later,” the guard told him.

David raced back to the ghetto in search of his mother, but found only Aunt Bina, his mother’s older sister, and Bina’s son. She told him Sarah didn’t want to live without her children and had begged Chil to save them. But when David and Nathan didn’t appear, she went to the SS, desperate, requesting to be deported with them. David later learned that his mother and brother were murdered in Chelmno.

After his mother and brother had been taken way, David became suicidal. He made his way to a third-story window in an abandoned building and prepared to jump. But Bina had followed him and grabbed him. “You have to have hope,” she told him.

Late one night, David was ravenous and sneaked out of the ghetto to a nearby vegetable field. He’d filled his burlap sack halfway with potatoes when a spotlight illuminated him, and an old German soldier pointed a rifle at his head. “What are you doing here, you goddamned Jew?” he barked.

“Please, sir, my family is starving,” David answered. “Maybe you have a grandson my age.”

The soldier lowered his rifle. “Get the hell out of here, and take your goddamned sack with you,” the man ordered. David fled. The potatoes fed him, Bina and his cousin for weeks.

Sometime in 1943, as David passed a newly arrived transport, he heard someone calling him. “I’m a very good friend of your father’s,” a man said. “Until last night, I was working with him in the Poznan labor camp. He’s doing well.” The news reinvigorated David.

In August 1944, as the Lodz ghetto was being liquidated, David refused to leave, believing the Russians would soon arrive. He continued living in his room but had also scoped out a hiding place in the attic of a nearby abandoned building. At one point, he lit a fire to cook a potato, but the smoke was visible and he soon heard Germans approaching with barking dogs. David escaped to his hiding place, terrified as the Germans reached the second floor of the building where he hid. Suddenly air-raid sirens blared, forcing them to leave and saving his life.

After a week in hiding, David saw a dozen men sweeping the streets, part of a cleanup crew that still remained in the ghetto, and joined them. But the work was soon completed and the group, including David, was shipped to Auschwitz.

When David arrived, a prisoner pointed to a chimney spewing black smoke. “That’s where you’ll wind up,” the prisoner told David, who knew he needed to find a way out.

Seeing a group of men volunteering to work in Germany, David joined the line. “I’m a carpenter,” he told Dr. Josef Mengele, who rejected him for being too young. David re-entered the line, but Mengele recognized him. Later that day, however, David sneaked into the workers’ holding area with a kitchen crew. Three days later he was on a cattle train headed for Germany.

The group was taken to one of the Kaufering concentration camps in Bavaria. There, David helped repair damaged railroad tracks, standing in wet cement in rubber boots while wielding a sledgehammer to keep the mixture soft.

Later, his block captain put him to work sewing socks, gloves and vests for the upcoming winter. For months he worked indoors, receiving extra rations. “That saved my life,” David said.

In late April 1945, as U.S. troops approached, the prisoners were evacuated, marched hours to the train station and then loaded into open cattle cars.

The train proceeded slowly, finally stopping in a thick pine forest, where a German military train pulled up alongside it. The same day, American planes strafed both trains, unaware that one held prisoners, and killed many of them.

Some of the prisoners, including David and his friends Roman and Sobol, were able to jump out, escaping into the forest.

The three eventually reached a farmhouse, where the farmer and his wife let them stay in their barn, providing cots, clothes and regular meals. “We were given the opportunity to be human beings,” David said.

Less than a week later, David heard the thunderous roar of tanks. “Come out,” his friends yelled. “We’re liberated.” It was May 5, 1945.

The freed prisoners sought in vain to communicate with the American soldiers. Finally, an officer approached. “You boys are Jews?” he asked in Yiddish. “We’re taking you with us.”

The officer transported them to a displaced persons camp in Landsberg, 40 miles west of Munich. Using the camp as a base, David traveled throughout Germany, desperate to find family. Unsuccessful, he went to Sweden, accompanied by Roman and Sobol.

The three were sent to a men’s camp in the hamlet of Fur. While checking out a nearby women’s camp, David met Charlotte Katz, a survivor from Czechoslovakia. The two soon moved to Helsingborg, where they married on July 18, 1945. Their daughter Helene was born in May 1946 and daughter Bert in September 1948.

While in Sweden, where David worked as a custom tailor, he learned his father was alive and back in Strykow. “I couldn’t speak. I was crying and my wife was holding me,” he said. He began corresponding with Abraham, but they weren’t able to see one another until 1953, when David, working three jobs, had saved enough money to buy his father a boat ticket from Israel, where he was then living. “That was a meeting I will not forget for my entire life,” David said.

In 1954, the family moved to Pittsburgh, where daughter Barbara was born in December 1955. David worked as the manager of a custom tailor shop and then, in the 1960s, opened Lenga’s Tailoring.

They relocated to Los Angeles in 1966. David designed suits for Eric Ross & Co. until 1981 and then switched into real estate investment, retiring in 1989.

Charlotte died in 2000, when her car was hit by a man fleeing police in a high-speed chase. “We were totally devastated,” David said. Three years later, on May 4, 2003, he married Eva Mandel.

Now a grandfather of seven and great-grandfather of three, David began telling his story in 2013. At 87, he speaks regularly at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and participates in The Righteous Conversations Project.

David took many risks during the Holocaust, any one of which could have been his last. “Call it cunning, call it instinct, call it whatever you want,” he said. “The fact is, I dared it, and I made it. I’m very proud of it.”

Survivor: Sidonia Lax


Early on the designated morning in December 1943, 16-year-old Sidonia Lax (née Sydonia Lewin) and her parents, Cyla and Isaac, left their bunker in the Przemysl ghetto, where they had been living for three months, and made their way to a building near one of the gates. Having heard that the ghetto would be liquidated, Cyla had devised an escape plan. The Polish policeman who patrolled that gate, a friend of Cyla, had agreed to turn his back as they passed. And Polish-Catholic friends had consented to hide them. Cyla, who knew the way, went first, with Sidonia and her father ready to follow. But as soon as Cyla crawled out the window, shots rang out.

