Grandchildren’s ‘miracle’ wedding unites families who escaped nazis in Vienna


Lilly Baer and Stella Dubey both grew up in 1930s Vienna. 

Both lived through the horrors of Kristallnacht.

And on May 29, both found themselves around the same chuppah as their grandchildren — Brian Faber and Rachel Warner, respectively — wed at the Four Seasons hotel in Westlake Village.

“When I found out, I just couldn’t believe that we lived in the same [area in Vienna] and our families didn’t know each other,” said Dubey, 85. “It makes all of this seem ordained, that two generations later our grandchildren would meet and start a Jewish home together.” 

Warner, a Milken Community Schools grad and fashion merchandiser, believes the history she shares with her husband’s family is symbolic of something much larger, especially for her grandmother. 

“That history is so important to her. It’s a victory in her eyes,” she said. “The Nazis tried to kill them off, and [Brian] and I still managed to find each other. That Jewish love still found its way in America is incredible to her.” 

“That’s our perspective of it, too,” added Faber, who works for a family-owned Beverly Hills-based jewelry business. “It’s a miracle. We wouldn’t have even existed if they hadn’t survived. It’s pretty amazing.”

Baer, as a teenager, and Dubey, as a child, lived through the horrors of Kristallnacht, a pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in November 1938 that left about 100 Jews dead, many Jewish homes and synagogues destroyed, and shards of glass littering the streets. 

“It was on a Thursday. I have never liked Thursdays since then,” said Baer, 92, who was 14 at the time. “I woke up to SS officers in my bedroom. All the men in my family were arrested. It was very scary. I was in bed for three days after. It affected me terribly.” 

Dubey, who was 8, recalls far fewer details, but said the pervading panic is impossible to forget. 

“They didn’t really explain to little kids what was happening,” Dubey said. “All you knew as a child was one emotion. You just felt fear.”

Originally from Poland before being forced to flee due to Cossack persecution, Dubey’s family lived in the poorer Orthodox section of Vienna, a stone’s throw from Wiener Riesenrad, the city’s famous Ferris wheel. Meanwhile, Baer’s family, Austrian going back several generations, lived blocks away in another neighborhood mostly inhabited by less observant, typically wealthier Viennese Jews. 

“When Hitler came, we were all the same. Poor Orthodox, richer Viennese — Hitler wanted to get rid of us all,” Dubey said. 

At the end of 1938 — the year Germany annexed Austria — Dubey’s mother registered with the German government for permission to depart for New York, where the family had relatives. Germany wasn’t at war with the United States yet, which made this feasible. Still, as she traveled to the port of Hamburg, she feared that at any moment the Germans would remove her and place her on the train her father ended up on, which transported him to his death at Buchenwald. 

From Hamburg, Dubey and her mother sailed for New York, then drove cross country to Los Angeles, where she has lived since her junior high days. The transition to American life wasn’t easy. Overcoming the death of her father, learning a new language and adjusting to a foreign culture made for a tough adolescence. 

She went on to marry Michael, now 91, a former engineer with Lockheed Martin and a tank platoon commander with the U.S. Army in Okinawa during World War II. A stay-at-home mother who has spent many years volunteering with seniors, Dubey has three children and five grandchildren, and she relishes the fact that the branches of her family tree continue to grow and extend outward. 

“I feel so comfortable knowing that Hitler didn’t win and isn’t winning,” Dubey said. “He may have tried to destroy some of us, but some of us got through and came together, and we’ll have happy Jewish lives and have happy Jewish children.” 

Around the same time that Dubey’s family was preparing to flee Europe, Baer’s mother was set on leaving Vienna, fearing the worst was yet to come. Ultimately, they left for Italy, where they stayed for 11 months before gaining permission to depart on one of the last passenger ships allowed to sail. Everyone in Baer’s family besides Baer and her parents perished in the war. 

Baer’s first stop in the United States was Ohio, where the family had relatives, but after a few years they moved to L.A. That’s where Baer met her husband, Henry, an Auschwitz survivor, at a Chanukah dance. Although Baer wishes her husband, a toymaker and designer who died at age 53, could have lived to see Brian’s wedding, she’s satisfied with getting to bear witness for the both of them. 

“I’m very happy. The girl is beautiful. My grandson is beautiful. They both hit the jackpot. Everything turned out good,” she said about the recent simcha.

Faber, 36, and Warner, 28, met while at a wedding six years ago. They first stumbled upon a shared Austrian heritage when they both recognized the tune of an Austrian nursery rhyme they heard sung by their grandmothers growing up. They even discovered both had relatives with the last name “Schwartz” at a certain point going back several generations. Then the grandmothers got to talking. 

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who has served Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom congregation for 25 years and known the Warner family for even longer, officiated the recent nuptials. He said the broader significance of the occasion was on his mind while standing under the chuppah and staring out at family members in attendance.  

“The rabbi has a very special place in the wedding. I get to look in the eyes of the bride and groom. Everyone else sees the backs. I also get to see the eyes of the parents and grandparents,” Feinstein said. 

“To see all those eyes is to see the future and beginning. In the kids, it’s wonder. In the parents, it’s satisfaction. But to be able to see the eyes of the grandparents is a real blessing. To see the risk, the faithfulness and the prayers answered, it’s a real gift, and that’s what made this wedding so very special.”

Claims Conference secures major increase in aid to survivors through 2018


The Claims Conference, which manages aid to Holocaust survivors, has negotiated a budget increase through 2018, including the largest one-time increase in homecare funding the organization has ever secured.

In talks with the German government, the Claims Conference secured nearly $312 million in homecare funding for survivors in 2016, approximately $350 million for 2017 and more than $380 million for 2018, according to a Tuesday press release. The additional funding for homecare totals some $500 million from the German government.

The most significant part of the agreement, according to Claims Conference Executive Vice President Greg Schneider, is that it removes the cap on the number of homecare hours many survivors can receive. Previously, survivors were entitled to a maximum of 25 hours per week of homecare. Now, survivors of ghettos and concentration camps may receive unlimited homecare. Other survivors may receive a maximum of 40 hours per week.

“Homecare is a key component of providing a dignified life to Holocaust survivors,” Schneider told JTA. “By waiving a cap for people who were in camps and ghettos, the German government has shown that they understand that and are willing to address the need.”

The Claims Conference also disburses funding from the Austrian government, as well as proceeds from recovered Jewish property, a private grant, and funds from a settlement with the Swiss Banks. In total — including social services and direct payments to survivors — the Claims Confererence will distribute some $835 million this year. The group provides aid to 121,000 survivors, including homecare aid to 67,000.

Negotiations for Tuesday’s increase began in December, when the Claims Conference set up a direct negotiation working group with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

The agreement is subject to approval by the German Parliament.

“We have been fighting for the rights of survivors for 65 years and this new agreement will have a huge impact on the most vulnerable, poor and disabled of survivors,” said Claims Conference President Julius Berman in a statement.

 

How a comic book kept this Dutch Jewish couple close but out of Nazis’ reach


As a Dutch Jewish couple hiding separately from the Nazis, Emmanuel Joels and Hetty van Son were literally drawn together by a comic book of Emmanuel’s romantic invention.

After narrowly avoiding deportation to Auschwitz thanks to a policeman’s tip, the young couple spent 2 1/2 years living less than a mile apart, each in the care of rescuers with ties to the resistance in the city of Apeldoorn, 55 miles east of Amsterdam.

It was a fortunate situation in a country where 75 percent of Dutch Jewry were murdered — the highest death rate in Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Their benefactors were so caring that they risked catching Hetty’s tuberculosis, supplying her with the rare luxury of fatty foods to treat her.

Even though they were safe and close, the lovers could not see one another — their hiding places were separated by a major traffic artery for Nazi troops that they could not risk crossing.

So Emmanuel – or E., as he calls himself – devised a creative and discreet way for the couple to stay in touch and offer mutual support: He drew his love a colorful comic book, dispatching a new episode each week to her safe house. The courier was Geeske Schurink, the 7-year-old daughter of the family that sheltered E.

After decades of storage in a cardboard box, E.’s three wartime detective graphic novels about Dompie Stompie, a stick figure detective made out of what appears to be metal wire, finally was published last year. It forms the basis for an exhibition that opened last month at the Jewish Historical Museum here.

The Amsterdam museum, a renowned institution that receives more than 250,000 visits annually, put E.’s “Dompie Stompie Metal Wire Man” series on display as “an illustration of stubborn bravery” during the Holocaust, curator Irene Faber told JTA.

Yet the books – each containing 30-odd pages filled with neatly handwritten text and drawings — do not mention the Holocaust or the war. Rather they are escapist stories about imaginary countries that Dompie Stompie visits in his travels, where he is asked to solve crimes.

Joels, a retired finance auditor with a photographic memory who rarely speaks about his emotions, says he took up painting because it was the hobby of choice at the Schurinks, the impoverished family that hid him and several other Jews during the Holocaust.

Bored and cut off from the outside world, Joels brushed up his sketching skills from high school and drew from memory a Monopoly board for the family’s four children. They had never heard of the game.

He says he chose a stick figure for his graphic novels’ protagonist because he was no good at drawing faces. But his oldest daughter, Jet Naftaniel, believes there is more to the choice: She says it “symbolizes simplicity and fortitude” as well as, perhaps, the barbed wire fences that were surrounding ghettos and concentration camps.

Joels says he found his own drawings “silly.” But after the war, he adopted the stick figure as his John Hancock and would often make humorous references to Dompie Stompie’s adventures around the dinner table, Jet says.

In the third and final “Dompie Stompie” volume, the detective is set upon by a bird of prey that resembles the Imperial Eagle that featured heavily in Nazi imagery. The bird drops Dompie in front of a camouflaged bunker that evokes the author’s own life in hiding.

Joels, now 97 and living in an assisted-living facility, says he never intended such allusions, attempting merely to entertain his fiancee with drawings that would betray neither their author nor intended reader in case they were ever intercepted. They were married shortly after the war ended.

A scan of a page out of E Joels' graphic novel A scan of a page out of E Joels’ graphic novel “Stopmie Dompie in Rooverije.” Photo courtesy of Jet Naftaniel

For him, the “Dompie” series was primarily a way of keeping his promise to Hetty, who passed away last year, that they would always offer each other positive “light points” no matter what hardships life threw at them.

By the time they were 25, life had thrown quite a few hardships their way. Before going into hiding, Hetty was forced out of her training position as a buyer for a department store in Amsterdam. She became a nurse at a Jewish psychiatric hospital in her hometown of Apeldoorn – one of the few places where Jews could still work under Nazi occupation, and the place where she contracted her lung disease.

Joels followed her there, escaping with her just hours before the Nazis raided the institution and sent all the patients and staff in cattle cars for immediate execution at Auschwitz. They both lost family members in Nazi death camps.

After the war, the couple seldom spoke about their traumas. Joels would read from the “Dompie Stompie” books to Jet and her younger sister, Marian, but it gave them nightmares, Jet recalls.

“Our parents would only tell us about the positive things from the Holocaust, but even as a child that didn’t add up,” she said. “We knew relatives died there and we sensed the tension in their voices. They gave us their anxieties without ever speaking about them.”

Jet and Marian found the drawings in a box buried deep in a closet a few years ago while moving their parents to an assisted living facility, Jet recalls.

“It’s a nice family story, but it’s also a story of the incredible willpower of my parents and their whole generation not to succumb to darkness even when resisting it seemed pointless,” she said.

Joels and his family gave the first copy of the “Dompie Stompie” series to Geeske Schurink, the little girl who delivered his episodes across the street to Hetty. Geeske never said a word about the guests, who would huddle together in the attic whenever the Schurinks received visits – including by some Nazi relatives.

“It was one of the many unbelievable things that happened then, that none of the children, no matter how young, ever told anyone about the people in hiding in their home,” Joels said.

Congress to Germany: Provide more funding for Holocaust survivors


A bipartisan group of Congress members introduced a resolution calling on the German government to provide additional financial aid to Holocaust survivors in their waning years.

The resolution, which was introduced in the House and the Senate on Friday, aims to ensure “that all Holocaust victims live with dignity, comfort, and security in their remaining years.” It calls on Germany “to reaffirm its commitment to this goal through a financial commitment to comprehensively address the unique health and welfare needs of vulnerable Holocaust victims, including home care and other medically prescribed needs.”

Reps. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, sponsored the resolution, which cites Germany’s “moral and historical responsibility” to the survivors.

According to the resolution, there are about 100,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States today, as well as about 500,000 in the rest of the world, and they all have increasing health and welfare needs that require assistance.

The resolution comes following an exchange of correspondence between members of Congress and the German Finance Ministry last December in which representatives of the German government acknowledged that “recent experience has shown that the care financed by the German government to date is insufficient” and that “it is imperative to expand these assistance measures quickly given the advanced age of many of the affected persons.”

The German government is engaged in a new round of negotiations with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against German, known as the Claims Conference, to address these funding gaps.

The resolution was introduced two days before President Barack Obama arrived on Sunday for a visit to Germany, which also is a week before Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, on May 5.

How two survivors found romance


In a way, their relationship began like so many others: a workplace romance.

Gabriella Karin, 85, was a docent at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH); Robert Geminder, 80, who goes by Bob, was on the museum’s board of directors.

His wife, Judy, died four years ago. Her husband, Ofer, passed away two years later. Neither one expected to love romantically again, but both seemed to understand that their long and fruitful marriages marked them as romantics.

“Is the pope Catholic?” Bob said. “I didn’t stay married for 52 years and she didn’t stay married for 64 years for no reason.”

Both are Holocaust survivors, deeply committed these days to a post-retirement career transmitting their stories to young people.

“We were trying to make menschin [upright citizens] out of young people,” he told the Jewish Journal. “We spoke in schools all the time — I did, Gabriella did — way before we even knew we existed.”

On Feb. 17, they’ll celebrate their first anniversary as a couple, on a speaking tour in Baltimore.

It started innocently. The two have known about each other for half a decade. They got to know each other a little better on the March of the Living, the annual youth pilgrimage to Poland and Israel, listening to the other’s stories of surviving the war.

(Both of their life stories have been recorded by Jane Ulman in the Journal’s Survivor series and can be read in full at jewishjournal.com/survivor.)

Soon, they began to notice each other at LAMOTH events they both attended.

“He asked me to save a place next to me when we went to some meeting, so I saved a place,” Gabriella explained. “Next time, he saved a place.”

Then came the act of fate.

At the 2014 annual LAMOTH Chanukah party, E. Randol Schoenberg, then the chair of the museum’s board, persuaded Gabriella to buy a raffle ticket. Sure enough, she won: two tickets to an opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles.

“I sit down with the ticket, and I ask him, ‘You want to go with me?’ ” she said. “He said, ‘Let me see.’ So he looks in his phone. ‘Yeah, I have time this day. Good!’ So he says, ‘OK, you have tickets, I’m taking you out to dinner.’ ”

The dinner at Bottega Louie on Grand Avenue was the first in a series of dinner dates leading up to Feb. 17, the day of their first kiss.

Since then, they’ve been visiting each other a couple of times a week or on the weekends. Mostly, he drives to her place from his home in Palos Verdes — where he walks his dog past the golf course he says is too expensive to play on but nice to look at.

She lives in the Fairfax neighborhood, close to LAMOTH’s home in Pan Pacific Park on Beverly Boulevard. They have no plans to move in together, instead cherishing the space and time they each need for their busy lives: “It’s great this way,” she said.

Last year, they traveled as a couple to Poland and Israel with the March of the Living youth trip, and they are going back in May for this year’s pilgrimage. They intend to go a week early, so each can tour the areas where the other rode out World War II.

Over a recent Saturday lunch, each waited patiently while the other dutifully shared stories of the Holocaust. Each has done this umpteen times.

Bob clammed up and stared fixedly at his lap while Gabriella told her story. She recounted in soft, accented English how she hid first in a convent and then in a one-bedroom apartment in Slovakia with her mother, father, aunt, two uncles and two family friends — across the street from the regional Gestapo headquarters, miraculously escaping notice.

While the Nazis and their collaborators thinned the ranks of Bratislava’s Jews, Gabriella watched her mother commit acts of daring for the Slovakian underground, accompanying her to warn Jewish families when their names appeared on deportation lists.

Bob cautions against drawing parallels between survivor stories, saying that each is unique.

But he also played eyewitness to his mother’s intuition and courage that mark her as the hero of his story. She sneaked him out of the ghetto on the way to work by hiding him under her skirt, while his brother scampered underneath her girlfriend’s skirt.

“Nobody saw that there were a couple of extra feet under the skirts,” he said.

Another parallel emerges: In both stories, a young couple proves a pivotal agent of survival.

