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David Kaufmann: A Holocaust Rescuer from Afar

December 10, 2011 Leave a comment

What makes someone a hero?  Does it require exposing oneself to physical danger?   Or is it taking an action, any action, that no else is willing or able to take in order to save a life or at least remove someone from harm’s way?  If you agree, as I do, that doing the right thing, whether there’s the threat of bodily harm attached or not, constitutes heroism, then the late Grand Island, Neb. businessman David Kaufmann qualifies.  He repeatedly signed letters of affidavit that allowed family members to leave Nazi Germany for America and freedom.  By acting as their sponsor, he not only helped give them new lives here, he essentially saved their lives by getting them away from the clutch of Nazis bent on The Final Solution.  When Omaha authors Bill Ramsey and Betty Shrier collaborated on a book about Kaufmann titled Doorway to Freedom I ended up writing several stories about Kaufmann and his actions.  Two of those stories follow.  These are among some two dozen Holocaust-related articles I’ve written over the years, several of which, including profiles of survivors, can be found on this blog.

 

 

Holocaust Rescue Mission Undertaken by an Immigrant Nebraskan Comes to Light: How David Kaufmann Saved Hundreds of Family Members from Nazi Germany

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine

Grand Island, Neb. Jewish German emigre David Kaufmann is recalled as a Holocaust hero today despite the fact he never fired a shot, never hid anyone, never bribed officials, never forged documents. What he did do was sign letters of affidavit from 1936 to the start of World War II that enabled scores of famly members to escape genocide in Nazi Germany. With strokes of a pen this private citizen did more than some entire states in responding to the Nazis’ systematic eradication of Jews.

As the Holocaust unfolded an ocean away, he extended a lifeline from the middle of America to endangered family in his homeland. His sponsorship booked them safe passage, thus sparing them from near certain death. What makes this rescue effort unlike others from that grim time is that this merchant-entrepeneur managed it all from the small Midwest town he adopted as his own and made his fortune in.

“Yeah, Nebraska’s one of the last places one would think of to find a guy like that,” said retired Omaha Rabbi Myer Kripke, who presided over Kaufmann’s 1969 funeral in Grand Island. After years of ill health, Kaufmann did at age 93, his rescue work little known outside his extended family.

Kaufmann undertook this humanitarian mission at the height of his success as a business-civic leader with retail, banking and movie theater interests. Known as “Mr. Grand Island,” he’s best remembered for Kaufmann’s Variety Store there, the anchor for a south-central Nebraska chain of five-and-dimes.

But he did not act alone. The first family he got out of harm’s way were cousins Isi and Feo Kahn in 1936. With his help the young couple fled Germany for America. They headed straight for Grand Island, where their daughter Dorothy Kahn Resnick was born and raised. Resnick, who lived and worked in Omaha for a time, now resides in Greeley, Col. Her father worked in Kaufmann’s store until opening a used car dealership. Her mother was a “key” confidant of Kaufmann’s in the conspiracy of hearts that evolved. She kept in touch with family abroad and fed Kaufmann new names needing affidavits of support. Feo even brought Kaufmann the forms to sign.

Anti-Semitism made life ever more restrictive for Europe’s Jews, targets of discrimination, violence, imprisonment and death. People were desperate. Official, legal channels for visas dwindled. You needed a sponsor to get out. Dorothy said her mother went back repeatedly to Uncle David, as he’s referred to out of respect, saying, “‘Here’s someone else.’ Some were very distant relations. But she told me he never questioned her. He never wanted to know who they were and how they were related. He relied on her. He trusted her. He put his faith in her that if she said it was OK, he signed it. Uncle David and my mom just did the right thing. Maybe the simplicity of it is what’s so beautiful.”

“While Mr. Kaufmann had the wherewithal to do what he did, God bless him, it never would have happened without Feo,” said family survivor Guinter Kahn. “It was Feo’s doing — her persuasion — that got his agreement to get the others over.”

Kaufmann’s aid even extended after the war to those displaced by the carnage.

No one’s sure of the exact number he rescued. How he delivered people to freedom and therefore a new lease on life is better known. Escaping the Holocaust meant somehow securing the proper paperwork, making the right connections and scraping together enough money. No easy task. Even family living abroad was no assurance of a way out. It was the rare family that had someone who could take on the legal-financial burden of sponsorship. Then there were the shameful restraints imposed by governments, including the U.S., that made obtaining visas difficult. Nationalism, isolationism and anti-Semitism ruled. Apathy, timidity, fear and appeasement closed borders, sealing the fate of millions.

Few stepped forward to offer safe harbor in this crisis. One who dared was Kaufmann. On regular visits and correspondence home this self-made man kept abreast of the worsening conditions and made a standing offer to help family leave. When Isi and Feo took him up on his offer, they became liaisons between him and asylum seekers. Not all chose to leave. Most who didn’t perished.

Kaufmann didn’t need the risk of assuming responsibility for the welfare of distant relations during the Great Depression, when riches were easily lost. Not wanting publicity for his actions, which went against the tide of official and popular sentiment to keep “foreigners” out, he carried on his campaign in near secrecy. Despite all the reasons not to get involved, he did. This unflinching sense of duty makes him a laudable figure, say Omahans Bill Ramsey and Betty Dineen Shrier, authors of a forthcoming book on Kaufmann called Out of Darkness.

In their research the pair found a handful of signed affidavits of the many they determined Kaufmann signed. The affidavits represent perhaps dozens, if not hundreds of lives Kaufmann saved. He apparently left no record of how many he aided nor any explanation of why he did it. His legacy as a rescuer went largely untold outside family circles until a couple years ago. Kaufmann rarely, if ever, spoke of it. There are no press accounts. No mention in books. No journal-diary entries. Other than a letter he wrote a family he helped flee Germany, scant documentation exists.

Related by blood or marriage, the refugees included the Kahns, the Levys and other families. Most settled outside Nebraska. The few that began their new lives in Grand Island or Omaha eventually left to live elsewhere. The only ones to stay in-state were Isi and Feo Kahn, who in later life moved from Grand Island to Omaha, and Marcel and Ilse Kahn, whose two sons were born and raised in Omaha. The two Kahn couples saw more of Uncle David than their relatives and came to know a man who loved to entertain at his comfortable stone home, which sat on well-landscaped grounds. At sit-down dinners and backyard picnics he and his second wife Madeline gave, the couple regaled visitors with tales from their world travels.

Family, for this benevolent patriarch, was everything. Wherever family settled, he kept tabs on them. Upon their arrival in America, each received a $50 check from him. His support was far from perfunctory, just as the affidavits he endorsed were far from idle strokes of the pen. As their sponsor, he was responsible for every man, woman and child listed on the documents and liable for any and all debts they incurred. As the story goes, no one abused his trust.

As if to please him, Kaufmann’s charges distinguished themselves. “We’ve not met or talked to anyone yet that wasn’t very successful. There are doctors, lawyers, researchers. I mean, they were driven by this legacy. He gave them a chance to do something with their dreams and they made the most of it,”  Ramsey said.

Underscoring this rich legacy of accomplishment is the fact none of it would have been possible without Kaufmann’s intervention. “The common thread is, If it wasn’t for him. we wouldn’t be here — our lives would have been lost. And they’re eternally grateful. That’s the message that goes through the whole story. They love this man. It just comes through,” Ramsey said.

The Kahn family arrives in Omaha with Terese, age three, and twins Joe and Hugo, eight-years-old. Courtesy of Terese Kahn Stiss.

“You needed someone to sponsor you and it took someone who had the resources, and Kaufmann was a king among kings in Grand Island,” Marcel Kahn said.

Kaufmann leveraged his wealth against his faith the refugees would succeed despite limited education and few job prospects. He vouched for them. If they failed, he was obliged to bail them out. “Keep in mind, it was the 1930s, a time of dust storms and depression,” Kahn said. “And for him to take the initiative that he did to sponsor as many as he did, it was just unreal.”

In February 1938 Marcel Kahn came over at age 6 with his brother Guinter and their parents on the maiden voyage of the New Amsterdam ocean liner. Months later the former Ilse Hessel made the crossing with her parents on the same ship.

The Kahns settled in Omaha. The Hessels in Astoria, New York, where she first recalls meeting The Great Man. “There was such excitement that Uncle David was coming,” she said, adding “if the President himself” came there wouldn’t have been more anticipation. “Whenever he would come we would put on the highest level of adoration you could imagine.” The best china was laid out. A lavish meal prepared. Everyone dressed in their go-to-synagogue finest. While always gracious, Kaufmann carried an “executive” air, Marcel said, that made others defer to him in all things.

On the eve of Uncle David’s 80th birthday, in 1956, Ilse and her aunt Frieda Levy discussed how the family might express their thanks to him.

“We knew we wanted to do something to honor this man because of what he had done for us,” Ilse said. “He gave us our lives. We talked about it for a while and we came up with a Tree of Life. I found an artist who painted it.” The painting included the names of families Kaufmann rescued. Trees were planted in Israel to symbolize the gift of life they’d been given. In return, Kaufmann planted two trees in Israel for every one his family did.

To Grand Islanders, Kaufmann was a businessman-philanthropist. To his family, he was a savior. Few knew he was both.

Before he was a hero, he was a dreamer. In Germany, his rural Orthodox family was in the cattle and meat business in Munsterifel, near Cologne. He left home for the city and found success as a retailer. He came to America in 1903, at age 27, with no prospects and unable to speak English. As an immigrant in New York he mastered the language and entered the retail trade. Then his path crossed with a man who changed his life — S.N. Wolbach. A native New Yorker, Wolbach followed Horatio Alger’s “Go west, young man” advice and found his pot of gold in Grand Island, where he owned a department store and bank. On a 1904 buying trip back east he visited the Abrams and Strauss store in Brooklyn, where the industriousness of a young clerk named David Kaufmann caught his eye. Wolbach convinced him his fortune lay 1,500 miles away working for him at Wolbach and Sons. Flattered, Kaufmann accepted an offer as floorwalker and window trimmer.

No sooner did he get there, than he wanted out. Ramsey and Shrier have come upon letters he exchanged with his brother in Germany in which David bemoans “the lack of pavement, the all-too frequent dust storms and the unimposing buildings.” Shrier said Kaufmann even asked his brother to find him a retail opening back in their homeland. By the time his brother wrote back saying he’d found a position for David, things had changed. “There was something about the old town that made me like it,” Kaufmann reflected years later in print. “There were no big buildings, but that doesn’t make a town. It’s the people who live in a place that make you love it. There was something about those old-timers and the ones who came after me that made me like Grand Island. There was something about the businessmen and the people…their willingness to cooperate in all worthwhile undertakings, that makes it a pleasure to work with them.”

Only a few years after his arrival, he went in business for himself, opening his store in 1906. He was a young man on the move and he’d let nothing stop him. “Some people would make a success at anything. All they need is an opportunity,” Marcel Kahn said. “I’m sure he would have been a success at just about any endeavor.”

Ramsey sees S.N. as “The Great Man model” Kaufmann aspired to. “Kaufmann was a doer and Wolbach was a doer as well,” Ramsey said. “He did a lot of charitable work. He was a well-to-do, respected person. And you get the feeling Kaufmann looked up to this man and figured maybe this is how you become a success.”

There is a perfect symmetry to the story. Just as Wolbach helped Kaufmann realize the classic immigrant-made-good success story and American Dream, Kaufmann helped his family achieve the same. The fact he brought them over at a time of peril makes it all the more poignant.

It may be, as survivor Joseph Khan surmises, “doing this good deed might not have been a big deal” to Kaufmann. “I’m not suggesting or implying it wasn’t. It was. Perhaps he was motivated to bring people over here so they could enjoy the same fruits of their labor as he did. That might have been as much a reason as anything.”

“The man came over with nothing and succeeded and he shared his success with his brothers, his cousins, his neighbors, his friends,” said Erwin Levy, of Palm Desert, Cal., who along with his brother Ernie survived the death camps before coming to America under the auspices of the Jewish aid agency Hais. The brothers were offered help by Kaufmann, though distantly related to him by marriage.

Survivors fully recognize what Kaufmann did was extraordinary.

“Mr. Kaufmann had the money…was in the United States…had the possibilities. Mr. Kaufmann used those possibilities and didn’t hold back at all. For this, he must be given credit. A rare person. An uncommon man. In the early 1930s he saw what was happening” in Germany and “he got us over. He really saved these families, including mine, and there’s no way we can express that thanks,” said Guinter Kahn.

No one asked Uncle David why he did it. For a man of such “humility,” it seemed an imposition. Ilse and Marcel Kahn have many questions today. She asks, “What did he know about the world war and Hitler? What thoughts did he have on the situation in Europe?” Marcel wonders, “Do you suppose he knew more than us?” He also wonders, “What made him do it, realizing there would be a lot of dollars involved if we were to default? And what did we display to make him confident to do such a thing?” He suspects Uncle David knew the family’s attitude of — “Just give us the opportunity” — mirrored his own enterprising spirit. They only needed a chance like the one S.N. gave him. “That’s all we were asking at the time,” he said.

