January 20, 2019

Georg Citrom: A Life Transcending Generations

Georg and Elisabeth Citrom of the Holocaust Survivors Association, Sweden standing among the wreaths in the Hall of Remembrance.

Every generation has its own unique experiences; each new generation receives memory’s inheritance in its own way.   We live in an increasingly mobile and global world, where just two generations can span continents, wars, economic hardship and success; migration and displacement; loss and growth and change. Our identity, which is both fixed and fluid, adapts and changes rapidly as we move physically, economically and socially; our chameleon instincts enable us to survive in new and changing environments. 

Perhaps no group demonstrates the relationship between life lived and memory transferred more than the rapidly reducing number of Holocaust survivors, who every day pass the baton of memory to their families. 

Georg Citrom was born in Romania in 1931.  By the time he was just fourteen he had experienced life in the Oradea ghetto and had survived both Birkenau and Buchenwald – schooled, as some survivors say, in the hardest university of life. He could have been an angry and bitter man; after all, everyone he had grown up with, and all those he had loved, were turned to ashes during the Holocaust. But Georg chose a higher path. Dignified, hard-working and humble, he labored his way from teenage refugee to successful businessmen in his adopted Sweden. His wife Elisabeth, also a Holocaust survivor, raised their two children Evelyn and Joel in a Swedish culture devoid of Jewish influence, yet imbuing in them a keen sense of their Jewish identity.  Evelyn settled in Israel where she still lives today.  Joel settled in the United States, where, after graduating from the University of Southern California, he made a successful business career in New York. Joel’s wife Ulrika, also a daughter of a Holocaust survivor living in Sweden, raised three beautiful children with both Swedish and American citizenship, acutely aware of their deep connection to Israel and their European Jewish identity.  They are a truly global family, just two generations on from the moment the Nazis intended to eradicate their lineage entirely. 

I had several opportunities to spend time with Georg and Elisabeth Citrom, most recently in their home in Stockholm, where they married over sixty years ago. They bestowed me with affection as if I were a part of the family, and lavished homemade fare over a laden Shabbat table, as if I had not eaten for a week. I was enveloped by the warmth of their home and their deeply giving souls. As I left them and stepped into the chill night, I wondered how people who had experienced such darkness could become such shining beacons of humanity.  

This week I was with Joel, Ulrika and family enjoying the Labor Day weekend, when news came through that Georg had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away.  In the silence that ensued, I first felt that beacon flickering out, because for sure, no one can replace the man that was Georg Citrom. But then as I watched, I realized that his family are that light – they not only inherit his story, they are his story.

Should you walk into the reception of USC Shoah Foundation you will encounter a large life-sized photo of a Holocaust survivor surrounded by lights and cameras, documented while giving testimony.  The man in the photo is Georg Citrom on the day he gave testimony in 2010. Over 55,000 survivors and witnesses have given testimony to the Visual History Archive, but as chance would have it, that photo of Georg was picked out by our graphic designer to represent the experience of all of them in the lobby of the Institute.  

The day he gave testimony Georg brought together his traumatic past with his successful present and future legacy, and bequeathed it to his family, and all who are prepared to listen. The legacy that lives on in the story of his family bring together the Jewish community of Oradea; the lost souls of Auschwitz and Buchenwald; the power of survival; the strength of the refugee who thrived against the odds; the father who raised his children to be upstanding citizens of the world; the mortal whose final resting place will be in Israel the country he loved. As his family gather in Israel to say their final goodbyes, they will take on once and for all the bittersweet story of which they are an integral part.   

As Joel left for the airport to be at his mother’s side, he turned to me and said, “Please make sure you always save the photo of my father at USC Shoah Foundation.”  Alongside that photo is the statement in bold letters – “Every Survivor has a Story to Tell” – a story that transcends time, language, geography and generations.

 See the full testimony of Georg Citrom here.

Stephen D. Smith PhD is USC Shoah Foundation Andrew J. and Erna Finci-Viterbi Executive Director.

Jane Fonda to host Holocaust event on sexual violence

Jane Fonda will host an event in Los Angeles focusing on sexual violence during the Holocaust.

More than 200 people are expected for the invitation-only event on Nov. 8 at the Ray Kurtzman Theater. The event is sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation and Remember the Women Institute.

Fonda, an award-winning actress and a political activist, was asked to be involved because she is active with programs and charities that deal with genocide and gender, a source familiar with the event told JTA. Fonda will read aloud works from Israeli playwright and author Nava Semel, and also will introduce a reel of testimonial clips from Holocaust survivors discussing sexual violence.

“Sexual violence during the Holocaust is rarely spoken about; many historians and scholars don't want to address it,” said Rochelle Saidel, executive director of Remember the Women Institute. “It's hard to have rape documentation of the Holocaust because many of the victims were silenced, since it was against Nazi law to have any sexual involvement with Jews. But the reels being shown are gathered testimonials, and it's a part of history that shouldn't be forgotten.

Following Fonda's presentation, a panel will feature Saidel and Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, moderated by Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now.

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.