The cramped one-bedroom apartment where Gabriella quietly hid for nine months belonged to her aunt’s boyfriend, Karol Blanar, a young lawyer whom she later successfully nominated to receive Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations award. Blanar brought food for the family and books for Gabriella to read so she wouldn’t fall behind in her education.

For Bob, it was a man who his widowed mother met in the ghetto who proved integral to arranging a place to stay in occupied Warsaw. Emil Brotfeld would later become Bob’s stepfather when he married Bob’s mother at a displaced persons camp in West Germany after the war.

Neither Bob nor Gabriella put much stock in the idea of fate, or in things turning out as they were somehow meant to.

Bob prefers instead to refer to luck: It was luck, he says, that resulted in his being at the back of the crowd at the Jewish cemetery in Stanislawow (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) during the Nazi mass murder of Oct. 12, 1941. If he had been in the front, he might have been among the 14,000 who were assassinated, rather than the 6,000 who lived.

“We were in the first trucks — who knows why?” he said. “It’s not that we were smart to get on the first few trucks — we were pushed on.”

Bob is the talkative one of the two. Gabriella chimes in intermittently to add a detail or to gently correct him, and he treats her graciously.

“I never want to take more time than Gabriella,” he said. “When we speak together, she always gets the extra two minutes.”

“He’s just polite,” she said.

Bob has a curious habit of interspersing his survivor story with jokes. Describing how he scavenged raw eggs to survive while stowed away at a farm near Krakow, he pointed to his full head of hair that, despite his age, has not thinned out.

“Usually at this point I try to find a guy in the audience who’s bald-headed and say ‘See? Raw eggs,’” he said.

He doesn’t joke around to make light of his story, but rather to make it easier for his listeners to stay tuned in.

“It’s such a tense, terrible story for both of us,” he said, before launching back into the recollection. “Not that I want to add humor — I just want to add relief, so people can breathe and listen again.”

If he’s the funny one, she’s the creative one.

Gabriella had a career as a fashion designer before turning to sculpture and illustration, focusing her artwork on themes related to the Holocaust. (Her work can be found at gabriellakarin.com.) She dressed for lunch in a gossamer blue blouse with matching pants and a necklace of her own making.

The two are not affectionate in public, but Bob seems to enjoy doting on her. When somebody set down a bowl of strawberries in front of the two, he turned to Gabriella.

“You don’t want any of these, I know,” he said.

“I’m allergic to strawberries,” she explained.

Later, he tried to pick the marzipan truffle from a box of chocolates to share with Gabriella but picked the caramel one instead.

“That’s not marzipan, Gabriella, I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ll put this one back. I didn’t eat it.”

On the second try, he successfully picked the sweet and split it with her.

Gabriella and Bob don’t exactly buy into the idea of a soul mate. But others who know them aren’t so skeptical.

Samara Hutman, executive director of LAMOTH, waxes poetic when talking about the new couple. She played a key role in their introduction.

“My mother always taught me there’s a lid for every pot,” she told the Journal. “They’re just the perfect lid for each other’s pot — just a perfect fit.”

She admits to getting a little warm and fuzzy about Gabriella and Bob’s relationship. For her, it speaks to the possibility of a second chance at love. But on a personal level, she’s proud of the museum’s role in bringing them together.

“Every time I see them together, my heart smiles like I’m an old lady, like they’re my kids,” she said.

In fact, Hutman was the architect of the raffle that first brought them together for dinner. (“Everything’s better with a raffle,” she said.)

She had known Gabriella for years, because Gabriella got involved with Hutman’s Righteous Conversations project, now under the LAMOTH umbrella, which brings together young people and survivors.

She remembers watching Gabriella care for her late husband when he took ill, after he had for years enthusiastically supported her work as a survivor-storyteller.

“He was as excited about her second career as she was, and when I would go there to visit, he would always give me a flower and a smile,” Hutman recalled. “He was just one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known; their relationship was just so beautiful.”

Hutman hadn’t known Bob all that well until he offered to drive her to the airport on her way to Jerusalem for work.

During that car ride, he unburdened himself to her about how his five-decade marriage had left him a student of loving devotion toward “a really special person,” and to keep her eye out in case she might come across such a person.

“He was kind of putting his soul out to the universe, to me on this drive,” she said.

Hutman is careful not to take too much credit for the relationship. But she said LAMOTH provides a loving community built around Holocaust education that contributed to their meeting. She wouldn’t say if she’s heard of other couples that have met through the museum.

“Are you asking if we’re running a dating service at LAMOTH?” she joked. “I’m not at liberty to say.”

Bob and Gabriella emphasize it was their shared mission of education, of teaching kids about resilience and respect for their fellow humans, that first bound them to each other.

A retired electrical engineer, Bob earned his teaching credential at the age of 70 and now teaches math as a substitute in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He recalled a moment when a student in his math class at a southeast L.A. high school told him he’d heard Bob’s story before in another classroom.

“He’s sitting in class, and he shows me a picture of he and I two years ago,” Bob said. “Do you think he’s going to remember algebra?”

When the lunch wound down, Bob stepped outside and escorted Gabriella to his car, a silver 2016 Corvette Stingray with the dealer plates still on.

“A present to myself for my 80th birthday,” he said.

Bob held the door as Gabriella slid into the passenger seat of the two-door convertible. They waved and then, with a roar of the engine, tore off under a cloudless Los Angeles sky.

BBYO teens on front lines of the last survivor generation


Michele Rodri was 7 years old when a pair of Nazi storm troopers plucked her out of a game of hopscotch outside her Paris home. 

Telling her story to a group of Southern California teens at Shabbat dinner on the evening of Nov. 6, Rodri lifted her plastic plate to demonstrate the ease with which they hoisted her into the back of a truck.

“I can only tell you that I grew up very quickly at that point,” she said.

Rodri’s childhood could hardly be more different from that of the young adults sitting around her in the mess hall of Camp Alonim kicking off a retreat for the Jewish youth organization BBYO.

The 160-some teens, who spent the weekend on the Simi Valley campus, are boisterously Jewish. After dinner, they loudly recited prayers peppered with joke lyrics picked up over years of practice. The 16 Holocaust survivors who joined them that night were infants when the war broke out and had had no such luxury.

These survivors were mostly old hands on the Los Angeles lecture circuit, although Samara Hutman, executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), noted a few new faces.

The events, a partnership between BBYO and LAMOTH, dropped the classroom setting in favor of more informal interaction. Survivors joined the high-schoolers for a challah bake, followed by dinner and a group discussion. Millennials of varying denominations hung out with Jews several generations apart from them.

Rodri’s dark recounting — “The kids that were sick, they wouldn’t bother with them, they would just shoot them” — brought from her audience mostly shocked silence and exclamations of “Oh my God!” but the silences were hardly awkward ones.

After her story and a dinner of boiled carrots and chicken drenched in barbecue sauce — camp food — a slight girl in a hoodie came over from another table just to give Rodri a hug. They had met earlier while braiding challah.

“See how they react?” Rodri said after her new friend walked away. 

The event was a ritual closing of the circle between “the future of the Jewish people and the elders of the Jewish story,” Hutman said.

Dinner was followed by an induction service. Formalities were recited, during which teen leaders invoked the “power vested in us” to endow the survivors with honorary membership “to the BBYO family.”

Teens and nonagenarians threw their arms over each other’s shoulders for renditions of “Hinei Mah Tov” and “Shehecheyanu.”

Survivor Betty Cohen holds hands with a high-schooler during an after-dinner panel.

The evening was an exercise in Holocaust memory that sought to impress something more powerful, though more fleeting, than stories recorded in books and videos. Some of the survivors have recorded their stories with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation; they play continuously on a wall of monitors at LAMOTH’s Pan Pacific Park campus.

But the teens came for something more than just a historical account: a face-to-face connection with a rapidly receding past.

One teen, Gillian Shapiro, compared the evening’s events with her visit this past summer to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

“Even that didn’t relate with seeing you guys here tonight,” she told a panel of survivors that convened after dinner.

Tenth-grader Liam Cohen had also traveled to Amsterdam, recalling that nobody was able to point him to the Holocaust museum, despite being directly in front of it.

“I think people should be taught and should know what that building is,” he told the audience, speaking into a microphone. 

The event proceeded with a frank acknowledgement that these were among the last teens who might have the opportunity to interact with living Holocaust survivors.

“We’re going to leave you in not too long — not too short, I hope,” one survivor, Dana Schwartz, told the audience. “Where are you going?” another interrupted before allowing her to finish.

“I’m having a heck of a time here,” Schwartz said.

Survivor Dana Schwartz (center) prepares challah with BBYO teens. 

The teens recognize the responsibility assigned to them.

“Being a part of the last generation that will ever hear Holocaust survivors speak, we have to be active in that,” said Justin Willamson, one of the two Southern California presidents of BBYO.

During a group photo-op, a volunteer photographer brandished her iPhone and called out, “This one’s for Snapchat!” 

The irony was palpable, at least for the teens who know how the app works. Picture messages sent out over the social media platform disappear almost as quickly as they are viewed — savored in the moment, and then gone.

But despite the shrieks and jeers of teenagers in their element, the ethos of the night was not lost on the seniors.

“We are thrilled to see your joy, your exuberance and your Jewishness,” Schwartz said. “We all thought we were the only ones to survive — and here you are.”

 “The Jewish people have to stay together, because we lost 6 million people,” Rodri told her half-dozen dinner companions, emphasizing the importance of interacting with and ultimately marrying other Jews. 

 “I’m not saying you have to make 6 million more Jews,” she said, letting the sentence trail off. 

As the night came to an end, Rodri gravitated back to Hutman, the museum director, with whom she’d gotten a ride earlier from Santa Monica through legendary Friday traffic on the 405 Freeway.

 “You see? You walk in, you don’t know anybody,” she told Hutman. “You walk out, you have a ton of friends.”

LAMOTH remembers 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation


It’s been 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, but it’s essential to remember that the horrors of anti-Semitism live on, according to Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel.

“This is not ancient history; it is right now,” Siegel said during a Jan. 27 speech. “So, words and remembrance without deeds are empty; they are hollow. Governments must stand up against anti-Semitism. They must prevent and act against Holocaust deniers and take on radical Islamist governments that endanger Jews and endanger society at large.”

Siegel spoke to a crowd of approximately 100 people who attended a Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) event in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date was designated by the United Nations General Assembly to recognize the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. 

Siegel’s remarks looked back in honor of all those who perished, paying tribute to the approximately 25 survivors and camp liberators in the audience, while looking forward to the future of world Jewry, particularly in light of the recent deadly shootings in France.

E. Randol “Randy” Schoenberg, LAMOTH president, was also one of the many speakers. He described Auschwitz as a “man-made hell.”

“I begin by saying how unfathomable Auschwitz and the Holocaust is, and, for me, being the president of the museum has also been a learning experience,” he said. “I think it’s natural for people who were not there to have a certain skepticism about the stories, to say that couldn’t have happened that way, that shouldn’t have happened that way, how could that have happened that way — and, it’s a process, I think, becoming comfortable enough with the facts to accept that [these] things happened.”

Commemoration was on the mind of community member Beth Kean, a third-generation Holocaust survivor, as she discussed her grandmother, a survivor who was interned at Ravensbruck. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website describes it as the “largest concentration camp system for women in the German Reich … second in size only to the women’s camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau.” 

“My body became numb when I saw the numbers [of how many died at Ravensbruck], because I had no idea that they were so grim,” Kean said. “How in the world did my grandmother survive?” 

The many survivors in attendance included Robert Geminder, who was 6 when he witnessed a mass shooting in Stanislawow, Poland, during the war. Today, he is a LAMOTH board member who hopes that Holocaust commemorations don’t fade with the passing of survivors. 

“I am hoping 50 years from now, there will be something for the 120th anniversary, when all the survivors are gone, because that’s what is important — to make sure we keep the memory of those 6 million people alive and make sure they didn’t die for nothing. That’s what truly counts to me,” he said in an interview with the Journal. “That’s why I speak at this museum, that’s why I speak at the Museum of Tolerance — to make sure that the young people know what happened.”

Auschwitz survivors Helen Freeman and Elisabeth Mann also attended. Freeman recently inspired Milken Community Schools students to create a mural that was on display at the museum. There was artwork by Mann as well.

The event featured musical performances by students who are part of the LAMOTH Young Pianist Showcase and Musical Ambassadors program. Samara Hutman, the museum’s executive director, was in Poland at the time of the commemoration, visiting Auschwitz on behalf of LAMOTH; the museum’s director of community support, Samira Miller, read remarks on Hutman’s behalf. 

Politics, Putin cast shadow over Auschwitz liberation anniversary


When they announced the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Polish officials insisted that at this year’s event, “the eyes of the world will be focused” on about 300 Holocaust survivors whose presence Tuesday at the former Nazi death camp near Krakow may be the last gathering of its sort.

The generation of Holocaust survivors, after all, is dying out.

Yet critics are charging that politics and tensions between Russia and its neighbors are nonetheless eclipsing the focus on the survivors and even muddling the historical record. Many believe that behind the main event, at Auschwitz, was an organized effort to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from attending — a reprisal of sorts for Russia’s annexation last year of Ukrainian territory.

Putin in his earlier stint as president attended the 60th anniversary ceremony in 2005. This time, a tentative invitation was extended to the Russian Embassy but not to Putin directly.

An attempt to keep out Putin was “a serious failure in commemoration because it was Russian troops who liberated the camp,” said Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the human rights organization. “This attempt to erase the Russian people’s contribution to defeating Nazism is casting a shadow on this commemoration and creating a vacuum in which untruths flourish.”

One such distortion: On Jan. 21, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna told a local radio station that Ukrainians, not Russians, liberated Auschwitz, citing the fact that the Red Army unit that reached Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front. And on Jan. 8, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated that the Soviets “invaded  Ukraine and Germany,” when, in fact, it was the Germans who invaded the Soviet Union. His spokesman later explained that Yatsenyuk had in mind the carving-up of Poland in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union.

These historical inversions “show the level of hatred that exists for Russia for the moment,” said Peter Feldmajer, a vice president of the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz.

In addition to the event in Auschwitz, the camp’s liberation was scheduled to be commemorated in Prague on Jan. 26 and at the United Nations General Assembly on Jan. 28.

But Putin’s presence would have been an especially sensitive matter in Poland, where anger over Russian aggression in Ukraine is mixed with bitter memories of Russian domination during and predating the Soviet era and fears of its return.

Polish officials denied that Putin was deliberately disinvited or discouraged from attending, noting that no other head of state had been officially invited, owing to the policy of focusing on survivors.

Many, however, doubted this argument, as the list of attending dignitaries at the Auschwitz event grew. Among others it included French President Francois Hollande and his German and Ukrainian counterparts, Joachim Guack and Petro Poroshenko, as well as the Dutch and Belgian premiers, Mark Rutte and Charles Michel, respectively.

Putin, however, had been invited to attend an event near Prague co-organized by the European Jewish Congress that brought hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries to commemorations of the Auschwitz liberation and to the nearby Terezin Memorial for the Theresiendstadt concentration camp.

EJC’s Russian-born president, the industrialist Moshe Kantor, set up the event near Prague with the Czech government to provide a commemoration ceremony where Putin would feel welcome, according to Peter Brod, a board member of the Jewish Community of Prague’s foundation.

“The feeling was that the Russian contribution to the liberation should be honored and commemorated in some way, and this led to the event,” said Brod, a former BBC journalist.

But Arie Zuckerman, a senior EJC official, said the event near Prague — which featured debates about anti-Semitism today and legislation to curb it — were never meant to serve as an alternative to the Auschwitz event, “which, unlike our event, is only about commemoration.”

Marek Halter, a well-known French Jewish author who survived the Holocaust in his native Warsaw before escaping to Russia, said he and his generation “have a responsibility to protect [the] historical record for as long as we can.” The record, he said, “is in danger of being lost in the politics of the new cold war we are entering between the United States and Russia.”

Putin’s attendance at Auschwitz, he added during an interview with JTA, “should have been facilitated to defend against this sort of obfuscation.”

Serge Klarsfeld, a Romania-born Jewish Nazi hunter who survived the Holocaust in hiding in France and whose father died at Auschwitz, said he “could understand the Polish state of mind regarding Putin,” but that he should have been invited.

“It’s not, as some Poles claim, that the Russians liberated Auschwitz because it was en route to Berlin,” he said. “They came to free Auschwitz, and the survivors will never forget the Red Army’s arrival there.”

Still, Halter said he could think of no place more appropriate than Prague and Terezin to commemorate the Holocaust.