“Run!” Isaac cried as he and Sidonia fled back to the bunker. “We were scared stiff,” Sidonia said. 

Sidonia was born on June 8, 1927, in Przemysl, Poland. The family lived in a large apartment, with two maids, a cook and a full-time governess for Sidonia. A block away was the retail store where her parents sold men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, which they manufactured. 

Although Sidonia describes her childhood as “spoiled and overprotected,” her mother made sure she learned to scrub floors, do laundry and bake. And every Friday, Sidonia delivered a bag of groceries to an impoverished Jewish family living in a basement.

In early September 1939, with the Germans heading toward Przemysl, Sidonia’s parents hired a wagon and the family set out for the Romanian border. But a few weeks later, after learning that the Russians now occupied Przemysl — having divided Poland according to the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact — they returned.

When the family arrived home, however, they discovered that the son of the poor Jewish family whom they had been feeding weekly since he was a child had commandeered their apartment. They were forced to move.

Sidonia, who had attended Polish public schools since age 7, found herself in a Russian school. Still, life continued fairly normally and her parents continued to shield her from news of the war as best they could. 

But in June 1941, Germany broke the nonaggression pact and invaded Russia, reoccupying Przemysl on June 28.

Restrictions and forced labor roundups quickly followed. 

A Jewish quarter was designated in late autumn 1941, and by March 1942, Sidonia’s family had moved there and was sharing a room with several families. 

On July 15, 1942, the ghetto was sealed, followed by more forced labor deportations and large aktions involving roundups, deportations and exterminations.

During one of the aktions, Sidonia heard the Germans coming and darted into a nearby workshop, where she climbed onto a high shelf and stacked paint cans in front of her to hide. When the SS entered, she remained there, breathless and scared. “I’m surprised they didn’t hear my heart beat,” she said. They left soon after.

Assigned to a work detail, Sidonia was given a sledgehammer and pick to smash large boulders into pebbles to be used in road construction. “My muscles were so large that I was ashamed of them,” she said. But she also noted that the work later saved her life.  “I looked strong,” she said.

As the situation became more desperate, the men in Sidonia’s family’s apartment building began working through the nights digging a bunker in the cellar. But they were unable to dispose of all the fresh dirt without arousing suspicion, so the women spread it thinly across their floors. 

The bunker, concealed behind a false wall, was the size of a small room, with a deeper hole in a corner to serve as a toilet. About 35 people, from infants to elders, lived there.

Sidonia and her parents remained underground for three months, unable to wash or change clothes. Sidonia’s skin turned yellow, and her hair crawled with lice. People chatted and took turns sleeping, but mostly, Sidonia said, “We just sat there.”

When Cyla’s escape attempt failed and she didn’t return, Isaac was distraught. A few days later, he heard that someone had smuggled apples into the ghetto, so he left the bunker to get some for his undernourished daughter. “My father never came back,” Sidonia said. 

A week later, SS dogs discovered Sidonia, now 16, and the remaining 10 or so people in the bunker. Sidonia escaped into a nearby attic, but was captured the next day and taken to jail in the ghetto’s Section A, a labor camp overseen by SS Unterscharführer Josef Schwammberger.

In the cell, which she shared with others, Sidonia heard a voice calling her through the window one day. It was Sala Friedman, whose husband, then a tailor for the Nazis, had worked with Isaac. Sala told her that Cyla had been arrested because a different policeman had been on duty that morning. Both Cyla and Isaac, who was later also arrested, had separately begged to save Sidonia. And both were shot by Schwammberger.

A few days later, a Jewish policeman, Ignace Feiner, fetched Sidonia from her cell. Sala had pleaded with him to save Sidonia and, feigning sadness, he had approached Schwammberger, explaining that his fiancée had just been locked up. The officer walked away, giving permission to Ignace to free her. Soon after, Sidonia heard gunshots and knew her cellmates all had been murdered. 

Sidonia remained in the ghetto work camp until, a few weeks later, she was transferred to the Plaszow labor camp near Krakow.

In March 1944, she was transferred to Pionki, near Radon, Poland, where she worked in an ammunition factory. There, Sidonia earned extra rations by fashioning new soles from garden hoses for the kitchen workers’ shoes. 

Three months later, Sidonia was taken to Auschwitz, where she was processed, given a sack-like uniform and tattooed with No.  A-14821. 

In August 1944, Sidonia was transferred to Bergen, where she helped set up tents. Then, in early November 1944, Sidonia was transported to Elsnig, a Buchenwald subcamp near Torgau, Germany. There, she worked 12-hour shifts in an ammunition factory, filling grenades with chemicals. 

But as American forces approached in April 1945, the prisoners were loaded onto a freight train and evacuated. When the train stopped in Potsdam, outside Berlin, however, the Allies bombed it, assuming it was carrying ammunition. With the train and her uniform on fire, Sidonia jumped from her car. “I tumbled in the grass and squelched the fire,” she said. 

Sidonia, along with three other escapees, walked to a German farm where the farmer, unaware they were Jewish, gave them clothes and food. Soon, they were liberated by Russian soldiers. 

Sidonia made her way to Bytom, Poland, where she worked in a hospital as a nurse’s assistant and where her cousin and only surviving relative, Artek Engelhart, found her. They returned to Przemysl.

Eventually, Sidonia and Artek, along with other survivors, traveled to Neu Freiman, a displaced persons camp near Munich. Sidonia lived there until Artek contacted her uncle, Samuel (Muli) Liebshard, her mother’s brother, who lived in L.A.