As “he never talked about it,” Dorothy Kahn Resnick said, we’re left to guess. A great-nephew, Mayo Clinic researcher Scott Kaufmann, speculates Uncle David’s actions may have had something to do with “the upbringing” his great-uncle had in Germany. “His parents may have raised him with the idea that this is what you do for family.” He said the patriarchal role Uncle David filled was ironic given he had no children of his own, but the nephew recalls him as “always gracious and happy to see family members,” especially children.

Remarks from an acceptance speech Uncle David made may reveal a clue into what made him reach out to others. “Most of us have more good thoughts than we have bad ones,” he said, “and all we have to do is follow the good thoughts. The handicap is, the good thoughts are often not followed by required action.”

What makes his actions historic is that they may constitute the largest Holocaust rescue operation staged by a lone American. Omahan Ben Nachman has researched the Holocaust for decades and he’s sure what Kaufmann did is unique. He learned of Kaufmann’s deeds as an interviewer for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Project filmmaker Steven Spielberg launched after Schindler’s List.

“After having learned of the rescue of a family by David Kaufmann I began a search in an attempt to learn if any other American had done anything near what Kaufmann had done,” Nachman said. “In this search I was unable to find anyone who had” brought “as many families out of Germany, to this country…Additionally, I could not find anyone who had brought this many people out and assumed total responsibility for them. All of this done quietly with no publicity for his actions. If only there had been more David Kaufmanns.”

“The story is important, for Kaufmann was one of the ‘silent heroes’ who made it possible for over 100,000 Jews to be saved immediately before and after the Shoah,” said Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braum professor of American history at Brandeis University. “These heroes provided guarantees, jobs and funds — often for people they had never met, and usually with no thought that they would be reimbursed. We know all too little about these people. Most of the literature concerning America and the Holocaust describes what was not done. Happily, the Kaufmann story reminds us of what was done.”

the SS St. Louis, turned away by United States authorities in 1939, sailed back to Europe, where most of its passengers were sent to concentration camps. Credit: Max Reid and the U.S. Holocaust Museum

Survivors were motivated to do well as repayment of the debt owed Uncle David. There’s no doubt of “the gratitude” survivors like Marcel Kahn say they feel for being what his wife Ilse calls “the recipients of his goodness.”

Marcel’s brother, Guinter Kahn, a Florida physician and the inventor of Rogaine, said, “Had he not done what he did, we probably all would have been gassed. It’s incredible. What luck. Talk about hanging from fine threads…Everybody has their saints, and he’s ours.” Guinter said there’s no way to repay such a gift but to make good on it. “I’ve always thought, I’ll do as well as I can, because I’ve been given a chance.” “No one went on the public dole. He never had to support any of the people he sponsored,” said Joseph Kahn of Pennsylvania. Joseph was 8 when he came with his twin brother Hugo, sister Therese, parents and grandfather. The Khans settled in Omaha, where Joseph and Hugo attended school.

“I realize he signed an affidavit of support for me and was responsible for me. But in no way did I want him to be that,” said Fred Levy, who immigrated from Israel, where he and his family fled before the worst of the Holocaust. “I felt an obligation when I came to this country to meet him and thank him in person.” It was Levy’s way of telling him he would carry his own weight.

Ilse Kahn said the family “was too proud” to ever ask for “charity.” This, despite “the tough time” they faced getting along, Marcel Kahn said. “Most of us, fortunately, became successes. Certainly, the second generation really did well in terms of financial success. But without that opportunity, my goodness, we’d be nothing more than a pile of bones or ashes,” he said. “One would assume our successes made him that much happier.”

Success was indeed enough, said Ilse Levy Weiner, an Illinois resident who came with her folks on the S.S. Washington courtesy of Uncle David. “He told my father once that as many as he brought to the United States nobody ever bothered him for one nickel,” she said. “I never forgot that. He was so proud of everybody he brought to this country because they all worked really hard and nobody ever asked him for anything.” “He just wanted them to find their way, get settled and become good citizens,” said Kansas City resident Joe Levy, who was a boy when he, his brother and their parents arrived here. The Levys lived in Omaha for a time.

The kindness Uncle David showed his family was consistent with his giving nature.

“At the center of the book is the generosity and the goodness of this man,” said author Bill Ramsey. Uncle David’s good will extended to caring for a sister struck down by polio, arranging for Grand Island restaurants to feed the homeless on holidays and setting up a Self-Help-Society that supplied hard-on-their-luck folks food and clothing in exchange for work. Long before it was common, he paid sales staff commissions and offered employee sick benefits.

Bill Ramsey

 

 

He led drives and made donations to build and improve the community. “He was involved with the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, St. Francis Hospital…and every board he served on he rose to be the chairman,” Ramsey said. Even in death he keeps giving via the Kaufmann-Cummings Foundation begun by his second wife, Madeline. It awards scholarships to Grand Island area students and recently made a donation to help with the restoration of the Grand Theatre the couple owned.

For Ramsey, the book project is “a labor of love.” The manuscript has made the rounds with editors and publishers, attracting much interest, but so far no deal has been struck. Ramsey and co-author Betty Shrier are in search of funds to underwrite the cost of printing enough books to provide one in every school and library in Nebraska. Nebraska Educational Television is weighing a possible documentary based on the book.

Family members who owe their lives to Kaufmann appreciate the fact this chapter in history will be preserved. “Because of this book I’ve learned a lot more details about Uncle David and his involvement in the community, civic responsibilities, duties, charitable causes and so on,” Marcel Kahn said, “and just how great of an individual he really was. It’s probably a story that should be told for generations.”

A Man Apart: David Kaufmann’s Little Known Rescue of Hundreds of Jews

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

As the shadow of the coming Holocaust darkened Europe, those sensing the dangers ahead looked for any means of escape. But getting away meant somehow securing the proper paperwork, making the right connections and scraping together enough money. No easy task. Even family living abroad was no assurance of a way out. It was the rare family that had someone who could take on the legal-financial burden of sponsorship. Then there were the shameful restraints imposed by governments, including the U.S., that made obtaining visas and entering another country difficult. Nationalism, isolationism and anti-Semitism ruled the day. Apathy, timidity, fear and appeasement closed borders, sealing the fate of millions.

Few stepped forward to offer safe harbor in the looming humanitarian crisis. One who dared was the late Jewish-German emigre David Kaufmann, a prominent business-civic leader in Grand Island, Neb. When others looked on or averted their eyes, he reached out and offered a lifeline to those facing persecution and peril. Recalled fondly as a philanthropist, he used the wealth and position acquired from his variety stores to spearhead community betterment projects. But he was far more than a good citizen. He was a hero unafraid to act upon his convictions.

 

 

Kaufmann’s Five & Ten Cent Store

 

 

From 1936 until America’s engagement in World War II, Kaufmann responded to the growing threat overseas by endorsing affidavits of support for perhaps 250 or more people. The documents provided safe passage here under his patronage and his guarantee the refugees were sound risks. Affidavits were issued individuals, couples, siblings and entire families. His help extended to the post-war years as well, when he sponsored war victims displaced by the hostilities.

Kaufmann’s rescue of oppressed people from near certain imprisonment and probable death went untold outside his own family until last year. He rarely, if ever, publicly spoke of it. There were no press accounts. No mention in books. No radio-television interviews to shed light on it. Other than a letter he wrote a family he helped flee Germany, scant documentation exists, except for the few surviving affidavits of support he signed. More powerfully, there is the testimony of the men and women, now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, who found sanctuary here thanks to Kaufmann’s efforts to remove them from harm’s way.

These survivors came as children or young adults. Those that came during the Nazi reign of terror were fully aware of the terrible fate they avoided through his good graces. Some didn’t make it to the U.S. during the war. They escaped on their own or with the aid of family to havens like Palestine, where Kaufmann sent for them. Those that didn’t get out endured years of physical and emotional torture as prisoners, then more privation in refugee camps, before Kaufmann’s helping hands caught up with them and secured their travel to America.

Once here, the refugees received money and counsel from Kaufmann.

Some ended up in Grand Island and worked at his store. Others settled in Omaha. Most opted for big cities — New York, New Orleans, Chicago, et cetera. Wherever they went, Kaufmann kept tabs on how them. Over time, the family tree grew. Their American ranks must now number in the high hundreds. They own a rich legacy in America, too, where many members have distinguished themselves.

David Kaufmann’s gift of life only grows larger with each new birth and each new generation. Yet his name and good works remain obscure outside the clan and his adopted home. That’s about to change, however. The righteous actions of Kaufmann are the subject of a book-in-progress by Omaha authors William Ramsey and Betty Dineen Shrier that details all he did to ensure his family’s survival in the Shoah. Nebraska Educational Television producers are considering a documentary film on the subject. There is urgency in having the story recorded soon, as with each passing year fewer and fewer of the original Kaufmann wards survive.

Guinter Kahn

Collaborators on two previous books, Ramsey and Shrier were approached with the idea for the Kaufmann book by Ben Nachman, a retired Omaha dentist who’s devoted the past 30 years to Holocaust research. In the course of Nachman serving as an interviewer for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Project in the early 1990s, he came upon survivors aided by Kaufmann. He knew it was a story that must be shared. Ramsey and Shrier agreed, accepting the assignment. They began work on it last year and have since interviewed dozens of figures touched by Kaufmann.

“This sounded like a big story. A national or international story. And I thought it was a story that had gone untold too long. That’s what really drove me,” said Ramsey, a well-known public relations man. “People of all backgrounds are moved by what happened in the Holocaust. And with it being the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of the death camps, the timing was perfect.”

For co-author Shrier, the sheer humanity of it all hooked her.  “I think that I have never come across anyone who was so generous across the board to so many different people as David Kaufmann was,” she said. “And he didn’t discriminate with race or creed or philosophy. It made no difference to him. He was good to everybody. And I’ve never met anybody or heard of anybody with that kind of openness. The thing about it is, he was a great businessman. He was stern when it came to business principles, but he still knew how to give.”

Good works defined Kaufmann’s life. The entrepreneur was among a handful  of Jewish residents in the south central Nebraska town, yet he assisted all kinds of people in need. His largess extended to everyone from relatives and friends to complete strangers. His contributions to various building committees helped transform Grand Island into a modern city.

Kaufmann kept his most personal good works quiet. Until the Grand Island Independent began reporting last winter on the book project, which has led the authors on repeated research trips there, few residents knew Kaufmann’s name and fewer still his legacy as a Holocaust rescuer. Before he became a hero, he was a man on a mission — hell-bent on improving himself and the lot of his family.

Uncle David, as he’s called in family circles, epitomized the great American success story. He came to this country in 1903 not knowing the language, but through his industriousness he mastered English, he worked his way up the retail trade, first in New York and then in Grand Island, and he soon went into business for himself. Only a few years after arriving here, he’d built a thriving chain of five-and-dimes and put his imprint on all aspects of community life. As Grand Island’s leading citizen, he didn’t need the hassle of vouching and assuming responsibility for the welfare of a sizable number of distant relations. He especially didn’t need the risk to his riches and reputation in the Great Depression, when fortunes and good names were easily lost. Not wanting publicity for his actions, which went against the tide of official and popular sentiment to keep “foreigners” outside the nation’s borders, he carried on his rescue campaign in near secrecy. Despite all the reasons not to get involved, he did. This unflinching sense of duty makes Kaufmann a compelling and laudable figure and is the focus of Ramsey and Shrier’s book.

“At the center of the book is the generosity and the goodness of this man,” said Ramsey. Kaufmann’s good will towards his family, including caring for a sister struck down by polio, was part of a pattern of kindnesses he exhibited in his lifetime. For example, he arranged for Grand Island restaurants to feed the homeless on holidays, reimbursing the eateries himself. He set up a Self-Help-Society that supplied hard-on-their-luck folks food and clothing in exchange for work. He sprung for free sundaes — preparing them himself — when employees did inventory on weekends. Long before it was common, he paid sales staff commissions and offered employee sick benefits. He hosted backyard picnics that fed small armies of friends, neighbors and workers. He led drives and made donations to build and improve the communities he lived in and did business in. “He was called Mr. Grand Island by many. He was involved with the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, St. Francis Hospital…and every board he served on he rose to be the chairman,” Ramsey said.

Kaufmann died in 1969, but even in death he keeps on giving via the Kaufmann-Cummings Foundation started by his second wife, Madeline.

Then there’s the ripple effect his good works have had. Ramsey, Shrier and Nachman say that almost without exception the people he sponsored, as well as their descendants, have been high achievers, motivated to do well as repayment of the debt owed Uncle David for affording them America’s opportunities.

“We’ve not met or talked to anyone yet that wasn’t very successful. There’s doctors, lawyers, researchers. I mean, they were driven by this legacy. I think they felt their lives were saved, and they probably were. He gave them a chance to do something with their dreams and they made the most of it,” Ramsey said. “I think they were trying hard to please him because he sponsored them and they didn’t want to be a burden on him or on the United States. That was part of each affidavit he signed. It said he was responsible for these people if they don’t make it here. He was putting his name and fortune and everything else on the line.”

