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‘Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores, Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa’

December 12, 2011 1 comment

‘Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores  Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa’

I contributed to a new book out by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society that is an appreciation of the Jewish Mom and Pop grocery stores that once dominated the landscape in Omaha.  From time to time I am posting an excerpt from the book to give provide a sample of the robust story it tells.  For this post I chose a front section essay I wrote about the long defunct wholesale market that operated just southeast of downtown and that today is home to the popular historic cultural district known as the Old Market.  While the market didn’t contain grocery stores, its many wholsalers serviced grocers.  It was a bustling center of commerce abd characters that is no more.

For additional information or to order a copy of the book, contact Renee Ratner-Corcoran by e-mail at rcorcoran@jewishomaha.org or by phone at 402.334.6442.

 

 

Excerpt from the book-

The Old Market: Then and Now

©by Leo Adam Biga

Omaha’s Old Market is a National Register of Historic Places district abuzz with activity. Bounded by 10th Street on the east, 13th Street on the west, and extending from Leavenworth Street on the south end to Howard Street on the north end, the character-rich area is an arts and entertainment hub. Restaurants. Speciality shops. Art galleries. Performance spaces. Many venues housed in late 19th and early 20th century warehouse buildings.

Street performers and vendors “set up shop” there. Horse-drawn carriages transport fares over cobblestone streets. Streams of shoppers, diners, bar patrons, art lovers, theatergoers, sightseers, and residents file in and out, back and forth, all day long, through the wee hours of night. Summertime finds folks relaxing at restaurant and bar patios. Fresh flowers adorn planters arranged all about the Market.

Fifty years ago and for a half-century or more before that these same streets and warehouses were equally busy, the commerce transacted there just as brisk. Only instead of trendy eateries, boutiques, galleries, and studios, the urban environs contained Omaha’s wholesale center for fresh fruit and vegetables. Whatever was in season and sellers could lay their mitts on, the market carried it. Now and then, owing to untimely droughts or freezes in prime growing areas, certain items were in short supply. During wartime, rationing made much produce scarce. But most of the time the Market offered a great variety of fresh produce at reasonable prices.

In an earlier era, the Market, along with the Jobbers Canyon complex of wholesale and mercantile warehouses, meat packers, and outfitters a bit further to the east, supplied surveyors, land agents, speculators, railroad workers, steamboat crews, military personnel, trappers, and pioneers with the stores needed for settling the West. Jobbers Canyon, however, went the way of the wrecking ball, a fate that could have easily befallen the Market if not for a few interventionists.

The Way It Was

The Omaha Wholesale Produce Market House Company was an officially incorporated consortium of wholesalers and the Omaha City Market the city designated marketplace where the local produce industry concentrated. This American equivalent of the Middle Eastern bazaar or Old World farmer’s market consisted of two fundamental parts.

Multi-story brick buildings housing warehouses, mercantiles, and offices were where the major produce wholesalers and brokers did high volume, bulk business with major buyers. A single wholesale deal might have moved 40,000 pounds of watermelons, for example. At street level, the warehouses featured a system of docks and bays where trucks carting loads of produce parked, their contents emptied out onto sidewalk pallets for immediate resell to buyers or into storage for later resell.

Perhaps the biggest Jewish wholesaler in terms of volume handled was Gilinsky Fruit Company, whose two-story warehouse and offices became home to the French Cafe. When Sam Gilinsky’s business closed in 1941 several former employees, many of them Jews, opened their own wholesale businesses and wrote their own chapters as successful Market entrepreneurs. One of Omaha’s most recognizable and nationally branded businesses, Omaha Steaks, owned by another Jewish family, the Simons, did business in the Market when still known as Table Supply Meat Company.

An open air market located in a paved lot at 11th and Jackson Street saw vendors and peddlers doing business with neighborhood grocers and retail consumers. The merchants selling there rented stalls, where they displayed their wares in bushel baskets, barrels, crates, boxes, and bags arranged on benches. The hawkers benefited from a sheet metal canopy overhead. Tarps were stretched out for additional protection. Old-timers who worked there will tell you the conditions made for long days during the heat of summer, when the canopy and tarp would get burning hot to the touch and make it like a sauna underneath. Standing on the hard cement was tough on shoes and feet.

Across from these vendors were local truck gardeners and farmers, who turned an alleyway into a market of their own, selling bed loads of produce.

These were small family businesses. Men made up the vast majority of Market workers, but some women and children worked there, too. For most, it was a humble living, but more than a few sons of immigrant vendors and peddlers went on to become doctors, lawyers, educators, and to enter many other professions. In this way, the Market was an avenue to the American Dream for first and second generation families here.

The marketplace attracted a small army of workers and customers. Suppliers included farmers, gardeners, and greenhouse owners. Wholesale produce dealers ranged from giant operators buying and selling in train car lots or truckloads to smaller operators. The middle men included brokers, jobbers, and distributors.

Most of the vendors and peddlers were immigrants, including Jews from Russia, Poland, and Germany, along with Syrians and Italians. Yiddish was among the many languages heard wafting through the Market. The foreign-born merchants’ raised, heavily-accented voices mixed with various American accents to create a music all their own. Then there was the sonorous strain of the district’s very own Italian tenor, “Celery John” (Distefano), who would serenade the marketplace when the mood struck.

 

 

Veteran produce marketer Sam Epstein said Celery John “had a voice like you’d hear in an opera house,” adding, “It was absolutely marvelous to hear him.” Epstein said he would stand outside Celery John’s place and kibbitz as the erstwhile Caruso made up “soup bunches” and “plant boxes.” “His personality and his demeanor were just the same as his voice,” said Epstein “Just a wonderful human being.”

Don Greenberg, whose family’s wholesale Greenberg Fruit Company had a decades-long run in the Market, recalled Celery John once leading a group of workers in a rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song. The occasion celebrated the birthday of a veteran, well-liked merchant. The guys even got up enough dough to go in on purchasing a rather extravagant gift then — a television set.

It was a place where men in smocks, aprons, overalls, or dungarees and with nicknames like Dago Pete, Crowbar Mike, Montana, Shoes, Red Wolfson, and Popeye rubbed shoulders with men in suits. Brothers George and Hymie Eisenberg became known as the Potato and Onion Kings for the considerable nationwide market share they held supplying spuds and onions to large food processors.

The Eisenbergs had a much humbler beginning though as a family of produce peddlers. Many immigrants had established routes in neighborhoods around Omaha and on back country roads, where in the early days they traveled by horse and wagon before modernizing to trucks. Peddlers often operated stalls in the Market, too. Some peddlers and vendors, like the Eisenbergs, eventually became wholesalers.

The primary buyers at the Market were grocers, restaurants, hotels, institutions, and major food processors. Just like today’s Omaha Farmers Market, the general public went to get their pick of fresh produce during the summer from the open air market that operated there. Day in, day out, the Market saw a flow of people, trucks, and goods. George Eisenberg can attest to “a lot of hustle and bustle, a lot of competition” that went on.

Changing Times

The Market thrived as a produce center from at least the first decade of the 20th century, when it was incorporated and a city appointed superintendent of markets or market master put in place to collect rent, enforce rules, and settle disputes, through the late 1950s. By the early ‘60s the Market declined as wholesalers either disbanded or moved west, the peddler trade disappeared, and many neighborhood and country grocers went belly up. The emergence of supermarket chains had a ripple effect that drove the small independents out of business, thereby eating into the Market’s trade.

But the real death knell came when large grocers pooled their resources together to form their own wholesale cooperatives. The combined purchasing power of coops let them buy in huge quantities at bargain rates that smaller wholesalers and coops could not match. Grocers or supermarkets naturally bought from their own coop because they owned shares in it and any profits were returned as dividends.

The same few blocks comprising that wild and woolly marketplace then and that make up the more cultivated Old Market today were, by comparison, virtually barren of people by the mid-1960s, the huge warehouse structures largely abandoned and fallen into disrepair. The open air City Market was closed by the City of Omaha in 1964.

The overall Market district was saved from the wreckage heap by the vision and action of a family with longstanding business and property interests in the area, the Mercers, and by other enterprising sorts who despaired losing this vital swath of Omaha history.

During the late ‘60s-early ‘70s what was once the produce center of Omaha began undergoing a transformation, building by building, block by block. The renovations continued to take hold over the better part of a decade. The labor intensive, working man’s market that revolved around fruit and vegetable sales gave way to head shops, galleries, theaters, and restaurants that appealed to the counter culture and sophisticated set. What is known now as the Old Market emerged and the area gained landmark preservation and historic status designations in 1979.

By the late ‘70s, people began moving into loft-style living spaces above storefronts, an update on an old tradition that increasingly gained new traction. So many Old Market buildings have since been converted into mixed uses, with apartments and condos on the upper floors and businesses on the ground floor, that today the district is more than just a commercial center and tourist destination, but a urban residential neighborhood as well.

Not every remnant of the early Market disappeared. At least one old-line vendor, Joe Vitale, hung on through the 1990s.

Character and Characters

Old-time sellers were usually loud, animated, sometimes gruff, and by any measure assertive in trying to reel buyers in for themselves and thus steer sales away from competitors. If a vendor thought a rival was out of line or infringing on his turf or undercutting prices or, God forbid, stealing sales, there might be heated words, even fisticuffs. Customers did not always get off easy either. Some old-time vendors took exception if someone fussily handled the merchandise without purchasing or questioned the quality or price of the goods.

Sam Epstein recalled the time that Independent Fruit Company partners Sam “Red” Wolfson and Louie Siporin had just unloaded a batch of tomatoes when Tony Rotollo walked up to pick over the goods.

Sam Epstein

 

 

“Old Man Rotollo apparently asked Sam the price of tomatoes and he told Sam it was too high. Sam, who was loud and had a temper, started raving. He had a voice you could hear from miles away. Sam yelled, ‘Too high, you SOB I’m treating you right. You get out of here and don’t ever come back.’ And Louie, the refined guy of the business, came running out and said, ‘For God’s sakes, Sam, don’t talk like that out here. You gotta call him an SOB, take him in the back room.’ And Sam said, ‘He’s an SOB out here, he’s an SOB in the back room.’ Well, Old Man Rotollo went on his way and about a half hour later was back buying tomatoes from Sam, the two of them getting along just fine.”