“Prague was the only old Jewish city that the Nazis left intact because they wanted to turn it into a Jewish Jurassic Park, a museum to an extinct people,” he told JTA. “Convening hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries is a powerful response.”

But how the message is carried is changing as the last generation of Holocaust survivors passes on, Frans Timmermans, a vice president of the European Commission, told JTA at the Prague’s Municipal House, where Czech President Milos Zeman welcomed leaders of European Jewry and politicians with a brief address.

“We are at a critical point in European history because living memory is becoming history,” Timmermans said. “Soon there will be no more people with numbers on their arms to tell the story, and the tendency to beautify a terrible record is tempting.”

In Auschwitz, one of the survivors who is still telling his story is Ernst Verduin, 87, who lived in hiding in the Netherlands before he was deported to the death camp with his family. Verduin arrived at Auschwitz suffering from a severe lung infection and was sent immediately to the gas chambers.

“As we said goodbye, my sister wished me a quick death,” recalled Verduin, who survived because he left the gas chamber group and snuck to the group of men sent to work.

Walking in, and then out of a concentration camp


How does one walk into a concentration camp, treading hallowed ground that bears witness to tragedy of unparalleled magnitude? Where the green grass belies what happened there. Where just outside the camp, people go about their daily business. Where the atrocities committed there are common knowledge affirmed by countless photographs, documentaries, and stories. How do we walk in? A heavy thought to contemplate.  But here is a more profound one: How do we walk out?

Earlier this month, a group leader posed this very question to me as I toured Nazi concentration camps in Poland. I was struck by this question of how we “walk out” of tragedy, as it is a vital one also applicable to the recent attack on French Jews. And today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, this question is more pertinent than ever.

After the Holocaust, some survivors renounced their belief in God because they couldn’t reconcile such suffering and destruction of the Jewish people. Some went on to raise Jewish families. Some chose to talk about the Holocaust, and others never spoke about it, even to their families. Some even became leaders of the Jewish community. There are no right or wrong responses, only personal choice.

Those who suffered in the Holocaust were stripped of just that—choices. They could not choose whether to live or die, what career to pursue, or even when to use the bathroom. They were stripped of choices because the power of choice is what makes us human, and the Nazis wanted their victims dehumanized.

Following the recent anti-Semitic attack at a kosher supermarket in Paris, many have expressed their opinion on how French Jews should react. Some say they should move to Israel, the only Jewish state in the world. Others say that French Jews should stay in France, or else they are letting the terrorists win. I would argue that one size does not fit all—each individual has the freedom to decide how he or she reacts.

Touring the concentration camps, I was inspired by hopeful stories that portray humanity in the few choices that Holocaust victims did have. Even during the Holocaust, there were many stories of selflessness and love. One such story involved an anonymous man risking his life for a young boy he had never met by jumping into sewage and saving the boy who was thrown into the trough by a pair of Nazis. Another more famous story involved Janusz Korczak, a Polish children’s rights activist who had many chances to escape the Holocaust but instead decided to stay with a group of children, even following them to a death camp and finally a gas chamber. All the time, he led the children in song to comfort them.

Each of us has the ability to choose how we react to tragedy, be it a seven-year Holocaust or a one-day hostage murder. As well over a million marched in France, denouncing terrorism and extolling freedom of expression, I walked out of the concentration camps arm in arm with my fellow Jews, singing “Am Yisrael Chai,” the Jewish People Live.

How will you walk out?

Eliana Rudee is a Fellow with the Salomon Center. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. She published her thesis in Perceptions and Strategic Concerns of Gender in Terrorism. Follow her @ellierudee.

Survivors return to Auschwitz determined to share their stories


What kept you alive? Did your non-Jewish friends reject you? Could you ever forgive?

Those were some of the questions posed by Jewish young adults to Holocaust survivor Marcel Tuchman on Monday at the Galicia Jewish Museum here.

“What kept me alive was having my father with me,” said Tuchman, 93, a physician from New York who was born in Poland and survived several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. “And another thing was the hope I had that one day I will be able to tell the story to the likes of you, so you can tell it to the next generation.”

His meeting with young Jews was one of many such encounters taking place in and around Krakow on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet army’s liberation of Auschwitz, where an estimated 1.1 million people were murdered — many of them gassed.

On Tuesday, in a tent set up around the gaping entrance to the Auschwitz-adjacent Birkenau concentration camp, survivors and their companions were joined by dignitaries from more than 40 countries for ceremonies that may well mark the final time that so many Auschwitz survivors are together here again.

Halina Birenbaum, who survived Auschwitz as a child, described to the crowd of 3,000 her impressions of the Nazi camp 45 miles east of Krakow, calling it “a bottomless pit of hell that I could not get out of.”

“All around us was electric barbed wire. Rows of barracks, stinking mud … a disgusting mass of people all in lousy wet rags, with numbers and shaven heads,” she said. “Those gray faces with legs like sticks, wearing those muddy clogs. Nothing reminded you of anything human.”

Roman Kent, president of the International Auschwitz Committee, which was founded by a group of Auschwitz survivors, said his experience in the camp was “more than enough to keep me awake at night until the end of time.”

He added: “How can I ever forget the smell of burning flesh that permeated the air” or “the cries of children torn from their mother’s arms.”

While survivors cannot forget, others simply must remember. Otherwise, Kent said, “the conscience of mankind would be buried alongside the victims.”

Tuesday’s memorial was sponsored by the World Jewish Congress, the USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Communications, whose subsidiary, Discovery Education, is working with the Shoah Foundation to develop digital teaching materials about Auschwitz. The event also featured the screening of a short documentary, “Auschwitz,” co-directed by the famed filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who started the Shoah Foundation.

In a moment of disequilibrium, survivors watched the film about their former place of imprisonment, sitting in front of the very gate through which cattle cars once passed, delivering so many Jews to their deaths. Just outside the tent, a light snow was falling on the remaining barracks of Birkenau, surrounded by barbed wire.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, addressed the crowd.

“Auschwitz never goes away,” he said. “This awful place stands as a reminder that propaganda leads to anti-Semitism … that anti-Semitism will grow if nobody speaks out.”

Anti-Semitism, he said, “leads to places like Auschwitz.”

He added: “After the recent events in Paris and throughout Europe and around the world, I cannot ignore what is happening today. Jews are targeted in Europe once again because they are Jews.”

The ceremony was the culmination of several days of events and meetings attended in total by some 300 Holocaust survivors. Few of them were actually liberated at Auschwitz. But all passed through its gates.

Today they are in their 80s and 90s, and fit enough to have traveled from Israel, America, Argentina and elsewhere.

A group of survivors who was to visit the Auschwitz exhibit on Monday never got beyond the infamous gate, marked “Arbeit Macht Frei” — so crowded was this threshold with eager journalists who had come from around the world. And yet the hubbub didn’t seem to faze them a bit. In fact, most of the visitors seemed determined to tell their stories to all who inquired.

“I know that we’re getting old and have to make sure that the memory doesn’t die with us,” said Irene Weiss, 84, of Fairfax, Va., who traveled with her daughter Lesley. Her key message to today’s youth: “[Don’t] be deceived by demagogues.”

On Monday at a ceremony for visiting survivors, Spielberg, whose Oscar-winning movie “Schindler’s List” was filmed partly in Krakow, told the survivors, “I found my own voice and my own Jewish identity thanks to you.”

Spielberg, whose USC Shoah Foundation has interviewed more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors since it was founded 21 years ago, said he was first confronted with the Holocaust as a child reading the numbers on his grandfather’s arm.

Edgar Wildfeuer, 90, came here this week from Argentina with his daughter, Doris Wildfeuer, wanting to show her both the camp he survived and city where he grew up: Krakow, with its parks and market squares, its church spires and streetcars. They planned to visit the street where he had lived and the synagogue where he had his bar mitzvah.

Wildfeuer, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, lost 32 relatives.

“I was the only one left,” he said.

Still, his daughter said, “He wanted to show me not only that place but the place where he grew up and was happy.”

Tuchman, too, recalled a happy childhood in Poland. But when the question of forgiveness came up before the youthful crowd on Monday evening, he paused.

“Forgiveness is a very complicated thing,” said Tuchman, who came with his son Jeffrey. After the war, he testified on behalf of a German engineer who had overseen slave laborers, including Tuchman himself,  in Auschwitz.

But Tuchman also dealt out his own justice. In postwar Germany, he and a fellow survivor spied a man who had tortured them.

“He was a sadist: He pounded on our stomachs when we were sick with diarrhea,” Tuchman recalled. “We recognized him on the street and grabbed him, and beat the hell out of him.”

Witnesses to Kristallnacht


On a Wednesday evening in late 1938, the sounds of broken glass shattered the quiet streets of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Over the next 24 hours, Nov. 9-10, rampaging Nazi mobs would torch more than 1,000 synagogues; vandalize Jewish homes, businesses and cemeteries; and kill nearly 100 Jews. As many as 30,000 Jews were arrested and carted off to concentration camps. These coordinated attacks, which came to be known as Kristallnacht —  the Night of Broken Glass — mark the beginning of the Holocaust.

Survivors who lived to tell the story of the terror of Kristallnacht  — some quite young at the time — remember vividly the horrors of that night. These four, who share their memories on the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, are among the lucky ones whose families were able to escape and who, eventually, made their way to Los Angeles. 


Herbert Jellinek, Vienna

Late on the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, Herb and his father, Leo, were walking home from their weekly visit to the public baths,when from a distance they saw the Turner Temple in flames. Only a year and four months earlier, Herb had become a bar mitzvah at this Vienna synagogue, but now Nazi Brownshirts, also called SA or Stormtroopers, were standing around with the local police, watching the building burn, and a crowd of Austrians had gathered and were cheering the sight. Herb and Leo stayed in the shadows. “We were very afraid,” Herb said. “We tried to get home as quickly as possible.”

They arrived at their apartment on Mariahilferstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, around noon to find Herb’s mother, Irma, in tears. Later that afternoon, Herb peeked out of their living room window and saw hordes of Brownshirts going from building to building, breaking the windows of apartments and stores where Jews lived and shopped. He also witnessed the Brownshirts roughing up Jewish men, dragging them out of their apartment buildings. Herb’s family fully expected the Nazis to come to their door to take Leo, and possibly 14-year-old Herb. They sat on the couch, wearing their overcoats because the apartment didn’t have central heat, and waited. 

Suddenly the doorbell rang. Irma opened the door and was surprised to find their electrician standing there, responding to their call from several days earlier to repair a broken radio. “I can’t understand what’s going on,” he told the Jellineks. “It’s ridiculous.”

Herb and his parents waited the rest of the night, listening to their newly repaired radio and staying quiet so as to not draw attention to themselves. They learned later that their concierge had steered the Nazis away, informing them no Jews lived in the building. 

The next day, Herb’s parents resolved to leave Austria. 

The situation had been deteriorating, especially since the Anschluss on March 12, 1938, when Germany annexed Austria. Three days later, Hitler had entered Vienna, the climax of a triumphant tour of Austria. Despite a warning over loudspeakers that anyone leaning out a window or leaving curtains open would be shot, Herb peered out to see Hitler riding in an open car with his hand raised. He heard people cheering and saw buildings adorned with swastika flags and banners. “It was like everyone all of a sudden became Nazi,” he recalled. 

Shortly after, Herb was forced to transfer from public school to a Jewish school, an hour’s streetcar ride, and at least weekly he found himself fighting members of the Hitler Youth. 

But Kristallnacht was the turning point for the Jellineks, and the following week Herb accompanied his father to the American consulate, where Leo filed an application to immigrate to the United States. But the waiting list was long, as it was at other consulates they visited. Weeks later, they learned that only Shanghai, which the British had established as a treaty port in the 1840s, would take them without a visa. With difficulty, Leo secured second-class tickets on an Italian passenger ship, departing Trieste in the spring.

In June 1939, Herb and his parents left Vienna. As they crossed the border into Italy and an Italian customs official entered their train car, they felt great relief. 

“A lot of people forget. You can’t forget what we went through,” Herb said. 


Rita Feder, Berlin

As evening fell on Nov. 10, 1938, Rita heard a huge crash outside her family’s apartment on Berlin’s Metzer Strasse. She looked out the front window and there, next to the entrance to their building, she saw four or five Brownshirts throwing cement blocks through the windows of the stores that occupied the ground floor. Rita’s mother, Fanny, started screaming. She dragged 10-year-old Rita away from the window and closed the drapes. 

 The Atterman family in Berlin in 1938. From left, mother Fanny, brother Jona (Heinz), Rita, brother Bill (Willy) and father Max

The family gathered in the living room, in the center of the apartment and away from the front windows and the back staircase. Rita sat in the dark with her parents and older brother, Bill (Willy). Her middle brother, Jona (Heinz), had immigrated to Palestine several months earlier. Time moved slowly. “I was so scared. It was the only time I was almost traumatized,” Rita recalled. While Max Atterman, her father, thought the Nazi hysteria would pass, Rita believed this was the end.  

The next day, Rita saw the store windows had been boarded up and the owners were sweeping up shattered glass. “There was not one store that wasn’t hit,” she said. Rita went to school that day, but no one talked about what had happened. 

Life had become increasingly unhappy for Rita as Hitler gained power. A gymnast and a sprinter, she had dreams of participating in the Olympics and desperately wanted to attend the 1936 Berlin Games. But Jews were not allowed. Her father did take her, however, to watch the men’s 50-kilometer walk, which took place along city streets.

About a year later, in 1937, Rita and her mother were walking near Alexanderplatz when the crowd began buzzing that Hitler was approaching. Everything quickly came to a standstill, and Fanny warned her daughter, “You better raise your hand now and scream, ‘Heil, Hitler.’ ” Rita shouted the salute as the Führer rode by in his open car, his arm raised. “I felt terrible,” Rita recalled.

Kristallnacht convinced Fanny that it was time to leave Germany, but Max wanted to stay. He thought again, however, as people around them began making plans to emigrate. Then, after visiting various consulates in Berlin, he discovered the world was blocked off to Jews. 

One day, a family friend came to visit. “We’re getting out of here, and you are, too. We’re going to China,” she told Fanny and Max. Max thought she was crazy.

In December 1938, Max made arrangements to send Rita to live with his niece in Antwerp, Belgium. When the smuggler came for her, Rita was frightened. “You have to go. It’ll save your life,” her mother told her. The man, who was Jewish, delivered Rita to her relatives. “They were wonderful people,” she said. 

In July 1939, the niece’s husband brought Rita back to Berlin, and a week later, Rita, her parents and her brother Bill boarded a train to Italy. “A stone fell off my parents’ hearts. They were getting away,” Rita said. They took a passenger ship to Shanghai, and in 1947, she and Bill immigrated to Los Angeles. 

“I have to give back to God and my country. I’m so fortunate,” Rita said.


Tom Tugend, Berlin

From his family’s second-floor apartment on Berlin’s Greifswalder Strasse, during the late-night hours of Nov. 9 or very early on Nov. 10, 1938, Tom heard the crashing of glass as bricks or rocks were heaved through the windows of the street-level shops. Tom’s mother, Irene Tugendreich, hustled Tom, 13, and his older sister, Brigitte, into her bedroom, and then his usually undemonstrative mother lay down and cuddled her children in the dark room. 

Tom Tugend, 14, and his mother, Irene Tugendreich, in 1939 in Philadelphia, their first year in the United States. 

At one point, the doorbell rang. The owner of the stationery store on the building’s ground level stood in the hallway, deathly pale and shaking. “Can you hide me?” he begged. The gentile landlady, who had answered the door and who also lived on the second floor, was too frightened to take him in; her Jewish husband had been sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp just a few days earlier. But she allowed the man to run through Tom’s apartment and out the back door. Tom didn’t feel particularly frightened at the time, he said, but, “I always remember his face, that absolutely horror-stricken face.”

Tom, his sister and mother returned to the bedroom. Tom continued to hear the shattering glass and the shouting mob. The three of them were grateful that Tom’s father was in the United States, as he undoubtedly would have been arrested.

The following day, Tom went to school. He remembers seeing the shattered glass on the streets and the stores being boarded up. But in a few days, life returned to what was then normal. He was riding his bike to school and playing soccer, the activity that mattered most to him at the time. 

His father, Gustav, a highly respected pediatrician and a World War I medical officer, had believed for a long time that Hitler was an aberration. But by 1937, when Gustav was no longer permitted to treat non-Jewish patients and when the family was forced to move from their upper-middle-class apartment to a smaller one in a working-class neighborhood, Gustav realized it was time to leave. Plus, he was likely influenced by Irene’s more pronounced sense of urgency. But by that time, most countries had closed their borders, and it was impossible to obtain visas.