S.N. Wolbach

 

 

The only recompense Kaufmann wanted for his assistance was the assurance his wards were not a drag on society. That alone was reward enough for him said Bourbonnais, Ill. resident Ilse Weiner, who was 17 when she and her parents, Ludwig and Frieda Levy, came on the S.S. Washington courtesy their affidavit of support from Kaufmann. “He told my father once that as many as he brought to the United States nobody ever bothered him for one nickel,” she said. “I never forgot that. He was so proud of everybody he brought to this country because they all worked really hard and nobody ever asked him for anything.”

The gratitude felt by Kaufmann’s charges made them strive to please him. “I realize he signed an affidavit of support for me and was responsible for me. But in no way did I want him to be that,” said Fred Levy, whose affidavit from Kaufmann enabled him to immigrate from Israel, where he and his family fled before the Final Solution.

“I felt an obligation when I came to this country to meet him and thank him in person.” It was Levy’s way of telling him he would carry his own weight.

Even after her family established themselves here, Weiner said, he would visit them on buying trips to Chicago, always bearing gifts and making sure they were getting on OK, offering help with anything they needed. She said once when her father had trouble finding work, Kaufmann put in a good word for him. She said Kaufmann even aided a friend of the family, no blood relation at all, in relocating to America.

Survivors hold Kaufmann in the highest esteem. “They love this man. It just comes through,” Ramsey said. Weiner said, “He was a warm man. Thoughtful. He gave good advice. When we arrived in The States, he sent gifts and a check for $50. He was very generous. He was fantastic to us. He was such a good person. How should I say? We looked up to him like if he was God, because he saved our lives. What more can I say? He saved our lives.” The most famous family survivor, Rogaine inventor and medical doctor Guinter Kahn, has said, “Everybody has their saints, and he’s ours.”

 

 

Example of an Affidavit of Support

On his 80th birthday, Kaufmann was presented “a family tree” that relatives commissioned an artist to paint. It includes the names of those he rescued and refers to trees planted in Israel to commemorate his life saving legacy.

If Kaufmann was inspired in his good deeds by anyone, it may have been S.N. Wolbach, the figure responsible for bringing him to Grand Island. A native New Yorker, Wolbach went west himself as a young man and found his pot of gold on the prairie, where he opened a department store and held banking interests. On a 1904 buying trip back east he visited the Abrams and Strauss store in Brooklyn, where he was impressed by the salesmanship and work ethic of a young clerk named David Kaufmann. Wolbach convinced Kaufmann his fortune lay 1,500 miles away working for him at Wolbach and Sons. Flattered,  Kaufmann accepted an offer as floorwalker and window trimmer. Only nine months after his arrival in America, the enterprising emigre headed west to meet his destiny.

No sooner did he get there, than he wanted out. Authors Ramsey and Shrier have come upon letters Kaufmann exchanged with his brother in Germany in which David bemoans “the lack of pavement, the all-too frequent dust storms and the unimposing buildings.” Shrier said Kaufmann even asked his brother to find him a retail opening back in their homeland. By the time his brother wrote back saying he’d found a position for David, things had changed. “There was something about the old town that made me like it,” Kaufmann reflected years later in print. “There were no big buildings, but that doesn’t make a town. It’s the people who live in a place that make you love it. There was something about those old-timers and the ones who came after me that made me like Grand Island. There was something about the businessmen and the people…their willingness to cooperate in all worthwhile undertakings, that makes it a pleasure to work with them.”

Ramsey speculates Kaufmann’s mentor, Wolbach, “was The Great Man model” he aspired to. “Wolbach was a doer as well. He did a lot of charitable work. He was a well-to-do, respected person. And you get the feeling Kaufmann looked up to this man and figured maybe this is how you become a success,” Ramsey said.

As the Nazis came to power in Germany, Kaufmann was already a self-made man. In his occasional visits and regular correspondence home he kept abreast of the worsening conditions for Jews there and made a standing offer to help family leave. His first affidavit got Isi and Feo Kahn out in 1936. The young couple moved to Grand Island, where their daughter Dorothy Kahn Resnick was born and raised.

Dorothy said her mother was a “key” conduit and emissary in the conspiracy of hearts that evolved, staying in touch with family abroad and feeding Kaufmann new names needing affidavits of support. She even brought him the forms to sign.

As the Nazis clamped down ever more, “people were desperate,” Ramsey said. “They could see what was happening.” Official, legal channels for visas dwindled. Affidavits of support, forged documents or bribes were the only routes out. Dorothy said her mother went back repeatedly to Uncle David with new names, saying, “‘Here’s someone else.’ Some were very distant relations. But she told me he never questioned her. He never wanted to know who they were and how they were related. He relied on her. He trusted her. He put his faith in her that if she said it was OK, he signed it. Uncle David and my mom just did the right thing. They just did it. Maybe the simplicity of it is what’s so beautiful.”

As “he never talked about it,” Dorothy said, we’re left guessing why he acted. Remarks from an acceptance speech he gave may be as close as we’ll ever get to knowing what made him do it. “Most of us have more good thoughts than we have bad ones,” he said, “and all we have to do is follow the good thoughts. The handicap is, the good thoughts are often not followed by required action.” Hundreds lived because Kaufmann heeded his better self to take action.

Sisters of the Shoah: Three Survivor Tales, Three Golden Fates, Three Iron Wills

April 18, 2011 4 comments

Jews being arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto. The ...

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It has been a humbling experience for me to meet and profile a number of Holocaust survivors. The following story I did for the Jewish Press tells the remarkable tale of three sisters who all managed, after much misery and loss, to get out of the hell of the Holocaust alive. The story is one of a series I have done for that newspaper, with assorted others for other publications, that personalize the horror and the hope that survivors have to share with the rest of us. Rachel, Mania, and Bluma are three women I am not likely to forget.  I dare say after reading their tale you will not forget them either. After the war they all ended up in Omaha, where they still reside today as witnesses whose testimony must be read and heard. On this blog you will find several other Holocaust stories I’ve written, and I will be adding more over time. The ranks of the survivors are fast dwindling, making it ever more imperative their stories be told.

Sisters of the Shoah: Three Survivor Tales, Three Golden Fates, Three Iron Wills

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press; the article won, in a second-place tie, the David Frank Award for Excellence in Personality Profiles at the June 3, 2004 American Press Association’s Simon Rockower Awards

This is not just another Holocaust story. It is the chronicle of how three sisters survived, alone and together, a series of Nazi concentration camps during World War II to tell their story of human endurance. That not one or two but all three made it out alive is, as the eldest puts it today, “Impossible. I don’t know how we lived. We survived with nothing…not even our hair.”

Only girls at the time, the sisters, all of whom resettled in Omaha, displayed a remarkable resolve that belied their years and that still defines them today. Their individual stories have been told, but never their combined saga. Sisters of the Shoah in name and in blood, the former Bojman girls are old women now but their spirit burns with the rigor of youth. Known by their married names — Mania Friedman, Rachel Rosenberg, Bluma Polonski — they remain defiant witnesses to the Nazi genocide that killed millions, including their parents and brothers, and that would have claimed them, too, but for their three golden fates and three iron wills.

“It is sad and it is deep,” is how a teary-eyed Rachel, the middle sister, describes her and her siblings’ odyssey. It’s a legacy that’s had a profound effect on their families, too. For example, Rachel’s three children witnessed her frequent crying jags and their father Carl’s obsession with the Holocaust. Rachel said in recent years she promised herself, “You’re not going to be miserable…live as happy as you can…see the light instead of the dark.’ I’ve tried to help myself to live normal and to be like everybody else, which I’m not. But I try.” A son, Stuart Rosenberg, said despite the nightmare his mother and maternal aunts experienced “they are truly remarkable people with an incredible appreciation for life.” The significance of their story, he added, is in the resilience and resistance their survival represents.

 

Rachel Rosenberg

 

 

Not all survivors have fared as well. A cousin of the sisters never got over losing her family, including two sons, to the Holocaust. She committed suicide. “My cousin didn’t want to live. I do. I like life,” said Rachel. “In my eyes, I have everything I want. I’m the richest person in the world.”

The women today enjoy the comfortable lifestyle they made for themselves here, but the horrid memories of what brought them to America are never far away. This past Mother’s Day, the oldest sister, Mania, encapsulated the dichotomy of their lives in her heavily accented voice, “Our life is beautiful and miserable, you understand? After the war we had no family. We had nothing. How many times I said, God, take me away not to suffer too much.’ We went through more than hell. But this is our life. We have to take everything. At least I have pleasure from my children. All over I have pictures of my children,” she said, gesturing at the dozens of photos adorning her refrigerator, walls, hutches and tables. “As long as I’m alive I want to see them, not hidden away in a drawer, because we have family again.”

The phone rings and it’s Rose, the mother of Mania’s only granddaughter, Jennifer, whom she adores. “Oh, thank you, Rose. Happy Mother’s Day to you, too. You give me joy in my life,” Mania says. “You give me the biggest diamond that can be — Jennifer.” When Mania mentions she’s telling her Holocaust story to a visitor, the conversation abruptly ends. She explains that her daughter cannot deal with the subject: “She said, Mom, I don’t want to hear it.’”

For Bluma, the youngest sister, the specter of the Holocaust is not as immediate as it is for her older siblings but it is still ever present. Three years ago she made a pilgrimage with her children and several of her grandchildren to the Polish death camps. “This was my wish. To make this journey before I go away, because I’m a survivor and when we go away nobody’s going to be left anymore,” she said. “It was a sad wish. My husband didn’t want to go because it broke his heart. I said, If you’re not going to go, I will. I have to.’ I wanted to say goodbye to the ashes.”

Bluma and her family visited Treblinka, where her mother and youngest brother were killed, as well as Auschwitz, where she and Mania were imprisoned together and where Rachel and another brother were confined in a separate compound. “In Treblinka I kneeled down, I cried and I talked to my mom and my little brother. I said, I’m here. I’ve just come to see you and say goodbye.’ I said a kadish and after the prayers it started thundering and lightning…like she heard me. It was very emotional.” At Auschwitz, she went inside the very barracks, No. 25, where she and Mania were interned. “I thought I would have a nervous breakdown,” she recalls. Finally, she went to her hometown, which she found stripped bare of its Jewish heritage. “There’s nothing left,” she said. “It’s like we never existed.” Back home, she counts her blessings. “I’m thankful to God for every single day.”

Born into the Polish-Jewish family of Rose and Morris Bojman, Mania, Rachel and Bluma grew up alongside their three younger bothers in a stately home in the largely Jewish rural village of Wolanow, Poland. The orthodox family was well off, with their father working as a cattle buyer and running his own butcher shop and their mother earning money as a seamstress. The three sisters were leading typical schoolgirl lives, with Rachel learning the seamstress trade, when Poland was invaded by German forces in 1939 and the first anti-Jewish decrees were enacted soon thereafter. The mounting menace turned violent when German bombers attacked the village and an explosion destroyed a house across the street from the Bojman residence, killing and maiming several inhabitants. “I remember the bedding was wet with blood. People were cut up in little pieces,” Rachel said.

With their movements and actions curtailed, the Jewish populace was restricted to one small section of town where the Bojmans resided. Some of Wolanow’s Jewish residents were thrown out of their own homes and herded with refugees from neighboring hamlets into the small Jewish ghetto, which more and more resembled a prison. The Bojmans’ home was soon overcrowded with dozens of displaced people. Occupying German forces increasingly isolated their captives by driving Jews into concentration camps, dividing families in the process, throughout the countryside. It was at this time the Bojman family was irretrievably split-up. The sisters’ mother fled with their youngest brother, Motel, to the nearby village of her brother and his family, where she felt they’d be safe. The rest of the family was taken to Szalkow, a holding site on an area farm where conditions were far better than anything the sisters would know again until after the war ended six years later. Then, in the cold calculations of the Holocaust, Mania, Bluma, a brother, Aaron, their father and a cousin, Carl Rosenberg, were inexplicably sent to Camp Wolanow while Rachel and her brother Jacob stayed at Szalkow.

To this day, Rachel cannot fathom why she and her brother were separated from her family at Wolanow. “That’s such a puzzle in my mind,” she said. As to why her mother went off alone with her baby brother, she speculates she acted out of fear and denial. “My mother preached, The Germans will not hurt us — they are a cultured people.’” Before leaving, Rachel’s mother gave her a diamond ring. Rachel bribed a German guard with that ring and found someone to drive her to the village where her mother and brother were staying. “I went to get them,” Rachel recalls, but her mother resisted. “No, give me two more days,’ she said. She cooked for me my favorite meal and made a package for me to take back to my camp.” By the time Rachel came back, the village had been ethnically cleansed and, as she later learned, her loved ones taken to Treblinka, where they perished.