Another hot head Epstein treaded lightly around was a banana house operator known to chase out persons he disliked with a sharp, curved banana knife.

Vendors had to be more brazen then because: (1) for most of them this was their single livelihood and so every sale mattered; and (2) most merchants followed the tradition practiced back in the Old Country, where markets were more expressive, the competition more cut throat, where decorum was put aside and survival meant outshining and outshouting the vendor next to you or across from you. You had to have some chutzpah and some get-and-up-and-go initiative in order to make it.

The give-and-take haggling, bartering, and bickering, good-natured or not, that was part and parcel of the classic marketplace is largely a thing of the past these days. For the most part, people today pay whatever price is set for goods without making a fuss. It’s all very polite, all very pleasant, all very banal.

George Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked with their father Ben in the Omaha City Market in the years before, during, and after World War II. The brothers’ father went into the wholesale business with Harry Roitstein and the Eisenberg and Roitstein Fruit Company survived into the 1950s and beyond.

One of the few other Jewish wholesalers to last that long was Greenberg Fruit Company. Don Greenberg joined his father Elmer in the family business in 1959. He said when he got involved most of the company’s buyers were small independent grocers, many of them Jewish and Italian. Even as late as ’59, Greenberg recalled, “parking places were at a premium” in the Market. Over time, the traffic trailed off, so much so that Greenberg Fruit left to build a new warehouse, in tandem with another Jewish wholesaler, Nogg Fruit Company, in southwest Omaha.

“When we moved out of the Market,” said Greenberg, “parking spaces were no longer at a premium and there were very few independent grocers left.”

The Eisenberg family’s produce dealings nearly spanned the arc of the Market, as the patriarch, Ben, went from peddler to vendor to wholesaler. Son George then took the business into an entirely new realm by specializing in the wholesale potato and onion field. He found a lucrative niche selling directly to food processors. But it all began with Ben and his horse and wagon, later his truck, and then the stalls on 11th and Jackson Street.

“My dad didn’t speak really sharp English because he came from the Ukraine. He didn’t speak any English when he got here, but he learned to speak survival English. Either you spoke the language or you starved to death. You had to make a living,” said George. “My dad was a really good salesman. He was very polite, businesslike, very fair. His word was his bond. He used to tell us when we were kids, ‘Don’t lie, cheat or steal.’ It pays off — people are happy to do business with you.”

Legacy, Heritage, History, Memories

As the proud son of a successful immigrant, Eisenberg is glad to see his old stomping grounds active again, filled with people jabbering, jostling, buying, and selling. But you cannot blame him for being a little wistful at the loss of the colorful, boisterous characters and antics that populated the Market back in the old days.

With sellers noisily touting their goods like carnival barkers, all packed tightly together in a kind of vendors row, each vying for the same finite customer base, there was an every-man-for-himself urgency to the proceedings. There was no place Eisenberg would have rather been.

“I felt that’s where all the action in Omaha was — in the Market,” he said. “I mean, people were shouting like, ‘Watermelon, watermelon, get your red, ripe and sweet watermelon.’ ‘Strawberries, strawberries, get your strawberries.’ ‘We’ve got Idaho potatoes here, 25 cents a basket.’ It was fun. They were all shouting to people walking in the Market to bring attention to their location. That was our advertisement — our voice.”

Occasionally, things would get a little too rambunctious for some tastes.

“The city had a market inspector, and he’d come down and tell us, ‘You guys are going to have it to hold it down. People are complaining that you’re making too much noise hawking the merchandise.’ Some people used to say that was the charm of the Market, yet some complained.

“So we’d tell him, ‘Well, we can’t sell the stuff unless they hear what we got to sell.’ And he’d say, ‘I know, but just keep it down.’”

Eisenberg said he and his mates would then talk in muted tones, at least while the inspector was still around, but once he went on his way they would go right back to shouting. It was the only way to be heard above the din.

 

 

A typical day on the Market was not your average 9-to-5 proposition. Most vendors arrived by 4 or 5 a.m. to sell to commercial buyers seeking the best, freshest picks of the day. “If we thought we were going to be busy we might open the doors at 3 a.m.,” said Don Greenberg. “It was not unusual to work until 5 or 6 in the evening.” Some wholesalers and vendors stayed even later if business was good or if they had an excess of product they wanted to turn over before the next business day.

Greenberg remembers card and dice games as popular distractions among some Market workers, who had their favorite hangouts in surrounding cafes and other creature comfort joints. Sam Epstein, whose family bought Nogg Fruit Company from Leo Nogg, recalled that the owner of Louie’s Market often sat in on a standing card game, leaving instructions that anyone who called the Market inquiring after him be told he had not been seen. Epstein recounted how a broker known to have dalliances with women at work worked out a system whereby a friend would “pound like hell” on a metal pole downstairs as a signal someone was coming to interrupt his latest conquest.

Epstein’s business dealings in the Market began as a supermarket buyer. He made the rounds down there selecting and buying quantities of produce from truck gardeners or farmers, including a Jewish man named Herman Millman. Epstein worked for Nogg for a time and later became a part owner, eventually buying him out. Epstein said he and his family kept the Nogg Fruit Company name intact because “it had 60 years of name recognition.”

He said in a market the size of Omaha’s word got around fast about who you could and could not trust in business dealings.

“There’s no secrets around the Market,” Epstein said.

Everything was done on a handshake and verbal basis then. All the transactions figured in ledger books or in people’s heads.

As the independent grocers were dying off, Nogg Fruit got into the food service and frozen food business and flourished in this new niche.

The Market’s band of brothers hung on as long as they could before the business faded away. As the big operators and small entrepreneurs left, one by one, and then all together, soon only photographs, articles, and memories remained.

The brawny Industrial Era buildings that survive in new guises today are physical testament to what once went on there. But aside from a few signs on building walls, some produce scales, and maybe some hooks for hanging bunches of bananas, tangible evidence is hard to see.

If you just close your eyes, though, perhaps you can imagine it all: the dance and ritual of shipments coming and going out; displays of produce being loaded, unloaded, handled, and haggled over; the jabbering commerce playing out from pre-dawn to past dusk between men in jaunty hats, their cigarettes, cigars or pipes ablaze. It was a colorful, lively place to work in and to shop at.

And maybe, just maybe, if you happen by the Omaha Farmers Market some Saturday, in your mind’s eye you can picture an earlier scene that unfolded there, and know that all of it, past and present, is part of an unbroken line. Just like it has always been, it remains a place where people come together to buy and sell, bargain, and trade. The memory of what once was and what still is brings a smile to George Eisenberg’s face.

At Work in the Fields of the Righteous

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Jewish Holocaust survivors awaiting transporta...

Jewish Holocaust survivors awaiting transportation to the British Mandate of Palestine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A dear friend of mine passed away recently, and as a way of paying homage to him and his legacy I am posting some stories I wrote about him and his mission.  My late friend, Ben Nachman, dedicated a good part of his adult life to researching aspects of the Holocaust, which claimed most of his extended family in Europe.  Ben became a self-taught historian who focused on collecting the testimonies of survivors and rescuers. It became such a big part of his life that he accumulate a vast library of materials and a large network of contacts from around the world.  Ben’s mission was to help develop and disseminate Holocaust history for the purpose of educating the general public, especially youth, and he did this through a variety of means, including videotaped interviews he conducted, sponsoring the development of curriculum for schools, and hosting visiting scholars.  He also led this journalist to many stories about Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and educational efforts. Because of Ben I have been privileged to tell something like two dozen Holocaust stories, some of which ended up winning recognition from my peers.  I have met some remarkable individuals thanks to Ben. Several of the stories he led me to and that I ended up writing are posted on this blog site under the Holocaust and History categories.

His interests ranged far beyond the Holocaust and therefore his work to preserve history extended to many oral histories he collected from Jewish individuals from all walks of life and speaking to different aspects of Jewish culture.  He got me involved in some of these non-Holocaust projects as well through the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, including a documentary on the Brandeis family of Nebraska and their J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire (see my Brandeis story on this blog site) and an in-progress book on Jewish grocers. Ben’s passion for history and his generous spirit for sharing it will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend, you were truly one of the righteous.

NOTE: The following story is not about Ben, per se, but about one of the educational events he arranged to promote greater understanding and knowledge about the Holocaust.  The story reports on a gathering that Ben and his wife hosted at their place for a discussion about the trauma of the hidden child.

 

At Work in the Fields of the Righteous

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

A gathering unlike any other took place the evening of September 24 at the home of Omaha Holocaust researcher Ben Nachman. Over the course of several hours a diverse group of guests heard three men discuss a shared legacy of survival — one that saw them persevere through the Shoah as hidden children in their native Belgium. Two of the men, Fred Kader and Tom Jaeger, are well known Omaha physicians. The third, Marcel Frydman, is professor emeritus at the University of Mons in Mons, Belgium, where he is a psychologist and the author of a book exploring the long-term traumatic effects of the hidden child experience.

Kader and Jaeger, who already knew each other, were eager to meet Frydman and hear his findings since they shared a common past and homeland. According to Kader, a pediatric neurologist, the hidden experience is one that unites men and women, even of different ages and nationalities, in a special fraternity. “Because of the nature of our experiences, whether in Holland or France or Belgium, you do form this kind of a bond with another hidden child. It’s a thing where we both survived, we both were hidden. The feelings we have just resonate back and forth. It’s a common understanding. It’s communication at a different level.”

Until recently, hidden children rarely spoke about their wartime experiences. For many, the events were simply too painful or too suppressed to tackle. But since a 1991 international hidden children’s conference attended by all three men, more and more long silent survivors have been seeking each other out to talk about their shared heritage in hiding.

