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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

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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

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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.

Ben Nachman Remembered the Heroes of the Holocaust

September 2, 2010 2 comments

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

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

Ben Nachman 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.”

A Matter of Faith, Project Interfaith Finds Bridges to Religious Beliefs


Several of my most recent posts, including this one, emphasize a social justice theme. Beth Katz and her Project Interfaith bridge the divide that often separates different faith communities.  It is just the kind of effort there needs to be more of in a society that preaches tolerance but that often doesn’t practice it.  Katz and Project Interfaith bring people from different traditions together at the table in an attempt to better understand and appreciate each other and their differences.  In the divisiveness of the immigration debate and in a climate when negative attitudes still persist about Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Fundamentalists, right on down the line, anything that people can do to promote harmony and unity is to be applauded.  My story about Katz and her project originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com), which recently stopped publishing. Katz is active in an initiative here gaining national attention called Project Interfaith, a coalition of Jews, Episcopalians, and Muslims attempting to build consensus for an envisioned tri-faith campus.

Beth Katz

 

 

A Matter of Faith, Beth Katz and Project Interfaith Find Bridges to Religious Beliefs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

 

Growing up in predominantly Catholic and WASP Omaha, Beth Katz was often the lone Jew in the room. That meant fielding questions about her faith. This sense of Otherness, combined with her natural curiosity, led the Central High grad to ask Christians about their traditions.

It all came to a head at Jesuit Creighton University in the early 2000s. She assumed living among Christians her whole life told her all she needed to know about Christianity. Then she found out different. “I might know something about Christianity in a cultural sense,” she said, “but I have a very shallow understanding of what it means in a spiritual sense. Don’t confuse familiarity with knowledge — they’re not the same thing.” When she had no answers to several questions friends asked about Judaism, she said, “I realized just how shallow my own knowledge of my faith was and it made me go back and investigate some of these issues. That was a very spiritual experience for me.”

When a required theology class glossed over Judaism and other non-Christian world religions, she raised the issue about inclusion.

“I got active on campus to try and change some of the curriculum requirements,” she said. That effort led her to CU’s Campus Ministry, whose then-director, Father Bert Thelen, “really wanted to create an environment where all students felt welcomed and felt their spiritual needs were met,” she said. “He encouraged us to become involved. The Muslim Student Association had just formed and we were just forming a Jewish Student Association. We created a multi-faith student group and started holding dialogues and different programs on campus that would engage students about issues of faith and identity.”

Fast forward to 2005. Katz, fresh from graduate studies in social work, public policy and community organizing at the University of Michigan, came home to do “something I felt called to do.” That was founding Project Interfaith, a resource and facilitator for interfaith and religious diversity issues. The nonprofit, which she directs with the aid of a part-time paid assistant and volunteers, is an extension of the mission she began at Creighton. More deeply, it’s an expression of her faith.

“I am such a product of Judaism. It’s really shaped who I am,” she said. “Community has always been so important to me. It’s not just about you, you have to think of yourself in the context of others.”

She felt so strongly about community she passed on a federal fellowship in the executive branch to, instead, create “a sustainable interfaith program for Omaha. I felt like the time was right and this was something that was needed,” she said. She laid the groundwork by talking to a cross-section of folks. Finding only “scattered, sporadic, grassroots interfaith initiatives, she saw an opportunity for “a formal, multi-pronged, comprehensive approach to engaging people on these issues.”

“I saw a hunger in our community to have these sorts of interactions, conversations, resources,” she said. “I think part of it is people don’t know where to go, and we can help connect people…I feel like we’re really doing something that’s meaningful, that’s making the community better.”

Project Interfaith is an affiliate of the Anti-Defamation League Plains States Regional Office. Reflecting the diversity Katz espouses she’s formed an advisory council and board of directors made up of representatives from 13 different religious communities and two universities. Religious tensions would have made such cooperation difficult in the not so distant past. The modern interfaith movement, Katz said, began in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council issued Nostra Aetate, a document reconciling strained Catholic-Jewish relations, affirming shared values-histories and encouraging outreach and dialogue between faith groups.

 

 

 

 

Katz, who by virtue of not being a religious studies scholar and not aligning her organization with any one group avoids even the hint of favoritism, diplomatically brings parties to the table for discussion.

“We want to broker relationships. We like to partner with a lot of different organizations so that we can bring as many people into the conversation as possible,” she said. “I just want to…get people learning and talking and ultimately creating relationships. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”

She also works to include “people across the ideological spectrum.” Said Katz, “I am so sick of how polarized things are. We want to offer an opportunity to transcend all that.”

An array of Project Interfaith programs and activities promote understanding and reflect her belief “interfaith work is multidimensional — it’s not just about sitting in a circle talking about your faith. We want to give people a lot of different ways to be involved…”

 

 

 

 

Community Conversations bring nationally known speakers to discuss interfaith issues. Vanderbilt University-based author and scholar Amy-Jill Levine presented a January 8 address entitled, “From the Academy to the Pews: What Clergy, Lay Leaders, Scholars and Community Members Need to Know About the Origins, Evolutions and Future of Jewish-Christian Relations.” Coming up on April 3 is a presentation by Krista Tippett, host of National Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith.

Perodic Jewish-Christian-Muslim Study Circles aim to foster an appreciation and respect for both the commonalities and differences of these faith traditions.

The annual Interfaith Architectural Tour on March 9 visits the Hindu Temple and St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. The theme is the role icons and imagery play in shaping art and architecture in religious communities.

She organized a conference on interfaith dialogue in a post-9/11 world.

Katz plans reprising the Interfaith Storytelling Festival co-sponsored with the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Rose Theatre and the Omaha Children’s Museum in 2006. The event featured Jewish, Christian and Muslim storytellers and various art activities for youths and families. She’d like to expand the number of storytellers and faith traditions represented. An interfaith film festival is a possibility.

“I love to use the arts as a way to teach about religious diversity, as a vehicle for people to express and explore their faith,” said Katz.

In collaboration with the Cathedral Arts Project, a fall exhibition called Images of Faith: Private and Public Rituals is planned around the five major world religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. A collection of sacred objects from each will be displayed. Photo essays will examine the role ritual plays in these communities. A Web-based component will invite the public to submit images for posting online. A curriculum is being formulated with lesson plans built around the exhibit that teachers can implement in schools.

Project Interfaith’s formal educational side offers religious diversity trainings to educators, health care providers and nonprofit agency workers. The goal of these workshops is to help participants be sensitive to the religious orientations of the constituencies they serve. She said professionals want this training because “they recognize how religiously diverse our population is and they’re struggling to make sure they’re meeting the needs” of everyone.

 

 

 

 

“We do identity exercises where people look at their own attitudes about religion,” Katz said. “We develop a common language for talking about religious diversity issues. We bring in a legal expert to look at the legal parameters of dealing with religion in public schools.”