 

 

 

 

Camp Wolanow. This was the first of the camps Mania and Bluma weathered. As in other camps, males and females were segregated in overcrowded living barracks and on grueling work details. The sisters’ father and their brother Aaron were there, too. Operated by the Germans, the holding camp was manned by many Polish guards and terrorized by roving Ukrainian execution squads. The close quarters, unsanitary conditions, poor food and inadequate shelter became a breeding ground for disease. Typhus swept through the camp that winter, felling the sisters’ father, who grew too weak to work, excuse enough to be killed. Bluma, then only 10, snuck into her father’s barracks to comfort him and to hide him from the guards, but she was spotted and thrown into a crude shack known as “the death house.” There, “cold, barefoot and crying,” she cowered among the other prisoners awaiting almost certain death. When word of her capture reached her cousin Carl, already a young man who’d earned special privileges inside the camp because of his tailoring skills, he came to her rescue. Half-delirious with typhus himself, Carl pleaded with the guards for her release. As Bluma recalls, “He said, Please, let her live a little more. She’s my cousin.’ And they let me out.”

Survival at Wolanow was determined in part by luck, the guards’ whims and inmates’ own wits, wile and will. To survive, Bluma and Mania became hustlers and scavengers. Bluma, the smaller of the two, was adept at sneaking in and out of tight spaces to steal boots or brooms, which they made, or other valuable items the girls came across in camp and traded for scraps of food. “I was the provider,” Bluma said. “I was very aggressive.” In their foraging for supplies, the sisters said they got brazen enough to dig a shallow tunnel — with their bare hands — in the snow and ice. The tunnel, beginning under a section of barbed wire on the camp’s perimeter fence, ran into the surrounding woods and led to a clearing a few yards away. There, Bluma said, she and Mania came above ground and headed straight for a house occupied by a friendly Gentile family. The woman of the house knew the Bojmans from before the roundups and gave food and shelter to the two brave little girls, who scurried to her place via the tunnel whenever they got hungry.

On what proved to be the last run the girls made to their secret sanctuary, Bluma said the woman informed them it was getting too dangerous to aid them any longer and she forbid them from returning. That night, Bluma said she and Mania hid in the woods when they heard machine gunfire coming from the camp. Returning to camp at daybreak, she said they came upon a scene of surreal carnage, with hundreds of frozen corpses, riddled by bullets, laying on the ground as mourning relatives weeped over them. Among the bereaved was their father, crying over the death of his son and their brother, Aaron, a victim of the mass execution.

As related to the sisters by their father, Aaron was selected for a contingent of prisoners earmarked for another camp but, instead, he hid in a barrel, hoping to elude his captors. When a guard overturned the barrel Aaron was killed with the others on site. The bodies, according to Mania, were buried in a mass grave.

From Wolanow, Mania, Bluma, their father and Carl were transported to a Polish transit camp, Starahowice, where they were detained before being shipped, by train, to dreaded Auschwitz. Degradation and violation ruled their lives at Auschwitz. Like many others, Mania and Bluma endured torture. “The women guards went with their bare hands inside us and tore things,” Mania said. “We were screaming. We were bleeding. Oh, God. I don’t know how we got children. This was a miracle.” The sisters’ father was transported from Auschwitz and eventually gassed in Buchenwald.

Meanwhile, Rachel, along with Jacob and assorted cousins and aunts, were deported from Szalkow, where they enjoyed relative comfort, to Blizyn, a harsh labor camp where they were “cold, hungry and dirty.” She and other women were forced to carry heavy cement blocks for buildings under construction. Jacob tended animals. Eventually, Rachel was spared the hardship and indignity of being a human pack mule when the guards called a group of inmates together one day and asked who could sew. She raised her hand and was reassigned to a giant sweatshop where she joined hundreds of other prisoners making uniforms.

The drudgery of work-filled days and the anxiety of uncertain fates left inmates drained by night, when they “sat around for hours and talked,” Rachel recalls, “about why they are doing this to us, what’s going to be tomorrow, who’s going to live through this, who’s going to tell? We dreamed. We looked outside and saw there’s still a world. We saw people working in the fields. The sky was blue. The birds still flew. I thought, God, if I could only be a bird. We were 16-17 years old. We never dated. We never knew boys. We were afraid but there was nothing we could do. The hurt was so deep. The ocean wasn’t as deep as our hurt.”

The pain only got worse at Auschwitz. “Well, I knew this was going to be our end,” Rachel recalls thinking upon arriving at that foul place. It was by pure chance she became aware of her sisters’ presence there. One day while walking in a line of prisoners at the edge of the compound that bordered another enclosure she saw Nathan, the brother of her cousin Carl, working on a railroad gang. They made eye contact and “he threw me a chunk of bread.” Further down the line she spotted her sisters laboring on the tracks the transport trains ran on. “I went closer to the gate, up to the barbed wire, and I screamed, Mania…Bluma,’ and they saw me and they waved to me. I threw them pieces of that bread.” It was the last time she saw her sisters until months after their liberation.

 

 

 

 

“The living was very bad there,” Rachel said. “Every morning we had to stand in line to be counted. We had to be naked for Mengela (the Nazi war criminal, Joseph Mengela, who experimented on inmates). We were afraid. He chose — this girl to the left, this girl to the right…you go to work, you go to die.” As Bluma puts it, “If you had bones, you were not good. If you still had a little meat, you could still work. One day he made a selection and I was on the wrong side and they took me away. I was scared, but I couldn’t cry anymore — our tears were dried up. We were numb already. We were like cattle led to the slaughter.” Bluma said she escaped the ovens when, in a roll call, she gave the wrong number tattooed on her arm and rejoined Mania in the fit-to-work group.

At Auschwitz Rachel once again lugged cement blocks. On their way to work Rachel and fellow inmates passed by a crematorium. “We saw the flames and the black smoke,” she recalls. “We said, Well, next time it will be us.’ We knew there was no tomorrow for us.” In a building piled high with victims’ discarded apparel she salvaged fabric to clothes for her, relatives and barracks-mates.

It was at Auschwitz the sisters’ brother Jacob met his end. Rachel, who’d been his protector during their life in detention, took his death especially hard. “One day we were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when the SS, who targeted the young, took him away from me,” she said. “I didn’t want to let him go. I cried and begged them to let me go with him or to take me instead, but they just grabbed him, threw me down and led him away to a truck. I couldn’t do anything but put a sweater around him so he’d be warm. I followed the truck as far as I could.” Having him wrenched away from her to be gassed is, she said, “my biggest hurt.” It is why, she feels, she’s been an “overprotective” mother.

Although the sisters had no inkling of it at the time, by early 1945 the Nazis were in disarray and inmates like themselves still able enough to work, albeit malnourished, were in a position to stay alive and be liberated by advancing Allied troops. As if surviving Auschwitz were not enough, the sisters defied fate once more when commandeered to work as human slaves in munitions factories on the Czech-German border — Mania and Bluma in Darezenstrat and Rachel and some cousins at another site, where they toiled in a series of cellars or tunnels variously sorting potatoes and splicing electric wires. By late spring, the prisoners could see their captors were anxious. Some guards fled. Then, on May 8 1945, Mania, Bluma and the others were marched into the woods by the remaining guards. When a limousine approached, the sisters feared the worst. “We thought it was the SS,” Bluma said, “but it was the Red Cross. They said to the Germans, Stay here. You lost the war. It’s over. The people are free.’ This was our liberation.” On the same day, Rachel and her group were liberated by the Russians.

The sisters, mere skeletons by then, were cared for by a combination of international aid workers and Czech nationals.

Against all odds, the sisters persevered the worst that, as Bluma puts it, “human done to human,” and have gone on to see many tomorrows. While their post-war life has been heaven-sent in comparison with the hell they survived, there have been many struggles. Soon after their liberation, Mania and Bluma went to Wolanow to salvage what they could from the family home, where they were rudely rebuffed by the Polish family occupying it. The sisters only retrieved a photo of their father before being driven off with threats and invectives. Mania and Bluma were reunited with Rachel, Carl and other relatives at a pair of displaced persons centers in Germany, namely, the city of Lanzburg and the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, which the British liberated. At these sites the extended family eked out a meager existence the next few years. “We didn’t have money or anything, but we were still happy. We were together…and we were free,” Rachel said.

During their limbo of a refugee existence, Carl, the oldest and most resourceful, “was like a father to us,” Rachel said. “We were very naive. We didn’t know from life. He took care of us. He protected us.” Carl, who long fancied Rachel, married his cousin in Germany, where their first child, Morris, was born. Mania and Bluma also met their mates in the DP camps. By 1949 the sisters secured papers to start anew — with Rachel, Carl, Bluma and Joe going to America and Mania and Zalman resettling in Israel. Their cousins scattered to the four winds. In 1958, Mania and her family rejoined her sisters in America.

Rachel credits then-Jewish Federation of Omaha executive director, Paul Veret, with helping her family get established in the community and Jewish social maven Sadie Newman with making them feel welcome here.

All three sisters feel blessed they overcame their shared tragedy and trauma to find a foothold in America, where they started from scratch to build bountiful lives for their families. Along with their husbands, fellow survivors like them, the women found business success, reared healthy children and became doting grandparents. For years, Rachel assisted her husband, Carl, who now suffers from dementia, in their own tailoring business. She still does fittings and alterations in their basement workshop. Mania and her late husband Zalman owned and operated the popular Friedman’s Bakery in Countryside Village. Bluma’s husband Joe, now retired, was the longtime owner of Ak-Sar-Ben TV before selling it in 2000.

The sisters are proud to have come so far from so little. “We had no language, no money, nothing, and look at what we accomplished,” Rachel said, motioning to her big, beautiful house. Toiling long hours beside their husbands to earn extra money, the women made sure their children had “everything they wanted,” Mania said. Working hard also helped ease the women’s heartache. “Being busy is a healing,” Rachel said. Even so, harsh memories linger — the bitter past a constant reminder of what they witnessed. “I hold it in my heart. I remember everything,” Mania said.

Forgotten and abandoned during the war, the sisters carried on when all hope seemed lost and realized what once seemed impossible — a life free of fear and want. “I didn’t have anything but a dream and my dream came true,” Bluma said. “Well, God had to give us something, too.”

Leo Adam Biga’s Survivor-Rescuer Stories Featured on Institute for Holocaust Education Website

April 12, 2011 8 comments

Nazi-German annoucement of the introduction of...

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Leo Adam Biga’s Survivor-Rescuer Stories Featured on Institute for Holocaust Education Website

A couple years ago I approached Beth Seldin Dotan at the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha, Neb. with a proposal: providing my stories about Holocaust survivors and rescuers for display on the organization’s website, http://ihene.org/. She was already familiar with my work in this subject area and we quickly struck a deal. None of the stories would have happened without the help of the late Ben Nachman, a man who made it his quiet crusade to shed light on the enduring spirit of survivors and rescuers. Ben introduced me to the local survivor community and he also led me to various scholars he’d corresponded with over the years regarding various aspects of the Holocaust and the heroic actions of individuals.

I feel privileged that these stories are finding a new home and audience there.  Ben was instrumental in my getting each of these stories.  There’s more than a little bit of him in them.  By the way, you can see my stories about Ben and the work he did on this blog. Here’s how Beth describes the story queue on the website:

Nebraska Holocaust Stories

Several years ago, freelance journalist Leo Biga conducted extensive interviews with several of Nebraska’s Holocaust Survivors.  Biga went on to write detailed articles that chronicle the Holocaust testimonies of the Survivors and the lives they made for themselves in Nebraska.  The articles were originally featured in Omaha’s Jewish Press. You can now find them here on the Institute for Holocaust Education website.  Some of the stories that you will see have won distinguished recognition:  The Fred Kader story won First Place in the Single Feature Story category at the 2002 Nebraska Press Association competition and the article “Sisters of the Shoah” about Rachel Rosenberg, Mania Friedman, and Bluma Polonski won a Second Place tie for the 2004 David Frank Award for Excellence in Personality Profiles in the annual Simon Rockower Awards of the American Jewish Press Association.

The Institute for Holocaust Education sincerely hopes that these articles, now available to the entire world on our website, will honor the lives of our Survivors and keep their stories alive.

•••

The website features only a portion of my Holocaust writing.  Some of the same stories featured there can also be found on this blog, and I am in process of adding more.

Here’s how Beth previews the stories (you can go right to the page where the stories are listed by linking to http://ihene.org/nebraska-survivor-stories/):

•••

It’s not as if Joe Boin hadn’t spoken about his Holocaust survivor tale before. He shared his story for the Shoah Visual History Project. He’s told it to school groups. He helped form Nebraska Survivors of the Holocaust to raise awareness and to commission public memorials as reminders of what happened. But until now the Berlin, Germany native never laid out his story for publication. The time seemed right. The 87-year-old widower resides at the Rose Blumkin Home, where he scoots around in his motorized wheelchair with aplomb, American and Go Big Red flags affixed to the back. The amiable man makes friends easily and lives a credo of looking ahead, not back, but the searing memories never dim. Alone with his thoughts, his odyssey is always near.

Click to read more …

 

Bea Karp

Bea Karp Recounts Her Holocaust Survivor Journey

On a January morning students at Omaha’s Lewis and Clark Middle School file in an auditorium to hear a tale of survival by Bea Karp, a petite Jewish woman of 66 who as a child in her native Germany, and later in France, endured the Holocaust. She and her younger sister, Susie, are among their extended family’s few survivors. As Bea’s harrowing tale unfolds, the students listen with the stilled respect due the haunted figure standing before them. Not all survivors can speak about their experiences. Some want only to forget, Bur for Bea, and thousands like her, there is a need to speak out. To bear witness. Why?