Sidonia arrived in Los Angeles in March 1947, living with her aunt and uncle above Sunset Boulevard in what is now West Hollywood. She attended Belmont High School for three months and then took night classes to become a medical laboratory technician, working at two laboratories and then Temple Hospital. 

Sidonia met Lewis Lax first at a Mizrachi Organization dance and again, in late summer 1948, at Highland Springs Resort in Beaumont, Calif. After he bought a car, they started dating regularly and married on Jan. 16, 1949. 

Sidonia and Lewis’ daughter Genie was born in October 1949, followed by daughter Irene in May 1953 and son Bernard in October 1956. 

Lewis first worked as a dental laboratory representative. In 1955, he founded Classic Creations, a knitwear business in downtown L.A. Sidonia worked with him.

The couple closed the business in 1982, and Lewis died in 1994. 

Sidonia is now 88, a grandmother of six and great-grandmother of two. She began telling her story to schoolchildren in 1991 and she continues to speak. She has also gone on nine March of the Living trips, including one last spring.

Sidonia attributes her survival to the common sense inherited from her mother and the strength acquired crushing boulders. But throughout the war, she mostly worried, “Do I have a full stomach and will I live another day?”

Survivor: Simone Richlin


Just a minute,” Rebecca, the receptionist at the Laboratoire Rambouillet in Paris, told 5 1/2-year-old Simone Richlin (née Tolstonog) and her two cousins, Serge, 12, and Riton, 9. The children had come to visit their mothers, who worked at the suppository manufacturing company; Simone’s mother, Sylvia, as an accountant, and her cousins’ mother, Evelyn, as a technician. Ordinarily Rebecca waved the children in. This time, however, she disappeared inside, returning to tell them she would walk them back to their grandparents’ apartment. “Shhh, don’t talk,” she cautioned. Once outdoors, Rebecca explained that the French police were in Sylvia’s office, arresting her and Evelyn. Simone panicked. “I knew something terrible had happened,” she recalled. It was Nov. 5, 1942. 

Simone was born on April 18, 1937, in Paris to Sylvia and Emile Tolstonog. Emile was a racecar driver, who also built and repaired cars. Sylvia, an accountant, was one of the first French women to obtain a driver’s license, as well as her own car.

The secular Jewish family lived in a one-bedroom apartment, though Emile was largely absent, returning from military service when Simone was 1, then called up again a year and a half later. Sylvia worked full time; Madame Beaudry, an older woman, cared for Simone. 

On June 14, 1940, Paris fell to the Germans. The following November, the family learned that Emile had been taken prisoner in Germany in July. 

When Simone, as a 4-year-old, began public school in October 1941, all students  were issued gas masks, which they were forced to wear during air-raid drills. “It was very scary,” she said, with the mask’s long tubes and the rubber pulled tight across her face. 

Still, during this time, Simone continued to ice skate, see movies and visit her maternal grandparents, Saul and Gizele Haimoff, who lived five blocks away. In fact, no one suspected that Saul, who was Turkish and wore a fez, was Jewish. “We had a normal life in the midst of the chaos,” Simone said.

And even after the Jews were ordered to sew yellow stars on their clothes, on May 29, 1942, Simone wore hers only one day, until Sylvia announced, “We’re never wearing this again.”

Shortly afterward, Sylvia piled Evelyn, the grandparents and the three cousins into her Corre la Licorne automobile and fled to Spain. But when the Spanish border guards saw the children, who, having contracted chicken pox three days earlier, were covered with spots, they refused them entry. So the family returned to Paris. “That one thing changed our lives forever,” Simone said. 

After her mother and aunt’s arrest, the following November, Simone no longer attended school or returned to Sylvia’s apartment. Her grandfather had learned that a laboratory employee had denounced the women and feared the authorities would come looking for the children. 

Saul took Simone to Madame Beaudry’s house in Villeparisis, outside Paris. But two weeks later, the nanny’s son noticed that Simone’s cheek was red and swollen, an allergic reaction to something she had eaten, and said, “What’s wrong with the little Jew?” The following weekend Saul brought her back to Paris. 

Saul brought Simone to his brother’s Paris apartment, where the brother’s wife, fearing lice, had Simone’s head shaved and insisted she eat in the kitchen with the maid. Soon she returned again to her grandparents. 

At that point, Saul decided to hide the children in the cellar, which was the size of a large closet and contained coal and wood to heat the apartment. Each of the building’s 18 apartments had its own cellar. 

From then on — this was December 1942 — every morning at 5:30 a.m., Saul led Simone and her two cousins to the basement, having taught them how to tread carefully on each individual wooden step from their second-floor apartment to the cellar without causing it to creak. The children remained there, without food or water and with a bucket for a toilet, until 1 a.m., when Saul returned and escorted them back upstairs. 

Gizele then washed and fed them, shared the day’s news and had them rest atop their beds, fully dressed, until 5 a.m., at which point they ate, then returned to the cellar.

There, able to see one another only as gray shapes in the darkness, the children invented games they could play silently. They also made up numbers for songs and sang them together in their heads. Serge taught himself how to play the harmonica soundlessly; Riton drew in the dark; and Simone dressed and undressed her doll. “Mostly we meditated for two years,” she said. 

They were also always frightened, their ears quickly recognizing the footsteps of the other tenants on the staircase. And they were plagued by lice and worms from the only meat Gizele was able to procure. And sometimes they cried from the cold.

But Simone’s grandparents, who were in their late 70s or early 80s, remained optimistic. Every morning, Gizele read the chicory grounds that settled in her empty cup. “It’s going to get better,” she always told the children, who believed her. 

Simone doesn’t know how she and her cousins survived those years. Nor did she realize until later how much their grandparents sacrificed for them. “I don’t know how these two people had the strength to go for two years like this,” she said. 