She said schools find the trainings useful because educators are given “concrete ways to teach about religion in public schools that are academic, neutral, constitutional and totally appropriate. We also give some guidance on what sort of accommodations are appropriate for students that do not impinge on their First Amendment right for religious freedom.”

The same considerations, she said, apply to students who do not affiliate themselves with any religion or who identify as atheist.

Katz, who hopes Project Interfaith can have an impact beyond Omaha, said schools in Wichita, Kan. and Lincoln, Neb. “have invited us to offer our religious diversity training for educators.” She added that an interfaith alliance in Des Moines, Iowa “wants to meet with us and learn more about what we do.”

She said Project Interfaith is doing “ground breaking work” that “can translate to other communities — locally, nationally, even potentially beyond that. We try to think outside the box. We deconstruct the box. Anybody, really, is a potential partner. I know a lot of businesses pilot products in Omaha — it’s a great test market — and I think we can be a test market for innovative interfaith work.”

Amy-Jill Levine has high praise for what Project Interfaith does. She said the January program she spoke at “demonstrated Omaha’s triumph over the religious and cultural battles that beset American society.”

Katz said Omaha’s well-suited for interfaith action because its individual faith communities don’t split “along ideological and ethnic lines” as they do elsewhere.

All Project Interfaith programs, she said, invite discussion. “It’s in a safe environment where people can be honest and we can get to the heart of some of the stereotypes and myths that are out there and break those down. I really feel honored at the amount of trust people give me and Project Interfaith because it takes a lot of guts to be honest and open. Faith is so personal, you know, and so fundamental to how people understand themselves in the world.”

One myth she said Project Interfaith tries overturning “is that we all have to agree or that at the end of the day we’re all the same. We don’t have to agree on everything but in order to get along we have to learn something about each other. Hopefully that understanding will evolve into respect. It’s important people appreciate their commonalities and recognize their similar values, but also explore and understand the differences that are so interesting and that create such rich and fertile conversations.”

She said another myth is that interfaith work weakens one’s own faith identity.

“My own personal experience is that it only tends to strengthen your identity,” she said, “because it’s provocative. As you’re asking questions of the other you’re beginning to reflect and understand and explore your own faith. I think it makes you want to go deeper and learn more about your own faith tradition.”

Two trips in 2007 affirmed this for her. Apropos for someone dedicated to interfaith exchanges, she made her first trip to Israel with a group of Christians. Then she went to the Vatican with a Catholic priest, a brother and a theology teacher as Omaha’s representatives at a conference on Catholic-Jewish relations.

She said each experience reinforced for her the importance of interfaith action. She came away with a better sense for the progress that’s been made, the challenges that persist and the path to take from this point forward.

“I love what I do. I feel inspired by the work and by the people I meet doing it.”

Winners Circle: Couple’s Journey of Self-Discovery Ends Up Helping Thousands of At-Risk Kids Through Early Intervention Educational Program


I read somewhere about a wealthy white couple devoting their lives to help inner city schools. These schools are predominantly made up of African American students, many of whom under achieve.  The couple, Jerry and Cookie Hoberman, started an academic support program in one school, where students’ test scores dramatically increased, and its success has been replicated in several more schools.  What most intrigued me, however, was the couple’s own transformation from racially, socially insensitive to enlightened, and how their philanthropy to improve education among some of America‘s poorest children is not some idle exercise about assuaging white guilt but a genuine community response to a chronic problem they were awakened to and that they have awakened others to.

My story originally appeared in the Jewish Press, an Omaha weekly I contribute to.

 

 

 

 

Winners Circle: Couple’s Journey of Self-Discovery Ends Up Helping Thousands of At-Risk Kids Through Early Intervention Educational Program

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

The awakening of Jerry and Cookie Hoberman began in the early 1990s. Until then the hard-driving Omaha entrepreneurs went after what they wanted without much regard for people’s feelings. As Jews they knew about anti-Semitism from both personal experience and history, yet in a recent interview at their home they acknowledged they were intolerant when it came to other minorities.

Soul-searching led the Hobermans to take a long hard look at themselves. Their journey of self-discovery has propelled them to help thousands of impoverished, mostly African-American public school children and their families in north Omaha.

Winners Circle, an academic and citizenship program the couple began in one inner city school 12 years ago, has grown to 10 schools, with two more slated to join within a year. WC is viewed as a model for motivating students to achieve and getting parents more involved in their children’s education.

The Hobermans, once viewed with skepticism, even hostility, as white exploiters, are now seen as sincere community leaders making a difference. None of it would have happened without them being willing to face some unpleasant truths.

Jerry built his own Tires Inc. business from scratch, applying lessons learned from his days as a wagon peddler, selling goods from the back of a ‘54 Ford, and as a partner in his father’s small family tire center downtown. Cookie worked for Holland-Dreves-Reilly Advertising before starting her own agency. Amid their own careers each sought advice from the other. Cookie gave Tires Inc. its name.

Tires Inc. grew to several locations before business faltered. Drawn by lower overhead, Jerry opted to move the headquarters from the 72nd Street strip to 60th and Ames, a poor, predominantly African-American area of northeast Omaha the Hobermans didn’t really know, except by reputation. “I ended up in the inner city against the cautions of all my friends,” Jerry said. “And family,” Cookie interjected.

White employees resisted the move. “I had some employees who said they wouldn’t go to north Omaha — that they would rather leave than stay with us,” he said.
Cookie said preconceived notions spelled trouble. “Well, we came to north Omaha with as much stereotypic bias and ignorance as most people that never go to the inner city,” she said. “I think we were naive.”

No sooner did Tires Inc. open its North O digs than tensions surfaced.

“We had a lot of racial issues, a lot of problems,” Jerry said. “We had arguments. Sometimes a small fight would break out between my associates and the African-American population. It was not a very smooth transition.”

Threats were made. Hoberman didn’t give an inch. Rather than reaching out to mend fences, he closed ranks, making his business a fortress.

“I bought special insurance — kidnap and ransom. I had special alarm systems put in that when you push a button it goes right to the police. We did a lot of these things and all we did was separate ourselves,” he said. “It’s amazing what fear does,” Cookie added.

Things came to a head when a member of a prominent local black family took issue with the unequal way her credit was handled compared to white customers.

“One of my employees referred to her in a very disparaging manner,” Jerry said. “He called her ‘Aunt Jemima.’ She was really irate. A lovely lady, she came in and visited with me and told me what had taken place and I told her I’d had all sorts of problems. I asked what I should do. She said, ‘I suggest you get some sensitivity training for yourself and your associates.’ I didn’t even know what that was.”