Click to read more …

 

 

Lou Leviticus

 

Escape Artist: Lou Leviticus

“I’ve been an escape artist all my life.” The apt words belong to Lincoln, Neb. resident Lou Leviticus, a square-headed terrier of a man who as a youth in his native Holland survived the Holocaust partly due to his talents as an artful dodger. He escaped the Nazis more than once, even when those closest to him were caught and put to death. As an orphan on the run he became one of scores of hidden children in The Netherlands, his survival dependent on a cadre of strangers that cared for him as one of their own.

Click to read more …

 

For My Mother: Helena Tichauer Tells Her Story

Helena Tichauer was tempted to give up more than once. If she had, no one would have blamed her. For persecuted Jews like her and her family, reasons for despair were everywhere in Nazi-occupied Poland. Her family’s pleasant, comfortable life in Krakow had been wrenched away in the looming darkness of the Holocaust.

Click to read more …

 

 

 

Kitty Williams Finally Tells Her Survivor Story

For the longest time, Holocaust survivor Kitty Williams of Council Bluffs didn’t think her story warranted telling. She considered her suffering insignificant amid the weight of Nazi atrocities. Other tragedies far surpassed her own. Nobody could find hers interesting or edifying. It’d all been said before.

Holocaust Survivor's Personal Story
Kitty Williams Prays at her mother’s grave

Click to read more …

 

 

 

Lola’s Story

“I feel I was destined to live.” That’s as close to an explanation as Lola Reinglas can offer in making sense of her Holocaust survival. An Omaha resident since 1949, Reinglas and her sister, Helena Tichauer, survived a series of internments, some together-some apart, that defied reason except for the intervention of fate and their own indefatigable will.

Click to read more …

 

 

 

Piecing Together a Lost Past: The Fred Kader Story

For the first 52 years of his life Fred Kader lived everyday in the shadow of a lost past. An orphaned child of the Holocaust, Kader’s early years remained an unfathomable mystery that he hoped one day to solve so that he might finally come to know how he survived the Shoah as a small boy in his native Belgium.

Click to read more …

 

 

 

Sisters of the Shoah: Three Survivor Tales, Golden Fates and Iron Wills

This is not just another Holocaust story. It is the chronicle of how three sisters survived, alone and together, a series of Nazi concentration camps during World War II to tell their story of human endurance. That not one or two but all three made it out alive is, as the eldest puts it today, “Impossible. I don’t know how we lived. We survived with nothing…not even our hair.”

Rachel Rosenberg

Click to read more ...

 

 

The Trauma of the Hidden Child Revealed: Marcel Frydman, Fred Kader, and Tom Jaeger

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.

Click to read more …

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

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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.

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

Romani arrivals in the Bełżec extermination ca...

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’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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Kitty Williams Finally Tells Her Holocaust Survivor Tale

May 4, 2010 7 comments

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I have been profiling Holocaust survivors for two decades.  A survivor in the Omaha metro area who put me off for several years finally agreed to tell me her story last year so that I could share it with the general public.  Her name is Kitty Williams and she lives across the Missouri River from Omaha in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  I am glad I persisted in getting her story but moreover I’m glad she gifted the world with it.  The article appeared in Omaha publication, The Jewish Press.

This story won a 2009 Nebraska Press Association award in the feature story category.  It’s one of  a half-dozen or so Holocaust pieces I’ve written to have been so recognized.  Using the honor as a hook, The Jewish Press interviewed me for a profile about my life and work as a writer.

Kitty Williams Finally Tells Her Holocaust Survivor Tale

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the 2009 Jewish New Year’s edition of the Jewish Press, a publication of the Jewish Federation of Omaha (Neb.)

For the longest time, Holocaust survivor Kitty Williams of Council Bluffs didn’t think her story warranted telling. She considered her suffering insignificant amid the weight of Nazi atrocities. Other tragedies far surpassed her own. Nobody could find hers interesting or edifying. It’d all been said before.

She’s keenly aware that despite the cruelties her Hungarian-Jewish family endured, others endured more, such as a camp mate who lost nearly all her 50-some aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces. Kitty can still hardly believe she and two sisters survived Auschwitz-Birkenau. Another sister escaped certain demise on the Budapest Death March. Two brothers made it out of forced labor camps.

“Miraculously, six of us lived. We’re an exception. We were very fortunate that as many lived as did,” said the former Katalin Ehrenfeld.

She was made reticent, too, by Holocaust depictions of incalculable losses. To Kitty, 85, her own losses seemed almost trivial by comparison. But how can losing an adored father be minimized? He was her whole world.

Then there was the survivor guilt Kitty felt. Why was I spared? Why should I be singled out for attention? “I had it relatively easy, and that’s why I feel guilty telling you my story,” she told a reporter. This despite imprisonment in ghettos, at Auschwitz-Birkenau and in a forced labor camp. Her father and a brother killed, their home desecrated, her innocence violated. All sacrificed to the machinations of the Final Solution. She’d already lost her mother and a sister to typhus at age 7.

 

 

Kitty Williams prays at her mother’s grave

 

 

The permutations of her story, when taken together, make it singular: hiding and “passing” to escape capture; accepting Christian neighbors’ kindnesses; falling for a wounded German airman; finding and nursing her sister Magda at Auschwitz-Birkenau; being chosen for a life-saving detail of women laborers at a German munitions factory. After liberation Kitty married an American airman and came to live with him in Council Bluffs. At his request she concealed her heritage. She then experienced her own private holocaust of a failed marriage and a son’s suicide.

Her reluctance persists despite reminders that every survivor’s tale is a vital link to the body of eyewitness testimony that forms the historical record. Only those who actually lived the Shoah can bring history to life and give lie to the deniers. The larger story is not complete unless the smaller individual stories are documented.

As the number of survivors fast dwindles here and around the world, the need to preserve every untold story becomes more urgent. Kitty recognizes that, which is why she first testified for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Project. Omahan Ben Nachman interviewed her and her words are now part of the project’s massive archives. But perhaps no one outside her family will ever see that video.

Last May the Omaha World-Herald sketched the bare bones of her story after she met an American liberator at the Heartland Honor Flight reunion. Now, the Jewish Press presents Kitty’s odyssey in its entirety. She may still feel an unworthy subject, but perhaps her story’s publication will validate her travails.

“That’s when we became very scared”
Born in 1924, Kitty grew up in the Eastern Hungarian town of Sarand, near the Rumanian border. She was the second youngest of eight siblings. Their father, Mor Ehrenfeld, was a World War I combat veteran who incurred wounds fighting in the Austro-Hungarian army. However, losing the mother of his children, his beloved wife Anna, cut deeper than any shrapnel.

“It changed everything,” recalled Kitty. “It’s almost like there was a life before my mother that was beautiful and there was a life after my mother died that was sad. Of course, my father took it very hard and really I don’t think he ever recovered from the loss. He did not want to bring a step-mother into our lives. I remember he got us together and said, ‘We’ll make it, somehow we’ll make it.’”Kitty said, “I think most of all of the love that radiated between us is how we made it.”

Her sister Magda, 12 years her senior, became Kitty’s surrogate mother.

The family were the only Jews in the vicinity, except for the Leitners, whom they were not close to prior to the Holocaust, Circumstances would thrust the families together on a harrowing journey. Before the madness, Kitty recalls an idyllic life.

“I have beautiful memories mostly because of my large family. Most of my siblings were very musical and played instruments — that was our entertainment, sitting on the porch, my brothers playing these heartbreaking love songs on the violin. They’re still etched in my memory. We were so close as family, and since socially we really weren’t accepted in town, it was a wonderful feeling.

“We always had a lot of books in our house. We had probably the first radio — a crystal set. We got a newspaper from Budapest every day, although a day old.”

Her father’s 3rd grade education belied wisdom. He ran a general store in town, he dealt in grain, he owned a vineyard. Harvest time marked a communal peasant celebration. “Half the town would come and pick the grapes,” said Kitty. “It was kind of like 4th of July here. It was a get together for a lot of people.”

Kitty said her father was admired for his advanced ag techniques and many skills.

“The school board approached him every year with different parcels of land for him to look at and he would farm these on shares…because he was always able to figure out what was needed, to build it up. The town didn’t have a lawyer and so anytime anybody needed an official paper translated or written they would come to my dad. Besides, he had the most beautiful handwriting. For any advice there would be a knock on the window or on the door of somebody wanting, you know, ‘My child is sick, can I have something from the store?.’”

She said she’s read Who’s Who in Hungary listings praising him as a patriot, citing his WWI service. His community standing helped insulate the family from punitive, restrictive Jewish laws. Even when new, harsher anti-Jewish decrees began being instituted in 1939, she said, “he was always exempted from the Jewish laws until the very end.” Nothing could save the family once German forces occupied Hungary, a noncombatant but complicit ally of the Nazi regime and its master race ideology. Up until then, Hungarian Jews and gypsies largely avoided the mass internments and killings. But as these ethnic minorities discovered to their horror many of Hungary’s Christian leaders and citizens willingly participated in genocide.

The Ehrenfelds and their Jewish brothers and sisters had been duped into a false sense of security. “For us to be able to live amongst Gentiles peacefully it was like paradise,” said Kitty, “but in looking back in our history there were pogroms, we were persecuted.” She could not imagine what lay ahead. There were signs but few could read them. Where once her family “took part in a lot of the town’s activities,” they became isolated, ostracized. The Anti-Semitic enmity could be construed as a dangerous new pogrom or as just the latest wave of Jew bashing.

“The Hungarian radio broadcasts were very biased and so it was always full of good news of German victories. The movie house newsreels only showed all the battles they won,” said Kitty. “Of course they never missed an opportunity for Jew hating. You know, ‘If it wasn’t for the Jews everything would be fine.’ Everything was always the fault of the Jews.”

Even when the family encountered refugees fleeing neighboring countries they didn’t interpret it as a warning their own safety was in jeopardy.

“I remember young Polish and probably Czechoslovakian men knocking on our door saying they were trying to escape, trying to get to Israel, going through Hungary, and of course we always fed them and gave them some supplies. When they were telling us about the atrocities I don’t think we really believed them. The human mind cannot imagine this can happen. It’s an exaggeration, it can’t be true, it just can’t be. Of course, we never heard about the gas chambers. We heard about the shooting and the looting and that kind of stuff, but not the systematic killing of the Jews. We were completely unaware of it. We were so naive.”

By ‘39, the circle of Kitty’s life narrowed. She was 15 and her family was dispersed, her older siblings married and moved away. It was just Kitty and her father. Back home in Sarand and in the nearby city of Debrecen, where Kitty attended high school and her sister Magda lived, things were getting more difficult.

“I was a young girl but I couldn’t get out except maybe for a couple hours a day. You couldn’t travel, you were forbidden to do anything.”

Wearing the Star of David in public became compulsory. Once, when a Gentile girl asked her to go to the movies, Kitty, anxious to leave the house and be a normal teenager again, agreed. “It was like a dream to get out of my almost virtual prison.” The dream turned nightmare. The movie was a virulent German propaganda film, Walking home from the theater in the chill of the afternoon Kitty put on a coat, covering her Yellow Star. Someone must have reported her, as the next day the police came to her home and arrested her. She was taken away and jailed in another town despite the protests and pleadings of her and father.

“I just begged and begged, ‘I have to be with my dad, please let me out,’ but they had no mercy. They kept me in there.”

She got out only after a Gentile woman who once worked for the family walked the 8 kilometers to obtain her release. Kitty suspects her father gave the woman money to bribe officials. Kitty will never know though as the incident “was never discussed.” Kitty’s father had been allowed to keep his store but eventually he was forced to close it. Then, on March 19, 1944, the German Army occupied Hungary.

“I remember I was visiting my sister Magda in Debrecen. She was married and pregnant. I was walking on the street and I saw German troops marching all over. They’d just landed or drove into Hungary. It happened all in one day. They just descended on us. They were everywhere. That’s when we became very scared.”

 

 

 

 

“Even to go to our death it was torture”
Before long her brothers were nabbed and sent to forced labor camps. Her sister Elizabeth, who lived in the capital city Budapest, was taken prisoner the very day the Germans stormed into Hungary. She ended up in Auschwitz with Kitty and Magda. Another sister, Klari, was forced from her home in Budapest to march with thousands of others. Their supposed destination — Vienna. But standing orders said no Jews were to make it there alive. Stragglers or resistors were shot on the spot. Klari was a comely young woman who, with a girlfriend, drew the attention of a Hungarian guard. He confided they would not survive the march and offered to hide them at his family’s home in Budapest. Klari accepted the offer and lived. Her girlfriend refused and died. Klari ended up a virtual slave but she made it through.

It was awhile before the Germans reached Kitty’s town. She can never forget the mob that came for her in the middle of the night. Rape and murder on their minds.

“The first night we heard…let me put it this way, we had our Kristallnacht. It was a mixture of German and Hungarian hoodlums. They broke every window in the house. My dad got up. The Germans demanded I come out. They wanted me. I was a young girl of not even 19. Fortunately my dad spoke German. He said, ‘I’m so sorry, she’s not here.’ The Hungarians were more demanding.”