Gustav, however, had tracked down the American and British Quakers, with whom he had worked in Germany in 1919 feeding hungry children. They found an immigration law exception for academicians and secured Gustav a one-year lectureship at the University of London in 1937-38 and one at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania the following year, thus qualifying him for a non-quota visa. Meanwhile, after the Munich Agreement in September 1938 and again after Kristallnacht, Gustav had been writing the family urgent letters from the United States, begging them to depart as soon as possible.

Finally, on April 20, 1939, with flags bedecking the city to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday, Tom, Brigitte and Irene boarded a plane from Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport to London. They then traveled to Southampton and sailed by passenger ship to New York. 

Tom cautions that the trouble with writing history is that you see it through the lens of what has happened since. “Nobody could imagine at that time, even after Kristallnacht, that the Holocaust could happen,” he said.

Since 1955, Tom has lived permanently in Los Angeles. He has been writing regularly for the Jewish Journal since 1993 and serves as a contributing editor.


Risa Igelfeld, Vienna

Before Kristallnacht, and even before the Anschluss, when Risa witnessed Nazi soldiers singing and marching along the streets, she saw many Viennese turning to Nazism. “They came up like cockroaches. It was a frightening time,” she said.

Risa Relles Igelfeld, center, in Vienna in 1928 with her older sister, Edith Relles, and half-brother, Paul Knie. The girls were given the maiden name of their mother, who died when Risa was 1. 

Risa was asleep in the early morning hours of Nov. 10, 1938, when the sound of boots kicking the front door of their house awakened her abruptly. “Where’s the money?” she heard the intruders shout. Risa, 21, and her older sister, Edith, who shared a bedroom, heard them enter their parents’ bedroom. “You’re coming with us,” they ordered Risa’s father, Ruben. The girls got out of bed and started dressing. “I was shaking like a leaf,” Risa recalled. The Brownshirts burst into their bedroom, searching for money, then left with Ruben. Risa and Edith stood together, holding onto one another. “I was so scared, just so scared,” Risa remembered.

About an hour later, Risa ventured into the living room. Daylight had broken, and she looked out the window onto Favoritenstrasse, one of Vienna’s main streets, to see other Brownshirts pulling away in Ruben’s first-ever new car. She kept pacing back and forth to the window. At one point, she saw SS and Brownshirts marching up and down the street, singing. Another time, she glanced at the window of the house across the street to see a neighbor sticking out her tongue at her. 

The following night, Risa’s half-brother, Paul Knie, managed to cross Austria’s border and head for Belgium. Then on Sunday, Risa was walking alone when she was stopped by the Brownshirts, who forced her to eat grass. She also saw elderly Jews she knew, on their hands and knees cleaning the sidewalks. “That was very upsetting for me,” she recalled.

The family did not learn Ruben’s fate until a month later, when they received a letter from him. He had been taken to Dachau and then Buchenwald. 

In early January 1939, Risa, following in her sister’s footsteps, left for London on a domestic visa sent by an English family looking for a servant. Soon after, she was promoted to the position of nanny for the couple’s two young children. 

Back in Vienna, Risa’s stepmother went to Nazi headquarters and bribed an SS official, who agreed to release Ruben with the stipulation that the couple leave Austria immediately. They boarded a boat to Palestine but were refused entry. Other ports were also closed. They finally landed on the island of Mauritius, off the southeast coast of Africa, where they were imprisoned for three years. 

Before Kristallnacht, Paul had gone to the American consulate to search its telephone books for people with their surname, Knie, writing letters pleading for help. A couple in Chicago, Max and Tesse Knee, who were not related, responded, offering affidavits for all the family members. “They were just good people,” Risa said. Her parents arrived in New York around 1944. Risa and her husband, Gershom Igelfeld, whom she married in London, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1949. 

Letters to the Editor: Survivors. Garcetti cartoon, 99 Cents Only store


Survivor Stories Have Merit

I was not raised Jewish, but I like to read the Journal and discuss articles in it with acquaintances and friends. I learn so much from the Survivor stories.

I have just read the story of Charlotte Seeman (May 31). I read it twice! I couldn’t believe how much terror she and her family and friends went through, chased and hunted like animals and forced to run and hide from city to city, to try to keep living without basic provisions. It was a very moving story that brought me to tears, along with the section on Albert Rosa from Salonika, Greece (Survivor, March 15). I have visited a Nazi concentration camp in Europe, and it greatly impacted me.

I save these stories and plan to use them in public school for my students to read and discuss. I hope you will always publish them, along with their photographs.

In our narcissistic me-me-me age, these stories are a way to teach myself and my students about others, their incredible sufferings, to build a conscience and to teach mercy. I feel this is very important — and this builds community responsibility to others.

Since most public school texts have little about the Holocaust, and never survivor stories, I want my students to know that the Holocaust involved millions of REAL people, with lives, families and loved ones and stories to tell, which the Nazis snuffed out. Every person’s story is priceless! I enjoy learning about these survivors so much!!

The Journal provides a way to present their stories and photographs so they will be acknowledged and not forgotten.

This is an outstanding section of the Journal. Thanks again for publishing them!

Sharon Swan
Redondo Beach

Not Equal, Not Funny

As I read this week’s Jewish Journal, I looked at Greenberg’s View cartoon and found it offensive, confusing and not even funny (“Eretz Garcetti,” May 31). Mr. Garcetti is between the Latino and Jewish communities; in one hand he is holding a Kiddush cup and in the other he is holding a Margarita glass. Really? How is that an equivalent? How about a glass of agua fresca or a bottle of Jarritos, the popular Mexican soft drink? Seriously, I don’t get it and but it bothered me as a Jew and a Hispanic.

Cecilia Victor
Los Angeles

Unfair Assumptions

I don’t understand why people assume that an author writing about a shady character who happens to be Jewish automatically means the author is anti-Semitic (“ ‘Gatsby’s’ Jew,” May 31). One’s religion is hardly an indicator of one’s business ethics or how he or she might comport him or herself in relationships. There are plenty of people in this particular tribe — and all others, by the way — who are thieves, liars and miscreants. To infer that all people who happen to be Jewish must be portrayed in good light is absolutely ludicrous.

Nancy Nadler Frank
La Jolla
via jewishjournal.com

Such a Deal!

Many years ago, a friend and I strolled up and down the aisles of the Wilshire 99 Cents Only store (“Humility and a Deal,” May 24). I marveled at all the name-brand products that were being offered for 99 cents. It caused me to wonder out loud, “How do they do this?” At which point, a rather small, elderly lady with white hair pushed her shopping cart past us and remarked, “Who the f— cares?!”

Arlene Ford
Culver City

Corrections

An article about the Teen Impact program at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles (“Helping Teens Face Cancer,” May 17) stated that the organization has served 700 families. It has actually served 7,000 families.

In the Survivor profile of Charlotte Seeman (May 31), incorrect dates were included for the Anschluss and Kristallnacht, which took place in 1938.

A Turkish Muslim perspective on Yom HaShoah


When people of reason and conscience look back on the subject of Shoah (otherwise known as the Holocaust) today, it is common to hear questions like: “How could a nation of philosophers, composers of classical music, technology, poets, in this seat of the Enlightenment itself, suddenly give vent to savagery not seen since the Dark Ages? How could such dreadful, inhumane impulses seize every apparatus of a nation and cause it to commit such atrocities?”

In looking at the subject of the Holocaust violence, we can see the obvious influence of pseudo-scientific thought as well as a reversion to a far darker philosophy in human history. Arguably, the roots of anti-Semitism in Europe run quite deep, and found their most lethal expression in the Shoah itself; when some six million innocent Jewish men, women and children were done to death on the edge of mass graves in the Ukraine, Poland and Russia or had their lives systematically snuffed out at factories of mass murder such as Sobibor, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Chelmo and Belzec, names that shall forever be remembered as grim testaments to hatred. While it is not my intention to go too in-depth on the roots of European anti-Semitism, it must be touched upon in order to illustrate how prejudice led to disdain, then to hatred, and finally to genocide.

Anti-Semitism in Europe has a long and tragic history. For many centuries, this dislike of the Jewish people of the Diaspora was confined to the religious and social sphere; indeed, it's all too easy to recall such events as the massacres of the First Crusade in 1096, the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the assorted pogroms in Russia and Ukraine; the list is long and horrific. This awful situation persisted as recently as 1959, when a reference to “… perfidious Jews” was finally dropped from the Good Friday Liturgy of the Catholic Church (it must be said here that the Roman Catholic Church has made enormous strides in its relations with the Jewish people, most notably beginning with Vatican II and the later efforts of Pope John Paul II; and let us not forget the many Catholics – and others – who risked, and in some cases, lost their lives to save innocent Jews from Nazi terror).

Until the 19th century, European anti-Semitism was largely confined to the religious sphere (and to a lesser extent, the socio-economic sphere as well). Then, by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, it began to change in tone and style. Anti-Semitism became no longer a matter of theological difference, but rather a matter of biological differences. This was the introduction of so-called “scientific racism” through the introduction and application of Darwinian evolutionary theory, which had gained widespread acceptance by the end of the Nineteenth Century. And with this, the argument among European anti-Semites changed from, “Let us convert the Jews” to “Let us rid ourselves of this infectious and invasive species” (May God forbid). Simply put, an openly exterminationist sentiment had arisen, based on pseudo-scientific reasoning. The Jewish people had gone from being “the Other” to being “the Subhuman”, “a bacillus”, “a virus”. Surely they are beyond this defamation.

Darwinism, and its false implication that human beings are mere animals, classified as “superior”, “inferior” or “non-human” is the basis for the pseudo-science of racism. When Hitler said, “Take away the Nordic Germans and nothing remains but the dance of apes”, he was referring to the falsehood of Darwinist ideas. (Carl Cohen, Communism, Fascism and Democracy, Random House, New York, 1972, p. 408-409) While certainly, there are differences between people, to suggest that a group of people is inherently superior to another, and therefore has a right or moral imperative to subjugate the other, is a grossly mistaken idea.

As a result of such pseudo-scientific fallacies and and neo-romanticist fantasies, six million Jews, innocent men, women and children over a vast swath of the European continent were dehumanized, corralled into ghettoes and exterminated by the conquering Nazis. According to their racial delusion, the Nazi herrenvolk would rule over a vast empire of slaves, with the conquered peoples being the hewers of wood and drawers of water, and with the Jewish people (not to mention anyone else who failed to measure up to the Nazis exacting Darwinian standards) having been eliminated from the face of the earth itself. The Nazis' crude interpretations of Darwinism – influenced by agricultural practices such as animal husbandry – and their outlandish views of history such as Ariosophy, are all too familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary education, and there is no need to comprehensively explain their overall ideology. There are indeed people alive in Israel today, and many other countries, who survived this darkest period of human history, who can easily attest to the horrors they witnessed and experienced.

As Muslims, we bear a special obligation to confront the anti-Semitism that has infected the Muslim world. We must not traffic in discredited ideas and unbecoming stereotypes or proclaim, as truth, notorious forgeries such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (it has been well known for almost a century now that this tract was a forgery by the Czarist Secret Police in order to justify pogroms in Russia). We must not subscribe to pseudo-scientific notions such as racism, nor allow ourselves to succumb to pseudo-historic nonsense such as Holocaust Denial. When it comes to anti-Semitism, we must confront it. We must educate against it. And most of all, we must repudiate it utterly.

We can also look to the recent past and remember how Turkish diplomats worked to save Jews from persecution and extermination during the Second World War. Although it is neither as emphasized or as well-known as the stories of Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, it is a fact that Turkish diplomats provided official documents such as citizenship cards and passports to thousands of Jews. Just to give one example, the Turkish ambassador Behiç Erkin -in order to save the Jews- gave the Nazis documents certifying that their property, houses and businesses, belonged to Turks. In this way, many lives were saved. Yet another example is that of the Turks who organized boats to carry Jews to safety in Turkey. My intention in mentioning this is that Muslim Turks' attitude for centuries has demonstrated that Turks and Jews have continued to help each other in times of great crises and God willing, it will continue to be this way, no matter what happens.

For hundreds of years, Jews have known suffering, pain, and have never been at ease. Since the Diaspora, they have been expelled from almost every place they ever went for centuries. And now there are some who say they want the Jews to leave Israel also. The question arises, “Where are they supposed to go?” The Jews, the people of Israel, have the right to live in the Holy Land, in peace and security; indeed, it is so commanded by God Himself in the Qur'an: “And thereafter We said to the Children of Israel: 'Dwell securely in the Promised Land.'” (Surah Al-Isra, 104) Therefore, no one who professes submission to God and heeds the Word of God can oppose their existence in the Holy Land. And as Turks, as Muslims as much as we want the welfare of humanity, we want Jews to live in peace as well. We will always make our best efforts to ensure this goal. To do otherwise is to stand in defiance to the Will of God Himself.


The author is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at a Turkish TV. She is also the spokesperson of a prominent international interfaith organization. She can be reached on http://www.facebook.com/sinemtezyapar and https://twitter.com/SinemTezyapar.

Hatred of Jews remains strong, Netanyahu and Peres tell Yom Hashoah rite


The hatred of Jews is still strong more than 70 years after the Holocaust began, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres said at the national Yom Hashoah ceremony at Yad Vashem.

“The map of Europe still contains local stains of anti-Semitism,” Peres said at Sunday night's ceremony in Jerusalem, his voice breaking with emotion. “Racism erupted on that land in the last century and dragged it down to its lowest point. Ultimately the murder which came from her, damaged her.”

“Not all the flames have been extinguished. Crises are once again exploited to form Nazi parties, ridiculous but dangerous. Sickening anti-Semitic cartoons are published allegedly in the name of press freedom.”

Netanyahu said in his address to Holocaust survivors and their families, “Hatred of Jews has not disappeared. It has been replaced with a hatred of the Jewish state.”

He followed his assertion with quotes of anti-Semitic statements made by Iranian religious and political leaders.

Six Holocaust survivors told their stories in a prerecorded video before they lit the six torches representing the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The ceremony was broadcast on all Israeli television channels and on several radio stations. On Yom Hashoah in Israel, places of entertainment are closed and Holocaust themed-movies and documentaries are shown on television channels. Memorial ceremonies are held throughout the country.

On Monday morning, a siren will sound for two minutes to honor the victims of the Holocaust, followed by an official wreath-laying ceremony at Yad Vashem.

Also Monday, the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael will hold a joint Holocaust commemoration ceremony dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust. The ceremony is scheduled to be held in the Martyr’s Forest “Scroll of Fire” Plaza. 

The ceremony will recall the rescue activities of Otto Komoly, president of the Zionist Federation in Hungary and the chairman of the Hungarian Jewish community’s clandestine Rescue Committee, and later director of the International Red Cross' “Department A” responsible for rescuing Jewish children.

On Sunday, Israeli military chief  Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz left for Poland with an Israel Defense Forces delegation to the March of the Living in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gantz will lead the March of the Living — the first time the march will be led by a current IDF chief of general staff. Some 10,000 people from all over the world are expected to participate in the march.

Gantz also will lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, where a military service will take place.

On the weekend prior to Yom Hashoah, dozens of young Poles who recently discovered their Jewish roots came together in Oscwiecim, the site of the Auschwitz camp,  for a weekend educational seminar under the auspices of Shavei Israel.

Reliving the Holocaust


“They’re going to come with the dogs. They’re going to start beating me.” Pola Lipnowski spoke in Yiddish, an expression of sheer terror on her face. She turned to her daughter, Hendel Schwartz, for protection. 

But Lipnowski was not in Poland. She was in her room at Emmy Monash Aged Care, a residential facility in Melbourne, Australia. “You’re safe. I’m here,” Schwartz reassured her.

Still, in her mind, Lipnowski, who was born June 1, 1920, was back in Jedrzejow, Poland, where her family — her husband and son, her parents and her seven siblings and their families — were relocated to the ghetto in spring 1940. “They’re going to start taking people away. They took away my parents,” she told Schwartz.

This time it was her dementia and not the Nazis that imprisoned her, returning her to the Jedrzejow ghetto where she was forced to cook and launder for the German soldiers, to a labor camp in Czestochowa where she operated machinery and incurred a cut that traversed the length of her left arm, and to a death march to Auschwitz, where, ill with typhus, she was liberated by the Russian army on Jan. 27, 1945. Lipnowski was the only member of her family to survive.

Schwartz, who lives in Los Angeles, had asked her mother to move to California years earlier, before the dementia set in. But Lipnowski was adamant about remaining in Melbourne with her tight-knit Jewish community, most of whom were Yiddish-speaking survivors from Poland. In 2005, she moved to Emmy Monash, and in 2009 she was transferred to the dementia unit. Schwartz spent weeks at a time with her, staying by her side from morning to evening, speaking to her in her native Yiddish and trying to comfort her as her dementia destroyed her short-term memory and reawakened traumas suffered in the Holocaust. 