On her advice Hoberman contacted Frank Hayes, the black owner of his own accounting firm, Hayes and Associates.

“My immediate response was, ‘Man, I’m a CPA, I’m not a social worker.’” Hayes recalled saying when Hoberman called.

But after the two met Hayes saw Hoberman wanted to do the right thing. Hoberman assembled all his workers for diversity training at which Hayes spoke about “some of the experiences I had had and how they affected or impacted me,” including, Hayes said, “the sense of frustration and anger I had as a black man trying to establish a business.” He related incidents that any black person could identify with, like the time a food service worker ignored him even though it was his turn in line. He had to demand service before he got waited on. It’s the same as when blacks are unfairly profiled by clerks in stores or by police in traffic. He let Hoberman and Co. know such treatment was insensitive at best and racist at worst.

“I just wanted to impress upon them the idea that when you serve someone you have to respect them as individuals, because these are the people who are going to buy your product. If you’re in a service business you have to serve the customer regardless of where you’re coming from.”

What Hayes also impressed upon his audience is that a black person enters any transaction with whites carrying a history of insults and slights, making it imperative whites check their words and actions.

“You may not even realize what you’re saying may be interpreted differently by a minority,” Jerry said. “Because of their past experiences,” Cookie explained.

The sobering talk had its intended effect. “It was just really eye-opening,” Jerry said. “I mean, we didn’t have clues about this,” Cookie said.

The talk was the first in a series Hoberman required his employees attend. Others addressed issues on the elderly, women, the disabled and HIV/AIDS patients.

“I’ll tell you, sometimes we had tears in our eyes when you just realized what people go through,” Hoberman said.

Each talk was followed by discussion.

“We’d have meetings and just talk about relationships with people,” Hoberman said, “and it really built some sensitivity in us as we came face to face with some of our own biases. Prior to that, when we were having all these problems, I built a wall between our company and the community. After we awakened ourselves it was the other way around. We embraced, we understood the individuals that came through our door. We saw we could become a part of the community.”

“Awareness,” Cookie said, made all the difference.

Race relations dramatically improved.

“In the community itself we went from being interlopers and separate to becoming part of the fabric of the community. We never had any more problems,” he said.

Hayes became a close friend of the Hobermans. They’ve had him over for seder. They’ve vacationed together.

In line with this new awareness Hoberman realized the way he treated his own employees left much to be desired. Problems arose as the business grew and Hoberman grew more distant from his rank-and-file associates That’s when, Cookie said, her husband vowed, “‘I want to get to know my people again.’”

The personnel problems were articulated by a mechanic who “came up to me one day and said, ‘You know, all you treat me like is a tool…You don’t care about myself, my family. What I do is I turn a wrench for you and make you a living.’ Hoberman recalled. “I thought about that and he was right. He was just someone to make money for me and that’s not the way to think about individuals. When I recognized that I had a real desire to change and I did. I really did.”

Hoberman devised an incentive program at the struggling Tires Inc. to boost employee performance-morale. He called it the Winners Circle. At its core was goal-setting and recognition. When a division would meet its goals a celebration dinner or picnic would be held at which every team member was recognized “for a job well done.” The program turned things around at the business.

“I was looking to do something to bring us together because we were in disarray and the Winners Circle created a great deal of camaraderie and excitement within the company,” Hoberman said. “It was a team-building kind of thing where everybody worked for their goals. We formed personal relationships.”

“People felt valued,” said Cookie, who added the model for the program was as much the Jewish Passover seder as anything. The company came together as a family and everyone felt a part of the whole. “It broke a barrier,” she said. “They got to meet the president of the company and his wife. They called us by our first names. We knew their children’s names and what was going on in their families. It elevated the sense of value and respect they felt.”

Hoberman also made it company policy to hire more qualified blacks.

The next step in the couple’s evolution came when the late Cornelius Jackson, then-principal at the former Belvedere Elementary School, paid Hoberman a call and “said something that started us down this road” of helping public school children. “He said, ‘You know Mr. Hoberman, you take money from this community — what are you giving back to it? I have a lot of problems with my school. Will you help me?’ So I talked to Cookie about it and it was so true. We were making our living in the black community and we were giving absolutely nothing back to it.”

The couple visited the school at 3775 Curtis Avenue, where they were “appalled” by the conditions. A total of three Apple computers to serve hundreds of students. No usable playground equipment. A racial divide between teachers. Undisciplined students. Classroom disruptions. Little parental involvement. Academically, Belvedere ranked next to last among OPS elementary schools.

“They had all kinds of problems,” Hoberman said. “It was just a real challenge.”

Despite the daunting needs, Cookie said she and Jerry found “inspiring the dedication and commitment” of teachers and staff who “must fill a lot more roles” than their counterparts in suburbia. The rampant north Omaha poverty now making news is a reality the Hobermans began learning about years ago. How, for example, most inner city students qualify for free-and-reduced lunches, how many are from single-parent homes and how many lead highly mobile, unstable lives.

The couple agreed to make Tires Inc. an Adopt-A-School Partner of Belvedere.

A basic need was filling the resource gap. The Hobermans found donors to underwrite the cost of dozens of new computers. The couple organized, with help from Tires Inc. employees, a carnival held on the grounds of the company. Proceeds from the event raised money for more equipment and improvements.

“Everybody got on board,” Hoberman said.

The Hobermans also found in Carol Ellis, who replaced the retiring Jackson as principal, an administrator open to new approaches, such as Hoberman’s idea to adapt the successful Winners Circle program at Tires Inc. to Belvedere.

“Based on what I had in my business I felt the same idea would work within the schools,” he said.

Hoberman and Ellis worked out the details, setting goals in reading, math and citizenship. Other changes were made, with input from staff and parents, including changing the school’s name to Belvedere Academy and introducing uniforms with the school name on them.

“We wanted the children to feel they were special,” he said. “It was all part of building…” “Self-esteem,” said Cookie. That’s why then, and now, the program is based on affirmation. Public ceremonies award gold medals to children who meet goals. Goal busters are eligible for prizes, from bikes to boom boxes. Classrooms that make goals receive $50 checks that the class can use how they want.

“Really, all it is, is having a child have an individual goal and rewarding that child for meeting that goal,” he said. “That’s the essence — just giving recognition the same as we did in my business.”

“Celebrating their success,” Cookie said. “The prerequisite for that is to reinforce with the child that they are smart and they can achieve. The first time I walked into the classroom I asked the children, ‘If you think you’re smart, raise your hand,’ and maybe two or three kids did. Today, all the kids raise their hand.”

To add accountability and encouragement Cookie visited every classroom four times a year. She had each student proclaim his/her quarterly goals in front of the whole class. She was the original Goal Buddy. More than 200 Goal Buddies serve today.

 

 

 

 

Hoberman admires what his wife did and the connections she made.