Somehow he convinced the thugs she wasn’t there. They left uttering epithets. “I remember spending the night under the bed shaking,” said Kitty, “and from then on I never slept at home.” For a time she hid in the apartment of a Christian family in Debrecen. But the stress of avoiding detection became too much and the family put her out. Kitty wanted to be home anyway. “I didn’t really like this hiding. I wanted to go and be with my dad, to take care of him.” Her law-abiding father also wanted her home. He arranged for her to travel in the wagon of a farmer going to market. Posing as a Gentile, head wrapped in a babushka, she passed.

Back in Sarand, the Ehrenfeld’s Christian neighbor, widower Mihaly Toath, offered to put Kitty up. He didn’t have children of his own and he felt protective of Kitty,  his friend Mor’s last child at home. And so for a month she whiled away the daylight hours at home before secreting away to the old man’s tiny place at night. He slept in the one bed and she slept under it, his chickens clucking and pecking all about. She called him “uncle.” The ruse could only buy Kitty and her father so much time.

Kitty’s home was confiscated, the guest bedroom taken over by a wounded German pilot. He stayed two weeks. “We had to take care of him. My father changed his dressing — he had a leg injury — and I fed him.” One thing led to another. “He was a young man and I was a young girl. He wanted to meet me after the war. I remember he gave me a note with his town’s name — Dusseldorf — and his address. He gave us so much encouragement. He kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to end, we are losing the war. Everything will be wonderful for you.’ And, of course, that is not how it happened, but it was a nice fantasy — until he was sent home.”

Even after the ghettos, right up through arriving at Auschwitz, she clung to hope they might meet again. “I remember I had this little note I was holding that I finally dropped just before they shaved us and everything, because it was sort of like my security blanket.” Any sense of security she still had was shattered.

In April the roundup of Jews began. Kitty’s large home was designated a ghetto. Mr. and Mrs Leitner and daughter Ica were taken there. The girls became friends. A doctor’s widow, Mrs. Kovacs, was brought there, too. Only part Jewish, she’d lived as a Christian. “She came with all her furs and jewelry and she kept saying, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, how can this happen to me?’ But, you know, it didn’t matter,” said Kitty. “If they knew you had even an ounce of Jewish blood…”

As insurance, Kitty’s father had a shoemaker fashion false soles in his shoe. Mor stashed some 5,000 pengos in each cavity. A fortune then. “Maybe that’s all he had, I don’t know,” said Kitty. “At any rate I remember my dad saying to me, ‘You know, maybe it will buy you a loaf of bread some day.’”

After two weeks all the occupants were taken to a ghetto in another town, where they joined more Jews. Then in June everyone was trudged off to Nagyvarad, whose factory-works complex of barns with dirt floors became a makeshift camp for some 2,000 prisoners. Men, women, children. Sick and healthy. Rich and poor. That many people crammed into a space not made for human habitation made for “horrible conditions.” She said, “It was a huge place. All the Jews taken from the surrounding towns and small ghettos were concentrated in this one facility. They let us take some food, clothing, supplies along. The food didn’t last very long. We were already starting to be hungry.”

Kitty and Ica were ordered into evacuated outlying ghettos, with an armed guard escort, to forage for food left behind. “That’s how we supplied the camp,” said Kitty. “We went from house to house and picked up food left here and there. The sight of it, it still chills me, because I would see children’s things, a shoe here, a shoe there, toys, furniture, clothes. It looked like they must have been taken in the middle of the night and that they weren’t prepared for it.” She couldn’t shake the scene of quiet lives so violently interrupted.

Weeks passed. Rumors of death camps and gas chambers spread. As did counter rumors the Germans needed the Jews for war labor. Kitty, her father and most others chose to believe their lives were too precious to be snuffed out. They were even hoping the railroad tracks that ran nearby would soon bring a train to transport them to a labor camp. Anything would be better than this, they thought. “You can’t imagine the brutality from the Hungarians,” said Kitty.

It was “a relief” when a train did come for them in August. Relief gave way to dread as they were herded onto the cattle cars in the summer heat. “The horror of that I can’t even…” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s very hard for anybody in the free world to imagine what they did to us. Anything you’ve seen or read, it was much worse. They put us in there on top of each other with no water and a bucket for a toilet. We could never lie down. You couldn’t see out. Total darkness. Just one little hole. And by this time we hardly had any food.”

No one knew the destination. The journey was interminable, impossible, awful. “It seemed to me like it was at least five days,” said Kitty. “I do know you can get there overnight by train.” She refers to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp they were en route to. It’s a trip she’s remade twice in the ensuing years. Getting there that first time was like a slow, agonizing death. “We stopped and slowed down, again and again. It was like torture on purpose, even to go to our death it was torture.”

 

 

 

 

“It was death and smoke and smell.”
It all had the intended dehumanizing effect. “I know at first there was some modesty left in us,” said Kitty. “We hung up a sheet or something when somebody had to relieve themselves. But after awhile nobody even cared. What surprised me is we didn’t go mad, we were still functioning. I mean, I know there were people dead around me because I know we left bodies in there when we finally got out. But it’s like I didn’t want to even believe it’s happening. It didn’t register.”

At a stop German soldiers replaced the Hungarian guards. An officer announced anyone carrying valuables must surrender them or be subject to execution. Kitty and her father exchanged glances and whispers. What to do? They decided they couldn’t chance it. She said as their drama played out others in the car wrestled with the same dilemma. The deliberations grew animated. Some decried their fellow Jews as hoarders, lashing out, “See, that’s why we’re in the state we’re in — you don’t obey the law.’ Others commented, “You were smart to do it.”

Mor used a tool to wedge his soles off, handing over the money to a pair of young soldiers. “At the next stop,” said Kitty, “the same two soldiers came with buckets of water and big baskets of French bread and they flung the bread into the car, and only our car. Loaf after loaf. Everybody was reaching for it. I know everybody got at least two loaves. My dad was treated like a hero.” The lost fortune “did buy us a loaf of bread,” after all, she said.

The further the train went the more unfamiliar the surroundings appeared. But Mor knew the territory. He recognized they’d crossed into Poland. Then they were there — Auschwitz-Birkenau. “At least we weren’t hungry when we got there,” said Kitty. She would know real hunger and deprivation soon enough.

Kitty, her sisters, her father, the Leitners, the rich widow — they were part of the flood of refugees the Nazis evacuated from Hungary in ‘44, the last major contingent of Jews targeted for death. The war was being lost and what Kitty calls “the killing machine” had to be fed before the advancing Allies arrived.

“We arrived early morning, the sun was just coming up. Nobody spoke to you, everybody yelled, they always yelled. ‘Get out, get out! Leave your luggage, you’ll get it later! Stand in line!’ In the distance I saw this beautiful, tall German officer all in white with several dogs and soldiers around. He was sitting and looking at us, pointing — right, left. I found out later it was Dr. (Josef) Mengele.” The selection separated Kitty from her father. “I went to the right with my friend and her parents and my dad went to the left.” Kitty asked men in striped garb where the others were being taken. The cryptic reply: “You’ll see.” She learned “the striped ones were inmates who had the job of getting us organized. Everything was so organized. The method was so perfect. There were typists, barbers.” Lines and names and counts. Chilling efficiency. Always, guns, whips, clubs at the ready.

Before her father was led away, she recalls embracing him, “looking over and saying something like, ‘See you later.’ Well, later never came. That was the last sight of him I ever had.” She learned he was killed that same day. Her sister Elizabeth, who arrived before, was on a work detail sifting through clothes of those killed in the gas chambers. “It was,” said Kitty, “a plum job. You would give your right arm for it because you were able to go through pockets and find food.” A friend was rifling through a man’s overcoat when she found a wedding picture she recognized as Elizabeth’s. The overcoat belonged to Mor. He’d carried the photo with him. “That’s how Elizabeth knew our father was dead. I have the picture.”

The dead at least were free of degradation. The living had to endure more misery. In Kitty’s experience, the worst brutality was meted out not by Germans but arm-banded kapos, prisoners working for the Nazis.

“They were so hardened by then. They’d been in concentration camps for years and seen so much that they weren’t even like human beings anymore. Whatever beatings I had in the camp were always from a kapo.”

A gray pall hung over this killing zone. “I don’t think a blade of grass ever grew and I don’t think a bird ever flew in Auschwitz. It was the most devastating place. It was death and smoke and smell. When it rained, it was mud. It was unbelievable.

“A reason to live”
Kitty said she was still “in denial” even with the crematoriums going full blast, the flames licking the sky, the stench of human flesh permeating the air. “I didn’t want to face it. I could not believe it.” The kapos didn’t mince words when asked, “When will we see our parents?’ The cold answer: “They’re up in the smoke.”

Stripped, shaved, showered, disinfected, the inmates got mismatched rags as clothes, a metal pan as a pillow. The newly built barrack or lager she and Ica were assigned was within a half-block of a crematorium. The barrack was a windowless barn with a dirt floor. No partitions. Approaching it, she said, “we saw these shaven heads atop walking skeletons. They were inquiring where we were from and did we know so-and-so.” She passed another lager whose inmates “were even in worse shape. They were dark-skinned and there were entire families together.” The identities of these exotics puzzled Kitty until learning they were gypsies.

“The first night was my introduction to seeing somebody dying. Somebody next to me had a diabetic reaction and died.”

Death became numbingly routine. With no bunks, people were “half way on top of each other — a thousand of us in this one huge barrack. We were there a few days and new transports were coming from Hungary almost daily. The Germans were in a rush to kill us. They couldn’t do it fast enough.”

“August 2nd, 1944 we woke-up to this horrible noise, people begging for help. We went outside and saw smoke and flames from the crematorium chimney near us. Next to the crematorium was a ditch and from that direction there were screams and flames going up, the smell of human flesh burning. And that screaming, sometimes I wake up and it comes back to me. It just pierces to your soul.”

When Kitty learned her sister Magda was in camp she managed finding her in another barrack. Magda had been expecting while in the Debrecen ghetto and so Kitty anticipated meeting the newborn, but there was no baby. It died in the ghetto. Unburied. Magda was desolate and weak. Kitty became her caregiver. “I fought for her to get even a drip of water, anything, because she really didn’t have the strength. I moved over to her barrack. They kept track of us but not to the point where it made any difference because people were dying constantly.” Kitty begged Ica to come with her but declined. One day Kitty went to her old barrack to check on Ica and it was empty. The Germans had liquidated it.

Getting Magda back to a semblance of health gave Kitty “a reason to live. We were together.” In mid August the sisters were fortunate to be selected for forced labor. Before boarding the train the Germans made a second cut, eliminating the sick. When a guard noticed Magda’s lactating breasts she was pulled from the line.

“I was just devastated,” said Kitty. “I was sure she would never make it. Neither of us could run back to the other without getting shot. She ended up with a lot worse fate than I did, but she did make it. She died a year ago at 96.”

“We were just happy to get out”
A book written by a camp mate of Kitty’s reveals that male workers had been requested. Either due to lack of able-bodied men or a mix-up, said Kitty, “us girls” ended up in Allendorf, Germany. 1,000 of them. “We were just happy to get out,” she said. By war’s end, virtually all the women survived. Everything about Allendorf was an improvement over Auschwitz. Training in, the cattle cars were far less crowded. Kitty recalls her surprise looking out and seeing ordinary people going about their daily lives. “Life goes on on the outside? Not everybody is like us?”

The women’s quarters were in the woods, the barracks built for free workers and “so it was not unbearable,” said Kitty. The munitions factory was an hour’s walk. “The work was heavy, it wasn’t designed for females. My work was to chisel powder out of dud (undetonated) bombs, shells, grenades. Other people were filling them and putting them on the conveyor belt. The Germans were so desperate for war materials they were remixing, reusing explosives. It was a tremendous operation.”

The workers handled toxic chemicals without protection — no gloves, no masks. The poison made people sick. Hair turned purple. Skin assumed a yellow cast. Shifts lasted 12 hours. The factory operated around the clock. The workers were issued wooden shoes and coming back and forth from the factory to camp the women clopped, clopped on the town’s cobblestone streets.

Supervising were mostly civilian German overseers. Kitty described them as “more neutral” and “not really brutal.” The few guards were mostly women and, she said, they “were particularly cruel. They punished us for just petty things.” One German woman, however, did befriend Kitty and even though they couldn’t speak each other’s language a weakened Kitty was allowed respites from work at a forest hideaway. The German gave her extra food Kitty then shared with camp mates.

The prisoners heard snatches of news about the war’s progress: the Allies landing, the war going badly for Germany. “But we didn’t believe it,” said Kitty. By March ‘45 food was scarce for everyone. In late March the commandant gathered the camp’s entire contingent in a courtyard to announce he and his staff were leaving. The Americans were approaching. The war was over. “He told us, ‘You’re free to go, you’re on your own. Good luck,’” Kitty said. It was a shock. Some survivors followed the commander and his staff. Most hit the road in groups. Kitty was among a group of 20 women who’d shared a room and become like sisters.