Finally, on Aug. 25, 1944, Paris was liberated. Simone and her cousins stood in the doorway of their apartment building, watching and waving at the American soldiers in their tanks, which had stopped on their street. “It was a very exciting day,” Simone recalled. 

Saul encouraged the children to return to their prewar routines, but Simone and her cousins continued to feel constricted. “We were three children who didn’t know what it was to be normal,” Simone said.

Sometime during the next spring, Simone went to live with her father, who had returned home. But, she said, “He scared me. He was in terrible distress from being in the war.” Every two days or so, she would come home from school to find him sitting in the bathtub with the gas turned on, trying to kill himself. One day she fetched her grandfather, who brought her back to his apartment. 

In late summer 1945, an apparent stranger, bloated, with straggly hair, rang the doorbell. “Don’t you recognize me? I’m Sylvia,” her mother said. She had survived several French detention camps as well as Bergen-Belsen. Evelyn, they learned, had been gassed in Sobibor. 

Sylvia moved into the grandparents’ apartment, and after three months, found work as an accountant. Emile, however, never recovered from the war, and in 1949 they divorced.  

In fall 1949, while taking the bus to Lycée Jules Ferry, Simone, now 12, met two classmates who lived nearby and who were also Jewish. The girls became best friends, creating their own support group. “They kept me alive,” Simone said. To this day, the three remain close. 

At 13 1/2, Simone wanted to attend school in the United States. She contacted an aunt, a sister of Sylvia’s, and arranged to travel to Los Angeles, arriving in April 1951. 

Simone moved in with her aunt and uncle, teaching herself English while essentially serving as her aunt’s maid. In the fall, she entered North Hollywood High School. 

In 1952, Simone’s mother also immigrated to Los Angeles, with her new husband. 

After graduating from high school in June 1954, Simone attended Los Angeles State College (now Cal State Los Angeles), where she studied languages. But she left after two years to pursue various business opportunities.

In May 1958, Simone met Jay Richlin, an ophthalmologist. They married on Aug. 24, 1958, and had three sons: Stewart, who was born in November 1960; Spencer, born in April 1964; and Sidney, born in July 1965. Jay died unexpectedly in April 2012. 

Over the years, Simone has run a crafts store, The Yarn Merchant; a furniture store, Trio Imports; a video production company, Richlin Productions; and a clothing company, L&P Designs. She’s currently working on closing Jay’s practice.

Now 78 and a grandmother of four, Simone agreed to talk to the Jewish Journal, and shared her story publicly for only the third time in order to bring attention to the struggles of child survivors. 

“Children should not be discounted,” she said.  “You’re not free of the Holocaust. It doesn’t take very much — a word, a noise, a movement, a smell — to get back where you were.”

Charlie Hebdo attack survivor is leaving publication


One of the few cartoonists to survive an Islamist militant attack on France's Charlie Hebdo journal is leaving the publication, saying he can no longer bear the pressure.

Renald Luzier, better known simply as Luz, announced his decision in an interview in Liberation, the newspaper that has housed Charlie Hebdo and helped it publish since an attack in which most of his cartoonist colleagues were killed.

“The time came when it was just all too much to bear. There was next to nobody to draw the cartoons. I ended up doing three or every four front-pages. Every print-run was torture because the others are no longer there,” said Luz.

He drew the cover picture on the first post-attack edition of Charlie Hebdo – which sold some eight million copies across the world compared to a normal week's sales of around 60,000 – but he had recently said he would no longer draw cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad because he was fed up with the matter.

For Muslims, any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous; but Charlie Hebdo's first post-attack edition carried on its cover a Luz cartoon of a tearful Mohammad holding a “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) sign under the words “All is forgiven”.

NO HERO

Islamist militants saying they were avenging the Prophet killed 12 people in January when they attacked the Paris offices of the irreverent weekly known for lampooning Islam along with other religions and the political establishment. Among those killed were chief editor Stephane Charbonnier and household-name cartoonists such as Georges Wolinski and Jean Cabut.

Luz, who lives under police protection like the rest of the survivors and colleagues at other newspapers such as the Canard Enchaine, cited pressure of work and media scrutiny as the main reasons for quitting.

The ad-free publication overcame serious financial woes thanks to donations since the Jan.7 attack and the massive but temporary post-attack boost to sales for the journal that sells at 3 euros ($3.36) per copy.

Luz said his decision had nothing to do with the problems at the journal, including splits that only recently surfaced over its staff ownership structure and disciplinary proceeedings against one of its journalists.

“I'm no longer interested in returning to normal life as a news cartoonist,” said Luz.

He spoke of the fear of no longer being inspired and being fed up with hero status that meant his every move triggered media headlines.

“We're not heroes, we never were and we never wanted to be,” he said.

At no point, however, did he speak of fear of being targeted again by militants.

A story of survival and the healing power of familiarity


This time of year, we remember the Holocaust; the genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda  and sadly, many other places. We remember the faces of the victims and the stories so  horrible that hearing them can make one feel sick. And with all this to remember, there are still  tragedies that are lesser known, crimes against humanity so horrific that many would argue it  is impossible that they occurred in such recent history. Yet I am a survivor of such a tragedy ­the Khojaly Massacre of 1992, and one of the female survivors and witnesses of the Khojaly  torture camp.    

As a woman and a Muslim, it is extremely painful to reconcile the horrible trauma of Khojaly  with my faith and traditional culture, and my shame from suffering violations of the most  fundamental components of my identity. As a survivor of torture, I spent years in isolation at  home, watching films about the Holocaust; the only lens that captures anything relative to  what I experienced. I spent sleepless nights soothing myself out of panic with Schindler's List  and The Pianist. Living in that solitary world with films and nightmares was almost as tragic as  the reasons for which I lived there. My life hung somewhere in the balance of total isolation  mixed with the severity of ongoing and extensive surgeries to recover my body from the  brutality of torture and the impact of exposure during my captivity, procedures such as  receiving titanium spinal implants, with every second of this process and pain a reminder of its cause.     