“Cookie’s great with kids,” he said. “She’d visit with every one of those 550 kids, asking, ‘What is your goal? Are you going to make your goal?’ and saying, ‘I’m going to be back to check on you.’ She would encourage each child and build great rapport. The kids just loved her.”

She and Jerry discussed their Jewishness with children. Their three daughters got involved, too. Cookie even introduced her passion for bridge to kids.

“The Goal Buddy component became a much more important aspect then I ever thought it was going to be,” she said, “because of the personal contact with a real person outside the educational system taking interest in them. It had a lot influence. Kids perceived it as really important support.”

Tierre Tucker, 19, is a Creighton University student, but 12 years ago he was at Belvedere when Winners Circle began. He can attest to what “a great impact it makes just to know that somebody cares. With Winners Circle we actually had to work toward achieving goals. It gave us something to look forward to. It gave you a sense of accomplishment. That’s what I felt when I met my goals. It let me know I can do anything as long as I put forth great effort.” The Hobermans have mentored Tierre all these years. “They’re like another set of parents,” he said. He’s come far and aimed high under their guidance. “I owe that to the Hobermans,” he said. “I don’t think I would have known exactly how to get there. That’s what makes them such lovable people — their optimism for the future.”

Social skills are also part of the Winners Circle and thus kids are taught to make eye contact, shake hands firmly and speak up when meeting people.

“It’s teaching them about life,” Cookie said.

Goal Buddies, recruited from local corporations, now visit classrooms eight times a year. Captains, also recruited from the community, host quarterly celebrations recognizing individual and classroom achievements. Students and their families attend along with teachers, staff and special guests — from Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey.

OPS fully endorses Winners Circle. Mackiel recommends what schools make a good fit for the program. The district provides office space for WC staff. District researchers also provide data that helps WC staff track school performance/trends.

The program uses mantras, repeated by teachers, aides, Goal Buddies and Captains, to motivate and inspire. “Do you know that you’re winners?” “Yes,” children respond. “We know that you are winners, too.” “Are you smart?” “Yes.” “I know you are.” In unison, kids and adults say, “Going for my goal, going for the gold.”

The concept, Cookie said, is that “if you think you’re smart, you’ll be smart.”

Mottoes or platitudes aside, Hoberman said,“I am a businessman and I measure things. I’m not going to put all this work and effort into something that doesn’t show results.” “This isn’t just a feel-good program,” Cookie said.

They’ve got the numbers to show Winners Circle works. Three years after its inception Belvedere’s academic ranking went from 56th to 15th out of 57 schools. That improvement has been maintained and replicated in other schools. In the process of changing a school’s culture students feel better about themselves and when that occurs greater cooperation, motivation and achievement follow.

“Can you imagine the kind of joy and excitement Cookie and I receive to know we’re making a difference in people’s lives?” Hoberman said. The couple see it and hear it all the time — from parents who “put their arms around us and say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’” to Winners Circle grads “who tell us, ‘I want you to know I’m still making my goals.’ That’s the greatest reward. What’s that worth?”

Besides improved test scores at Winners Circle schools, staff spend less time disciplining students, school spirit and pride soar and parents turn out in force for school activities. Ten schools serving 5,000 students have been transformed in this way. Two south Omaha schools will soon join the program. Ellis said the Hobermans made it all possible.

 

 

 

 

“I couldn’t imagine doing it without the support we’ve been given, the gift we’ve been given by their involvement,” Ellis said. “It allowed us to go to heights we had hoped for but didn’t have the means to accomplish. It wasn’t just the money, it was the caring. It gave us hope we could make things different.”

Success at Belvedere both mirrored and fed the turnaround at Tires Inc.. As the business began treating people right, customers and employees felt valued and profits rose. As students and teachers felt empowered, attitudes changed and test scores shot up. The good neighbor policy reaped dividends all around.

“The 60th and Ames store started making more money than the other stores when it had been at the bottom,” Cookie said. “Not only was Jerry feeling good about himself, his people were feeling good about themselves. There’s no substitute for giving and that’s what was happening at Tires Inc.. Similarly at Belvedere problems started to dissolve because people were getting on board with something positive.”

That first school year the program was in effect, attendance at the quarterly Winners Circle celebrations surged from 100 the first quarter to more than 1,000 the last quarter. The celebrations still attract big crowds today. It’s not uncommon for a child’s immediate and extended family to be there. Ellis said it may be the first time someone in the family has been honored at school.

Hoberman said that surge of support gives lie to the perception that parents in the inner city don’t take an active interest in their children’s education.

“These parents do care about their kids,” he said.

During a celebration each child is called on stage to receive a gold medal as the crowd applauds. There are hand shakes. Parents form a victory tunnel to greet and take pictures as their honored sons or daughters come off stage, beaming.

Holding a mike, Hoberman, his booming bass voice in fine form and his trademark pony tail flying, emceed the event himself in dynamic fashion those early years, “yelling and screaming” as he exhorted the crowd to give it up for the kids.

“He was a rock star leading this parade,” said the now retired Carol Ellis.

“He was powerful, he was wonderful,” said Winners Circle director Beth Smith. She heads a staff of five that do what Jerry and Cookie once did all by themselves.

Now captains do the emceeing, following Hoberman’s cheerleading example.

Ellis said the Hobermans personally saw to every detail at the start. Now that there’s a professional staff in place, the couple take a less hands-on role, but still keep a close tab on things. The fact they took Winners Circle on together, first at Tires Inc. and then in the schools, is typical of the way they tackle things.

“Cookie and I have been married 41 years and we’ve always been a team,” Jerry said, “so when I had problems in my business I would go home and we would talk about it. Cookie was always an integral part of what I did.” “And vice versa,” Cookie said, adding, “We work well together separately. Jerry does his thing, I do my thing, then we have meetings and we report back.”

It’s how they ran the United Jewish Appeal campaign one year. They’ve assumed many local leadership positions in the Jewish community over the years.

The Hobermans long ago earned what a Captain, Paul Bryant, calls “street cred” by proving they were genuine about making good on their promises and staying in it for the long haul. But they had to earn that trust.

“When we first went to Belvedere there were a lot of families that wanted to know what were these white Jewish people doing in our school. What do they want with our kids? And rightfully so,” Cookie said. “A few years later we received a wonderful letter from one of the parents that said, ‘I really didn’t believe you. I didn’t trust you. I was wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done in our school.’ And we’ve heard that more and more now.”

“When we started this program,” Jerry said, “we were told by educators and by members of the African American community ‘Don’t start this if you’re not going to keep doing it, because we’ve seen too many people make promises they don’t keep.’” As Cookie said, “You don’t go into the inner city and give them a taste of honey and then take it away from them.”