Andy Meisels with his wife, Vera, in 2010. Photo courtesy of Vera Meisels

Schwartz also noticed other behaviors she attributed to her mother’s war experiences. Lipnowski hid bread and an occasional banana. She wanted to save any food left over from her meals. And when Schwartz tried to take her for a walk outside the building, Lipnowski stopped at the door and demanded, “Take me back.”

Then, in 2011, Lipnowski’s memories turned to an earlier period in her childhood — she talked about the family bakery and her sister — and her nightmares ended. Eventually she stopped eating and died on June 27, 2012. 

“I lived with this for so many years, but nobody talked about it,” said Schwartz, adding that the staff at Emmy Monash “were aware and not aware.” Because Schwartz grew up in a community where her generation had no grandparents, they also had no knowledge of old people.” “I had to learn my way through it,” she said.

Historically, the distinct effects of dementia on Holocaust survivors were not recognized until long after World War II ended. For one, those who survived the horrors of the Nazis tended to be younger and did not fall prey to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia until decades later. Also, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Alzheimer’s was even identified as a disease and not part of the normal aging process. 

But, for survivors, growing old is not necessarily a normal experience, as life events can awaken Holocaust memories, according to Shoshana Yaakobi, a senior social worker and Holocaust Resource Program coordinator at Baycrest, a health sciences center focused on the aging in Toronto. For example, older survivors spend more time visiting doctors, and in the camps, doctors weren’t to be trusted. When they get sick, which was a death sentence under the Nazis, or suffer the death of a spouse, the experiences bring back all the losses they endured during the Holocaust. 

In 2003, Baycrest published “Caring for Aging Holocaust Survivors,” a manual that for the first time presented comprehensive information and strategies for caring for this specific and often challenging population.

In the 10 years since the manual was published, the behaviors of the survivors have not changed, according to Yaakobi, but health professionals have learned more, especially in understanding what can trigger certain behaviors. 

Genia Burman at the Los Angeles Jewish Home in 2007.  Photo by Steve Cohn, courtesy of the Los Angeles Jewish Home

“There are triggers you can anticipate — things like loud voices, sounds of steps like boots, dogs barking, certain smells, like disinfectants,” Yaakobi said. Other triggers are less obvious. One survivor told her that the sound of a train always evokes memories of the train that took her to Auschwitz. Another survivor with severe dementia pointed to a standing pole used for IV drip bags and said, “Don’t you see the cross? They’re going to kill us.” 

In addition to suffering dementia, older survivors are generally particularly frail. And they are prone to conditions such as osteoporosis, impaired vision and cardiac issues resulting from experiencing prolonged malnutrition and other traumas in the camps.

For Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles, this translates to an increased need for home care, which includes help with cleaning, cooking, laundry, bathing, grocery shopping, medical appointments and errands.  

JFS currently assists approximately 2,000 of the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles County, according Susie Forer-Dehrey, JFS chief operating officer. (This number, which has not changed in more than 10 years, is questioned by Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips & Herman Demographic Research, who estimates the total number of survivors as closer to 4,200, excluding child survivors.) 

JFS funds its services to survivors through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund, and the Abner D. and Roslyn Goldstine Fund for Holocaust Survivor Services. The agency also expects to provide additional help through the Fund for Holocaust Survivors in Urgent Need, a grass-roots effort recently initiated by The “1939” Club.

“We find that the survivor clients want to stay in their homes and in the community as long as possible,” Forer-Dehrey said. 

This is certainly true for Andreas (Andy) Meisels.

“Please leave me alone. Stop hitting me. I didn’t see anybody.” Andy Meisels, 85, is in the early stages of dementia. But in his nightmare, he is back in the former Warsaw Ghetto.

In June 1944, Meisels was transported from Auschwitz to a work detail in the Warsaw Ghetto, which had been liquidated and destroyed. His job was to gather bricks from the demolished buildings and cart them away. At one point, several prisoners in his detail wandered away, leaving Meisels alone. A kapo, or supervisory prisoner, appeared and demanded the names of those missing. Meisels claimed he did not know. The kapo hit him several times with the wooden handle of a hoe, threatening to break the handle over his back. Meisels remained silent.

Born on July 19, 1927, in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia, Meisels was the youngest of six children and one of only two family members, along with his brother Erno, to survive.

Today, Meisels is a retired computer engineer and technical writer who speaks nine languages, six of them fluently. With his dementia, however, he forgets what day of the week it is, although he can tell you that Germany occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, which was a Sunday. 

But dementia is only one of the challenges Meisels faces, according to his wife, Vera. He also suffers internal bleeding, as well as other health problems. 

Meisels is a client of Bet Tzedek Legal Services though its Holocaust reparations program. The family is also working with Nicholas Levenhagen, an Equal Justice Works fellow, a position sponsored by Greenberg Traurig LLP, and the first full-time attorney at Bet Tzedek dedicated solely to providing elder law and end-of-life services to Holocaust survivors.

For survivors with dementia, Levenhagen helps families figure out how to pay for increasing care needs through various state and private programs. Also, if necessary, he helps them with powers of attorney, health care directives and statutory wills before the dementia becomes debilitating.

Levenhagen recently referred Meisels to Jewish Family Service. Vera, who is his primary caregiver, said she will accept help when she needs it. 

“He’s deteriorating,” she said. “But I will never, ever put him in a home. I love him. I cannot express how much I love him.” 

For others, however, a residential facility is often the best option.

Genia Burman was recently sitting in the garden of the Jewish Home’s Eisenberg Village Campus in Reseda. “This area was a DP camp,” Burman told her daughter Barbara Bloom. “And before that, it was a Nazi camp.” 

Burman, 92, has talked about the war and her family of origin, all of whom perished, for as long as Bloom can recall. “But she now has dementia and only remembers the tragedies,” Bloom said. 

Bloom had wanted her mother to move to Flagstaff, Ariz., where she lives, but Burman insisted on staying in Los Angeles. She moved to the Jewish Home in 2004 and remarried in 2005. But after her husband died in March 2011, she started becoming forgetful. Eventually Burman, who also suffers from congestive heart failure and macular degeneration, was moved to the Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center for residents with dementia, where Bloom frequently visits her.

According to Susan Leitch, community manager of the Factor Nursing Building and Goldenberg-Ziman, seven of the approximately 60 Holocaust survivors at the Jewish Home suffer from dementia. 

Burman, the youngest of five siblings in an extraordinarily poor family, was born Dec. 2, 1920, in Turka, Ukraine. At 17, she moved to Lvov and later Olesko, Poland. Then, in June 1941, when Germany invaded Russia, Burman escaped to the east, arriving in Uzbekistan in November 1941. She worked on collective farms, contracting malaria and often going hungry.

Burman has made several attempts to leave the Goldenberg-Ziman building, ostensibly to find her family. “Maybe I should have stayed with them. I could have helped,” she said.

“Genia is all about saving food and saving people,” Bloom said. She saw people starving and also is haunted by her imaginings of the fates of her sister and brother and their families. Bloom believes they likely starved to death in the Lvov ghetto.

Distractions can take Burman away from the war, and Bloom often drives her to a park in Reseda. “She spends an hour or two feeding the birds. She loves that,” Bloom said.

With the passing years, the number of Holocaust survivors continues to decrease. According to Hillary Kessler-Godin, director of communications for the Claims Conference, only about 500,000 survivors remain alive worldwide, including survivors from the former Soviet Union who fled eastward or endured the Siege of Leningrad. 

But with nearly half of all people aged 85 and older suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia to some degree, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of people now vividly reliving their Holocaust horrors is substantial.

“It’s unimaginable what these people had to go through,” Hendel Schwartz said. “And to have to repeat the process is so unfair,
so hard.” 

Survivor initiative to thrive on common cents


Sixty-eight years after being liberated from the horrors of the Holocaust, many aging survivors are living another nightmare — poverty without hope.

“Every single one of them came to this country destitute, with zero resources, and had to start from the beginning,” Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education said in an interview. And although “some have lived the American dream,” Smith added, “it’s only a very small minority that are able to achieve that.”

Many survivors lack money to pay for the most basic needs, including food, housing, medical bills, legal bills or some combination of these. But, as Smith pointed out, living through the Holocaust made many of them survival-oriented and independent, meaning that they may not ask for help, even if they are desperately in need. “If you don’t have the support of the community around you, [if it] doesn’t understand the depth of your experience, you become very lonely.”

So Smith is among a group of community leaders and organizations trying to send a message to survivors who are financially struggling: “We want to support you in your old age and let you know that you are cared for by everyone,” he said.

To that end, the Shoah Foundation has joined an effort organized by Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles called the “Six Million Coins” initiative, an innovative project hoping to engage people from throughout the region to contribute funds — in small and large sums — for struggling Holocaust survivors. 

The project, which aims to collect 6 million coins in specially designed tzedakah boxes, will be introduced at a Yom HaShoah commemoration at Mount Sinai Simi Valley on April 7.

Mount Sinai hopes to distribute 25,000 tzedakah boxes across Southern California before Yom HaShoah next year, according to general manager Len Lawrence, who came up with the idea for the initiative. Lawrence said the plan is to collect enough coins to honor each of the 6 million Jews who perished during the Holocaust.

Anyone can request a tzedakah box for free at the initiative’s Web site (sixmillioncoins.org). Each box, Lawrence said, comes with five coins adding up to 18 cents, which is also the numerical equivalent of chai, the Hebrew word for life.

The coins are attached to a card, and Lawrence’s hope is that when people remove those coins and place them in the small box, they will become the first of many that they drop in. With 25,000 boxes, Mount Sinai would be providing 125,000 coins toward the final tally, adding up to $4,500.

A virtual counter on the bottom of the initiative’s homepage indicates that even before the official kick-off, Mount Sinai, which also has a memorial park and mortuary in the Hollywood Hills, already had collected more than 115,000 coins, adding up to $1,150 (100 pennies per dollar donated online) as of April 1. Anyone can make a donation online or deliver their coins to Mount Sinai’s Simi Valley location.

All of the proceeds will be handled by Federation and distributed to six different charities, five of which support survivors who need financial assistance. The other — the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous — does the same for non-Jews who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, usually at great personal risk. 

Although Lawrence’s goal is to reach 6 million coins, he emphasized that Mount Sinai is “not going to stop” if there is a demand for this initiative once the 6 million goal is reached.

“As long as there are survivors who need help, Mount Sinai will keep supplying tzedakah boxes” to people who want them, Lawrence said.

The USC Shoah Foundation, established by filmmaker Steven Spielberg in 1994, collects video testimonies from survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. Smith said he has personally interviewed numerous survivors who are currently in financial distress. A 2008 study by Federation estimated about 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors living in the Los Angeles area, about half of whom are low-income or poor. 

“The truth is many survivors are struggling,” said Jay Sanderson, Federation president and CEO. “This particular tzedakah box is going to help those survivors in need.”

At the April 7 event, beginning at 10 a.m. at Mount Sinai’s Simi Valley location, Lawrence will unveil an 8-foot-tall tzedakah box, in which people can place money, including the coins collected in their personal tzedakah boxes.

The ceremony will be followed by a Yom HaShoah memorial service. A noon ceremony, to be streamed live on the initiative’s Web site, will include a reading of some of the names of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, followed by a 2 p.m. roundtable panel discussing the work of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who helped rescue tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Andrew Stevens, a Holocaust survivor who assisted Wallenberg’s efforts, will make an appearance.

Mount Sinai also will provide a 4-foot-tall tzedakah box for public use. It will travel across Southern California to schools, synagogues and other organizations that want to host name-reading commemorations. Synagogues as far south as Santa Ana and as far north as Sacramento have scheduled ceremonies. 

Of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, about 4 million names are known. Lawrence hopes that every one of them will be read during the lifespan of this initiative. He said that Mount Sinai “will set up at any place, at any organization that wants to read names,” providing the 4-foot tzedakah box, the list of names and any other needed equipment.

Joining Mount Sinai and Federation and the Shoah Foundation in organizing and promoting the initiative is TRIBE Media Corp., which publishes the Jewish Journal. 

Spielberg directs kids to ‘iWitness’ history


In a video, a Holocaust survivor remembers how he had to kill the family dog as he faced deportation to a wartime ghetto, where there would not be enough food for humans and none for animals.

After watching the testimony and letting it sink in, a New York high school student went to a neighborhood animal shelter to become a volunteer worker.

It was the kind of reaction filmmaker Steven Spielberg hoped for when he and his associates conceived the iWitness Video Challenge, a new effort to engage the public with the vast number of testimonies gathered from Holocaust survivors by the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, which Spielberg created and has supported with the proceeds from his seminal film “Schindler’s List.”

Spielberg came to the campus of the Chandler School, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade private school in Pasadena, to publicly introduce iWitness last week.

“The idea behind the iWitness challenge is the same idea that was behind ‘Schindler’s List’ — that profound changes can occur when one person makes a positive choice,” Spielberg told a roomful of students and media.

“So, students will listen to testimonies from eyewitnesses, and they’ll develop insight as to how to use those testimonies to draw conclusions about how they can better their communities. And then build a video essay telling the story of how they made their community better and how they participated in making the world a better place,” Spielberg said.

A second goal of the project is to give students the tools of “media literacy and digital citizenship in the 21st century,” according to Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation.

The concept underlying iWitness is as old as a teacher making a point by way of example and as new as the latest digital technology.

Instead of textbooks, the program’s basic instructional tool is a Web site, iwitness.usc.edu, which holds nearly 1,300 personal histories told by survivors, liberators and other witnesses to the Holocaust, as well as to more recent genocides, mainly in Africa.

From these testimonies — selected from a trove of the nearly 52,000 archived eyewitness accounts gathered by the Shoah Foundation — teachers are encouraged to create their own classroom lessons and homework assignments, and students can dig deep into the material by using 9,000 keywords that enable the user to focus on their specific interests.

Most importantly, iWitness is intended to encourage sixth- through 12th-graders in public, private and home schools to create videos using a special iWitness editor available on the Web site, which enables users to integrate clips from the testimonies with footage from other sources, as well as photos, voice-over audio, music and text.

The iWitness project is a direct descendant of “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie that in 1993 brought about a dramatic awareness of the Holocaust to members of a new generation as well as to their elders who had largely forgotten it.

Spielberg told the gathering a story he has frequently recounted: “After ‘Schindler’s List’ was finished, I would meet Holocaust survivors, and each would say, in so many words, ‘That’s a fine film, but you’ve only told a small part of what happened. Now let me tell you my story.’ ”

Although the filmmaker knew he could not make thousands upon thousands of movies about the Holocaust, he became convinced that each survivor’s story should be preserved in some way.

As a result, within a month after “Schindler’s List” won Academy Awards in 1994 for best picture and director, Spielberg and a small group of advisers launched the Shoah Foundation.

Its goal, seemingly an impossible task at the time, was to permanently record on videotape the testimonies of all Holocaust survivors willing to relive their traumas, as well as the accounts of liberators and other eyewitnesses.

In recent months, the Shoah Foundation expanded its mission to add testimonies from the victims of genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, as well as from descendants of Armenians who survived the mass slaughter of their people during World War I.

Even in mere numbers, the content of the foundation’s Visual History Archive is staggering.

Currently the collection includes 105,000 hours of video testimony, representing interviews with 51,696 witnesses. This massive archive, the largest collection of its kind in the world, is digitized, fully searchable and hyperlinked to the minute.

With the help of such indexing, scholars and students can access any of the material through more than 60,000 keywords, 1.2 million names and 700,000 images, while clips and full-length YouTube testimonies are available for more casual viewers (check sfi.usc.edu).

In addition to its historical contribution, the full visual history archive has been awarded 11 patents for digital collection management technologies.

On March 1, 1993, Spielberg started filming “Schindler’s List” in Krakow, Poland. Now, to mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of this venture, he announced not only the iWitness Video Challenge, but also the release of a Blu-ray version of “Schindler’s List,” restored from the 35-mm film original.

The limited-edition Blu-ray combo pack from Universal Studios Home Entertainment offers the contents in a variety of formats, including Blu-ray disc, DVD, digital copy and UltraViolet.

Joining Spielberg and Smith at the introduction of the iWitness Challenge, the Shoah Foundation brought in 18 teenagers, students ages 13 to 18 from the Chandler School and from public middle and high schools, representing the ultimate targets and transmitters of the project.