Frydman, who came to Omaha at the invitation of Nachman and through the auspices of the Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation, hopes to have his French-language book published in English. Jaeger, a pediatric psychiatrist, has read the book and feels it offers valuable insights into the whole host of circumstances that determines how individuals cope with the emotional baggage of childhood trauma well into adulthood. He said the book provides a therapeutic framework for treating not only former hidden children but anyone suffering from post traumatic stress, which he added is a timely addition to research on the subject in light of the emotional toll the events of September 11 and after have taken on the damaged American psyche.

On hand that evening at Nachman’s were educators, lawyers and journalists, all of whom came to learn something about the ordeal the three men underwent. As the night unwound, it became clear from what was said that the hidden experience is one marked by profound separation anxiety, where youths taken from homes and families go into hiding among total strangers and try to conceal their Jewish identity in order to save their lives. As each survivor described the story of his survival, he revealed something of the psychological scars borne from these searing events so far outside the normal stream of human conduct. They explained how, even after escaping extermination and building successful adult lives now a half-century removed from their ordeal, they remain haunted by the specter of their hidden odyssey, an odyssey that has both driven them and frustrated them.

 

 

 

 

There was something nearly sacred in this solemn exchange between the survivors and their rapt audience. The men and women huddled around the Nachman living room listened intently to every word uttered and asked questions that begged for more detail. The evening was also meaningful for the survivors. For Kader and Jaeger, meeting Frydman and learning of his work helped further validate their own hidden histories, which remained shrouded and inarticulated until they began piecing together their own backgrounds at that 1991 conference in New York.

Kader said a book like Frydman’s “gives more credence to the feelings that survivors have. When hidden children get together they end up talking about the same kinds of things and what they talk about has often been well-repressed.” Kader said the more hidden children he gets to know, the more he realizes “all of us, in our own way, have the same sort of common thread of experiences and we all go through the same kind of process of finding a way out of it (the trauma) to make something of ourselves.” He said Frydman’s work helps demonstrate survivors “can cope and manage. Even though you may have these recollections of traumatic experiences in the back of your mind you can get past that point and go on with your life. His research shows all sorts of common denominators. You realize what you’re going through is a natural evolution other survivors go through. It’s reassuring to know we’re all not crazy.”

For Frydman, whose work in this area was sparked by a group of survivors at the who asked him to lead their counseling sessions, the evening was a chance to share his findings with fellow countrymen who endured a similar fate during and after the war. In writing his 1999 book, The Trauma of the Hidden Child: Short and Long Term Repercussions, Frydman found an outlet for his own survivor issues and a forum for examining the consequences of the hidden experience, many of which he found overlap from one survivor to another.

For his book he returned to the very site where he was sheltered after the war — a home for hidden and abandoned children of both Jewish and non-Jewish descent — and to the same group of individuals with whom he shared his early adolescence. To his astonishment he discovered that in spite of their war deprivation many of these individuals have achieved great professional success, with an unusually high percentage ending up in the healing arts, as evidenced by himself, Kader and Jaeger. As he studied this population he identified elements and conditions that explained the apparent anomaly of survivors reaching such heights from such depths.

“In my opinion, two factors were important,” Frydman said. “First, the quality of family life before the war. These children knew there was a possibility of recovering the family unit. They felt forsaken but they knew their parents didn’t abandon them. This was very important when they were confronted with the conditions of an institution where the affective life was very low. The second factor was the quality of the environment in which the child was placed during and after the war. If this environment was good and supportive, he could find again a normal life, mobilize his potentialities and perform very high. It’s no accident that hidden children have chosen social or therapeutic professions. If you have experienced something as hard as we did you may be more skilled to help others.”

Frydman finds survivors exhibit a remarkable resilience as a result of having endured what they did. Jaeger believes he and his peers managed compensating for the trials and deficits of their interrupted childhood because attaining success, coming as it did against all odds, became an act of defiance. “Resiliency is an act of defiance in some ways,” Jaeger said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘You were wrong,’ to those people who said, You can’t do this, or, You won’t ever reach a certain point. As Marcel (Frydman) points out, the thing that contributed to this resilience was the love and nurturance we were inculcated with despite everything going on around us.”

Recently, Jaeger found poignant evidence of the love he was endowed with via two formal family photographs his mother, who escaped the Shoah, commissioned at the time of the roundups and deportations. “I was struck by the fact that she felt it was important to have a memory to sustain our family even in the midst of what was going on. It reinforced what Marcel said about how important the home environment was. It probably provided a buffer that sustained us when we left home and went via this underground railroad into hiding.”

Another impetus for survivors to strive so hard, Jaeger said, was their strong desire “to get on with things and to accomplish anything and everything we could. Most of us wanted to find acceptance — to be included in the mainstream.”

Frydman, Kader and Jaeger were hidden at several sites but their protective custody mainly came in institutions run by various good Samaritans, including Catholic nuns. They are glad to have ended up in such good, caring hands. Frydman said there long was an assumption children placed with foster families were more fortunate than those placed in institutions, “but now I can say that wasn’t true because the child placed in a family was alone in his stress — the family sheltered him but couldn’t share his loneliness and sense of forsakeness — whereas the child in an institution eventually discovered he was not alone and any stress experience is made more bearable when the stress is shared.”

In addition to drawing on his own experiences for the book, Frydman drew on his past work counseling “forsaken children” — orphaned or otherwise abandoned youths — which provided a field of reference from which to extrapolate. What Frydman found in comparing and contrasting hidden children with abandoned children is that “the trauma of the hidden group is more complex and is provoked not by one factor but by a succession of factors,” he said. For example, he points to the roundups of Jews that Nazi authorities began staging in the early part of the war that invariably sent detainees to death camps. The fear engendered by these roundups signaled to children that they, their families, their friends and their neighbors were in peril. He said, “Even if you were not deported you heard about what was happening from other Jews who witnessed these events and the anxiety of the adults was communicated to the children.”

 

 

 

 

As it became evident the only way to save children was to hide them, an underground network formed to shield them. Because it was easier and less conspicuous to hide a child alone as opposed to a family, children were usually separated from their parents.

“Little children couldn’t understand why they had to be hidden and without their parents,” Frydman said. “It was a safe thing to separate them, but for the children it wasn’t a healthy thing. They were lacking the presence of their parents. They were missing all the affective, emotional ties. And children understood there was a danger of being denounced. We were told not to reveal our real name and not to reveal our Jewish identity. The child understood this, but it increased his anxiety. He understood too that the parents were also in danger. Sometimes he knew one or both of the parents had been arrested and deported, and sometimes he hadn’t any news of there whereabouts. You don’t find these conditions when you study forsaken children.”

Prolonged exposure to such danger and distress left many former hidden children with deep-seated feelings of apprehension and insecurity, said Frydman. “Because they lived for years in an environment perceived as menacing they have some problems associated with anxiety. This has been fixed, at least on the unconscious level, and so they develop some defenses in order to adapt themselves. There’s often a lack of trust and a sense of guardedness toward others. Some of them think they must control every aspect of a relationship because during the war they had no control. For example, some of my subjects told me they resist forming new relationships because it means risking being forsaken another time.”

Even when in the same institution Frydman said hidden children demonstrated fewer issues of desertion than abandoned children because prior to being harbored hidden children presumably enjoyed a stable home life. “They had the chance to be in a normal family before,” he said, “so they were better prepared to confront the separation. They knew there might be a family to try and find after the war whereas the forsaken children knew there was no family to be found.” A striking difference he found in abandoned children versus hidden children is the slowed mental development of the former group compared with the latter group.

The author conducted his research for the book with the aid of one of his students. Interviews were completed with more than 50 adults who found sanctuary in Belgium or surrounding countries during the war. Frydman and his assistant used a non-invasive technique to draw subjects out, some of whom had never before verbalized their hidden past. “The interview was a non-directive one,” he said. “We didn’t ask questions. We just gave the subject the opportunity to evoke his experience and helped him to express what he had to say. For some of the subjects, recalling the past was an ordeal. Some cried. They couldn’t stop. The trauma came back. And, yes, for some it was the first time they’d spoken about it.”

 

 

 

 

The fact that so many hidden children remained resolutely silent about their past for so long is a phenomenon that Frydman has tried to explain in his book. He said it was a case of hidden children growing up in an atmosphere where the subject was viewed as too painful to revisit or misunderstood as something that could be easily dismissed.

“Just after the war hidden children didn’t feel they had the right to speak because speaking about the trauma implied reliving it,” he said. “They would have spoken if they could have found some help, but in post-war Europe we hadn’t any psychologists. And adults didn’t understand what to say, so if they spoke about the war at all, they said, ‘You were lucky.’ Of course, it’s true, we were lucky not to be deported, but we suffered. If every adult says to you, ‘You were lucky,’ you haven’t even the possibility to express your suffering.” Or, as Jaeger explains, “People were getting on with their lives and moving away from that ordeal and, in effect, really nobody was there who psychologically gave you permission to speak. That listening ear and that permission just weren’t there.”

As the trauma is denied or ignored, Jaeger said, it festers like an untreated wound, only buried out of view, yet never too far away to be reopened. “In psychology there’s a phenomenon where you either dissociate or you compartmentalize things that have been extremely bad. Children exposed to bad events can lose memory of those things. That’s a protective mechanism to enable you to go on, but those feelings are always there at the surface. Certain sounds can evoke fear and anxiety in former hidden children. The sound of a truck is one of the most feared sounds because trucks were used in the roundups. It was the sound of your future. Of being rounded up, deported to camps and confronting almost certain death. Vulnerability is always just below the surface for some of us.”

Jaeger said it was only recently, upon reading Frydman’s book, he recalled suffering panic attacks as a boy after the war. He remembers the episodes occured while riding in cars and presumes his anxiety was triggered by dim memories of deportations. Because Kader and Jaeger were quite young when they went into hiding, their memories are somewhat tenuous. Those who were older when hidden, like Frydman, retain clearer memories of the events and the trauma.