Bryant said the Hobermans live their values: “That’s what makes them so special. It’s easy to throw some money at it. But they invested themselves into it. Their commitment — that’s what makes them different.”

Longevity for the program is what the Hobermans want. It’s why, Cookie said, “we had to make provisions for it to go on past us.” When Jerry sold Tires Inc. in ‘98, finding more support became paramount as Winners Circle operates entirely on private donations. He directs the fund raising apparatus himself, sending out thousands of appeal letters. It costs some $45,000 to maintain Winners Circle in a school on an annual basis. With there about to be 12 participating schools, it takes half-a-million dollars to cover expenses.

With the help of major funders such as Dick and Mary Holland and Wally Weitz, the program has thrived and expanded.

When the Hobermans recruit new donors they let the children sell Winners Circle.

“When you’re with the kids they capture your heart,” he said. “We picked Dick (Holland) up one night and took him down to the Winners Circle celebration and that was it. The kids touched his and Mary’s heart and the Hollands just embraced the program. Dick said, ‘What do you need to expand it?’”

Holland is struck by what the Hobermans have accomplished.

“They’re highly compassionate people and also what they’ve done is an exercise in wisdom,” Holland said. “A lot of times disadvantaged children don’t have any belief in the future and Winners Circle overcomes a lot of that despair.”

Holland’s late wife put in motion the latest chapter in Winners Circle, a merger with the All Our Kids mentoring program. For all its success, Winners Circle stopped at the 6th grade, leaving students without the support of the program from middle school on. To address that interruption, a pilot program called Bright Futures Partnership continues the Winners Circle from 7th grade through high school, with mentoring offered in a seamless stream.

“We’ve accomplished our dream,” Hoberman said.

Those who know the Hobermans, like Frank Hayes, say they “are genuinely good people.” Beth Smith left corporate America five years ago looking to make a difference and she said, “I feel blessed to have come upon them (the Hobermans). Their heart and their passion is for the children.”

Hayes said the couple “are an extremely good example of the good that can come when people take a risk and step out of their comfort zone. They made a significant shift in the way they saw things and as a result of that they’ve lived a better, richer life. The return on their investment has been significant. Teachers, students, parents have benefited by it from interacting with them and Jerry and Cookie have benefited from interacting with them.”

Jerry Hoberman said his motivation for Winners Circle is in part “payback for all those years I made judgments of other people and I was insensitive toward individuals and their needs.” His awakening revealed “the inequality and struggles these kids have. I’ve gotten to know them and their families. I understand the challenges they have. Education is the road for them to move up and anything we can do to try and even the playing field makes us feel really good.”

“It’s changed our lives,” he said. “We’ve built friends and relationships that are just…” “Invaluable,” added Cookie, who said moving “beyond our own circles” has promoted personal growth. “It’s enhanced our lives,” Jerry said. “I like myself a lot better now…there were times when I really didn’t.”

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


Sign warning people that there might be Jews a...

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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.”

When Omaha’s North 24th Street Brought Together Jews and Blacks in a Melting Pot Marketplace that is No More

April 30, 2010 6 comments

801 North 24th Street

Image by john.murden via Flickr

I never experienced it, but I was long intrigued by a period of North 24th Street history in Omaha that saw African-Americans and Jews co-exist in a mutually dependent way. For the most part, Jews owned businesses of all kinds up and down and around that strip and blacks were their primary customers.   North 24th Street cuts through the heart of Black Omaha going north and south and in the years when blacks were restricted to living in that area by red lining practices, Jewish merchants naturally catered to the resident population.  Jews and other European ethnic groups had settled the area and some continued to reside there as blacks moved in, although most Jews and Italians, et cetera, moved elsewhere.  But enough Jewish merchants remained to create this intriguing multicultural stew.

Some blacks were also employed in Jewish stores and homes.  Some black businesses and professionals also operated in this hub.  The symbiotic relationship between Omaha Jews and blacks lasted through much of the 1960s, effectively ending when civil disturbances destroyed many of the business properties and much of the goodwill that had long thrived there.

The following story I wrote about it all appeared in a 2007 issue of The Jewish Press.

 

When Omaha’s North 24th Street Brought Together Jews and Blacks in a Melting Pot Marketplace that is No More

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

North 24th Street. Today, this distressed stretch running through largely African-American northeast Omaha is a hodgepodge of mercantiles, community service organizations and social agencies interspersed with empty structures and vacant lots. The sidewalks are mostly empty. Save for some new construction and streetscape improvements in the 24th and Lake environs, block after block is blighted. Signs of renewal peek through here and there in refurbished buildings, new commercial centers and handsome housing developments.

Visions of new grandeur lie in initiatives targeting the area, known as the Flatlands, for redevelopment. Still, current reality is a long way from those dreams and a far cry from North 24th’s heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s. Then, rows of buildings lining each side of the street — from Cuming south to well past Lake north — housed dozens of small businesses, many Jewish-owned, some black-owned.

It was a lively social-cultural enterprise zone/marketplace where a promenade of ethnicities filled the sidewalks and streets from dawn to well past dusk.

“Almost like Maxwell Street in Chicago,” said former North 24th resident Joe Kirshenbaum, referring to Chi-Town’s multicultural hub. “It was a city in itself. It was busy all the time. The only time there wasn’t any business was sun down Friday night, when everything was closed. Everybody knew everybody, blacks, whites, they were all alike. We used to leave our doors open at home at night or we’d sleep on the porch because we never had to worry…”

“On a Saturday night it was busy. It was a real hustling place,” said Mort Glass, who worked in his father’s Omaha Kosher Meat Market on 24th.

Jews and other European immigrant groups, including Italians, settled in north Omaha in the first decades of the last century. There was always an African American presence but the real wave of blacks came as part of the great migration from the South in the 1920s through the post-World War II era.

There was a time when North 24th, a major artery connecting north Omaha with downtown, was the nexus of commerce for two historically oppressed peoples, Jews and blacks. Not only did they comprise most of the area’s merchants, service providers and professionals from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, they were its primary residents and, therefore, customers, too. So it was that synagogues stood next to Baptist churches, kosher and soul food could be had on the same block and blacks and Jews were educated together, played together and did business together.

For Jews, North 24th was the Miracle Mile. For blacks, the “Deuce Four.” For many northeast Omaha residents, it represented a Street of Dreams where virtually any good or service could be found. The district enjoyed a self-sufficiency it’s not seen again, one in which residents could and did do for themselves.

Black-Jewish interaction was an every day thing. Reverends and rabbis kvetched over pickle barrels or meat counters. Each group learned things about the other, especially about their respective religious traditions.

For the Sabbath Jews called upon black neighbors to turn off the gas and lights in their Orthodox homes. Some blacks practiced their faith in tent revival meetings whose rousing spirituals and shouts of hallelujah and amen drew curious Jews.