Addressing students individually and as a group, Spielberg defined the highest purpose of his project. “We can use iWitness to show the power of random acts of kindness, the significance of contributions to the community, and the very idea that the best way to teach empathy is with examples of it,” he said.

“So that maybe some day, kindness will be a natural reflex, and not just a random act.”

The students sat around three tables, each facing a laptop computer. Checking out the scene, Kori Street, director of education for the Shoah Foundation, observed, “Today’s students would rather watch than read — that’s the reality. We live in a digital world.”

In that world, in the case of iWitness, students can pick, choose and blend together footage from the program’s 1,300 digital testimonies by Holocaust and genocide survivors.

Street believes this kind of exercise can lead to critical thinking, as well as connection to a specific issue, and finally concrete action by the students inspired by what they have absorbed.

One of the students was Steven Colin, a senior at the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in midtown Los Angeles, who was introduced to iWitness in a humanities class.

Colin, who is of Latino descent, said he has faced subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination. As a result, he said, he felt a kind of bond to the victims of the Nazi regime.

Matthew Culpepper, a seventh-grader at the Chandler School, said he himself has not had to face prejudice and that he could hardly grasp the testimonies on the video screen: “How could people do that to other people?” he asked.

Whether by impact of the iWitness project or inherent decency, Colin and Culpepper said they had recently stepped up and intervened when they saw classmates bullying fellow students.

Already, iWitness has reached about 2,000 educators from 35 countries and all 50 states, and 6,100 of students are involved in the program. And, Street said, China is showing interest as well.

“Our aspiration is to eventually reach 100,000 students,” Street said, noting that “you don’t even need classrooms. You can create your own project at home or in a library.”

Among participating Jewish schools in the Los Angeles area are the Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am and New Community Jewish High School.

All current students will submit projects to their teachers, with each student completing a video, one to four minutes long, tying what she or he has learned from the survivors’ stories to a personal contribution to better their communities.

Street cited the project of a group of students that watched the testimony of one survivor who had “lost his smile” in a concentration camp, but regained it through the love of his family.

Inspired, the group set out to help unhappy or depressed classmates, aiming to “turn that frown upside down” by posting humorous notes and supportive messages around its school campus.

At another school, a student watched the testimony of a survivor who related that despite the horrors of the concentration camp, some prisoners continued to sing to lift the spirits of fellow inmates. The student followed up by organizing a small choir, which then visited retirement homes to serenade the elderly.

Students with the best video entries from six regions, five from the United States and one from Canada, will be recognized, together with their teachers and parents, at another 20th anniversary celebration in Los Angeles. This event, in March 2014, will honor the founding of the Shoah Foundation itself.

Corah Forrrester, a 7th grader at Chandler School in Pasadena, created this video poem using testimony from Holocaust survivor Paula Lebovics, given at the USC Shoah Foundation.

Germany should award pensions to ghetto survivors, Jewish body says


Germany's main Jewish body is calling on the German government and parliament to step in on behalf of survivors of World War II ghettoes who have not yet received a German pension for their work.

Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a statement March 1 that political leaders should not allow the “wrong and fatal impression” that they are playing with time, waiting for survivors to die. Noting that the average age of the survivors is 85, Graumann said that “every day the circle of possible recipients is growing ever smaller. So now is not the time for petty arithmetic, but rather for speedy action.”

Germany's Federal Social Court had granted the survivor pension entitlement back in 2009 after the Bundestag unanimously approved pension payments for former ghetto workers in 2002, retroactive to 1997. But the German Pension Insurance Organization reportedly awarded pensions to only a small fraction of those who qualified, critics have said.

One hurdle is that German social law only allows for four years of retroactive payments.  Three German parties – the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party – have put in a formal request that the government make up the difference for the survivors.

According to the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, State Secretary Ralf Brauksiepe, of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union Party, said on Feb. 27 that the federal government had not yet made a decision as to whether and how back payments to ghetto workers could be made for those years in which red-tape prevented them from receiving any pensions for their labor. There was also no indication of a timetable, the report noted.

“For years, about 22,000 individuals – by now quite elderly – have been waiting for the retroactive payment of their pension,” Graumann said in his statement. Payments would also be a form of recognition of their endless suffering during the Nazi period – a moral duty on Germany's part, he indicated. “Every single day they wait is a day too many,” he said.

Survivor: Harry Magid


“The Jews are going to be taken from the ghetto and killed.” Harry Magid — known then as Herschel — urged his mother to escape with his younger brother, Alex. Harry had learned from a Ukrainian friend of his father that 300 horse-drawn wagons had been ordered to transport the approximately 2,500 Jews in the Stepan ghetto to the forests outside Kostopol, where large pits had been dug. Harry’s mother disguised herself as a Ukrainian and slipped out with Alex through a few loose boards in the ghetto wall. “I’ll come later,” 12-year-old Harry promised. But Ukrainian police began shooting at escapees, and Harry retreated to their ghetto house.

The next day, as the roundup began, Harry hid in a large hole in the ground that served as an outhouse, covering himself with branches. But the smell forced him back inside, to the attic. A Ukrainian policeman later discovered him, demanding a gold watch for not reporting him. Harry complied. The next day, however, a German soldier appeared with a gun. “Raus, schweinehund” (Out, bastard), he shouted. Harry jumped into a wagon headed for the Killing Field, as it was later called.

Herschel “Harry” Magid was born on July 17, 1930, in Stepan, a village in the Wolyn province of Poland (now Ukraine) to Joseph and Frieda Magid. His brother, Alex, was born in 1935. Joseph owned a flourmill, and the observant family enjoyed a comfortable existence.

Harry attended the Hebrew-language Tarbut school from 1936 until September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, and Eastern Ukraine, including the Wolyn province, was handed over to the Soviet Union. Jews were forbidden to attend school, and Jewish businesses were confiscated, though Joseph continued to work at the flourmill as an employee. 

In June 1941, Germany broke its Nonaggression Pact with the Soviet Union, and German soldiers entered Stepan. In August 1941, they ordered the Jews into a ghetto, allowing them to take only what they could carry. Harry shared a room with 10 relatives, sleeping on the floor and eating a small portion of bread and “soup that was mostly water” each day. A few skilled workers were allowed to live and work outside the ghetto, including Harry’s father.

Harry worked from sunup to sundown, carrying buckets of sand from the Horyn River to a work site where a road was being constructed with sand, water and broken gravestones from the Jewish cemetery. “I often got whipped for not working fast enough,” Harry recalls. Harry also often slipped out of the ghetto to visit his father at the flourmill. That’s where he heard about the impending roundup.

As Harry’s wagon headed to the Killing Field, the sand from the road swirled heavily, clouding the air and obstructing visibility. Harry saw his chance to escape when the wagon passed two barns on the side of the road. He jumped and hid in a potato field between the barns, waiting until all was quiet.

Harry made his way to the flourmill and hid with his father under the floorboards. They then walked to the farm of a Ukrainian friend, who hid them in a haystack in the cold and rain. A few weeks later, learning of Frieda and Alex’s whereabouts, they joined them in Komarivka, a village 30 kilometers away. Together, the family hid in a forest by day and slept in a barn at night. 

One day, three Ukrainian policemen with rifles and dogs discovered them in the forest. Harry quickly ran and ducked under some bushes. Harry’s father offered them three 10-ruble gold coins that had been sewn into Harry’s pants. “Herschko, come out,” his mother called. Harry stayed put, but his mother found him and took the gold pieces to the policemen. As they left, Harry, still hidden in the bushes, heard one say, “We’ll come back tomorrow and pick them up.” 

Harry and his family immediately left, walking 20 kilometers to Kamariske, where another Ukrainian farmer agreed to hide them for money. He put them in a barn with hay and pigs. But it was very cold — 20 below zero, Harry estimates — and they dug a 6-foot square pit in the dirt floor, covering it with wood and straw, for some warmth.

They lived in the barn for six months, with little food and water. They made drinking water by melting icicles and stole the raw potatoes that the farmer fed to the pigs. The farmer was paid by a Ukrainian family friend with money and other valuables that Harry’s father had buried. 

One night, in June 1943, the farmer ordered them to leave. The next day, they later learned, Germans burned down the barn. But Harry’s family had found lodging with another Ukrainian, Gordey Kondratuk, who hid them in his barn, feeding them as best he could and trying to convert them to the Baptist religion.

In late 1943, the Ukrainians, determined to establish an independent country, evicted the Germans and invited the remaining Jews to return to Stepan, especially professionals and skilled workers. Joseph returned to the factory. Harry remained in hiding with his mother and brother.

Some weeks later, with the Russian Army advancing, the Ukrainians rounded up the 50 Jews who had returned to Stepan, including Joseph. They shot them and threw them into the Horyn River, destroying witnesses to the atrocities they had committed. 

The Russian Army liberated Stepan in March 1944. Harry had been in hiding 19 months, wearing essentially the same clothes the whole time, rags that now hung on him, and using flour sacks tied with string for shoes. He had typhus, weighed 70 pounds and almost died. 

Harry, his mother and brother stayed in Stepan until 1945. From there, they eventually made their way to Ulm, Germany, where they stayed in several displaced persons camps, including Donabastion, for three years. Then, sponsored by relatives in the United States, the three arrived in Detroit on July 17, 1949, Harry’s 19th birthday.

Harry worked selling ice cream from a truck. In March 1958, he met Eva Lung, a Hungarian survivor, and they married on Oct. 26, 1958. They moved to Chicago in 1962, and then to Los Angeles a year later. Harry sold ice cream, worked in construction, and, in 1972, he and Eva bought a small grocery, Stan’s Market, on Third Street and Witmer, near downtown Los Angeles, retiring 10 years later.

Harry and Eva have three children: Joseph, born in 1959; Vera, born in 1962; and Benjamin, born in 1972.

Harry was active in the Wolliner Society of Los Angeles, composed of “landsmen” from the Wolyn province who raised more than $1 million for Israel and, in addition, purchased three ambulances for the Jewish state. Although the organization disbanded in 2000, “We had 400 members at one time,” Harry said.

Harry is now 82 and still manages some real estate properties he owns. He is a member of B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson and enjoys playing cards once a week. 

“There’s nothing but luck,” Harry says of his survival. Then, he adds, “I was never afraid for anything.”

Resurrecting Lithuania’s Jewish past


During the course of one month in 1941, most of the thousands of Jewish residents of Utena, Lithuania, were rounded up by the Nazis, taken into the forest and murdered. Only a few dozen managed to escape.

That episode nearly buried the entire history of the centuries-old town, but through the efforts of the nonprofit MACEVA and volunteers like students at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, this history is finally being unearthed. On Jan. 23, the entire eighth-grade class at Heschel filled the gym to translate the Hebrew inscribed on recently uncovered gravestones from Utena.

MACEVA, from the Hebrew word for “gravestone” (matseyva), is an organization that aims to preserve evidence of old Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania. Grant Gochin, a member of MACEVA’s international advisory board, came upon the idea of restoring these burial grounds when he visited Lithuania a few years ago, interested in his own family’s history. 

“I realized that these cemeteries had fallen into complete disrepair, and that if we could read the gravestones, we could gain a small look into the lives of these people and help us honor their memory,” said Gochin, 49, a wealth adviser from Chatsworth. 

It quickly became a multinational effort as Gochin got kids here and in Lithuania involved in the restoration and translation project.

“I wanted the students to learn that the Jewish people didn’t just arrive here randomly or disappear abroad without so much as a footprint, but that they came from an immense, majestic history that needs to be understood,” he said.

Efrat Yakobi-Gafni, the middle school Hebrew coordinator at Heschel, saw the project as a way for students to not only use their Hebrew, but to understand Jewish history in a much more personal way. 

“They are learning this history in a very real sense, not just from a textbook,” she said. “It imparts an understanding of the destruction of Jewish communities that they cannot fathom just by reading.”

One of the gravestones. Photo by Julie Bien

In Lithuania, students went into the forests, located the gravestones, cleaned them, photographed them and uploaded the images onto MACEVA’s Web site. Heschel students then accessed the photos online and used their Hebrew skills to translate the names, dates and descriptions on the stones, which were then posted at litvak-cemetery.info.

Romy Dolgin, a student at Heschel, found that the ability to work hand-in-hand with eighth-graders across the globe was one of the most exciting things about this project. 

“Just knowing that right now, kids on the other side of the world are looking at these tombstones, and it’s connecting us to them, is very thrilling,” she said.

“Obviously,” Romy added, “the most important part of this project is to remember and understand that these people whose names are on these gravestones lived there and had real lives, and their families want to be able to trace back to these villages to find out where they came from.” 

Gochin said that while the Heschel event was just for one day, their involvement with the project doesn’t need to end.

“The students can remain involved after doing this here. And their parents can as well,” he said. “There are thousands of untranslated gravestones that need to be translated. Hopefully, this will help the next generation understand and appreciate the history.”

Leon Leyson, Schindler survivor, 83


Leon Leyson, the youngest Jew to be saved by Oskar Schindler and his famous list during the Holocaust, died Jan. 12 in Whittier, following a four-year struggle with lymphoma. He was 83.

Called “Little Leyson” by the German industrialist who saved him and 1,100 other Jews, Leyson was born Leib Lejzon and grew up in northeastern Poland. He moved with his family to Krakow, Poland, nine years later, just before the German invasion. When the family was ordered into the ghetto, Leyson helped keep his family fed by running errands for the elderly.

Schindler hired his father and brother to work for no pay but allowed them to leave the ghetto and get scraps of food. The family eventually was divided in various deportations and two of Leyson’s brothers were killed.

Some members survived, however, in the Plaszow labor camp, because Schindler put them on his list, bringing them to his factory in Czechoslovakia, from where they were liberated in 1945. While at the factory, Leyson — then 13 years old — was so short that he had to stand on a box to reach the machinery.

Leyson had high praise for Schindler.

“He put everything on the line,” he told the Fort Collins Coloradoan in 2010. “Even to treat us as human beings was against the law. … He did it because he was a decent human being.”

In a displaced persons’ camp, Leyson finally resumed the education he’d been forced to abandon when he was 10, and when the family moved to the United States in 1949, he earned a high school diploma and college degree. He studied industrial arts at L.A. City College and California State University, Los Angeles, and went on to receive a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University.

Leyson worked for 39 years at Huntington Park High School, where he taught machine shop and was a guidance counselor. But he was quiet about his war experiences for decades. 

“The truth is, I did not live my life in the shadow of the Holocaust,” Leyson told the Portland Oregonian in 1997. “I did not give my children a legacy of fear. I gave them a legacy of freedom.”

This reticence changed after the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Schindler’s List.” Afterward, Leyson began taking on public speaking in schools and universities across North America.

“I can recount dozens of times where if I had stepped … to my left I would have been gone, or if I happened to step to my right,” Leyson once told the Los Angeles Times. “It wasn’t anything like being smart or clever or anything like that.”

He is survived by his wife, Lis; daughter, Stacy; son, Daniel; a sister; a brother; and six grandchildren. A public memorial will take place at noon Feb. 17 at the Chapman University chapel in Orange.

Poster collection looted by Nazis to be auctioned


A collection of pre-World War II posters that were returned to the heir of a Jewish dentist who fled the Nazis is going on sale.

The more than 4,300 posters collected by Hans Sachs and looted by the Nazis will be auctioned at Guernsey's in New York on Jan. 18, though the auction house is seeking to sell the entire collection to one buyer. The posters are worth about $5.8 million, according to Bloomberg.

They reportedly arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York at the height of superstorm Sandy. The posters had been returned last month to Sachs' son Peter of Sarasota, Fla., from the Deutsches Historisches Museum, where they had been stored.

Hans Sachs was a serious poster collector who began collecting in the late 19th century. He also published a poster magazine. 

The posters were taken by the Gestapo in 1938; Sachs was told at the time that Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wanted them for a museum exhibit.

Sachs was arrested on the night of Kristallnact in November 1938 and taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His wife secured his freedom and the family escaped to the United States.

Sachs accepted compensation for the collection from West Germany in 1961. He died in 1974.

