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

April 12, 2011 8 comments

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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.”

Ben Nachman’s Mission

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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

Ben Nachman’s Mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Ben Nachman is on a mission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Carl Lutz

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

One of the safe houses Carl Lutz kept

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kitty Williams Finally Tells Her Holocaust Survivor Tale

May 4, 2010 7 comments

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

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

Kitty Williams Finally Tells Her Holocaust Survivor Tale

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Kitty Williams prays at her mother’s grave

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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