“We decided to stick together. We went one direction. We had no idea really. We ate anything we could find — grass, vegetables in the fields, eggs in hen houses. We feared knocking on the doors of German houses. We were afraid of the reception we would get. Once in a while some of us, probably not me, was brave enough to knock. There was hostility from some, generosity from others.”

One day on the road someone in Kitty’s group spied a convoy of U.S. tanks. She took off her white slip, tied it to tree branch and flagged them down. It was April 1, 1945. Mor’s birthday. The G.I.s became the survivors’ liberators. “They showered us with candy and gum. I’d never had chewing gum. The Americans were almost childlike, so good, so unspoiled. They were like angels that dropped down from heaven,” Kitty recalled. She and the others were trucked to the nearest village, whose burgomeister was pressed into putting them up, the villagers ordered to wait on them hand and foot. G.I.s stood guard to prevent reprisals. After a few days the Army decided it wasn’t safe and relocated the women to Fritzlar, a former Luftwaffe air base. The women were offered housing, food, jobs, protection. They readily accepted. For two years Kitty lived and worked there, first as a mess hall waitress, then, having quickly picked up English, as a PBX operator. Affairs and romances between G.I.s and native girls were common. Kitty was not immune.

 

 

 

 

“My holocaust here”
In the post-war limbo of piecing together broken lives, everybody was searching for  loved ones in displaced persons camps. Communication and transportation were slow in a region reduced to rubble. Kitty had no desire to return to her hometown. Too painful. An old beau from Hungary who “never stopped looking” found Kitty. “He wanted me,” she said. Once reunited, the engaged couple set marriage plans. She even had a wedding dress made from sheets. But then she called it off. She’d met a WASP American flyer with whom she wanted to make a fresh start in the U.S. “I didn’t want to go back to the past. It was a mistake. I paid a really terrible price to come here. But that was my decision at the time.”

After an epic struggle to send for her, over the Army’s strenuous objections, she met him in New York and they caught a train for Iowa. “On the train he asked me not to ever mention I’m Jewish, not to talk about Auschwitz. He said, ‘My family would not accept you — no reason for you to repeat that. I want you to be treated like everybody else.’ And, you know, he made sense. But it’s very difficult to deny your heritage. For years, because of his family, nobody knew. I can’t say it was all his fault. It was two different worlds. We were worlds apart.”

His drinking further drove a wedge between them. They had three children together. After 12 years they separated. Kitty became a single working mom. She was a bank teller and later trained tellers. Her first-born, Mike, earned a college scholarship, but never used it. Nobody knew it but he was troubled. At 19 he committed suicide. “It was the ‘60s. No father, me working long hours. We were abandoned. I blame myself,” she said. “I expected him (Mike) to be the head of the household and concentrated on the other two kids and didn’t realize he was slipping away. That was my Holocaust here. That had a lot to do with the divorce.”

But life went on. Kitty’s surviving children, Mark and Pamela, earned scholarships to Yale and Grinnell, respectively. Kitty rose to vice president. She finally spoke about her Jewish heritage and survivor past. She met a good man in Bill, her husband of 32 years now. He’s embraced her past. “I’ve had a lot of bad things happen but the good outweighs the bad. Bill’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“I am so fortunate in so many ways. Now I’m sort of out of the closet.”
In 1990 Kitty was invited back to Allendorf for a reunion with her fellow camp mates. All expenses paid. She’d sworn never to step foot again in Germany. But this was something she hadn’t counted on — a reunion and reconciliation. She went with family. All told, 333 of the 1,000 women came. She renewed old friendships and made new ones. The Germans’ “kindness and sympathy and regret” struck her. “They rolled out the red carpet. It was like magical. They even had a kosher table and brought in rabbis from Frankfurt. They couldn’t do enough for us. It changed my outlook.” She also visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. She remade the trip in 2000. She returned again this summer with a grand-niece and granddaughter.

She treasures these visits. She’s glad she’s shared her story. The past still haunts her though. “My most vivid memory of Auschwitz is seeing the carts carrying the dead bodies. Whenever I can’t sleep it comes back to me — this image of people in striped uniforms pulling this wagon and throwing the bodies on it. The pile got so high the limbs were hanging out, and nobody knew who they were. We just went on existing. You get used to it, you’re callous, you just think about your own survival. Sometimes I feel like, Was there a life before Auschwitz?”

There was. More importantly, there’s been a life after. A reminder of change is a new museum dedicated to the 1,000 in Stadtallendorf, Germany. All their names inscribed there, Kitty’s included. “It’s a memory forever,” she said. “It’s pretty remarkable.” She especially likes that school kids tour the site. “That’s what’s most outstanding.”

Through it all, Kitty’s never lost her humanity. “I love people — the interaction.” Visit her and this doting Jewish mother will humble you with her warmth and hospitality. She’s amazed by the new life she made for herself in America after everything she knew was gone. Times got tough, sure, but help was always there. “I am so fortunate in so many ways.” She’s even glad her survivor identity is known. “Now I’m sort of out of the closet.”

The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus Survived the Holocaust as an Escape Artist


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I have had the privilege of telling the stories of several Holocaust survivors.  All of their stories are compelling. Perhaps the most memorable of these stories, just in terms of sheer drama, belongs to Lou Leviticus.  His many narrow escapes have a visceral, cinematic quality to them that leaves you with the image of him always on the run or in hiding or eluding capture.

The story more or less appeared as it is here in The Reader almost a decade ago.  It was later reprinted in The Jewish Press.  I have always hoped to share the story with a wider audience.

NOTE:  Leviticus has subsequently told his own story in a book he wrote.

The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus Survived the Holocaust as an Escape Artist

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and then reprinted in The Jewish Press.

“I’ve been an escape artist all my life.”

The apt words belong to Lincoln, Neb. resident Lou Leviticus, a square-headed terrier of a man who as a youth in his native Holland survived the Holocaust partly due to his talents as an artful dodger. He escaped the Nazis more than once, even when those closest to him were caught and put to death. As an orphan on the run he became one of scores of hidden children in The Netherlands, his survival dependent on a cadre of strangers that cared for him as one of their own.

Today, when telling his saga to young Hebrew students at Temple Israel Synagogue in Omaha, the spoken truth sounds less like glib bravado than it does a solemn proverb. And, like an answered prayer, members of the Dutch underground rescued him. Families working with the underground risked their very lives taking him into their home and shielding him from danger. He regards those that helped him, especially Karel and Rita Brouwer, as his “heroes” and “protectors.”

During his time in hiding Leviticus endured and did some unspeakable things. An archly unsentimental sort, he sheds no tears over what happened. Despite it all, he emerged a life-affirming dynamo. The retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural engineering professor first came to America in the mid-1950s (by way of Israel, where he resided after the war) to obtain his Ph.D. He married, raised a family, got divorced. He wed his present wife, Rose, a native of Great Britain, in 1982. He became a U.S. citizen four years ago. While at UNL he also headed the Nebraska Power Lab and Tractor Testing Laboratory. Today, he is an agricultural engineering consultant.

Until quite recently he kept his story to himself. That changed when the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation requested he tell it for the sake of posterity. The Los Angeles-based Foundation, which filmmaker Steven Spielberg formed after completing Schindler’s List, is dedicated to recording and preserving the largest repository of Holocaust survivor stories in the world. Since 1996 the organization has been conducting videotaped interviews with survivors from every corner of the globe. To date, some 50,000 interviews have been cataloged for use by scholars and for dissemination in schools and libraries.

In 1996 Leviticus shared his story with Omahan Ben Nachman, a Holocaust researcher and Shoah-trained interviewer who’s collected dozens of testimonies. Since then, Leviticus has written his memoirs and related his tale to youths at schools and synagogues. Why, after all this time, is he bearing witness now?

“The only reason I do it,” Leviticus said, “is to maybe make somebody think about it and realize how fortunate they are. That they should not take their lives so easily for granted. That they have a little more gratitude for what they have…because what happened then can happen again. It is happening again. Look at Chechnya. Look at Kosovo. Look at the skinheads in this country. There is hatred. People are cruel. And I do now feel it as an obligation, not necessarily to this generation, but to my school buddies, my parents, my grandmother, and to all those people. If I don’t tell their story, what else is left of them except their names in a register?”

 

 

Lou Leviticus with his book

 

Because ethnic cleansing seems far removed from the modern American experience, it is easy to distance oneself from such evil. But the truth is no one thinks it can happen to them, ever. That’s exactly how most Dutch Jews felt when Nazi Germany overran their nation in May of 1940. That’s why the only way to understand what happened is to recall the insidious events that systematically isolated Jews from mainstream Dutch life, all because they were deemed “different” and ultimately expendable. How else can one explain a child having to flee and hide to save his own life? Unthinkable, yet it occurred.

In a recent interview with The Reader, Leviticus recalled those years. Speaking from the deck of his comfortable tree-shaded home in Lincoln, the scene could not have been more incongruous with what he described. Despite what eventually transpired, his homeland was a tranquil place before the invasion. Pre-war Holland, after all, was a civilized society. Its large Jewish population enjoyed complete freedom, if not full acceptance. Leviticus and his parents led a privileged life in Amsterdam. As foreign correspondent for a large recycling company, his father, Max, handled relations with foreign clients. An outdoorsman, Max enjoyed long bicycle rides and walks in the countryside. Lou’s mother, Sera, was a socialite and spiritualist who gave bridge parties and hosted seances at the family’s large home.

“My mother was pretty deeply into spiritualism — mediums and seances and astrology — which was very fashionable in those days. I can still see her working with these charts on a table, trying to figure out what the hell was going on in the world. I’ve always wondered about that — if she could see what was going to happen to us or not,” Leviticus said.

As a boy he often joined his mother at Heck’s Cafe, a swank gathering spot for the smart set, where he listened to live band music while she hobnobbed with friends.
Music, especially opera, held young Lou enthralled. He had his own radio and spent endless hours listening to favorite tenors and to detective programs. An avid reader, he fancied the adventure tales of German author Karl May. Despite being undersized, he was athletically adept and belonged to swimming and soccer clubs. A cinema lover, he skipped Hebrew school to catch the latest movies.

His family lived quite close to Anne Frank’s family. A cousin of hers, Paul Frank, was a friend and playmate of Lou’s. Because she was two years older than Lou, he only knew her casually, but recalls her as a “nice girl. She was more mature than me.”

Admittedly “a spoiled brat” doted on by his maternal grandmother, Leviticus lived a carefree life. His parents, who employed a servant, had their every need met.

The family’s idyll ended May 10, 1940 when Germany invaded Holland. The Dutch, who remained neutral during World War I, had felt protected from the brewing storm in Europe despite Germany’s increasingly ugly rhetoric and military incursions. Caught unprepared, Holland’s meager defenses were quickly overwhelmed by the blitzkrieg. The Netherlands capitulated five days after the attack began. Even though he was not quite 9-years-old, Leviticus recalls it all.

“I remember all five days. For us kids it was the greatest adventure in the world. We didn’t see the sickness. We heard people were being killed, but we didn’t see it. We did see German planes in the air and men shooting at them. It was exciting.”

Perhaps his most vivid memory then is the sight of a city under siege at night, its lights darkened and streets emptied owing to the mandated curfew and blackout. As a child, the horror of the invasion was finally brought home when he saw adults around him shattered by the events. His father, a WWI vet, had been called up to serve in the civil defense corps. On May 15, the day the Dutch surrendered, Lou was shocked to find his father sobbing at home. “I can still see him sitting in the side room crying. It was the first time I saw my dad cry. I remember asking him, ‘What’s the matter?’ But he couldn’t talk.”

According to Leviticus, who has researched events leading up to the German conquest and the ensuing terror campaign, much of the Dutch ruling class held pro-Nazi sympathies and as such these Fifth Columnists aided Germany in subduing The Netherlands. Beyond politics or prejudice, he said, the compliant nature of the Dutch people, combined with a meticulous citizen registration system, made it easier for the Nazi regime to exert its will there.

“My feeling is that the Dutch have always been very obedient to authority — any authority. The Germans had the authority and when they installed a Dutch puppet government, that was the government, and therefore they were obeyed. The Dutch also had a population registration system in place unparalleled in its accuracy in Europe. In fact, (Adolph) Eichmann liked it so much he copied it in other countries under Nazi rule. That system should have been destroyed when the Germans occupied The Netherlands, but the people who ran it were so proud of their work and so pro-Nazi they handed it over in full to the Germans, who used it to curtail the activities of Jews and other undesirables.”

He said people were so accustomed to registration few saw danger in its application by occupying forces. “Nobody thought much of it, and so they re-registered.” He added the Germans were “very cunning” in passing decrees that, step by step, cut-off Jews from the general populace. “It started with very little things. In June, Jews were forbidden from being part of the civil defense. In July, they were excluded from the labor draft. Then there was a ban on ritual slaughter. In September, Jews were banned from selling in the regular markets. The Germans never targeted the whole population. Otherwise, that would have probably created unrest. Instead, they targeted sections, making each segment register and abide by restrictive laws. First, it was physicians, then pharmacists, then lawyers. Each week there was a different order affecting some group, and the others said, ‘Well, it’s only them,’ and in the end it was everybody. The noose was tightening, but most people didn’t realize it, and by the time they did it was too late.”

