April 30, 2022
Gershon Hepner as a baby

When I was a kid, my family would forget me pretty often. I wasn’t left home alone like Kevin McCallister, but at least once a month my school or shul (synagogue) would finish, and I’d wait, and wait, and wait, until realizing it was one of those days; and I’d give up and walk home alone. I was the youngest of four, I knew my way home, it was before the age of the cell phone, so it’s just…what happened. As soon as I’d arrive home, I’d resentfully look at my mother and scold her. ”You forgot me!” She’d often reply, “at least you weren’t left in Nazi Germany like your father!” And this my friends, is how I honor Yom HaShoah and Holocaust Remembrance Day, where I tell you the legendary tale of how my father’s family survived the Holocaust.

(Editor’s note: Remember how some people felt Life is Beautiful was inappropriate for telling a Holocaust story with humor? I’m about to do the same.)

Between the horror show of November 9, 1938 – Kristallnacht – and September 1, 1939 – the start of WWII – things were getting pretty terrible to say the least, throughout Germany. My father, Gershon Hepner, was born in May of 1938, in Leipzig, Germany, which had plenty of its own Kristallnacht atrocities. Timing is fuzzy, but at some date after that, the Nazis came banging on their door.  They loudly announced they were trying to move everyone somewhere else, and ordered the entire family to come with them. It was my Oma (grandmother), my father who was a baby, and his three older siblings, Esther, Leo and Rita. My Opa (grandfather) was away on business at the time.

My Oma had to think on her feet, having orders barked at her. She improvised a brilliant hustle, and said she had to “check on her baby”, where she picked up her telephone and called a doctor they knew. A non-Jewish doctor, specifically. In few words, she was able to communicate what was happening, and to come over immediately. My Oma then told the Nazis that the doctor was on his way over, because the baby was sick (a lie), but unsurprisingly they didn’t care. She then clarified, “He’s contagious”, which made them hesitate and wait, as they didn’t want to catch anything. Sure enough, the non-Jewish doctor arrived with his equipment, and pretended to examine my father. He then injected baby Gershy with some sort of pyretic, i.e. he induced a fever, and bluffed them that he was in fact contagious. Convinced by his obvious fever, they left and said to be ready to leave when they returned in a week or two.

Gershon Hepner as a child in Hendon, England

Over the upcoming days, my Oma got their passports in order, and even got the community Rabbi to come with them, as they were getting out of Dodge. Once they were packed up and left town, they were about an hour away when one of my father’s older sisters said, “WHERE’S GERSHY?!”, and to their horror they realized that, yes, they had actually left my father home alone in Nazi Germany.

They went back and got him of course, and still escaped, and lived happily in Engelberg, Switzerland, while my Opa was setting up a home and business in England. Once it was ready, he sent for them to join, but my Oma dragged her feet about leaving their new vacation of a life. Information came to light about it not being safe in Switzerland for much longer, and my Opa finally resorted in his own form of trickery. He asked another relative in England to send her a telegram about a relative who had died, and to come at once for the funeral. So my Oma packed up herself and the kids, and traveled to England, and miraculously, it turned out to be the final transport out of Switzerland for the remainder of the war!

Every year on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Rabbi, whom my Oma saved, sent her flowers. And every time I would walk almost a mile home from school or shul by myself, having been forgotten by my parents and three siblings, my family’s apology would come in the form of a shrug. “At least you weren’t left in Nazi Germany like your father.” Yes, I am grateful for the clever deceptions of both my Oma and Opa, or I would never have been born to tell this tale.

Engagement photo of Margot & Max Hepner, Boaz Hepner’s Oma & Opa

Boaz Hepner works as a Registered Nurse in Saint John’s Health Center, and teaches COVID vaccine education throughout the hospital, and to the community at large. He grew up in LA in Pico/Robertson and lives here with his wife and daughter. He helped clean up the area by adding the dozens of trash cans that can still be seen from Roxbury to La Cienega. He can be found with his family enjoying his passions: his multitude of friends, movies, poker and traveling.

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