 

 

 

 

Outside these transactions, there were occasions, like live radio broadcasts of Joe Louis fights, when everyone came together to cheer. When Louis won, people flowed into the streets to party. Blacks led the parade.

“It was wonderful,” said Helen (Handler) Rifkin-Chorney, who grew up near North 24th and spent many an afternoon and evening there. “After a Joe Louis fight, when he was the champ, everybody was dressed in their Sunday finest and they were celebrating, too, because one of their own was the world champion. I used to think that was one of the greatest things in the whole world. It was wonderful.”

Then there was the pageantry of Easter Sunday, when Christian folks got decked out in all their fancy new finery.

“You never saw nothing until you saw Easter Sunday on 24th Street. Dressed to kill,” former North 24 denizen Nate Shukert said. “We used to go down just to watch,” ex-24er Gloria Friedman said. “It was beautiful. The parade of colors was amazing,” Rifkin-Chorney added.

“It was Omaha’s version of the Easter parade on Fifth Avenue in New York,” said Martha (Hall) Melton, who grew up just off the famous thoroughfare.

Community leaders hoping to revitalize the area look to recapture some of its rich, robust past. A past that saw an abundance of mom-and-pop grocery stores, butcher shops, fish markets, bakeries, cafes, delis. Hardware, appliance, clothing, shoe and department stores. Tailor shops, repair shops, pawn shops, barber shops, beauty shops. Ice houses, a junk yard, a lumber yard. Drug stores. Doctors offices. Laundries, cleaners. Dance halls, night clubs, bars, billiard parlors, movie theaters. Social halls, fraternal clubs, gyms. After-hours joints. Whore houses.

“We had everything out here,” said north Omaha native Vera (Mitchell) Johnson. “You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything.” North 24th was, as fellow lifer Charles Carter said, “it’s own entity.”

Glass-fronted brick buildings spread the length of 24th, gleaming in the sun.

“When I was in the wholesale liquor business I made calls on 24th, and when I got there at 7 in the morning and the sun was shining, you’d think it was a sea out there…a sea of glass,” Irv Forbes recalled.

A whole social stratum of attire was on display. Grocers, butchers and bakers in aprons. Businessmen in fedoras and three-piece suits. Construction, packinghouse, railroad laborers in overalls. Domestic workers and porters in uniforms. Ladies in fine dresses and feathered hats. Religious in yarmulkes, prayer shawls and Sunday whites. Children in school clothes. Hep cats in zoot suits. Cops in blue.

Peddlers pushing carts and delivery men, driving horse-and-wagon outfits in the early days and trucks later on, sold everything from rags to milk to ice to produce.

Melton recalls a peddler who came by to sharpen knives. Shukert remembers one vendor, who wore a conductor’s cap and hung a lamp on his cart, hawking tamales with, “‘Get your hot tamales today, they’ll be gone tomorrow.’”

Street vendors shined shoes and sold newspapers. The blare of radio broadcasts, the melody of Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian and English voices, some Southern-tinged, others European-accented, the shrill of live chickens and crying babies and the clatter and roar of autos and streetcars created a kind of music. The yeasty, oven-fired aroma of fresh baked bread, rolls and bagels, the sweetness of pickled herring and watermelon rinds, the sour of pickles and the spice of corned beef blended with the smoky fragrance of barbecue and savory goodness of greens.

“When you hit this area, you smelled it,” Shukert said. “Whew, it would give you a smack, boy.”

This feast for the senses only added to the North 24th experience.

 

 

 

 

In an era when Jews and blacks were excluded from much of mainstream white society, the walls of segregation largely disappeared on this strip, where interracial commerce flourished. That’s not to say all was rosy, especially for blacks. Prior to the ‘60s entire sections of northeast Omaha, even portions of North 24, were closed off to blacks. Some establishments refused to serve or hire them. A few public schools were integrated, but most were divided along strict racial lines.

Forbes, whose father and uncles ran the commercial Forbes Bakery on 24th, recalls that as late as the ‘20s, even the ‘30s, Jews and blacks were still wary of the Klan, which was active in the state for decades.

Still, North 24th was an oasis, much as South 24th was, compared to wider Omaha.

Jews and blacks lived and worked in close proximity to each other and, by all accounts, coexisted in relative harmony. Despite obvious differences, people made this relationship work for the most practical of reasons — they had to. After all, each group relied on the other for survival. In a symbiotic relationship of mutual co-dependence, Jewish businesses provided essential goods and services to blacks, not to mention jobs, while blacks provided a major customer base for many Jewish merchants. Practicality made tolerance the order of the day.

“You have to understand this getting along wasn’t because there was this great big love affair, but it was a toleration. You tolerate me, I’ll tolerate you, and that’s the way we lived,” said Shukert, whose family’s meat market was a North 24th fixture. “We’re both here. You’re not going to leave, we’re not going to leave, so we might as well understand the situation and make the best out of it. We knew how to live with people. I don’t think color meant that much.”

“Well, we grew up with them — that’s the way it was,” said Friedman, whose father had a shoe store on 24th. “Right, if they were your next door neighbor, they were your next door neighbor,” Rifkin-Chorney said.

“You learned to tolerate” each other’s differences, Melton said. The way Shukert sees it, “We could have taught the world a lesson in how to be tolerant.”

Mort Glass said it was “a joining of two widely diverse people that really cohabited pretty much there for a long time.” Shukert said “the real miracle was that we all got along.” Charles Hall, whose soul food eatery the Fair Deal Cafe was a landmark there from 1953 to 2001, said the North 24th experience proves hatred is taught.

In purely economic terms, Shukert believes Jewish-owned grocery stores and suppliers of other perishable staples were most dependent on the black trade.

“Basically we got along with the Jews because they owned the grocery stores and all of the markets,” said John Butler, a North 24th veteran. Hall goes so far as to say, “It was a known fact that if you had a business and the blacks didn’t support you, you couldn’t make it.”

Shukert said blacks were not only vital customers but key laborers. “We hired them,” he said. “We didn’t care what their color was as long as they could work, and they liked to work.” “Most of the time the Jews would hire some blacks to do stocking, deliveries…They had a lot of blacks work for them,” Butler said.

Butler’s first jobs as a kid were shining shoes inside Pomidoro’s Shoe Repair shop and making deliveries, with a wagon he pulled behind him, for Hornstein’s Grocery. He said the Hornsteins “used to help me with my schoolwork.” Butler had a brother that worked at Tuchman’s Market. Hall worked several years at Frank Marks and Irv Rubinow’s Parker Street Market before opening his own business.