Symbols can also summon the horror of a perilous childhood. For example, Jaeger said some survivors have “a problem trusting authority or trusting the system” because they associate those things with the uniformed soldiers or officials who menaced them and their families.

Jaeger admires Frydman’s book for its clear, thorough assessment of the hidden experience. “It is an exquisite explanation of the dynamics of the experience and of its long term effects. It really has a kind of global description that applies to you no matter what your own hidden experiences were. He helps us understand how we arrived at where we are. Also, it’s really one of the best explanations of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and its long term ramifications. There’s been lots written about PTSD, but this sampling of a population from a psychological point of view is somewhat unique in that here we have a group of people still living 50-plus years after the fact. It often takes that long for hidden children or camp survivors or other trauma victims to share their experiences because they evoke an emotional vulnerability that is not that easy to deal with. Everybody has to do it in their own way. There are people who to this day still don’t say anything. They haven’t reached that point. This is so applicable to what happened at the World Trade Center because that trauma will be imprinted over generations in some cases.”

Ultimately, only fellow survivors can truly understand what their brothers or sisters of the Holocaust have gone through. Still, every time they share their story with others it gives added meaning to their witness bearing — allowing their testimony to live on in others. The need to testify grows more urgent as the number of survivors dwindles. “Time is of the essence in that we’re the last generation of witnesses left,” Jaeger said, referring to hidden children like himself, Kader and Frydman. In an era when the nation’s moral fortitude is being tested by the threat of terrorism at home, he said, it is more vital than ever to stand up and speak out against evil.

Bringing to Light Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust

September 2, 2010 1 comment

Image via Wikipedia

A dear friend of mine passed away recently, and as a way of paying homage to him and his legacy I am posting some stories I wrote about him and his mission.  My late friend, Ben Nachman, dedicated a good part of his adult life to researching aspects of the Holocaust, which claimed most of his extended family in Europe.  Ben became a self-taught historian who focused on collecting the testimonies of survivors and rescuers. It became such a big part of his life that he accumulate a vast library of materials and a large network of contacts from around the world.  Ben’s mission was to help develop and disseminate Holocaust history for the purpose of educating the general public, especially youth, and he did this through a variety of means, including videotaped interviews he conducted, sponsoring the development of curriculum for schools, and hosting visiting scholars.  He also led this journalist to many stories about Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and educational efforts. Because of Ben I have been privileged to tell something like two dozen Holocaust stories, some of which ended up winning recognition from my peers.  I have met some remarkable individuals thanks to Ben. Several of the stories he led me to and that I ended up writing are posted on this blog site under the Holocaust and History categories.

The Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation that the following article discusses and that Ben founded was eventually absorbed into the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha.

Ben’s interests ranged far beyond the Holocaust and therefore his work to preserve history extended to many oral histories he collected from Jewish individuals from all walks of life and speaking to different aspects of Jewish culture.  He got me involved in some of these non-Holocaust projects as well through the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, including a documentary on the Brandeis family of Nebraska and their J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire (see my Brandeis story on this blog site) and an in-progress book on Jewish grocers. Ben’s passion for history and his generous spirit for sharing it will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend, you were truly one of the righteous.

Bringing to Light Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A new Omaha foundation is looking to build awareness about an often overlooked chapter of the Holocaust — the rescuers, that small, disparate and courageous band of deliverers whose compassionate actions saved thousands of Jews from genocide. A school-age curriculum crafted by the aptly named Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation, focusing on the rescue efforts of Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, is receiving a trial run at Westside High School this spring.

The rescuers came from every station in life. They included civil servants, farmers, shop keepers, nurses, clergy. They hid refugees and exiles wherever they could, often moving their charges from place to place as sanctuaries became unsafe. The mostly Christian rescuers hid Jews in their homes or placed them in convents, monasteries, schools, hospitals or other institutions. As a means of protecting those in their safekeeping, custodians provided new, non-Jewish identities.

While not everyone in hiding survived, many did and behind each story of survival is an accompanying story of rescue. And while not every rescuer acted selflessly — some exacted payment in return for their silence — the heroes that did — and there are more than commonly thought — offer proof that even lone individuals can make a difference against overwhelming odds. These individuals’ noble actions, whether done unilaterally or in concert with organized elements, helped preserve one of Europe’s richest cultural legacies.

Hidden Heroes is the brainchild of Ben Nachman, a retired Omaha dentist who decades ago began an in-depth quest to try and understand the madness that killed 23 members of his Jewish family in the former Ukraine. While his despairing search turned up no satisfactory answers, it did introduce him to Holocaust scholars around the world and to scores of survivors, whose personal stories of survival and rescue he found inspiring.

He said he formed the non-profit foundation “to promote specific Holocaust education efforts and to promote the good deeds of hidden heroes. Most people are aware of only a handful of individuals, like Oscar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued Jews but there were many more who risked their lives to save others. Our mission is to bring to light the stories of these dynamic people and organizations and their little known activities. We hear enough about the bad things that went on. We want to tell the story of the good things and so our focus is on life rather than on death.”

Before he came to celebrate rescuers, Nachman spent years documenting the heroic and defiant stories of survivors. Among the accounts that stirred him most were those of former hidden children residing in Nebraska. Belgian native Dr. Fred Kader avoided deportation through the ultimate sacrifice of his mother, the brave efforts of lay and clergy Christian rescuers and a confluence of fortunate circumstances. Belgian native Dr. Tom Jaeger found refuge through the foresight of his mother and an elaborate network of civilian rescuers, all of whom risked their lives to aid him. Lou Leviticus, a native of Holland, eluded arrest on several occasions through a combination of his own wiles, an active Dutch underground movement and the assistance of Christian families. Nachman interviewed each man for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Project (now known as the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education), a worldwide endeavor filmmaker Steven Spielberg started after completing Schindler’s List.

Nachman’s work introduced him to individuals who, despite immeasurable loss, continued embracing life. “I built-up a tremendous love affair with the survivors,” he said. “They’re a wonderful bunch of people. They’ve endured a great deal. They live with what happened every day of their lives, yet hatred is not there — and they’ve got every reason in the world to hate. They’re the most morally correct people I’ve ever found. They’re my heroes.”

As he heard story after story of how survivors owed their lives to the actions of total strangers, the more curious he became about the men and women who defied the Nazi death machine by harboring and transporting Jews, falsifying documents, bribing officials and doing whatever else was necessary to keep the wolves at bay. “I got very interested in the rescuers of Jews,” he said. “I was interested in knowing what made them do what they did. I think most of them did it because of their own personal convictions rather than out of some government mandate. For them, it was the only thing to do. They were very, very special people.”

One rescuer in particular captured his imagination — the late Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat credited with saving 62,000 Jews in Hungary while posted to Budapest as vice consul during the Second World War. At the center of an elaborate conspiracy of hearts, Lutz defied all the odds in devising, implementing and maintaining a mammoth rescue operation in cooperation with members of the Jewish underground, the Chalutzim, and select Swiss and Hungarian officials. He established protective papers and safe houses that helped thousands avoid deportation and almost certain death in the camps.

 

Carl Lutz

 

 

 

It is a story of how one seemingly insignificant statesman acted with uncommon courage in the face of enormous evil and personal risk and to do all this despite extreme pressure from Hungarian-German authorities and even his own superiors in Berne to stop. The more he has studied him, the more Nachman has come to admire Lutz, who died in 1975 — long before international acclaim caught up to him, including being named by Israel’s Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.

What does he admire most about him? “Probably the fact he acted as a man of conviction rather than as a diplomat. He used the office of Swiss consul to shield a lot of what he was doing, but he did things he didn’t have to do. He was just an obstinate, stubborn man who felt right was the only way to go. Lutz was a very devout man and he felt he wanted to be on the side of God, not man.”

Nachman began searching for a way to make known to a wider audience little known acts of heroism like Lutz’s. In 2000 he and some friends, including former hidden child Lou Leviticus of Lincoln, formed Hidden Heroes. With Nachman as its president and guiding spirit, the foundation is a vehicle for researching, producing and distributing historically-based educational materials that reveal rarely told stories of rescue and resistance. It is the hope of Nachman and his fellow board members that the stories the foundation surfaces cast some light and hope on what is one of the darkest and bleakest chapters in human history.

One of the foundation’s first education projects, a curriculum program focusing on Lutz’s rescue efforts, is being piloted at Westside this spring. The curriculum, entitled Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy, includes a teacher’s guide, grade appropriate lesson plans, reading assignments, discussion activities and classroom resources, including extensive links to selected Holocaust web sites.

The curriculum was written by Christina Micek, a Holocaust studies graduate student and a third grade teacher at Springlake Elementary School in Omaha. With programs designed for the sixth and eighth grades and another for high school, Micek based the materials on the definitive book about Lutz and his heroic work in Hungary, Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz, Rescuer of 62,000 Hungarian Jews (2000, Eerdmans Publishing Co.) by noted Swiss historian Theo Tschuy, a consultant with the foundation. Micek developed the curriculum with the input of Tschuy, who made a foundation-sponsored speaking tour across Nebraska last winter.

 

 

 

 

Foundation secretary/treasurer Ellen Wright said, “The Holocaust was obviously one of the biggest travesties in history and we feel it is valuable to tell the stories of individuals like Carl Lutz who rose to the occasion and acted righteously.” Wright, who away from the foundation is deputy director of the Watanabe Charitable Trust, said the foundation wants the story of Lutz and other rescuers to serve as models for youths about how individuals can stand up to injustice and intolerance.

“Our youths’ heroes today are athletes and entertainers, which is an interesting commentary on our times. What we want to do is add to that plate of heroes by taking a look at an individual like Carl Lutz and seeing that while his actions were extraordinary he was just like you and I. The difference is, he saw a need and became not only impassioned but obsessed by it. When you consider the 62,000 lives he saved you realize he made it possible for generation after generation of descendants to live and do wonderful things around the world. It’s a remarkable feat and that’s what we want to impart.”