The first anti-Jewish regulation affecting him was a 1941 law banning Jews from all movie theaters except the single Jewish-owned cinema in Amsterdam. “I was an avid moviegoer and the only theater left I could go to soon became too dangerous because there were always Nazi youths waiting outside to cause mischief. We were yelled at, spit on, and so forth. It became impossible to go there unless you were with grown-ups and even then it sometimes got a little bit hairy.” He next felt the sting of anti-Semitism when Jews were forbidden from entering parks and from holding membership in sports clubs. In a cruel display of public humiliation, he was drummed off his soccer team by the coach in front of jeering teammates.

At the same time, the Nazi propaganda machine worked overtime inflaming anti-Semitic fervor. He recalls placards affixed everywhere with slogans like “The Eternal Jew,” “The Dirty Jew” and “Watch Out for the Jew” emblazoned on them. The posters typically depicted grotesque, deformed, horned figures with the Star of David displayed on their chest or forehead. Soon, all Jews — their businesses and residences too — were required to bear the yellow star. “When you got the star you were a marked person,” he said. “Now you couldn’t hide behind your looks. There were always groups of Hitler youths running around terrorizing people. They started making life very difficult. We, as kids, were beaten up — quite severely at times. Grown-ups didn’t interfere. They were afraid. The police seldom intervened.” Schoolmates he counted as friends turned on him, yelling epithets. “I went to school with great trepidation. I took a terrible beating one day and adults stood by laughing. Things got worse and worse, until every aspect of my life was affected. You felt you were an unworthy person. That you didn’t have the right to walk the same streets as other people. It made me feel terrible, awful, angry.”

Schools were finally segregated, which Leviticus viewed as a welcome relief.  “We were a pretty intelligent and rowdy bunch and we had a lot of fun in fact. We were all in the same boat. We were all together. That was the best part of it.”

By 1942, people started disappearing. Rumors spread the missing persons were hauled away to camps to be gassed or shot. “Nobody talked about it,” Leviticus said. “Not the teachers, not the parents. They didn’t know how to talk about it. They didn’t want to believe what was happening.” The fear turned personal when his girlfriend, Anita, was arrested along with her mother and sister. “I was very, very heartbroken for a long time because she was really my pal. We did homework together” He later learned she and her family died at Sobidor concentration camp.

As early as 1942 Jewish men were rounded up and taken away. It happened to Leviticus’ father, who ended up in the work camp, Ommen, where men worked clearing forests for agriculture, but in truth awaited transit to concentration camps and certain death. When the elder Leviticus learned of his group’s impending transport, he concealed himself in one of the deep trenches the men dug and escaped at night. Lou has since documented his father was the only prisoner from his work detail to escape alive. While in hiding, Max got word of his escape to Sera, who fled to a prearranged safe house in the country. Lou, in school at the time, was unaware of the unfolding intrigue. His first inkling of it came when an unfamiliar man came there one day with a note from his mother.

“My mother’s note said for me to go with him. The man told me, ‘Your mother’s waiting for you. Don’t worry.” Of course I was worried. I didn’t know what was happening. I had never seen him before, but I knew my mother’s handwriting, so I went. He took me into a hallway, took my coat off, gave me another coat without a star on it, grabbed my hand and we walked away. We went on a train. The train trip was frightening for me. We had to pass German police controls at various stations. By then I had been brainwashed so that I was sure I looked like any of those pictures of the Eternal Jew. I was afraid of anyone who had a uniform or boots or a dark coat on because those things represented Nazis. By then, I didn’t trust anyone any more. I’d lost my trust in the grown-up world.”

The pair passed through police checkpoints without a hitch. They got off at Amersfoort, a town 40 kilometers southeast of Amsterdam, where, it turned out the boy’s mysterious escort, a Mr. Van Der Kieft, was a plain clothes detective. Secretly, he was also a top operative in the Dutch underground movement that provided false identity papers, ration cards and safe havens to fugitives. As Leviticus soon found out, the underground network would be his lifeline. Van Der Kieft took Leviticus by bike to the farmhouse his mother had gone to. His father joined them days later. After two months in hiding, the family had to find refuge elsewhere when the farmer sheltering them demanded more money than they could pay. Leviticus said there were any number of people ready to help then, whether “out of good will or for good money.”

 

 

Lou Leviticus addressing a group of York (Neb.) college students

 

 

Thanks again to the efforts of the underground, the family was put up at a house in Amersfoort belonging to a coachman, who lived on the ground floor. Lou’s family shared a pair of small rooms on the third floor. Between the two rooms were sliding doors. The back room opened on a veranda with a railing. The family had to be on guard at all times. “We had to keep very quiet during the day and not show ourselves in front of the windows,” he said. “We couldn’t close the curtains then, as that would arouse suspicion in Holland, where there’s little light. When the bell rang at the main door below we would freeze. We could hear the bell, but we couldn’t see who was calling. At night we could become a little more active because then we could close the doors and curtains. But if there were guests we had to sit still. We couldn’t use the toilet then, so we used a chamber pot.”

Father, mother and son passed the time reading and playing board games. “I don’t remember that as being terrible because there was so much to read,” he said.

Then, one October afternoon in 1942, the bell rang and the word “police” was spoken at the bottom of the stairs. Raised voices barked, “Stay where you are. Don’t move.” Leviticus recalls his mother “started crying.” They knew the authorities had come for them. With police bounding up the stairs to the family’s third-floor hideaway, young Lou made a fateful split-second decision and, without  a word, clambered to the veranda opening, hopped atop the railing, and jumped. That moment of fear and flight was the last he saw his parents alive.

“Before I jumped the last thing I remember is seeing my dad close the doors behind me. That gave me enough time to get away. My dad didn’t hesitate. It happened so fast. Below me on the ground floor, luckily, was a large awning jutting out. I hit the awning, slid over it, landed on my feet and whew, I was gone. I didn’t look back. I didn’t run either — a good thing, too, because police were out searching the grounds. One policeman probably saw me, but lost me when I climbed over a bunch of fences. I came to a house and climbed up on a rain pipe. I got to another porch, climbed over the railing there and found a big wash tub. I pulled the wash tub over me — it made a helluva racket — but nobody was home.”

He credits his quick actions to “pure self-preservation,” adding, “It was just pure instinct. I don’t know where it came from, except maybe the Karl May stories inspired me not to be caught. I knew what I had to do. I had seen other people being picked up by the police on the street and they never came back, and that wasn’t going to happen to me.” He does not second-guess his fleeing. He only wishes his folks escaped too or at least knew he was safe. “I knew I’d done the right thing because, number one, I’m alive. I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye and hug my mother and father. That is my only regret. That, and the fact they suffered and I couldn’t do anything.” His parents, like most of his family, were soon killed.

After eluding the police, he waited until dark, then fumbled his way to the home of a man who was active in the underground. When he arrived there the man’s frightened family explained the head of the house was in hiding. Earlier that day police had cracked down on the local underground cell and come looking for the man, who’d escaped. The family feared the police’s return. Leviticus felt safe for the moment but as he lay in bed that night he overheard the family discussing turning him over to authorities. “When I heard that I decided that wasn’t going to happen. Early the next morning I stole some clothes and food, opened the door, and went on my own to the east.” Fending for himself in a world intent on his destruction, he learned to live by his wits’ end, foraging for food and shelter at local farms. But as a child on his own, he stood little chance for long. After days on the road, he came to the same farm he and his family began their hidden life at.

 

 

 

Fearing the farm was not a secure hideout, Leviticus was relieved when the underground placed him with Karel Brouwer, then a 24-year-old civil servant with a new wife and young child. Neither the first nor the last person Brouwer rescued, Leviticus stayed with him and his family for much of the remainder of the war. “He’s a remarkable man. He took me to his home in Hamersveld. He practically adopted me. He never intended to be a hero, but somehow it was thrust upon him, and he risked everything to feed, shelter and keep me and others out of harm’s way.” Lou still keeps in touch with his “second family.” In a fateful twist, the first refugees Brouwer helped were Lou’s aunt, uncle and maternal grandparents. Through his position in local government, Brouwer’s covert network used the registration system to provide hunted Jews and non-Jews alike with false names and documents. Thus, Lou took on the identity of Rudi Van Der Roest, a Christian boy his own age from Amsterdam. Researcher Ben Nachman said such actions underscore how Holland was rife with contradictions. For example, while a high percentage of its native Jews were murdered, the country’s active underground movement shielded a great number in hiding.

As Rudi, Lou lived the unencumbered life of a non-Jewish child — attending school, playing in parks, traveling freely. Whenever detained, his cover story was that he was away from home due to hardships caused by the war. The deception worked. “Each of us in hiding were stopped and interrogated by the Germans at least once or twice, so we knew how to lie with a straight face. You got very adept at that. Every time you did something to thwart the Nazis it made you feel good.” He enjoyed freedom but guarded what he said and did so as not to compromise his true identity and therefore risk endangering himself, the Brouwers and the underground. “I had to be careful. I couldn’t afford any slips of the tongue, so I couldn’t get close to a lot of people. Whatever I wasn’t told, I didn’t ask. You learned that very quick. I knew the less I knew, the better it was.”

Life with the Brouwers was sweet. “A lot of beautiful things happened during the war,” Leviticus said. “There were times when I forgot the misery. I was extremely lucky to get through that experience, not unscathed exactly, but well-looked after.” He adds that not all hidden children were as lucky as himself. “The Brouwers loved me. They were good to me. In many cases, though, kids were shuttled from place to place and mistreated by their host families.”

As a base for the underground the Brouwer home witnessed many comings and goings. All the activity must have raised suspicions because, in February 1945, the police raided it. The whole family, including Lou, then 14, was home that day. The police found mounds of incriminating evidence — from papers to ration cards to guns. Everyone was interrogated on-site. Crying after being roughed up, Lou regained enough composure to hatch another escape. He explains: “I asked if I could use the toilet, and the police said I could if I left the door open. The toilet was situated behind a stairway, and when the bathroom door was opened it hid another door which led to a side room, which led outside. As soon as I entered the bathroom, I went through the side door and ran.”

He ran all the way to the city hall building, where he knew underground contacts operated. There, he found that Brouwer, who’d also escaped, had arranged for his  transport to a new safe house — a farm belonging to Peel Van Den Hengel. It was there he worked and stayed until war’s end. When the Van Den Hengels insisted he be baptized Catholic, he complied. In April 1945, events unfolded at the farm that gave Leviticus a taste of Old Testament revenge. Blood was spilled, lives taken, eye-for-an-eye revenge extracted. It began when two German soldiers arrived to plunderthe farm at gunpoint, ordering Leviticus and his fellow farmhands to load-up food and other supplies. Earlier, one of the soldiers molested a young maiden. Then they went too far, pushing Lou and another farmhand past the breaking point.

“I was cutting silage with a very sharp spade but I wasn’t working fast enough for one of the soldiers. He poked me in the kidneys with his gun, and that hurt. I turned around with that spade and I hit him straight in the throat and opened him up all the way. He sank to his knees. He didn’t utter anything. He bled to death on the spot. The other soldier came running, but didn’t see behind him one of the other boys, who struck him with a pitchfork. There was so much anger in us that we just went bezerk and cut them up into pieces. It’s something you wouldn’t do to a dog. I’m not very proud of it, but I’m not sorry about it. I wanted my revenge.”

After Germany’s unconditional surrender, he returned to live with the Brouwers. Then, much to his dismay, a humanitarian organization enforced a separation by placing him in a Jewish orphanage. “I hated it.” Always the escape artist, he hightailed it out of there and went back to the Brouwers. Upon completing high school, he toured Europe with a jazz band. When a rift caused the group to split-up in Marseilles, Leviticus stayed on. He later took to sea as a merchant seaman, applying his mechanical aptitude to the ship’s engines. In 1951 he made his way to Israel, not out of idealism, but rather the lure of a pretty blonde, whom he followed to a kibbutz in Haifa. Finding communal life too restrictive, he left to study at the Israel Institute of Technology, where he earned an engineering degree.

After obtaining his Ph.D. in the states (at Purdue University) he returned to Israel. He served in two wars against Egypt — in 1957 and in 1973 (The October War). In the latter conflict he was a liaison between the U.S. and Israeli armies, working with the armored division and corps of engineers on the mobility of military vehicles and their off-road conditions. He helped engineer a bridge crossing the Suez Canal. He came to live in the states for good in 1974, joining the UNL faculty in 1975.

Although he downplays it, his wartime experience has haunted him. How could it not? All during the war, and even long after it, he did not know his parents’ fate. “I never was sure, really. I think I really didn’t want to know. I was always hoping they were still alive somewhere,” he said. Only much later did he confirm they were gassed to death at Auschwitz just a few months after their capture. He remains as unforgiving about what was done to his family as he is unrepentant about what he did to prevail. “I’m not very, shall we say, humanitarian in my beliefs. I still adhere to the principle that your best enemy is a dead enemy, which I know is not a very Judeo-Christian thought, but I don’t give a damn — that’s the only way I survived.”

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