Dorothy (Stansberry) Freels-Smith earned the sobriquet “The Black Jew of 24th Street” after decades behind the counter at Reid’s Drug Store and as the first black butcherette at the Jewish-owned Sell-Rite supermart, where her boss was Sol Lincoln. “I knew all those Jews on 24th Street and I got to be very close to all of them,” she said. “Most all of them were very nice.”

Well-off Jews employing black domestic workers in their homes, Shukert said, understood their housekeepers struggled to get by and therefore often provided their “help” extra food and clothes. Butler, who grew up on 24th, said his mother, like many black women at the time, cleaned house for Jews in Dundee and confirmed it was common for domestics to get care packages from their employers.

Relationships formed between Jewish and black families.

“When I was a girl we had a black lady by the name of Lucille White who cleaned house for my family,” said Rifkin-Chorney, “and when a family member died she’d be the first one there. This woman would come if it was the middle of the night to be helpful and we felt the same way about her family. I mean, it was not a matter of color. It really and truly wasn’t.”

Rifkin-Chorney said family and community were at the core of Jewish and black life. In an era when extended families lived together or within walking distance, there were few strangers. Not just relatives, but neighbors, beat cops and merchants kept watch over kids. Butler said a trip to the market or to school was nothing like it is now. He’d encounter any number of figures, black and white, who knew him and inquired after him and his folks. “…the Jewish store owners knew all the kids in the neighborhood and they knew what family you belonged to,” he said. “Everybody knew everybody. It was almost like a family thing,”

It was a time when adults checked kids’ behavior, irregardless of race. Freels-Smith said she could tell any child, “You know better than to do that. I’ll tell your mom.”

Credit was extended to poor families, again irrespective of race.

“You’d run a tab and you didn’t have to pay until the end of the week when dad got paid. They would let us get all the groceries we’d want. Of course, they knew how much we could afford,” Butler said. Shukert said, “My dad never turned anybody down. He said, ‘Hey, look, people have got to eat.’”

Generosity between neighbors was common. Martha Melton, her brother Charles Hall and their family lived next door to the Shukerts, who kept a strict Orthodox home. Melton recalls her and her sister turning off the gas and lights at the Shukert home to keep them in compliance with the Sabbath.

The Halls’ other neighbors, the Levines, kept, sold and slaughtered live chickens and shared their bounty. “They would give us chickens and things,” Melton said. When some Jewish households served hallas, non-Jews would be invited to partake. Shukert said his mother would schmeer slices with butter and jelly as a treat for neighborhood kids — black and white — who came by.

More than once, Melton said, white friends aided her poor family. She said two Central High schoolmates, Nate Shukert and Nuncio Pomidoro, “knew our circumstances. Many a day I had no lunch money and they would pay for my lunch, which was a generous thing to do. They helped that way.”

“Poor blacks knew that without us a lot of them would have gone hungry. They had nothing to eat and they weren’t ashamed to take it,” Shukert said.

 

 

 

 

Gloria Friedman said her father supplied free shoes — as part of a city shoe fund — to Kellom School students, many of whose families were too poor to afford them.

Freels-Smith gave away food and other stores to poor kids, black or white, that stopped by Reid’s. “Color didn’t matter to me,” she said. She’d let them snatch penny candy. She’d make a batch of soup and dish it out to anyone who “wanted something warm” and she kept cold beers on ice for the beat cops.

Rifkin-Chorney surmises that good relations between Jews and blacks “had something to do with the fact we’re talking mostly about Depression times, when we were all poor.” “That’s why we all got along,” Shukert agreed, “because they had nothing and we had just a little bit more. So economically we were pretty much on the same plane, except we had a little bit more, so we could share it with you.” “Yeah…that’s the truth. Jewish folks had maybe a small store or something and they were just making a living,” Hall said. North 24th Jewish merchants were, Butler said, “working class people in business.”

Any angle or sideline was exploited to help make ends meet. “Everybody was doing what they could to make a living,” Melton said.

As a boy Butler helped his father sell fresh vegetables grown on three family gardens. His dad, a Cudahy packinghouse worker by day, also sold “real silk hosiery door to door.”

Not everything was legal. A black man who worked at Shukerts, Andrew “Babe” Bender, was also a pimp who ran brothels behind the store, Shukert said. “He was like the Duke of 24th Street. He made a lot of money.” From the back of the market Shukert could identify the johns frequenting these dens of inequity. “I was amazed by some of the people I would see going in there. People that I knew. Yeah, God’s chosen,” he said.

A few Jewish grocers were known to not play square by rigging the scales or ringing up bogus purchases. Some had open contempt for blacks. But in the main blacks were “treated well” by most Jewish merchants, Hall said.

Butler feels an important reason why Jews and blacks were simpatico is their shared legacy of struggle. “Well, you must remember they were segregated too at the time,” he said. “They knew how we felt and we knew how they felt.”

Rifkin-Chorney said there was an unspoken understanding that blacks and Jews shared a similar struggle as “minorities that are persecuted. It’s a common denominator.” By and large, she added, Jews recognized blacks have a much harder time. They can’t hide their color and so they are discriminated against.”

“That’s why they have to fight for themselves,” Shukert observed.

“And they have to go to more extremes,” Rifkin-Chorney said. “They’ve had to do their marches. We fought, too. We didn’t do it in the same way, because we didn’t have the numbers…”

“We did it by going to school…getting educated. We got smart enough to know how it was to change your life,” Shukert said. “The Jews bartered this, bought that, got a little property, saved their money and bought themselves into a better life.” “The black people have to take it on themselves to do the job,” Forbes said. “They’re never going to get it done unless they do it themselves.”

That sentiment is the theme of new black empowerment-covenant efforts underway in Omaha.

If there was ever a time when Jews and blacks were in sync, it was the height of the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “There were probably as many Jews as there were blacks at some of those marches because we were marching really for a common cause. We had the same reason,” Rifkin-Chorney said. As Shukert said, “We were white, but we had the same reason.”

Joe Kirshenbaum, whose father delivered bread for Himmelbloom Bakery, said the north side had geographic boundaries for affluent and less affluent Jews.

“It seemed like the majority of Jews who were middle income and lower income lived in this particular area,” he said, referring to the North 24th corridor. “If you lived west of 30th Street you were pretty well off and if you lived in Dundee you were really pretty well off.”

As a boy Shukert dreamed of making it to the other side.

“I always wanted to make it across 30th Street,” he said, “because that’s when you had it made. You got to go around with all the big shot kids. I was home from the service and my folks told me we’d moved west.” Where did you move? he asked excitedly. The family’s new address — 2935 Nicholas — put him “right to the brink,” but still outside the promised land. “I never made it across to 30th.”

There was also the feeling that a high tide raises all boats.

Hall recalls something the wife of the grocer he worked for said. “She told me what the black man doesn’t realize is, every boost the black man gets in life is a boost for the Jews. It made sense because they were ostracized and picked on, too.”