Wright added the foundation seeks to eventually make the Lutz curriculum available, at no cost, to schools in Nebraska, across the nation and around the world. In addition to the current curriculum package, she said, plans call for making an interactive CD-ROM as well as Tschuy’s book available to schools.

The idea of Hidden Heroes’ education mission, members say, is to go beyond facts and figures and to instead spark dialogue about what lies at the heart of bigotry and discrimination and to identify what people can do to combat hate. Curriculum author Christina Micek said she wants students using the materials “to get a personal connection to history” and has therefore created lesson plans that allow for discussion and inquiry. She said when dealing with the Holocaust, students should be encouraged to ask questions, search out answers and apply the lessons of the past to their own lives.

“I don’t see teaching history and social studies as something where a teacher is lecturing and the kids are writing down dates,” she said. “I really want students to feel they’re historians and to feel like they know Carl Lutz by the end of it. I want them to take a personal interest in the subject and to analyze the events and to be able to identify some of the moral issues of the Holocaust and to discuss them in an educated manner.”

The sense of discovery and empathy Micek wants the curriculum to inspire in youths is something quite personal for her. Recently, Micek, a Catholic since birth, discovered she is actually part Jewish. Her mother’s German emigre family, the Feldmans, were practicing Catholics as far back as anyone recalled. But the maternal branches of Micek’s family tree were shaken when relatives searching for records of descendants near Frankfurt, Germany came up empty and were instead directed to a local synagogue, where, to their surprise, they found marriage records of Josef Feldman, her maternal great-great-great grandfather.

Like many Jews in Europe hounded by pogroms, the Feldman family hid their Jewish identity and adopted Catholic traditions around the time they emigrated to America in the late 19th century. Some family members remained behind and perished in the Holocaust. This revelation of a lost heritage has been a life-transforming experience for Micek and one that informs her work with the foundation.

“I felt a great personal loss. My family was kind of cheated out of their culture and their religion,” she said. “And so, for me as educator, I feel it’s important that people realize what hate and not understanding other peoples can do to families and cultures. I was attracted to the Hidden Heroes mission because it shows children that, yes, the Holocaust was a terrible tragedy but that were good people who tried to help. It shows something more than the negative side.”

Micek field tested a revised version of the curriculum with her third grade class and found the compelling subject matter had a profound effect on her students.

“My classroom is 80 percent English-As-A-Second-Language children. Most are new immigrants from Mexico, and so they have a first-hand experience of what it is like to be discriminated against. They could relate to the prejudice Jews endured. It provided my class with a wonderful discussion forum to get into the issues raised by the Holocaust. I thought the kinds of questions my kids came up with were very adult: Why do people hate? How can we keep people from hating other people? It turned out to be really in-depth.

“And my kids have kind of become activists around the school based on this lesson. They’re more caring and they try to help other students when they hear negative messages in the hall. It’s gone a lot further than I ever thought it would.”

She anticipates older students using the lesson plan will also be spurred to look beyond the story of Lutz to examine what they can do when confronted with hate. “I hope that, like my third graders did, they take it beyond the classroom and incorporate it into their own lives To understand what prejudice and hate can do and maybe in their own little corner of the world try and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

According to Tom Carman, head of the department of social studies in the Westside Community Schools, the Lutz curriculum is, for many reasons, an attractive addition to the district’s standard Holocaust studies.

“The material allows us to look beyond Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, whose rescue efforts some people view as an aberration, in showing there were a number of people, granted not enough, who did some positive things at that time. It does take that rather depressing topic and give it some ray of hope. I was always looking for something that added some degree of positive humanity to it.

“And while I thought I was fairly familiar with the subject of the Holocaust, I had never heard of Carl Lutz, which surprised me. That was probably the main draw in our incorporating this curriculum. That and the fact it provides a framework for looking at the moral dilemmas posed by the Holocaust.

“Everybody asks, How could that happen? In the final analysis it happened because people allowed it to happen. It prods us to ask whether the pat answers given by perpetrators and witnesses — ‘I was only following orders’ or ‘I didn’t know’ — are acceptable answers because in figures like Carl Lutz we find there were people who behaved differently. Lutz and others said, This is wrong, and did something about it, unlike most people who took a much safer route and either feigned ignorance or looked the other way. It gives examples of people who acted correctly and that teaches there are options out there.”

Bill Hayes, a Westside social studies instructor applying the curriculum in his class, said, “I think it gives a message to kids that you don’t have to just stand by — there is something you can do. There may be some risk, but there is something you can do.”

Carman said the material provided by the Hidden Heroes Foundation is “done very well” and is “really complete.” He added it is written in such a way as to make it readily “adaptable” and “usable” within existing curriculum. District 66 superintendent Ken Bird said it’s rare for a non-profit to offer “a value-added” educational program that “so nicely augments our curriculum as this one does.”

Lutz became the subject of Hidden Heroes’ first major education project due to Nachman’s own extensive research and contacts.

“In my reading I ran across Lutz,” Nachman said, “and in writing, searching and chasing around the world I found his step-daughter, Agnes Hirschi, a writer in Bern, Switzerland. We started corresponding regularly. She introduced me to the man who is the biographer of Lutz — the Rev. Theo Tschuy — a Methodist minister living outside Geneva. He has done tremendous research into the rescuers and he particularly knows the story of Lutz. He and I have become about as close as two people can be.”

 

Theo Tschuy

 

 

 

Nachman was instrumental in finding an American publisher (Eerdmans) for Tschuy’s book on Lutz. In addition to his work with the foundation, Nachman is a contributor and catalyst for other Holocaust projects. In conjunction with New Destiny Films, a production company with offices in Omaha and Sarasota, Fla., Nachman did research for two documentaries in development.

One film, which Nebraska Public Television may co-produce, profiles survivors who resettled in Nebraska and forged successful lives here, including Drs. Kader and Jaeger, a pediatric neurologist and psychiatrist, respectively, and Lou Leviticus, a retired UNL agricultural engineering professor. The other film, which American Public Television is to distribute, focuses on the rescue that Lutz engineered. The latter film, Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy, is intended as the first in a series (Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust) on rescuers.

Nachman and New Destiny’s Mike Moehring of Omaha have traveled to Europe to conduct interviews and pore over archives. The Swiss Consulate in Chicago has taken an interest in the Lutz film, providing financial (defraying airfare expenses) and logistical (cutting red-tape) support for research abroad. Swiss Consul General Eduard Jaun, who is excited about the project, said, “This will be the first comprehensive film about Lutz.”

Hidden Heroes is now working on creating new education programs featuring other rescuers. Micek is gathering data for a curriculum focusing on the late Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who while stationed in France signed thousands of visas that spared the lives of their recipients, including many Jews.

Nachman serves on an international committee working to bring worldwide recognition to the humanitarian work of Mendes. Other subjects the foundation is researching are: Father Bruno Reynders, a Benedictine monk who found refuge for more than 200 Jewish children in Belgium; the individuals and organizations behind Belgium’s extensive rescue network, which successfully hid 4,500 children; and the rescue of children on the French and Swiss borders.

Wright said when she approaches potential donors about supporting the foundation she sometimes encounters cynical attitudes along the lines of — “I don’t want to hear anymore about the Holocaust” — which she views as an opportunity to explain what sets Hidden Heroes apart from other Holocaust education initiatives.

“While it’s true there’s a tremendous amount of information out there about the Holocaust,” she said, “what we’re trying to do is take a different approach. Through the stories of survivors and rescuers we want to talk about life. About how survivors did more than just survive — they went on to thrive, raise families and accomplish remarkable things. About how rescuers risked everything to save lives. We want to tell these stories in order to educate young people around the world. It is our hope that behaviors and attitudes can be changed, if even one person at a time, so that something like this never happens again.”

Among others, the foundation’s message of hope is being bought into by funding sources. The foundation recently gained the support of the National Anti-Defamation League, which has promised a major grant to fund its work. Hidden Heroes is close to securing a matching grant from a local donor. The foundation anticipates working cooperatively with the National Hidden Children’s Foundation, which is housed within the National ADL headquarters in New York. More funding is being sought to underwrite foundation research jaunts in Europe.

Because stories of rescue have as their counterpart stories of survival, Hidden Heroes is also involved in raising awareness about the survival experience. In a series of events ranging from receptions to lectures, the foundation presents occasional forums at which former hidden children speak about survival in terms of the trauma it exacts, the defiance it represents and the ultimate triumph over evil it achieves.

For example, the foundation sponsored a November visit by Belgian psychologist and author Marcel Frydman, a former hidden child who spoke about the lifelong ramifications of the hidden child experience, which he describes in his 1999 French-language book, The Trauma of the Hidden Child: Short and Long Term Repercussions. Nachman, who enjoys the role of facilitator, brought Frydman together with Drs. Kader and Jaeger, two countrymen who share his hidden child legacy, for an emotional meeting last fall.

Foundation members say each is participating in the work of the Hidden Heroes organization for his or her own reasons. For Ellen Wright, “it is the right thing to do.” For Nachman, it is a source of fulfillment unlike any other. “There’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s had more meaning and made more of an impact on me,” he said. He noted that as the aging population of survivors and rescuers dwindles each year, there is real urgency to recording the stories of survivors and rescuers before the participants in these stories are all gone.

With reports of anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe and elsewhere in the wake of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian crisis, foundation members say there is even added urgency to telling stories of resilience, resolve and rescue during the Holocaust because these accounts demonstrate how, even in the midst of overwhelming evil, good can prevail.

Ben Nachman Remembered the Heroes of the Holocaust

September 2, 2010 2 comments

Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, po...