Obituaries: Sept. 21-27, 2012


Eunice Bordon died Aug. 16 at 96. Survived by son Robert (Alison); 2 grandchildren; 1 great-grandchild. Hillside

Boris M. Bronstein died Aug. 11 at 56. Survived by companion Stella Kantor; sons Daniel, Michael. Mount Sinai

Arnold Brounstein died Aug. 17 at 84. Survived by wife Barbara; daughter Carol (Brent) Vallens; 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Elliott Caplow died Aug. 16 at 83. Survived by wife Elaine; sons Mark, Brad; 5 grandchildren. Hillside

Sheldon Cohen died Aug. 15 at 88. Survived by sons Robert, Mark, Joshua. Malinow and Silverman 

Norman Glenn died Aug. 17 at 93. Survived by wife Rhoda; daughter Susan (James) Gregory; son Jeffrey (Gayle); 3 grandchildren. Hillside 

Jack J. Gluskin died  Aug. 14 at 91. Survived by wife Zita; daughters Miriam (David) Hillburn, Esther (Robert) Winard; son Samuel “Shai” (Sarah Braun); 6 grandchildren; brother Max. Mount Sinai

Avery Goldstein died Aug. 17 at 51. Survived by daughter Sadie; son Sawyer; sisters Jennifer, Kimberly; father Max (Linda). Groman

Jeffrey Golub died Aug. 13 at 69. Survived by wife Morleen; daughter Michelle; son Benjamin (Brianna); sister Audrey McKewen; mother Rosella. Mount Sinai

Miriam Israel died Aug. 13 at 85. Survived by son Alexander; brother Nathan Marantz; 3 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Norman Jacobson died Aug. 16 at 81. Survived by wife Sandra; daughter Nina; son Lawrence (Pam); 6 grandchildren. Hillside

Frederick Kramer died Aug. 14 at 91. Survived by sons Andrew (Donna), Peter; 4 grandchildren; 2 great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Milford “Mike” Leibman died Aug. 15 at 85. Survived by wife Joan; daughter Abby; 2 grandchildren; sister Geraldine. Mount Sinai

Al Rabin died Aug. 14 at 76. Survived by wife Laura; daughter Beth (Steve); sons Jeff (Richard), Larry (Sarah); 4 grandchildren; sister Sylvia Lynn; brother Jerry (Anne). Mount Sinai

M. David Saferstein died Aug. 16 at 71. Survived by wife Avis Leader; daughter Yvette (Gary) Negbaur; 1 grandchild; sister Rita Mouber; brother Harvey (Peggy). Mount Sinai

Dorothy Safran died Aug. 15 at 92. Survived by daughters Hermine (Colin) Burns, Lisa; son James (Kathryn); 4 grandchildren; 1 great-grandchild; sister Miriam Norman. Hillside

Sophia Wallenstein died Aug. 13 at 84. Survived by husband Roy; daughters, Hilary (Robin) Rogers, Heather Sandlin; son Eric; 5 grandchildren; 2 great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Eleanore Weisbaum died Aug. 15 at 95. Survived by daughters Patricia (Robert) Shuken¸ Vicki (Roger) Greenberg; 5 grandchildren; 7 great-grandchildren; sister Joan Suntag. Hillside

Lillian Zerner died Aug. 16 at 90. Survived by daughters Susan, Donna (David Fernette), Sandra, Nancy (Lionel) Broaderick; son Larry (Grace); 3 grandchildren; 4 great-grandchildren; 1 great-great grandchild. Mount Sinai

Survivor: Regina Hirsch


“Leave your possessions. We will bring them to you,” a Jewish commando greeted the trainload of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. He pointed to Regina Landowicz’s mother: “Too old.” And to her sister Lillie: “Too young.” Sally, another sister, took scissors from her rucksack and quickly trimmed their mother’s hair and lopped off Lillie’s braids as German soldiers shouted, “Raus, raus!” (Out, out!) On the platform, a German soldier tried to grab Lillie from their mother’s arms, but their mother clutched her tightly, even as he beat her. “Ma, ma,” Regina, Sally and another sister, Ruthie, screamed. A soldier whipped the girls, separating them from their mother and Lillie. “Where you’re going you don’t need a mother,” he told 16-year-old Regina. 

Regina, Sally and Ruthie were processed and taken to Block 25, which housed 1,000 women. “We lay on the floor like animals,” Regina said. From the open door, they saw the entire sky glow red from fire and later learned their mother and Lillie had been gassed and cremated. 

Regina was born on June 29, 1928, in Lodz, Poland, to Ajzyk and Esther Landowicz, the third-to-last child in an observant family of eight girls and one boy. Only Regina and three sisters survived the Holocaust.

Regina’s father had been a wealthy businessman. The family lived in a large apartment and spent summers in the country. Regina remembers that every Shabbat her father brought an oyrech — an impoverished guest — to dinner. In the early 1930s, Regina’s father lost his money and opened a small grocery store.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, occupying Lodz seven days later. The Germans immediately cut off food supplies to the city’s approximately 230,000 Jews, instituted curfews and confiscated property. Jewish men were carted off to labor camps. In December, all Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars. Regina’s five older siblings fled to Warsaw and points east. (Of those five, only Judy, who escaped to Siberia, survived.) 

“Everybody was scared,” Regina said. She and Ruthie often stood in line all night in the snow and cold for a loaf of bread. One time, in the early morning darkness, a German soldier approached Regina and yelled, “Jude, raus” (Jew, out). He beat her up. Ruthie later returned home with bread. 

As rumors of a ghetto began circulating, Regina’s parents, with $50 from an American uncle, purchased a room from a Polish family. Regina and Ruthie dragged a sled carrying household items, including a wooden bathtub and their father’s Hebrew books, there, making several trips. By February 1940, all Jews were ordered into the ghetto. 

On April 1, Regina, who had contracted typhoid, was taken to a small ghetto hospital. She awoke the next morning semi-conscious in a bathtub of ice. “You’re the luckiest kid in the world,” a woman told her.  The previous day the Gestapo had rounded up all the doctors, nurses and patients and shot them. 

In spring 1940, the Jews began working in exchange for food. Regina wove shawls by hand on a loom. Later she made boots out of straw for the German soldiers. “My hands were full of pus from that work,” Regina said. Her last job was making wooden cribs. Regina stopped working toward the end of 1943, as deportations to Auschwitz increased. 

One day, Regina and her family hid in the attic of a burned-out factory. German soldiers with dogs later searched the building but didn’t discover them. 

Another time, in June 1944, their mother took Regina and Lillie (Sally and Ruthie were still working) to a field, where they hid in a tepee-shaped bundle of hay. They lay there all day, until Regina lost a boot and her mother decided to leave. German soldiers later machine-gunned everyone hiding there. 

“Miracles. Unbelievable miracles. I myself don’t believe them,” Regina said.

For the next two months, Regina and her family spent their days hiding in the large Jewish cemetery and their nights in a nearby shack. One day they heard gunfire ring out for hours. The next day Regina, her three sisters and her mother were captured and shipped to Auschwitz. Regina never learned her father’s fate. 

After two months in Auschwitz’s Block 25, 250 girls from the Lodz ghetto, including Regina, Sally and Ruthie, were transferred to A Lager. During the night, German soldiers burst in and took out 50 girls. Regina and her sisters lay huddled on a top bunk, hearing the others’ screams.

“If I live to be 100 years, I cannot describe Auschwitz. Unbelievable. Hell on earth,” she said. 

From Auschwitz, the girls were taken to a munitions factory in Oederan, Saxony. Upon arrival, they were led into a dining room, where bowls of soup awaited them. “A spoon. They gave us a spoon,” Regina recalled. Subsequent meals were less lavish, but they had food, slept five to a bunk and were given hot water every week to wash up.

In the factory, Regina worked 12 hours a day drilling holes, one at a time, into German bullets. “I tried to make the hole on the side, but the foreman was measuring constantly,” she said.  

In late April 1945, the girls were sent to Theresienstadt. There, with “unbelievable hunger and not a drop of water,” Regina said, they lived outdoors. 

On May 8, Soviet troops liberated the camp.

After several months, Regina and her sisters found themselves at a DP camp in Landsberg am Lech, Germany, where Regina studied design and pattern making through ORT. More than four years later, in 1949, Sally and Ruthie were each married and had immigrated to the United States. Regina followed, arriving in Los Angeles in August 1949.

In early 1950, Regina met Phillip Hirsch, a landsman from Lodz and a Bergen-Belsen survivor. They married on March 11, 1951. Their son, Mark, was born on Jan. 4, 1952, and daughter, Laurene, on Sept. 28, 1956. Phillip died on June 1, 2008.

Today, Regina, now 84, lives in Westwood. She enjoys spending time with her family, including her son, daughter, son-in-law, two grandsons and sisters Ruthie and Sally. 

Regina began speaking out about the Holocaust in 1949, a time when “nobody wanted to listen,” she said. She was one of the first speakers at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and continues to speak there every Thursday. She also talks to college students and the U.S. military.

“While we’re here, we have to talk, we have to teach. What else is there to do?” she said.

Survivor: Sonja Telias


From the upstairs bedroom she shared with four girls, Sonja Blits heard the soldiers marching through the quiet village of Zaandijk, outside Amsterdam, where she was being hidden by a generous Dutch family. “Remember, stay below the windowsill,” Moe Haidel, the other girls’ mother, reminded her. But, drawn to the unusual noise, Sonja stood up and peeked through the curtain. Her eyes fixed on the SS troops’ black boots making clicking noises on the brick street. That sound continued to haunt her.

Sonja Blits, living under the false name of Rietje Knox, had been with the Heidels since she was 3, placed there in early 1943 after first being hidden on a farm for just a few months. Her blond hair and blue eyes allowed her to blend in with Saakje (known as Moe) and Hank Heidel’s four daughters, becoming the middle sister.

Sonja was born in Amsterdam on June 8, 1939, to Eva and Louis Blits, a successful toy manufacturer. Germany invaded Holland in May 1940, but it wasn’t until July 1942, when they received notice to report for relocation, that the family felt the need to escape. A few days later, Sonja’s father, who had connections with the Dutch underground, escorted her, her mother and his parents to various safe houses.

Sonja’s father, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, with his blond hair, blue eyes and fluent German, was able to work for the underground while passing himself off as an agricultural expert, even though, Sonja said, “He didn’t know the difference between a pea and a beet.”

An older Jewish woman, whom Sonja called Aunt Catoetje, and a Jewish couple also lived in the Heidels’ tiny, immaculate home. The three adults shared a small upstairs bedroom, rarely leaving. Sonja remembers them mostly playing cards.

Sonja spent her days in the girls’ bedroom, playing with dolls, coloring and avoiding the window. “We can’t tell anybody that you’re here,” Immy, the second oldest sister, said to her. “It’s a big, big secret.” In the afternoon, the two older girls taught Sonja to read, draw and other skills they were learning in school.

In the evenings, Sonja joined the family for dinner, which was often just rice. Afterward, Hank, whom Sonja remembers as distant, retired to the living room, while Moe played the radio and danced with the five girls. “I felt so much love,” said Sonja, who wasn’t able to remember her own parents.

During this time Sonja’s father, dressed in bib overalls, rode a rickety bicycle to various farms and traded small loose diamonds from his brother-in-law’s diamond business for food, regularly delivering eggs, rice and cheese to the Heidels and to other families harboring Jews. “That’s what saved us,” Sonja said. She didn’t recognize him as her father, but she liked him.

Three times, when the Nazis searched for Jews inside the houses on Oud Heinstraat, Sonja and the three adults had to crawl backward into a hiding place behind one of the headboards in the girls’ room. The opening, about 3 1/2 feet by 3 1/2 feet, resembled a hollowed-out rain gutter, Sonja said. Each time they remained in the dark hole, with little air circulation, for several hours. Sonja sat silently on Aunt Catoetje’s lap.

A Christian couple next door, Joop and Lena Keijzer, also were active in the Dutch resistance. Several times Joop came to the Heidels’ house at night, hoisted Sonja on his shoulders and walked along the canal behind the houses. “I was amazed to be outside in the fresh air,” she said.

Shortly before the war ended, in May 1945, Sonja’s parents came for her. She was almost 6 and had spent two and a half years in hiding.

The Blits family, including Sonja’s father’s parents, returned to their house in Amsterdam, where they learned that Sonja’s mother’s parents and two brothers had perished in Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. Her mother never talked about it and never cried, even when friends gathered in the garden and sobbed. “It was sad times,” Sonja said.

Sonja’s mother, despite being in bad physical shape, gave birth to Sonja’s sister Grace in 1946. But Grace was always troubled, and Sonja was never close to her, or to their mother. “Moe Heidel was a better mother to me than my mother ever was,” Sonja said.

It was Sonja’s father, who was gregarious and always hugging, Sonja said, on whom the light shone. On Sunday mornings, he took her to Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, where they talked and where, later, he told her stories about the war.

Finally Sonja’s family, including her father’s parents, was permitted to immigrate to the United States, arriving in Los Angeles on Oct. 26, 1949.

A week later, her father enrolled her at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica. It was a hard adjustment, but a girl soon befriended her, staying after school and teaching her 10 English words each day.

Sonja graduated from Santa Monica High School and attended Santa Monica City College. Then, on May 10, 1958, she married Larry Faber and together they had three daughters: Deborah, born in 1959; Michele, in 1963; and Lisa, in 1965.

Sonja said she has always felt like a survivor. In 1964, she was in a serious car accident, which led to two unsuccessful back surgeries. She was told, erroneously, she would never walk again.

In 1965, she enrolled at West Valley Occupational Center, where she learned medical office skills. She worked for several doctors, retiring in 2005.

Sonja also survived what she described as “a difficult divorce” in 1983, as well as two bouts of cancer, in 1986 and 1996.

Grace, Sonja’s sister, died at age 46, in 1992, of complications from multiple sclerosis. Their father died in 1989, their mother in 1994.

In May 2000, Sonja traveled to Holland to witness Moe Heidel being recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. She also visited the house on Oud Heinstraat, where subsequent owners have preserved and continued to honor the hiding place.

While Sonja has always suffered a deep sense of abandonment, today she values her 24-year marriage to her second husband, Leon Telias. She also enjoys spending time with her three daughters, their husbands and her nine grandchildren.

“There are good people in the world who make the best of everything,” Sonja said.

Survivor: Gitta Seidner Ginsberg


Gitta Seidner—known at the time by the Christian name Jannine Spinette—was abruptly awakened around 4:30 a.m. by a large commotion outside her farmhouse bedroom in Waterloo, Belgium. “No, no, no. What do you want with my goddaughter?” she heard her godmother, Alice Spinette, say. SS soldiers then kicked open the door and pulled the crying girl from her bed. “She’s not Jewish,” Alice insisted. The soldiers didn’t listen. They ordered Alice to get Gitta dressed and drove them to SS headquarters in Brussels.

There, despite her godmother’s protests, Gitta was led down a staircase to a pitch-black cellar and was locked in a cell. Gitta grabbed the cell bars, shaking them, and screamed, “Pourquoi je suis ici?” “Why am I here?” Gitta heard a man’s voice coming from another cell. “Meidele, veine nicht, meidele,” he said in Yiddish. “Little girl, don’t cry, little girl.” But the words only made her cry harder, until finally she fell asleep. She was 6½ years old. It was the fall of 1943.

Gitta was born in Vienna, Austria, on April 28, 1937, the only child of Regina and Shloime Seidner. Her father worked in a factory that recycled old clothes. The family was poor.

In May 1938, two months after the Anschluss, in which Germany annexed Austria, and the same month in which the Nuremberg Laws were enacted in that country, Gitta’s father and uncle fled for Belgium. Gitta and her mother followed a month later, along with Gitta’s grandmother, aunt, two teenage cousins and another uncle.

In Brussels, Gitta and her parents lived in a small apartment. At age 3, she began nursery school, and her grandmother picked her up every afternoon, always bringing a cookie. Many Friday evenings, Gitta walked with her grandmother to synagogue. “It was nice in Brussels,” Gitta remembers.

Things changed in May 1940, when Germany invaded Belgium and began instituting anti-Jewish laws. Gitta’s aunt and uncle, their two teenage sons and another uncle accepted the Germans’ offer to work in the east. Gitta, her parents and grandmother watched as they and other Jews climbed into trucks parked in one of Brussels’ large squares. “Come with us,” one uncle said. “No, we’re staying here,” Gitta’s father answered. Her grandmother was crying.

In fall 1941, as the situation worsened, Gitta’s parents sent her to live with a well-to-do Christian woman who wanted to save a Jewish child. Gitta’s father explained to her that this was “make-believe,” like in the storybooks she loved.

Gitta liked Alice Spinette, a single woman in her 50s. She was also impressed by the apartment—it had marble and mirrors and the first bathroom Gitta had ever seen.

Gitta called the woman “Marraine,” godmother, and selected the name Jannine for herself. She went to church and to a Catholic nursery school and saw her parents every few weeks. “I had a very nice life,” she recalled.

One day, Spinette took Gitta to her parents’ apartment to tell them Gitta needed to be baptized. Gitta’s father refused. But Gitta’s grandmother, sitting in her usual chair by the window reading her prayer book, said, “Yes, she should be baptized.”