I come from the town of Khojaly in Nagorno ­Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan once flourishing  and promising for my young generation at the time. In the early 1990’s, all of that suddenly  changed. Most of the world doesn’t even know the name of Khojaly, or that Armenia  perpetrated there one of the most brutal massacres in recent history against a terrified, fleeing  Azerbaijani populace. The night (Feb. 25­26, 1992)  the Massacre began, I ran for my life with  my brother, into the freezing woods, and got captured and taken to the torture camp. I was  only 20 years old…    

With dark irony, I understand why Armenia still denies that Khojaly happened. I understand  this because I will never shake the images of a 2 year old Azerbaijani child, shot while fleeing  with his parents, his blood spattered body suspended in my memory as if in the air for that  moment of gruesome impact. How could anyone face the taking of hundreds of innocent lives,  the bayoneting of pregnant women and elderly, the showering of fatal bullets onto fleeing  children, and mothers holding their lifeless infants. As a victim, facing my past has nearly  broken me, so I imagine that as perpetrators, denial must be of tangible comfort.     

As a Muslim woman, there is a certain and unspeakable pain I feel in explaining to the public  that I was subjected to brutal torture and humiliation, including rape, for many days in the Armenian captivity. Sharing this has been a tragedy for my soul, separate from the cruelties  my body suffered. But I realize that by sharing it, I can live beyond the shadows of shame and  step into the light of my own healing.     

The last few years, my life has dramatically changed. With immense support from my family  and community, I have begun the process of sharing. The hidden parts of my past have  become public and documented. I have begun to make a record of the nightmare I survived.     

Until February of 2015, I had never visited any country in the West. On my first day in  California, I met a Jewish community leader involved in global peace efforts, and we  conducted a radio interview, with an Iranian­Jewish psychologist and talk show host; a  specialist in the survivors of intense trauma and the Holocaust. Through connecting my story  with a caring psychologist, and my new friend, herself the 3rd generation of Holocaust survivors, I realized a powerful sense of understanding I had yet to experience before that  day.     

This feeling expanded when I learned of the Khojaly memorial held at a Los Angeles  synagogue, a week following my visit. The Jewish community’s response to learning of  Khojaly as a parallel to the Holocaust has been monumental for my ability to share and heal.  The genocide in Khojaly stands out as an example of the lowest displays of human depravity.  But now, through the welcoming arms of the Jewish community of Los Angeles, the  connection has been made and the silence broken. For me, this changes everything.     

Through the power of my own healing, I am deeply motivated to help other women face their  own stories of survival, and by doing so, eradicate the shame and loneliness that follows the  fact of torture and trauma. I once thought I could never share what happened, and now I know  that by sharing it, I am part of a larger movement to heal, and not only myself, but the entire  world.  It is my sincerest hope to inspire other survivors, those across the world who have had  the paradigms of their innocence blown away by the tragic cannon of hatred and oppression,  and join together in a unified bond, strengthening each other and the world. Not only the  survivors of torture and genocide, but also women from nations that have never experienced  modern war, for so many women live with the trauma of violence, some even in their own  homes. I strongly believe that through a growing commitment to the familiarity of all who  suffer, this world will become a different kind of place, one that would never allow the pain and  great sorrow of genocide or any kind of violence to happen ever again, to anyone, anywhere.     

Durdane Agayeva lives in Baku with her husband and daughter, and can be reached by email at ​ agayevadurdane@gmail.com ​Durdane truly believes in the power of unified voices, and  hopes to hear from you, your story of survival and your commitment to human rights for all  people.

‘The Last Girl at Victoria Station’ a Kindertransport story


Every morning in 1936, Anne Forchheimer would bicycle to school, over a bridge in the German town of Coburg. She tried not to notice the signs of hate she passed along the way.  Hate for Jews and the call for their removal from German society. German law had forbidden Jewish students from attending public schools. Anne’s destination on this November morning, as it had been for the last 18 months, was a special school for Jewish children. 

On this day, however, Anne was met outside of her new school by two men. Towering over her in SS uniforms, they sternly commanded her to “go home. … There’ll be no school today for Jew pigs.”

She rode back to her home, where she was greeted by two more SS recruits, who marshaled her family into a town square. There, the other 40 Jewish families of Coburg were huddled together. Soon it was announced that women and children were to return home, while the men and boys had to remain. Fortunately, Anne’s father was a traveling salesman and escaped this first foray into what became the early days of The Final Solution.

Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, exploded soon after, and as the shards of glass from broken windows lay in the streets and Jewish homes and businesses burned, Coburg’s remaining Jewish men were marched to a school gymnasium as the townsfolk yelled and jeered, “Burn them!” Later that evening, Anne was entrusted with bringing some sandwiches to their father, who this time had been captured.

“Children were not being physically attacked, so my mother was sent to where her father was being held,” Anne’s daughter, Rachel Green, said. “When she found him huddled against a wall, my mother hugged him, and I remember her telling me that this was the first time she had ever seen a man cry. After that, my mother would not see her father again until she was the last child at Victoria Station in London to be picked up, more than six months later.”

The handwriting on the wall was scrawled in red paint, and it became glaringly obvious to Jewish families in Germany that the best hope for their young children lay in one word: escape.

Anne’s journey would begin soon after that night, as thousands of German Jewish families desperately searched for an escape route for their children.

Five days after Kristallnacht, a delegation of British Jewish and Quaker leaders appealed to Neville Chamberlain, prime minister of the United Kingdom, urging the British government to take in unaccompanied Jewish children. Debate on this issue ensued at the highest levels of government, and it was later decided that the government would waive immigration requirements for German Jewish children, including infants to teens up to age 17. 