Image via Wikipedia

A dear friend of mine passed away recently, and as a way of paying homage to him and his legacy I am posting some stories I wrote about him and his mission.  My late friend, Ben Nachman, dedicated a good part of his adult life to researching aspects of the Holocaust, which claimed most of his extended family in Europe.  Ben became a self-taught historian who focused on collecting the testimonies of survivors and rescuers. It became such a big part of his life that he accumulate a vast library of materials and a large network of contacts from around the world.  Ben’s mission was to help develop and disseminate Holocaust history for the purpose of educating the general public, especially youth, and he did this through a variety of means, including videotaped interviews he conducted, sponsoring the development of curriculum for schools, and hosting visiting scholars.  He also led this journalist to many stories about Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and educational efforts.  Because of Ben I have been privileged to tell something like two dozen Holocaust stories, some of which ended up winning recognition from my peers.  I have met some remarkable individuals thanks to Ben.  Several of the stories he led me to and that I ended up writing are posted on this blog site under the Holocaust and History categories.

His interests ranged far beyond the Holocaust and therefore his work to preserve history extended to many oral histories he collected from Jewish individuals from all walks of life and speaking to different aspects of Jewish culture.  He got me involved in some of these non-Holocaust projects as well through the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, including a documentary on the Brandeis family of Nebraska and their J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire (see my Brandeis story on this blog site) and an in-progress book on Jewish grocers. Ben’s passion for history and his generous spirit for sharing it will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend, you were truly one of the righteous.

Ben Nachman Remembered the Heroes of the Holocaust

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in New Horizons

What began as a hobby for retired Omaha dentist Ben Nachman has become his life’s work. For 30-plus years now Nachman, 70, has dedicated himself to researching the Holocaust. It is a subject this second generation Jewish American has personal ties to, as 23 members of his extended family perished at the hands of the Nazis in the former Ukraine.

For the past seven years this Creighton University graduate has documented the never-before-told stories of Holocaust survivors, including several transplanted Nebraskans, as well as the heroic efforts of European diplomats in rescuing Jews. As he has dug deeper into the Shoah, his work has brought him on close terms with survivors, rescuers and scholars and made him an authority on the subject, one he began probing in a quest to understand how his grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins became victims of genocide.

His inquiries in this area have led him to establish an international network of contacts in Holocaust research circles and to participate in and serve as a catalyst for various projects seeking to shed light on the subject.

“It really is a tremendous network and it just came about over the years through exchanging letters, e-mails and faxes and visiting people and it just kind of opened up the floodgates,” he said.

He reads voraciously on the Holocaust, having accumulated a home library of thousands of books, and corresponds with some of the authors of those books. Only last September he and his wife Elaine hosted Belgian psychologist Marcel Frydman, the author of a book on the lifelong trauma faced by hidden children.

The first large-scale research undertaking he took part in was in conjunction with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now called the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education) and its five-year endeavor videotaping survivor testimonies. From 1995 to 1998 he was an official interviewer for the Los Angeles-based Foundation, which filmmaker Steven Spielberg started after completing Schindler’s List, the Oscar-winning film credited with sparking a revival of interest in the Holocaust.

For the Shoah project Nachman conducted exhaustive interviews with 70 survivors residing in the Midwest. Videographers captured the sessions on tape. His work introduced him to individuals who, despite immeasurable loss, have continued embracing life. He feels privileged to have been in the presence of men and women who have borne the burden of a lost generation with such grace.

“I built-up a tremendous love affair with the survivors,” Nachman said. “They’re a wonderful bunch of people. They’ve endured a great deal. They live with what happened every day of their lives, yet hatred is not there — and they’ve got every reason in the world to hate. They’re the most morally correct people I’ve ever found. They’re my heroes.”

Among the survivors Nachman interviewed is Lou Leviticus, a Lincoln, Neb. resident who as a hidden child in The Netherlands escaped the Nazis but lost virtually his entire family. Before the interview Leviticus, a former agricultural engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, had never before spoken of his ordeal.

Remaining silent about one’s own Holocaust history is a common refrain among survivors, especially hidden children, because the events are too painful to relive and the opportunity to speak too rarely afforded. Nachman also interviewed Omaha pediatric physicians Fred Kader and Tom Jaeger, whose survival as hidden children in their native Belgium was only made possible by the remarkable sacrifices and hazards undergone by their own families and by total strangers. Leviticus, Kader and Jaeger were among 50,000 or so people worldwide interviewed for the Shoah project, whose data is available to educators, historians and authors. In getting survivors to recount their stories in intimate detail, Nachman was unprepared for the impact the experience would have on him or his subjects.

“It was a very exacting interview we did with each survivor. We went into every little detail of exactly what happened to them during the war — whether they were in a concentration camp or a ghetto or in hiding. All the interviews lasted in excess of two hours. Many survivors were reluctant to talk about their lives, but we managed to get them to really open up. We had times when some startling things were said.

“A lady in Chicago told me about being raped. That’s a really shattering thing to sit and listen to. The trauma was still fresh in her mind. At times like that the survivor would break down. When we finished an interview the survivor and I were spent. It was an emotionally draining experience.”

A new project that has arisen from Nachman’s extensive contacts is the Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation, an Omaha-based organization whose aims are “to promote specific Holocaust education efforts and to promote the good deeds of hidden heroes,” Nachman said. “

Most people are aware of only a handful of individuals, like Oscar Schindler or Raoul Wallenburg, who rescued Jews but there were many more rescuers who risked their lives to save others. Our mission is to bring to light the stories of these dynamic people and organizations and their little known activities. We hear enough about the bad things that went on. We want to tell the story of the good things and so our focus is on life rather than on death.”

As an example of its educational mission, the foundation sponsored Marcel Frydman’s recent visit to Nebraska, where the author discussed what it means to have been separated from family as a hidden child, where survival depended on the good graces of ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things, and to deal with the lasting repercussions of that experience.

For his book, Frydman interviewed and studied dozens of former hidden children. Nachman said Frydman’s work is “the first to reveal that hidden children face trauma throughout their lives. It is an experience they are traumatized by forever. Their whole life is kind of governed by what happened to them.” In his role as a facilitator, Nachman arranged a meeting between Frydman, a former hidden child in Belgium, and Drs. Kader and Jaeger — who like Frydman were also hidden during the war in Belgium. The ensuing discussion at Nachman’s home proved emotional. “I knew if any of them opened up it was really going to be quite a dramatic evening and it did become that.”

Meanwhile, the foundation is underwriting research into rescue campaigns that went on in several European nations, with Nachman investigating Belgium and Hungary and collaborators examining Holland, France and Switzerland. Their results will inform articles, books, exhibits, films and other educational projects sponsored by the foundation.

Among these projects is an international committee Nachman serves on working to bring worldwide recognition to the humanitarian work of the late Portuguese diplomat, Aristides de Souza Mendes, and two documentary films — one profiling survivors who resettled in Nebraska to forge successful lives here and the other charting Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz’s defiant rescue of Hungarian Jews.

It is ironic Nachman has come to know the stories of hundreds of Holocaust heroes because his initial search was purely personal, as he followed what few leads there were of his ill-fated family in Europe.

His parents, who came to the U.S. in the early part of the last century, were from the former Ukrainian town of Kolomyja, which prior to the German invasion was part of Poland. Except for two uncles who survived in camps, all his relatives abroad perished. According to Nachman, Kolomyja was once home to 40,000 citizens, including 20,000 Jews. At the time of the Nazi occupation Jews from outlying areas were rounded-up and forced to live in two overcrowded ghettos within the town. He said some 55,000 Jews were interred there and “as best we can find there are only 200 survivors” today.

Nachman has ascertained few details about what happened. The skimpy facts he does know came from an uncle who survived a Siberian labor camp. “

I know only my grandfather was murdered in a forest outside of that town (Kolomyja) and my grandmother was murdered in her bed. I spent about a year trying to find some of the 200 survivors and I finally did. I phoned them. I wrote them letters. I did everything I could to try and piece together a story. But I’ve never really pieced together much of one. In all my contacts I’ve only had one occasion when someone remembered a member of my family. It was a man in Chicago, and when I showed him a picture of my grandfather he said, ‘Joseph Nachman, The Parquetnik,’ which referred to the fact my grandfather laid parquet floors” in the Old Country.

Determined to visit Kolomyja in the hope of unearthing more clues, Nachman pestered the Cultural Attache at the then-Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. to seek entry into what was a Soviet-controlled and, therefore, restricted region. In 1988 he and his wife were granted permission to visit, but only allowed a few hours on-site.

“We got to the Jewish cemetery there. It was in the most disastrous condition. Some graves were open clear down to the caskets. Some caskets were decayed to the point you could see bones within them. There was a huge mound in the middle of this cemetery, and that’s where several hundred people had been killed on the spot and put into a mass grave. I looked up, and there was a lady with a few goats feeding in the cemetery. She put her hand on the side of her face and shook her head as if she realized how terrible this must have been to me,” he said.

Dissatisfied by the brief visit he was accorded, he vowed to return one day. After the Soviet Union fell, he did return in 1992, accompanied by his daughter, and enjoyed freer access.

“We found the cemetery had been totally dug up. Any Jewish records in this town had been destroyed. At our escort’s suggestion we went to the local Catholic church, where she thought there might be duplicate records. We were able to find the birth certificate of a cousin born in November 1940 and murdered late in ‘41 or early in ‘42. I got a copy of the certificate and had it translated. That’s the only remnant I’ve ever been able to find of my family.”

His attempts at tracing the tragedy brought him face to face with the bleak reality of a terrible past now largely buried or forgotten. “My daughter and I walked into the forest where my grandfather was forced to dig his own grave and we saw several mounds of earth that I’m sure represented thousands of people. There were no markers. The survivors and their families were finally given permission to put up a memorial in 1993. I was asked to go back, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to.

“An uncle once told me, ‘You should never go back. There is nothing to see.’ And after having been back twice, I agree. The memorial erected there was originally inscribed with the words: ‘Here in this spot, several thousand Jews were murdered by the Nazis.’ After several months the Ukrainians took that inscription down and changed it to read: ‘Several thousand Ukrainians were killed here.’ So, you see, they really managed to erase any traces of what happened.”

His trip did yield one bonus when he and Sen. Jim Exon (D-Neb.) aided 10 Russian-Jews in obtaining long-refused exit visas that let them emigrate to America.