Alice had friends living on a farm in Waterloo, whom she and Gitta sometimes visited overnight. One time, when the friends had other guests, they stayed with acquaintances. It was the daughter of those acquaintances who revealed Gitta’s Jewish identity to her SS boyfriend.

Eventually, the SS released Gitta, although she does not know how long she spent in jail, only that she cried and screamed the entire time. She was placed in an orphanage in Linkebeek, outside Brussels, one of several orphanages operated by the Association of Jews in Belgium, but established by the Germans and used to perpetuate the myth that older family members were being relocated in work camps in the east. Later, Gitta was moved to an orphanage in Wezembeek, also outside Brussels.

In August 1944, learning that the Nazis planned to liquidate the orphanages, the Belgian resistance woke the children in the middle of the night, put them on trucks and delivered them to various convents. Gitta was taken to a convent boarding school near Bastogne, in the south of Belgium.

One day the Mother Superior marched all the children into town, giving them little Union Jacks and sitting them on the sidewalk. They waved their flags, chanting “Vive la liberté” as British soldiers, who had helped liberate Belgium in September 1944, rode by in jeeps and tanks.

A few days later, the Mother Superior returned with the children. This time they were given American flags to welcome the American soldiers.

Gitta’s parents, meanwhile, traveled from convent to convent searching for her. Finally, they found her and brought her with them to the orphanage in Aische-en-Refail where they were working. It was late 1944; Gitta remembers celebrating Chanukah with some Jewish GIs.

She returned with her parents to Brussels around March 1945. Several times they went to the square when truckloads of Jews returned from the camps, looking for their relatives. Gitta believes they were killed in Auschwitz.

Gitta’s parents immigrated to Israel in April 1949, but the adjustment was difficult, and a year later they returned to Brussels. The family immigrated to the United States in July 1952.

Gitta met Sidney Ginsberg at New York’s 92nd Street Y in 1955, and they married on October 16, 1957. Their son Michael was born on July 24, 1961. They moved to Los Angeles a year later, and a second son, Stewart, was born on Sept. 12, 1965. Gitta and Sidney subsequently divorced. She has two granddaughters.

Gitta later did administrative work both for Jewish Family Service’s Valley Storefront and for the Los Angeles Unified School District, retiring in 2009.

Today she volunteers one morning a week at Adat Ari El. She is also president of the California Association of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, founded in 1995.

In 2011, at the invitation of Vienna’s Jewish community, and accompanied by her sons, Gitta visited Vienna. There they attended Shabbat services at City Temple.

“Never did I think I’d be sitting in synagogue in Vienna, looking down [from the women’s balcony] and seeing my two sons praying. And I started crying,” Gitta said.

March of the Living Honors Survivors, Prepares Next Generation to Carry Torch


“I’m a simple man … [and] life is very simple,” Max Webb said. “Only problem we have is people make it complicated.”

Webb, a home builder and philanthropist, addressed approximately 500 people as he accepted the Eternal Flame Award during March of the Living’s Tribute to Life Gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on March 21. And while the audience laughed at his comment, a measure of seriousness undercut the remark.

Webb survived 12 labor camps and six concentration camps; he had face-to-face encounters with Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz doctor known for conducting human experiments on camp inmates; and he survived a death march in 1944.

Liberated from Waldenburg on May 8, 1945, Webb married Sala Shapell that same year and soon had two daughters. In 1952, he and his family immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Los Angeles. In 1955, he co-founded a private home-building company with his brothers-in-law, Nathan and David Shapell. The success of the company, now known as Shapell Homes, has enabled Webb to make good on the vow he made many years ago to help the Jewish people.

“In my life, I’ve solved a lot of problems,” said Webb, who recently turned 95.

Indeed, his donations have funded scholarships for March of the Living as well as construction and activities at Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University; synagogues, including Beth Chayim Chadashim and Congregation Beth Israel; Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Video presentations at the gala highlighted moments from Webb’s life and past March of the Living programs.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who presented Webb with the award, described him as a dancer, a builder and a lover of the Jewish community.

Webb was once a dance teacher and he continues to dance until this day, Wolpe said. “Even now you see in the grace of his movements, and the grace of his life; he never stopped dancing.”

Among the speakers at the March of the Living gala were Bruce Powell, founding head of school of New Community Jewish High School; Jeffrey Gunter, vice chairman of March of the Living International’s national advisory board; Harry Zimmerman, chairman of March of the Living International’s western region; and Maya Cohen, a 2004 March of the Living participant.

Also at the event was retired U.S. Army Sgt. Rick Carrier, who offered a complementary narrative to Webb’s story of survival.

On April 10, 1945, the day Carrier turned 20 years old, he was on a search for engineering supplies and equipment left behind by the Nazis in Weimar, Germany, when he discovered the Buchenwald concentration camp. He helped liberate the prisoners by blowing up the gate’s lock.
“I went from being a teenager to an adult very fast, so fast that it scared the s—- out of me,” Carrier said.

Carrier’s presence at the gala marked a new beginning for March of the Living. This year, the program celebrates its 25th anniversary, and, for the first time, concentration camp liberators, Carrier included, will accompany the teenagers, survivors and educators participating in the march.

A delegation of high school students from Milken Community High School and New Community Jewish High School, who will be participating in the April 16-30 March of the Living this year, walked onto the hotel ballroom stage wrapped in Israeli flags.

Of the 10,000 students worldwide participating in March of the Living this year, 202 are from Los Angeles.

BJE, Builders of Jewish Education, a beneficiary of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, runs the trips locally. More than $100,000 in scholarship money was distributed to the participating L.A. students this year.

Nine survivors will accompany March of the Living’s L.A. contingent this year, along with David Cohen, a camp liberator from Southern California. However, with each passing year, as the survivors age, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to participate in what is a physically and emotionally demanding trip.

“So, what happens is,” Monise Neumann, director, BJE March of the Living, said, “the staff and kids who have gone before, who then become staff, will become the storytellers.”

The story of Titanic survivors Leah and ‘Filly’ Aks


When Titanic departed on its first and last voyage from Southampton, England on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, 18-year-old Jewish immigrant Leah Aks and her 10-month-old son, Philip were on board.

Passover had concluded the day before. On sailing day, Leah was pleased to find that the third class was not completely booked; she and Philip had a cabin all to themselves.

Leah was born in Warsaw, Poland. In London, she had met Sam Aks, a tailor who was also from Warsaw. They were married there.

“In London he was barely making a living,” wrote Valery Bazarov, historian for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, in a piece about the family for HIAS. “A cousin who lived in America visited him in London and told him that if he came to America he’d make money very quickly. So he came over, got a job and soon saved enough money to bring Mrs. Aks and the baby over.”

Sam settled in Norfolk, Va. and entered the scrap metal business. In Titanic: Women and Children First, author Judith B. Geller indicates that all the money Sam earned was used for Leah and “Filly’s” trip to join him. Their arrival in Norfolk would mark the first time Sam would meet his son.

Though Leah and Filly were booked onto an earlier ship, Bazarov explained that Leah’s mother convinced her to wait a week and travel on Titanic, considered the world’s safest liner.

Four days into their journey, after the ship struck an iceberg, Leah and Filly followed other third-class passengers to the bottom of the third-class staircase at the rear of the ship.

At 12:30 p.m., the crew permitted women and children in this group to make their way to the boat deck. When crew members saw that Leah and Filly couldn’t get through the crowd up the stairs, they carried the two. Leah and Filly made it to the boat deck, part of the first-class area of the ship. Madeline Astor, the young wife of millionaire John Jacob Astor, covered Filly’s head with her silk scarf.

According to Bazarov, a distraught man—who had been rebuffed by the crew when he attempted to get into a lifeboat—ran up to Leah and said, “I’ll show you women and children first!”

The man grabbed Filly and threw him overboard.

Leah searched the deck until someone urged or pushed her into lifeboat 13. She sat in the middle of the Atlantic with 63 others in number 13, a broken woman. Hours after Titanic went down and the cries for help from those dying in the water faded away, the liner Carpathia arrived at daybreak.

Leah searched the deck of Carpathia in vain for her baby. Despondent, she took to a mattress for two days. Titanic survivor Selena Cook urged Leah to come up on deck for air. When she did, she heard Filly’s cry.

Unknown to Leah, Filly had fallen into lifeboat number 11, right into another woman’s arms. In Geller’s account, the woman is presumed to have been Italian immigrant Argene del Carlo. Her husband was not permitted to follow the pregnant Argene into the lifeboat.

“Argene shared her warmth with Filly through the long night,” Geller writes. “Toward morning she began to believe that God had sent this child to her as a replacement for Sebastino (her husband) and a brother for the child she carried in her womb.”

On the deck of Carpathia, the woman who had cared for Filly since Titanic sank refused to give Leah the child.

Leah appealed to the Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Roston, now put in the role of King Solomon.

In an e-mail interview with The Observer, Gilbert Binder, the husband of Leah’s late granddaughter, Rebecca, described what happened next.

Binder said that Filly was returned to Leah because “she identified him as a Jewish baby and he was circumcised. The (other) woman was Catholic and Italian and her male child would not have been circumcised.”

After their arrival in New York, Leah and Filly were taken to HIAS’ shelter and remained there until Frank could come for them.

“Leah Aks gave birth to a baby girl nine months after arriving in this country and intended to name her Sara Carpathia,” in honor of the rescue ship, Binder explained. “The nuns at the hospital in Norfolk, Va. got confused and named the baby Sara Titanic Aks. I have a copy of her birth certificate.” Sara was Binder’s mother-in-law.

Leah lived until 1967; her son, Filly, until 1991.


Marshall Weiss is the editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer.

Holocaust Remembrance Day: Survivor stories


A collection of Holocaust survivor stories by Jane Ulman.

Motek Kleiman

“It was such a winter, with wind and snow. It was Dante’s night.” It was Jan. 21, 1945, and Motek Kleiman and the prisoners of Blechhammer, a sub-camp of Auschwitz, were being liquidated, dispatched on a two-week forced march to Gross-Rosen, another sub-camp. There, Motek unexpectedly met his father. More.

Rita Kahane and Serena Rubin

“Schnell, schnell,” the SS soldiers, with dogs and guns, yelled at the newly arrived Auschwitz prisoners. “Hurry, hurry.” Twins Rita and Serena Siegelstein, then 17, were suddenly separated from their parents and two brothers and rushed into a large building. Female guards appeared. More.

Margaret Liebenau

Margaret Liebenau celebrated her 18th birthday in Auschwitz. It was Sept. 20, 1944, and she spent the day, like most days, sweeping dirt outside her barracks, overseen by a female SS guard and a dog. More.

Greti Herman

In the pounding rain, lined up five abreast, Greti Herman — then Margit Berger — and her parents were marched from Hungary’s Csillaghegy Ghetto to the nearby train station. As they walked, her mother motioned for her and her father to remove five of the six threads that attached the yellow stars to their canvas raincoats. More.

Donna Tuna

Suddenly, midday on Sept. 1, 1939, Donna Tuna — then Golda Tajchman — spotted planes flying low over her small town of Ryki, Poland, machine-gunning the inhabitants, who were running, panicked, in all directions. Donna, along with her mother, sister Regina, and younger twin siblings, Feige and Avrum, raced to the riverbank. More.

Violet Raymond

“We got married with a yellow star on his jacket and on my dress.” Violet Raymond, then Ibolya Friedmann, and her new husband, George Singer, stood under a chuppah at Nagyfuvaros Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, on May 27, 1944. More.

Rosalie Greenfield

The train pulled up to the platform at Auschwitz. Men and women were immediately separated. Rosalie Schwartz had only a couple of minutes to say goodbye to her 69-year-old father, a hearty man who now appeared weary and old to the 21-year-old. More.

Survivors: Rita Kahane and Serena Rubin


“Schnell, schnell,” the SS soldiers, with dogs and guns, yelled at the newly arrived Auschwitz prisoners. “Hurry, hurry.” Twins Rita and Serena Siegelstein, then 17, were suddenly separated from their parents and two brothers and rushed into a large building. Female guards appeared. The group of young girls was forced to undress, everything but their shoes, and their hair was shorn. They were then marched down a long hallway. The twins looked at their reflection in the windows, not recognizing themselves. “We weren’t even human anymore,” Serena said.

The group, which also included the twins’ two sisters, was given shapeless gray dresses and marched to a barracks. For two weeks, they endured roll calls three times a day, ate only one meal daily, at noon, of only soup and bread, and slept together shivering on the floor. One day, SS guards ordered them outside. They were told to undress and run single-file past the gate, where 2,000 were selected for a labor camp in Latvia. The twins didn’t dare look back, only later discovering that their sisters had been pulled from the line. “We cried most of the trip,” Rita said.

Originally named Razi and Suri, Rita and Serena were two of seven children born to Isadore and Elena Siegelstein in Transylvania, Romania. They were a modern Jewish family. Isadore ran a general store, and the family lived comfortably. The twins loved school. They also loved visiting their grandparents’ nearby estate.

In 1940, however, Transylvania came under Hungarian rule, and on March 19, 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary. The twins’ older brother, Bill, originally Bela, was taken to a labor camp. And in early May, soldiers transported the family to the ghetto Bistrita at the Stamboli farm, where nurses searched all the females vaginally for hidden jewelry. On June 6, they were loaded on cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz. “Children were crying. Everyone was crying,” Rita said.

After Auschwitz, the twins were transported to Riga. Serena, sick with a fever, was hospitalized, while Rita was taken to the nearby Kaiserwald concentration camp. For two weeks, she lined up for endless roll calls, never knowing if there would be a tomorrow. One morning, after volunteering for work in a labor camp, she found herself reunited with Serena in Riga. “It was a miracle,” said Serena, who narrowly missed being taken to the crematorium.

Next were two short stays in labor camps. Then, in August 1944, loaded into a stifling boxcar, they traveled four days and nights to Stuffhof, a concentration camp in Poland. “It was even worse than Auschwitz,” Serena said. One night, noticing that Serena’s hospital dress was different from the gray dresses the others wore, an SS guard beat her up. Another guard took pleasure in pouring buckets of water on the sleeping prisoners. Mostly the prisoners waited for roll calls and endured numerous selections.

After a week, the twins, along with some 500 other girls, were transported to Glowen, a forced labor camp near Sachsenhausen. For eight months, they slept in barracks, with each girl assigned a bunk bed with a blanket. They received three meals a day and weekly showers, and worked digging building foundations and carrying bricks.

But then, as Allied paratroopers descended from the sky, they were evacuated on a death march. They walked days and nights with no food or water, with SS and their guns and dogs at their backs and with bombs raining down. During the walk, Serena became very weak and was carried by Rita and some friends.

On May 5, after three weeks, they finally arrived at Ravensbruck concentration camp. They entered the barracks late at night, climbing over bodies crammed together on the floor. The next morning, hearing a huge commotion, they ran outside. When the other girls didn’t join them, they realized they were dead. They saw SS soldiers fleeing. The gate was open, and they were free. Of the 2,000 girls who had left Auschwitz together less than a year earlier, only 18 survived.

On their own, with Serena sick, they stayed in the area, discovering an empty house and cooking potatoes. They also found three broken mezuzahs, which Rita owns to this day, and a white tablecloth with colored stripes, which Serena sewed into a dress. “I was very proud. That was my only dress for a long time,” she said.

After a week, they started walking, and finally reached a transit camp, which they believe was named Molchow, where they registered as displaced persons. They soon left by train, learning at one stop that their parents and younger brother had been killed.

They finally arrived at their home in August 1945 and saw that almost everything, including the windows and furnace, was gone. Rita went inside and gathered whatever photographs she could find. “That was the saddest day of my life,” she said.

They continued traveling, meeting some cousins and reuniting with Bill, who was then working in Baru Mare, Romania. He supported the twins until October 1946, when they all left Romania. They spent two years in Austria, where they attended the ORT school in Salzburg, and then traveled to Montreal. In 1950, Rita moved to Los Angeles, where her aunt and uncle lived, and Serena followed in 1953.

Rita met Tom Kahane, an engineer who was born in Vienna and sent to England at age 11. They married on Dec. 27, 1957, and had two daughters — Cindy, born in 1960, and Tammy, born in 1964. Both are married with two children. Tom died in 1999.

Serena met Dick Rubin, and they married on March 3, 1963. Daughter Claudia was born in 1964 and son Jeffrey in 1966. Both are married with two children.

Rita, Serena and Dick live in a house in Woodland Hills. Family is most important to them. The twins also do international dancing three times a week. They are active in ORT and Café Europa, and for the past three years have participated in UCLA’s Bearing Witness program.

Every Friday night, Rita lights Shabbat candles. “I had a dream after the war that my mother came home and asked me to put candles on Friday nights and holidays,” she said. She has followed that wish ever since.