An organization was quickly formed called the Refugee Children’s Movement. An appeal was sent out to British citizens to set up foster homes. There were no requirements other than that the homes be clean and open to receiving these young, innocent refugees. In Germany, a clandestine network of volunteers worked feverishly to prioritize lists of children most in peril. Anne was one of those children, and so, carrying only an identity card and a small valise of clothing and keepsakes, she boarded that train not knowing if she would ever see her family again.

Anne as a child in 1937 in Coburg, Germany. Photo courtesy of Anne Forchheimer

Arriving days later at Victoria Station in London, Anne watched as other children were picked up by either government liaisons, new foster families or, if lucky, by their own parents who had escaped Germany. Soon, all the children had left and Anne stood alone in the vast London train station.

Suddenly, Anne turned to see her father running to her. He had escaped capture and gained entry to England at the last minute.

Green concluded her mother and grandfather’s story, saying, “My mother never spoke of her journey.”

A few years ago, Green’s brother, the popular entertainment journalist Sam Rubin, traveled to the streets of Coburg from which his mother, Anne Forchheimer Rubin, now deceased, had escaped, to try to understand her roots. “To some degree, my mom has always had this sunny and optimistic side to her. What struck me was how this lovely neighborhood influenced that attitude. They didn’t believe that this could be happening in this place,” Rubin said. “I think that once she was secure, having traveled from London to America, she suppressed this journey and glossed over it. She only came to terms with it later in life. It just seemed to her that this seemingly safe and secure neighborhood could never be torn apart.  But it [was].”

Sharon Farber, a celebrated Israeli-born motion picture, television and concert music composer had heard of Anne’s story. Farber’s latest concerto, “Bestemming,” featuring the voice of Holocaust survivor Curt Lowens, was recently performed with the consuls general of Germany and Holland, as well as the Israeli consulate, participating. Farber’s concerto was hailed as “a bridge builder between cultures” and became the basis for the formation of a nonprofit organization called The Bestemming Project, which fights anti-Semitism and oppression through music and the arts.

“When I heard Anne’s story, as told to me by Rachel and Sam,” Farber said, “I was inspired to start work on another classical composition, this time about the Kindertransport and especially about Anne’s unique story, ‘The Last Child at Victoria Station.’ ” 

Survivor: Aaron M. Cohen


“Get your things. Let’s go,” the policemen ordered. Aaron (then Henri) Cohen, his parents and his younger brother gathered some belongings from their apartment in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and began walking toward the Jewish school, about a mile away. There, about 600, Aaron estimates, of Plovdiv’s approximately 5,000 Jews were confined in the schoolyard, where they sat weeping and praying. It was March 10, 1943. Earlier that year, Bulgaria had signed a secret agreement with Germany to ship 20,000 Jews to concentration camps in Poland, more than 11,000 from the Bulgarian-occupied territories of Thrace and Macedonia, and 8,000 from Bulgaria proper. But the agreement was no longer secret. “We knew we were going to a certain death,” Aaron said. He was 13.

Aaron was born on Dec. 18, 1929, in Gorna Dzhumaya, Bulgaria, to Mois and Esther Cohen. He had one brother, Amnon, born in 1936. Mois worked in the family businesses — tobacco, furs and horses — and they lived comfortably. 

In 1934, the family moved to a duplex in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, where Esther’s family resided and where the upstairs neighbor, a wealthy Greek woman, doted on Aaron. “We lived in Disneyland,” he said.

Two years later, they moved to a fourplex, whose residents included two Armenian families and a Bulgarian landlady. A Turkish family lived across the street. “Everyone got along,” Aaron said.

Mois worked for The Brothers Benjamin Levy, a china and crystal import-export business. From ages 9 to 11, Aaron sometimes accompanied his father on daylong business trips. During the summers, he worked in the company’s spacious retail store, selling merchandise to some of Plovdiv’s wealthiest women. He also attended Jewish summer camp, and, from ages 7 to 13, Jewish school. 

Aaron always sensed an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Bulgaria. He took it in stride until one day, in November 1938, when one of the storeowners returned from a buying trip to Berlin, where he had witnessed the violence that came to be known as Kristallnacht. “We’re in trouble,” Aaron overheard him tell Mois.

By this time, Bulgaria’s King Boris III had begun aligning the country with Nazi Germany, succumbing to pressure from Hitler and from Nazi sympathizers within Bulgaria and desiring to regain control of Macedonia and Thrace, which Bulgaria had humiliatingly lost after World War I. 

The Bulgarian government passed the “Law for the Defense of the Nation,” similar to the Nuremberg Laws, which became effective on Jan. 23, 1941. “Disneyland was over,” Aaron said. The store was closed and Mois lost his job. Then, on March 1, 1941, Bulgaria officially joined the Axis alliance, regaining Thrace and Macedonia.

To earn some income, Mois began going door-to-door selling artifacts and rugs from his own home and the homes of his two wealthy brothers-in-law.

Food became scarce, and Aaron would remove the mandatory Star of David on his school uniform — “under orders of being shot if I got caught,” he said — and walk across town to stand in a bread line. “Since I was a kid, I always had guts,” he said. 

One night, as Mois returned from work, two Fascist men ambushed him and broke his nose with an iron rod. 

In fall 1942, Aaron’s aunt and uncle, prominent members of Bulgaria’s Jewish community, were taken to Somovit, a forced labor camp near the Danube River. Aaron’s family moved into their house. During this time, Aaron’s cousin Shelley, four years his senior, initiated a rigorous program of study, waking him at 4 a.m. to do homework and learn French. Aaron moved from being a middling student to one of the three top students in his class. “It stayed with me,” he said. After three months, his aunt and uncle returned. 