More recently, Nachman has turned his attention to a segment of survivors whose lives were spared only by the intervention of individuals who, at great risk, helped them evade capture, deportation and almost certain death in the camps.

“I got very interested in the rescuers of Jews. I was interested in knowing what made these rescuers do what they did,” he noted. “I think most of them did it because of their own personal convictions rather than out of some government mandate. For them, it was the only thing to do. They were very, very special people.”

One rescuer in particular captured his imagination — the late Carl Lutz. “In my reading I ran across Lutz. And in writing, searching and chasing around the world I found his step-daughter, Agnes Hirschi, a writer in Bern, Switzerland. We started corresponding regularly. She introduced me to the man who is the biographer of Lutz — the Rev. Theo Tschuy — a Methodist minister living outside Geneva. He has done tremendous research into the rescuers and he particularly knows the story of Lutz. He and I have become about as close as two people can be.”

Nachman has completed interviews with Hirschi and Tschuy for a documentary film now in development focusing on the massive rescue of Jews Lutz accomplished amid the Nazi regime in Budapest. The film, Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy, is intended as the first in a series on rescuers. The film, which the Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation is helping fund, is being made by New Destiny Films, a production company with offices in Omaha and Sarasota, Fla.

Carl Lutz

Nachman and New Destiny’s Mike Moehring have traveled to Europe to conduct interviews and pore over archives. The Swiss Consulate in Chicago has taken an interest in the film, providing financial (defraying airfare expenses) and logistical (cutting red-tape) support. Upon the film’s completion, American Public Television is set to distribute it. In her filmed interview, Hirschi describes her step-father as “almost obsessed by the idea of having to save these people.”

A full accounting of what Lutz did has been largely ignored. By the late spring of 1944, the Nazi occupation of Hungary was complete, the borders closed, emigration halted and the mass deportation of Jews under way. The situation was desperate. That is when a man of rare courage and insight — Lutz — then Swiss vice consul to Hungary, began a campaign to thwart the Final Solution.

By all accounts, Lutz embodied the fiercely independent nature of his homeland — specifically, the Appenzell region of Switzerland. A fervent Methodist, Lutz was American-educated. An early diplomatic tour in Palestine well-acquainted him with the Jews’ displaced status. In Hungary, he had already assisted the Budapest-based Jewish Agency of Palestine (JAP) in finding safe passage for 10,000 orphaned children. By April 1944 there were still 8,000 children under his protection waiting to leave for Palestine, but their passage was blocked.

Lutz negotiated with German and Hungarian officials to keep the group under his protection. When refused more exit permits, he took matters into his own hands. Overceding his authority and defying the wishes of his timid government, he made Swiss neutrality and the power of diplomatic immunity his weapons in taking assertive steps to safeguard Jews.

First, he granted hundreds of asylum seekers sanctuary in the American legation building. Next, he transformed the Budapest JAP into the Emigration Department of the Swiss Legation, thus securing a measure of protection for its workers and its aims. Then he began issuing Swiss Schutzbriefe or safety passes (which declared their holders to be under the protection of the Swiss) to thousands of Jews (men, women and children) beyond the original quota of 8,000. Thousands more Schutzbriefe were forged and distributed by Zionists.

Next, he established 76 Schutzhauser or safe houses where thousands of Jews took refuge. And, finally, he worked closely with the Hechalutz/Chalutzim (Jewish pioneers) to provide security for the safe houses and communication with the Jewish populace and he cultivated sympathetic members of the Hungarian police and parliament to alert him to any Nazi movements directed at the people in his charge.

Nachman said the protective measures Lutz instituted became models for other diplomatic rescuers, including Wallenburg, who came to Budapest months after these measures were implemented. He said scholars estimate Lutz’s actions saved as many as 62,000 Jews, a number far outstripping that attributed to higher-profile rescuers. Nachman and filmmaker Mike Moehring have interviewed recipients of the Schutzbriefe and visited safe houses, many of which survive.

According to Nachman, Lutz persisted in his rescue efforts in spite of repeated orders by authorities to stop, constant threats to his life and continued resistance from his superiors in Switzerland. His defiance even extended to Adolf Eichmann, whom he confronted on many occasions.

At one point, as a way of pressuring Lutz, the Nazis made him identify authentic Schutzbriefe from forgeries held by a group of Jews — thus forcing him to condemn some of the safe passage holders to death. Despite such pressure, he persevered. “He was just an obstinate, stubborn man who felt right was the only way to go. Lutz was a very devout man and he felt he wanted to be on the side of God, not man,” Nachman said.

The more he has studied him, the more Nachman has come to admire Lutz, who died in 1975 — long before international acclaim caught up to him. What does he admire most about him? “Probably the fact he acted as a man of conviction rather than as a diplomat. He used the office of Swiss consul to shield a lot of what he was doing, but he did things he didn’t have to do. This is one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever known of.”

Before his death, Lutz was honored by Yad Vashem in Israel as “a righteous among the nations.” He was posthumously nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Switzerland issued a stamp with his likeness on it. A touring exhibition, Visas for Life: The Righteous and Honorable Diplomats, includes a Lutz display.

Last year, Nachman was an invited guest at a United Nations program honoring the diplomatic rescuers and their families. An English language edition of Theo Tschuy’s biography on Lutz (Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz) came out last fall from Eerdmans Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Early next year, Nachman will host a visit by Tschuy and will appear at public speaking engagements with him.

For Nachman, a modest man who dislikes publicity about his work, the investigation into the past goes on. There are more interviews, more archives, more stories to cultivate. “It has been the most exciting time of my life,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s had more meaning and made more of an impact on me.”

Ben Nachman’s Mission

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

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A dear friend of mine passed away recently, and as a way of paying homage to him and his legacy I am posting some stories I wrote about him and his mission.  My late friend, Ben Nachman, dedicated a good part of his adult life to researching aspects of the Holocaust, which claimed most of his extended family in Europe.  Ben became a self-taught historian who focused on collecting the testimonies of survivors and rescuers. It became such a big part of his life that he accumulate a vast library of materials and a large network of contacts from around the world.  Ben’s mission was to help develop and disseminate Holocaust history for the purpose of educating the general public, especially youth, and he did this through a variety of means, including videotaped interviews he conducted, sponsoring the development of curriculum for schools, and hosting visiting scholars.  He also led this journalist to many stories about Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and educational efforts. Because of Ben I have been privileged to tell something like two dozen Holocaust stories, some of which ended up winning recognition from my peers.  I have met some remarkable individuals thanks to Ben.  Several of the stories he led me to and that I ended up writing are posted on this blog site under the Holocaust and History categories.

His interests ranged far beyond the Holocaust and therefore his work to preserve history extended to many oral histories he collected from Jewish individuals from all walks of life and speaking to different aspects of Jewish culture.  He got me involved in some of these non-Holocaust projects as well through the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, including a documentary on the Brandeis family of Nebraska and their J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire (see my Brandeis story on this blog site) and an in-progress book on Jewish grocers. Ben’s passion for history and his generous spirit for sharing it will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend, you were truly one of the righteous.

Ben Nachman’s Mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Ben Nachman is on a mission.

For the past six years the Omaha native has documented the never-before-told stories of Holocaust survivors, including several Nebraska residents, as well as the heroic efforts of European diplomats in rescuing thousands of Jews during World War II. To date, he has applied his self-taught historical research skills to a pair of international projects — the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now known as the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education) and an international committee working to bring worldwide recognition to the humanitarian work of the late Portuguese diplomat, Aristides de Souza Mendes.

More recently, New Destiny Films, a production company with offices in Omaha and Sarasota, Fla., has engaged Nachman to research survivors and rescuers for two documentaries now in development.

One film, which Nebraska Public Television may co-produce, profiles survivors who resettled in Nebraska and forged successful lives here. The other, which American Public Television is to distribute, focuses on the massive rescue of Jews that the late Swiss diplomat to Hungary, Carl Lutz, accomplished amid the Nazi regime in Budapest. The latter film, called Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy, is intended as the first in a series (Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust) on rescuers.

Nachman and New Destiny’s Mike Moehring of Omaha have traveled to Europe to conduct interviews and pore over archives. The Swiss Consulate in Chicago has taken an interest in the film, providing financial (defraying airfare expenses) and logistical (cutting red-tape) support for Nachman’s and Moehring’s work abroad. Swiss Consul General Eduard Jaun, who is excited about the project, said, “This will be the first comprehensive film about Lutz.”

As Nachman, 69, has dug deeper and deeper into the Holocaust, his work has brought him on close terms with survivors and scholars and made him an authority on the subject. While not a survivor himself, Nachman shares a common Jewish heritage and legacy of loss.

A retired Omaha dentist, the Creighton University graduate began probing the Holocaust 30-plus years ago in a quest to understand what led 23 members of his family (grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins) to become victims of Nazi genocide. He read voraciously, eventually amassing a personal library of thousands of books. He began corresponding with some of the authors of those books. The more he found out about those dark events of the Second World War, the more drawn he was to the personal stories of survivors and rescuers.

His initial search was personal, following what few leads there were of his ill-fated family in Europe. His parents, who immigrated here in the early part of the last century, were from the former Ukrainian town of Kolomyja, which prior to the German invasion was part of Poland. Except for two uncles who survived in camps, all his relatives abroad perished.

According to Nachman, Kolomyja was once home to 40,000 citizens, including 20,000 Jews. At the time of the Nazi occupation Jews from outlying areas were rounded-up and forced to live in two overcrowded ghettos within the town. He said some 55,000 Jews were interred there and “as best we can find there are only 200 survivors” today.

 

 

 

 

Nachman has unearthed few details about what happened. The skimpy facts he does know came from an uncle who survived a Siberian labor camp.

“I know only my grandfather was murdered in a forest outside of that town (Kolomyja) and my grandmother was murdered in her bed. I spent about a year trying to find some of the 200 survivors and I finally did. I phoned them. I wrote them letters. I did everything I could to try and piece together a story. But I’ve never really pieced together much of one.

