January 6, 2010
Dorothy Greenstein: Every Day, Another Way to Give
“Ask me anything you want,” says Dorothy Greenstein as she leads a group of children through the Museum of Tolerance.
The 79-year-old great-grandmother has much to relate and much to remember.
Greenstein was born Devorah Kirszenbaum, the youngest of 10 children, in Otwock, a small town near Warsaw. She was 9 when the German army invaded Poland, and from 11 on she was on her own.
Her stories of escapes from a ghetto and labor camp, hiding in farm fields and forests, and life-or-death brushes with German soldiers and Polish police could fill a thick autobiography.
She attributes her survival, while most of her family perished, to her blondish braids and blue eyes, accent-free Polish, her own wits, the help of some Polish gentiles and a lot of luck.
Although she is open to talking about her own experiences, there is one topic — Holocaust atrocities — that she won’t share with her young visitors.
After 31 years as a fourth-grade teacher at Emek Hebrew Academy, Greenstein “retired” to become a full-time volunteer with a full weekly schedule.
One day is devoted to the Museum of Tolerance, where she has worked for 15 years. A second day to the Jewish Family Service’s Valley Storefront, staffing the boutique.
On a third day, she works as a volunteer saleslady at the American Discovery Shop in Sherman Oaks, whose proceeds go to support cancer research.
After a docent stint at the Skirball Cultural Center, Greenstein has switched, on her fourth day, to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
That’s by no means all. For the past four years she has participated in the March of the Living to Poland, including memorial visits to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, and then on to Israel.
Add to that her gift as a polyglot, speaking six languages learned from fellow multinational inmates in a displaced persons camp. She uses her skills to give free language lessons.
Greenstein, whose husband Allen, 85, cooks while she volunteers, has a son and daughter, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Nevertheless she finds time to answer questions she receives from all over the world in long, hand-written letters, or sometimes by e-mail.
When asked, she will speak at such diverse venues as a Long Beach military academy or local Catholic parochial schools.
As a helpful bubbe, she dispenses practical first-aid advice, to the point that some of her “patients” now address her as Dr. Greenstein.
However, her childhood ambition was to become a concert pianist. That career was cut short when, shortly after war’s end, she landed a blow on the nose of a Polish kid, who called her a “scabby Jew.” The force of the blow broke her own finger.
“Dorothy is a treasure and a wonderful role model,” said Elana Samuels, director of volunteer services at the Museum of Tolerance. “She radiates love and a sense of hope.”
Monise Neumann is the director of the Jewish Bureau of Jewish Education’s March of the Living program and has been with Greenstein on the last four of the annual trips.
“Dorothy has become the grandmother for hundreds of youngsters,” Neumann said. “There is no hate in her, she just exudes love.”
During one trip, the group visited Greenstein’s birthplace, where she organized the local Polish kids to restore the old Jewish cemetery.
So what makes Dorothy Greenstein run?
“I don’t like shopping, I buy only used stuff, and I don’t like to sit down,” she answers. “But I love helping people.”
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