In early March 1943, as the Jews in the Bulgarian-occupied territories of Thrace and Macedonia were being rounded up and held in detention camps, awaiting transport to Poland, politicians, clergy and ordinary citizens began protesting the deportation of Bulgaria’s Jews. 

Dimitar Peshev, the vice chairman of the Parliament, personally asked King Boris to intervene. Decades later, Aaron learned that his father, a childhood friend of Peshev’s, had traveled to Sofia to plead with Peshev. Additionally, two heads of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia and Metropolitan Kyril of Plovdiv, implored King Boris to have mercy on the Jews. 

Metropolitan Kiril himself showed up outside the schoolyard where Aaron’s family and others were detained. Monks accompanying him hoisted him above the wall so he could address the interned Jews. “Children, I will save you,” he said. “I will prostrate my body over the railroad tracks. They’re not taking you anywhere.”

Shortly afterward, the chief of police stood at a podium inside the courtyard. “Jews, go home. Your lives have been spared,” he said. King Boris had agreed to delay the deportation of Bulgaria’s Jews.

The more than 11,000 Jews in Thrace and Macedonia, however, met a different fate. They were shipped to Treblinka and murdered. 

Germany continued to pressure Bulgaria to hand over the additional 8,000 Jews. On March 19, 1943, Peshev introduced a resolution in Parliament calling for a halt to deportations. But it was voted down, and Peshev was forced to resign in late March.

King Boris continued to delay. Then, in late spring, perhaps as a compromise to appease the Germans, he ordered 20,000 Jews from Sofia evacuated to the countryside, and many of the men were sent to forced labor camps, where they built roads. 

In fall 1943, Aaron went to public high school, the only Jew in his class. He experienced some displays of anti-Semitism, but overall he and his family lived fairly normally, preoccupied with making arrangements to send him to Palestine with Youth Aliyah, an organization rescuing Jewish children from Nazi-occupied countries. 

On Sept. 9, 1944, the Soviet Union, having declared war on Bulgaria, entered the country. All anti-Jewish measures were abolished.

A month or two later, Aaron departed for Palestine with a group of 37 13- to 15-year-olds. As his mother said goodbye, she said, “One day, on behalf of our family and our people, you have to pray at the graves of the saints and the king.” They had been instrumental in saving the lives of Bulgaria’s total population of 48,000 Jews. She then ran alongside the train, waving and crying, as it departed. Aaron was also in tears, but excited.

Eventually the group reached Palestine, where Aaron was sent to Kibbutz Geva in the Jezreel Valley near Afula. There he attended school, worked with animals and trained with Gadna, the Haganah’s pre-military program. “Those were the best years of my life,” he said. 

In 1946, Aaron and other young Bulgarian immigrants founded Kibbutz Urim in the Negev. A year later, he joined the Palmach and worked protecting water pipes in that area. 

Aaron’s parents and brother immigrated to Israel in 1950. That year, he married Phyllis Novak, a young American woman. In 1951, he began driving a truck for Makarot, the Israeli water company. 

Phyllis returned to New York a year later, seeking medical care for a pregnancy. Their son Aryell was born in August 1952, and Aaron joined them in November. Three days after arriving, he was enrolled in night school to learn English and had procured a job loading dairy trucks.

Six months later, the family moved to New Jersey, where Aaron worked in a factory and attended evening high school classes. 

They moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1954. There, Aaron started a janitorial business, State Maintenance. He sold it in 1996 but has continued to work as an employee, through various acquisitions and name changes. 

In January 1955, Aaron and Phyllis’ son David was born, followed by their daughter Leora in April 1957. Aaron’s marriage to Phyllis later ended. 

On March 19, 1983, Aaron married Sandra Gold. 

Now 85 and a grandfather of five and great-grandfather of four, Aaron works full time for American Building Maintenance. Additionally, since 2012, he has been a regular speaker at the Museum of Tolerance.

In 2000, Aaron returned to Bulgaria to carry out his mother’s request. With some monks at the Bachkovo Monastery, he prayed at the graves of Metropolitans Stefan and Kiril. And at the Rila Monastery, where King Boris III is buried, he recited Kaddish.

“I had given an oath and I had fulfilled it,” he said.

Survivor: Guta Peck


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survivor: Ralph Hakman


Ralph Hakman was hiding in a barely noticeable house, almost a shack, when he was discovered by his mother. “You have to turn yourself in to the police,” Rose instructed her 17-year-old son, then known as Rachmil. Three days earlier, sometime in May 1942, Ralph’s father, Yitzhak, had been apprehended in a roundup of butchers and other professionals but had managed to escape as the group was escorted to the police station. The entire family went immediately into hiding, each to a different location, knowing the police would come searching for him. Ralph’s oldest sister, however, for some reason had returned home, where she and her baby were caught and taken into custody. “Rivka and the baby will be released,” Rose explained. Ralph was frightened and weeping, but he obeyed. “I knew I had to do it for my family,” he said.

The fifth of 10 children, Ralph was born March 11, 1925, in Radom, Poland, to Rose and Yitzhak Hakman. Ralph’s maternal grandmother lived with the traditionally Orthodox family in their two-room house in Glinice, a suburb of Radom, raising the children while Rose worked in the family’s kosher butcher shop, and Yitzhak traveled the countryside buying cattle. 

“The life was very primitive. We were happy; we had food on the table, and we bought new clothes once a year for the holidays,” Ralph said.

Then, in the early morning of Sept. 8, 1939, the German army occupied Radom. Ralph stood outside his house watching as soldiers marched in, accompanied by artillery and trucks.

A week or two later, Ralph watched from a distance as SS soldiers grabbed Yitzhak from outside his butcher shop and beat him, forcing him to kneel on the ground and cutting off half his beard with a knife. They then took him away. Three days later, Yitzhak returned home, his face swollen and discolored. 