“In all my contacts I’ve only had one occasion when someone remembered a member of my family. It was a man in Chicago, and when I showed him a picture of my grandfather he said, ‘Joseph Nachman, The Parquetnik,’ which referred to the fact my grandfather laid parquet floors” in the Old Country.

Determined to visit Kolomyja in the hope of uncovering more clues, Nachman pestered the Cultural Attache at the then-Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. to seek entry into what was a Soviet-controlled and, therefore, restricted region. In 1988 he and his wife were granted permission to visit, but only allowed a few hours on-site.

“We got to the Jewish cemetery there. It was in the most disastrous condition. Some graves were open clear down to the caskets. Some caskets were decayed to the point you could see bones within them. There was a huge mound in the middle of this cemetery, and that’s where several hundred people had been killed on the spot and put into a mass grave. I looked up, and there was a lady with a few goats feeding in the cemetery. She put her hand on the side of her face and shook her head as if she realized how terrible this must have been to me,” he said.

Dissatisfied by the brief visit he was accorded, he vowed to return one day. After the Soviet Union fell, he did return in 1992, accompanied by his daughter, and enjoyed freer access. “We found the cemetery had been totally dug up. Any Jewish records in this town had been destroyed. At our escort’s suggestion we went to the local Catholic church, where she thought there might be duplicate records. We were able to find the birth certificate of a cousin born in November 1940 and murdered late in ‘41 or early in ‘42. I got a copy of the certificate and had it translated. That’s the only remnant I’ve ever been able to find of my family.”

His attempts at tracing the tragedy brought him face to face with the bleak reality of a terrible past now largely buried or forgotten.

“My daughter and I walked into the forest where my grandfather was forced to dig his own grave and we saw several mounds of earth that I’m sure represented thousands of people. There were no markers. The survivors and their families were finally given permission to put up a memorial in 1993. I was asked to go back, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to.

“An uncle once told me, ‘You should never go back. There is nothing to see.’ And after having been back twice, I agree. The memorial erected there was originally inscribed with the words: ‘Here in this spot, several thousand Jews were murdered by the Nazis.’ After several months the Ukrainians took that inscription down and changed it to read: ‘Several thousand Ukrainians were killed here.’ So, you see, they really managed to erase any traces of what happened.”

His trip did yield one bonus when he and Sen. Jim Exon (D-Nebr.) aided 10 Russians in obtaining long-refused exit visas. The Russians immigrated to the United States.

The opportunity of helping collect a permanent record of Holocaust stories convinced Nachman to participate in the Shoah Foundation’s five-year project videotaping survivor testimonies. From 1995 to 1998 he was an official interviewer for the Los Angeles-based Foundation, which filmmaker Steven Spielberg started shortly after completing Schindler’s List, the Oscar-winning film credited with sparking a revival of interest in the Holocaust.

For the Shoah project Nachman conducted exhaustive interviews with 70 survivors in the Midwest. Videographers captured the sessions on tape. His work introduced him to individuals who, despite immeasurable losses, have continued embracing life. He feels privileged to have been in the presence of men and women who have borne the burden of a lost generation with such grace.

“I built-up a tremendous love affair with the survivors,” Nachman said. “They’re a wonderful bunch of people. They’ve endured a great deal. They live with what happened every day of their lives, yet hatred is not there — and they’ve got every reason in the world to hate. They’re the most morally correct people I’ve ever found. They’re my heroes.”

Filmmaker Mike Moehring, who taped many of Nachman’s Shoah interviews, has also been affected by his work with survivors: “The thing I come away with from these people is their tremendous resiliency. I feel very fortunate and honored they share part of their experience with me. I know I’m a different person for it,” he said.

Among the survivors Nachman interviewed is Lou Leviticus of Lincoln, who as a hidden child in The Netherlands escaped the Nazis. He lost virtually his entire family. After the war Leviticus lived in Israel, working as an engineer, and later immigrated to America, where he was an agricultural engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Before his Shoah interview, he had never spoken of his ordeal. He was one of 50,000 survivors worldwide interviewed for the Shoah project, whose data is available to educators, historians and authors.

Until his involvement, Nachman had rarely sat across from survivors to hear, first-hand, their personal trials of lives interrupted, of innocence stolen, of everything held dear ripped asunder. In getting them to recount their stories in intimate detail, he was not prepared for the impact the experience would have on him or his subjects.

“It was a very exacting interview we did with each survivor. We went into every little detail of exactly what happened to them during the war — whether they were in a concentration camp or a ghetto or in hiding. All the interviews lasted in excess of two hours. Many survivors were reluctant to talk about their lives, but we managed to get them to really open up. We had times when some startling things were said.

“A lady in Chicago told me about being raped. That’s a really shattering thing to sit and listen to. The trauma was still fresh in her mind. At times like that the survivor would break down. When we finished an interview the survivor and I were spent. It was an emotionally draining experience.”

More recently, Nachman has turned his attention to a segment of survivors whose lives were spared only by the intervention of individuals who, at great risk, helped them evade capture, deportation and almost certain death in the camps.

“I got very interested in the rescuers of Jews. I was interested in knowing what made these rescuers do what they did,” he noted. “I think most of them did it because of their own personal convictions rather than out of some government mandate. For them, it was the only thing to do. They were very, very special people.”

 

 

Carl Lutz

 

 

One rescuer in particular captured his imagination — Carl Lutz. “In my reading I ran across Lutz. And in writing, searching and chasing around the world I found his step-daughter, Agnes Hirschi, a writer in Bern, Switzerland. We started corresponding regularly. She introduced me to the man who is the biographer of Lutz — the Rev. Theo Tschuy — a Methodist minister living outside Geneva. He has done tremendous research into the rescuers and he particularly knows the story of Lutz. He and I have become about as close as two people can be.”

Nachman has completed interviews with Hirschi and Tschuy for the Lutz film. In her filmed  interview, Hirschi describes her step-father as “almost obsessed by the idea of having to save these people. It was really like an obsession.”

While the deeds of some rescuers, like Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, have been widely told, a full accounting of what Lutz did has been largely ignored. By the late spring of 1944, the Nazi occupation of Hungary was complete, the borders closed, emigration halted and the mass deportation of Jews under way. The situation was desperate. That is when a man of rare courage and insight — Lutz — then Swiss vice consul to Hungary, began a campaign to thwart the Final Solution.

By all accounts, Lutz embodied the fiercely independent nature of his homeland — specifically, the Appenzell region of Switzerland. A fervent Methodist, Lutz was American-educated. An early diplomatic tour in Palestine well-acquainted him with the Jews’ displaced status. In Hungary, he had already assisted the Budapest-based Jewish Agency of Palestine (JAP) in finding safe passage for 10,000 orphaned children. By April 1944 there were still 8,000 children under his protection waiting to leave for Palestine, but their passage was blocked.

 

 

One of the safe houses Carl Lutz kept

 

 

Lutz negotiated with German and Hungarian officials to keep the group under his protection. When refused more exit permits, he took matters into his own hands. Overceding his authority and defying the wishes of his timid government, he made Swiss neutrality and the power of diplomatic immunity his weapons in taking assertive steps to safeguard Jews.

First, he granted hundreds of asylum seekers sanctuary in the American legation building. Next, he transformed the Budapest JAP into the Emigration Department of the Swiss Legation, thus securing a measure of protection for its workers and its aims. Then he began issuing Swiss Schutzbriefe or safety passes (which declared their holders to be under the protection of the Swiss) to thousands of Jews (men, women and children) beyond the original quota of 8,000.

Thousands more Schutzbriefe were forged and distributed by Zionists. Next, he established 76 Schutzhauser or safe houses where thousands of Jews took refuge. And, finally, he worked closely with the Hechalutz/Chalutzim (Jewish pioneers) to provide security for the safe houses and communication with the Jewish populace and he cultivated sympathetic members of the Hungarian police and parliament to alert him to any Nazi movements directed at the people in his charge.

Nachman said the Schutzbriefe and Schutzhauser Lutz instituted became models for other diplomatic rescuers, including Wallenberg, who came to Budapest months after these measures were implemented. He said scholars estimate Lutz’s actions saved as many as 62,000 Jews, a number far outstripping that attributed to higher-profile rescuers. Nachman and filmmaker Mike Moehring have interviewed recipients of the Schutzbriefe and visited safe houses, many of which survive.

 

 

 

 

According to Nachman, Lutz persisted in his rescue efforts in spite of repeated orders by authorities to stop, constant threats to his life and continued resistance from his superiors in Switzerland. His defiance even extended to Adolf Eichmann, whom he confronted on many occasions.

At one point, as a way of pressuring Lutz, the Nazis made him identify authentic Schutzbriefe from forgeries held by a group of Jews — thus forcing him to condemn some of the safe passage holders to death. Despite such pressure, he persevered.

“He was just an obstinate, stubborn man who felt right was the only way to go. Lutz was a very devout man and he felt he wanted to be on the side of God, not man,” Nachman said.

The more he has studied him, the more Nachman has come to admire Lutz, who died in 1975 — long before international acclaim caught up to him. What does he admire most about him? “Probably the fact he acted as a man of conviction rather than as a diplomat. He used the office of Swiss consul to shield a lot of what he was doing, but he did things he didn’t have to do. This is one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever known of.”

Before his death, Lutz was honored by Yad Vashem in Israel as “a righteous among the nations.” He was posthumously nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Switzerland issued a stamp with his likeness on it. A touring exhibition, Visas for Life: The Righteous and Honorable Diplomats, includes a Lutz display.

In April, Nachman was an invited guest at a United Nations program honoring the diplomatic rescuers and their families. An English language edition of Theo Tschuy’s biography on Lutz (Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz) is due out this fall from Eerdmans Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

For Nachman, who has begun speaking publicly about his work, the investigation into the past goes on. There are more interviews, more archives, more stories to cultivate. “It has been the most exciting time of my life,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s had more meaning and made more of an impact on me.”

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