A live-and-let-live attitude prevailed.

 

 

 

 

“I think things were extremely amicable…everyone got along,” Hall said. “It was a black-Jewish neighborhood and everyone went to their jobs and came back home and they went to 24th Street and different areas there to enjoy themselves.”

People in similar straits made the best of tough times.

“At that time it wasn’t a thing of black, white, Jew, Catholic, Protestant, it was just people,” Melton said. “See, if you give respect, you’ll get respect. They respected us and we respected them.”

When Rifkin-Chorney was newly married to her first husband, the late Ben Rifkin, the couple went to North 24th every weekend. Ben grew up there. His father and uncle were peddlers and then property owners. When she and Ben would walk down the Deuce Four she learned how thick Jewish-black relations ran.

“We passed at least half-a-dozen young black men and they all knew my husband. They all called him ‘Binny.’ I asked him, ‘How do you know everybody and how do they all know you?’ And he said, ‘They’re all my neighbors.’ Again, it was with great fondness and affection and he felt the same way towards them.”

Shukert said multi-racial fraternizing extended to recreation. Whether it was kick-the-can, pickup softball, baseball or football, Jews and blacks “played together” in the streets and the parks around 24th. Then-North Omaha YMCA director Marty Thomas, a giant black man who commanded awe, oversaw organized youth sports.

“We respected him so much. If he told you to do something, you did it,” Shukert said. “You talk about race, he was a man ahead of his time. He saw to it all the rules were the same, no matter who you were, black or white. He was the best.”

Mixed crowds danced at the Dreamland Ballroom to the swinging sounds of stellar black performers like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.

A shared sense of community was lost when the Jewish exodus began in the late ‘40s. By the ’50s, most Jewish residents were gone, including Shukert, Friedman, Kirshenbaum and Rifkin-Chorney. Some Jewish businesses remained into the ‘60s, but Mort Glass said “it was dwindling…a pretty sharp decline.” While Jews were free to most anywhere, blacks were not, restricted by red lining-covenant practices that prohibited or discouraged the sell of property to “non-whites.”

“We were held back,” Hall said.

The final Jewish hurrah on North 24th came in the wake of late ‘60s public disturbances in which businesses were burned, damaged or looted. The disorder was an expression of black anger over inequality and injustice. The worst riot, in ‘69, was sparked by the fatal shooting of a black girl by a white police officer. Charles Hall, who still lives near 24th, recalls a white man asking him at the time, “‘What’s wrong — what do they want? “I said, ‘They want the same thing you want, and that’s an even chance to make money and to make a decent living.’”

Jewish businesses were largely spared, said John Butler, who patrolled North 24 during the ‘69 riot as part of a brigade of community-minded citizens. “Some of us stayed there and tried to protect them,” he said. “Some blacks stood in front of Jewish grocery stores and wouldn’t let the mob burn them down,” Kirshenbaum said. “One like that was Abe Schloff’s,” said Shukert. “They stood right in front of his store, with guns and said, ‘Don’t touch this man’s store.’ Because he always treated them straight.”

While most Jewish concerns survived unscathed, the psychological trauma of the riots spurred the last of North 24th’s Jewish merchants to leave.

“They all got afraid,” Smith said. “They moved out after that because things started getting different,” Butler said. “It wasn’t just them moving out. We began moving out then, too. It started a migration of both races.”

 

 

 

 

Butler moved north, to an area once off-limits to blacks. Melton and her late husband Billy moved a couple miles west. Smith also moved west.

Relatively few new businesses sprang up in the ensuing years to replace the Jewish-owned ones that left. With mom-and-pop operations a thing of the past, the area lost grocery stores, drug stores and many suppliers of basic items it was once rich in. Where other parts of town saw large chains come in to fill the gaps, North O does not. High crime stats don’t help. Existing businesses get squeezed by a dwindling economic base as middle income whites and blacks exit the inner city.

“It’s a matter of confidence. If you’re going to invest a couple hundred thousand dollars in something there you want to be reasonably assured it’s a safe investment,” Shukert said.

Hall said blacks did not fill the void because the kind of money needed to start businesses was denied them. “Back in those days the small business associations and the banks that helped Jews and whites wouldn’t give blacks 50 cents. We were discriminated against just generally in every way down through the years,” he said.

Two groups once close, grew apart. An innocence was lost. Perceptions put a new spin on things. For example, the Yiddish term for a black person, Shvartzer, was acceptable once, but as Rifkin-Chorney noted, this vernacular was deemed demeaning in the context of the civil rights-black power era.

“It wasn’t meant that way, but it could be determined as a derogatory way to speak about someone,” she said.

Shukert thinks it’s tragic that blacks became the object of fear. He said a white person walking down a street thinks nothing of an approaching  group of whites, but gets alarmed at the sight of a group of blacks. “For some reason whites have always been afraid of blacks,” he said. “Why have we put that stigma on them?”

 

 

 

 

He and others are dismayed by the shootings that plague the north side these days. He knows it’s just a few “bad apples” causing the trouble, but it’s made him and old friends fearful of visiting North 24th for a nostalgic tour.

“It’s too bad you can’t, in 2007, feel free to go any place you want to, but that’s just the way it is,” he said.

Shukert and his contemporaries don’t understand why so many people resort to violence now as a means to resolve disputes or to gain respect. That’s not the way things were done in their day, when words or fist fights sufficed.

“We would never do anything to disgrace our neighborhood, our church, our family,” Martha Melton said. “It’s a shame young people don’t know the unity that there was. It does break my heart to see 24th the way it is now. It will never be the same. I have fond, fond memories of the way it was.”

All the changes and the population shifts have dislocated people from their roots. “It looks like we’re divided more now than ever,” Dorothy Freels-Smith said.

John Butler, who lives around 26th and Evans, sees hope in the new diversity emerging in northeast Omaha. “In my two-block area I’ve got whites, blacks, Hispanics living next door to each other or across from each other. Integration sometimes is good — if people get along, and I see they’re getting along.” What’s different, he said, is that people don’t know each other the way they used to.

Back in the day on 24th, diverse people mixed and mingled in close-knit quarters. “It made a better person out of me,” Butler said. Said Hall, “I got an education working down in the neighborhood.” “We knew people better then,” said Shukert.

Speculation about the future of North 24th centers on proposed mixed use developments for transforming the area into a model of urban gentrification. These discussions bring up new issues, such as the displacement of longtime residents and what stake blacks will have there. Old-timers like Shukert believe no matter how much the strip is built back up it will not be the melting pot marketplace he knew.

“It’s never going to be,” he said. “The memories are great. I never will forget the way it was. So many people don’t have memories like that of North 24th Street, because they didn’t live it. I can tell you story after story after story, but unless you lived it it’s just a story.”

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