School was soon closed, and Yitzhak was prohibited from working. To survive, he butchered cows and sold the meat on the black market.

In March 1941, the Jews of Radom were forced into two ghettos, a large one in town and a smaller one in Glinice that encompassed the Hakman house. 

In May 1942, after turning himself in, Ralph and other prisoners were marched through the ghetto to a waiting train. Ralph’s mother and aunt trailed him to the gate, where all three blew kisses and waved goodbye. “That was the last time I saw them,” he said. 

The prisoners, including Ralph’s uncle Yisrael, his father’s brother, were shipped to Auschwitz, arriving at night. They were marched into a building, where they sat on the floor until morning, when they were photographed and processed. The number 37495 was imprinted on Ralph’s inner forearm. The next day they were marched to Birkenau, where 37495 was tattooed in larger figures on Ralph’s outer forearm. They were then assigned to a barracks. 

Ralph worked draining swamps. “It was just a torture place,” he said. One day, an SS soldier walked by, gratuitously slamming Ralph on the head with the butt of his rifle. “I saw sparks,” Ralph recalled. He submerged his head in the water for relief. “I was hit many, many times,” Ralph said.

One night, Ralph sneaked out, as he occasionally did, and headed to the infirmary barracks where his uncle worked. As Yisrael handed him a piece of bread, a German caught Ralph and escorted him back to his barracks, where the German inflicted 25 lashes. 

Ralph was later selected to learn bricklaying. After passing the bricklaying test, Ralph was assigned to a detail building foundations. The Polish foreman, who took a liking to Ralph, taught him how to mix and pour cement. He brought Ralph a container of soup almost every day, and sometimes he walked away from the work area, leaving Ralph in charge. 

One night in late 1942, Ralph was randomly selected for a new work detail. As the group of about 100 young men waited in a building, Ralph heard the word “sonderkommando.” He realized they were slotted to work in the crematoria, where prisoners were murdered and replaced every few months. He quickly escaped through a back window and returned to his barracks. 

The following summer, Ralph was assigned to work in the Birkenau bathhouse. There, newly arrived prisoners who had been selected for work disrobed in a large room on their way to the showers. Ralph picked up the discarded garments after they exited, searching them for valuables and disinfecting them. 

The bathhouse was only 75 feet away from two crematoria, where, Ralph said, “We saw everything that happened.” He regularly observed his SS supervisor driving to the crematoria in a Red Cross van, donning a mask and emptying three canisters of Zyklon B crystal pellets into designated ports. Ralph heard the screams of the dying Jews, and then 15 minutes later, when the doors were opened, he saw the bodies tumbling out.  

Ralph also witnessed the sonderkommando revolt Oct. 7, 1944, when the crematoria workers attacked the SS, killing three and injuring 12, and partially destroying one crematorium. But the revolt was quickly crushed and several hundred sonderkommandos were murdered during the uprising and afterward. 

On Jan. 18, 1945, as the Allies advanced, the prisoners were marched to Gleiwitz, divided into smaller groups and dispatched on death marches. Ralph trekked in the cold and snow with several hundred men.  

They walked all day, sleeping in barns at night. After a few weeks, they were packed into cattle cars and transported for two or three days, then marched to a barn near Grafenberg, Germany. There, under the control of the security police, they dug anti-tank trenches during the day. 

One day in May, Ralph awakened to discover the police had disappeared. He and two others walked into a tavern in Grafenberg, where they were given water. As they exited, an SS soldier, wielding a machine gun, ordered them to wait outside. Instead they fled, running until they reached a bombed-out highway. They soon spied a soldier on a bicycle, a Russian, who told them the Allies had just liberated the area. It was May 7 or 8, 1945. 

After recuperating for several weeks, Ralph headed back to Radom, where he found his family’s home demolished. He learned from a Polish neighbor, however, that his sister Sura and her husband had escaped to Russia and survived. He wrote to them. He also learned that his uncle Yisrael was alive. 

Ralph soon reunited with his uncle in the Feldafing displaced persons camp. There he met Esther Hakman, a second cousin he had not previously known. Ralph, Esther and Yisrael relocated to a camp in Stuttgart, where Radom survivors were gathering.

In 1947, Ralph traveled to Poland to see Sura. She and her husband planned to immigrate to Palestine, and Ralph returned to Stuttgart, where he discovered Esther had had an opportunity to immigrate to Toronto. Ralph applied for a visa and, in October 1949, immigrated to Indianapolis, where he worked at Stark & Wetzel, a packinghouse.

A couple of months later, Ralph traveled to Toronto. When Esther greeted him at the train station, she told him about a tailor who could make him a suit.  “We’re going to get married,” she explained. They wed Dec. 31, 1949, and soon after returned to Indianapolis, where Ralph continued working at Stark & Wetzel. Their son, Gary, was born in Indianapolis in June 1956. 

In June 1960, the family relocated to Los Angeles. Their daughter, Deborah, was born there, in September 1961. 

Ralph worked for Ideal Packing, and in September 1960 he opened his own company, Jersey Meat Provision. With a partner, Ralph constructed a new 90,000-square-foot building in Vernon that opened in 1991. Although Ralph closed the meat company in 2012, he continues to work full time operating the building and leasing cold-storage space. 

Esther died in May 2009. 

Ralph turns 90 on March 11 and is now a grandfather of five; he walks an hour each morning, is active in the 1939 Club, and is a member of Temple Beth Am. He has been married to Barbara Zerulik, whom he met in September 2012, since June 23, 2013.

Ralph attributes his survival to destiny. 

“Everybody has a destiny. That’s what I believe in. People said luck. I don’t think there’s luck,” he said.