“How did you learn to make brushes? Who taught you?” I’m talking to Boris Abel on the phone, trying to fill in some small details requested by my editor of his Holocaust experiences. Boris tells me once again that when the Russians occupied Lithuania in 1940, they nationalized his family’s rope-manufacturing company in Panevezys. He moved to Siauliai, and, under a law that allowed small businesses to operate, Boris began making brushes. “But who taught you?” I ask him again. I know he didn’t make brushes when he worked in the family business.
“When you have to live, you try it, and you do it,” he tells me.
Boris is on the phone with me from his bed in a convalescent hospital. Soon after our initial interview, he was hospitalized with pneumonia and is now recovering. “It’s fine to call him there,” his son, Chuck, had assured me. “He’s telling everyone in the hospital his story.” Boris will be 99 in July. He knows what it takes to live.
Boris is just one of the many Holocaust survivors I’ve profiled — and whom David Miller has photographed — for the Journal’s Survivor column. These bi-weekly articles now number 56, though, sadly, four of the survivors have died since the column first appeared in October 2011. Some today are facing serious health challenges. Others have fading memories. But in response to my invitation to participate, all of them have graciously shared the terrifying narratives of their Holocaust experiences with me. And none, as far as I know, has regretted it.
I volunteered to take on this project as soon as I heard about it. I’ve been drawn to the subject of the Holocaust ever since I was 11, when my mother took me aside, and, in the same hushed tone in which she had explained the facts of life, she told me about the Shoah.
“But how do you kill 6 million people?” I asked. “You can’t just line them up and shoot them.” Five decades later, I’m still asking similar questions.
“You thought you were dead?” I ask Adela Manheimer during one interview. “Yes,” she explains. “I was under a mountain of dead girls. I touch my hand, and I see it’s not cold. It’s warm. And I walk out.” I try to picture this spunky, diminutive woman, now almost 93, on a death march from Grünberg, wearing only a thin dress and one shoe as protection against the fierce cold. Sitting with me at her dining-room table, she’s now smartly dressed in a deep-blue sleeveless top, with a coordinating pendant and earrings. Seventy years ago, she was almost dead, her only possession a ragged pillow.
Each time I meet a survivor, I am struck by the incongruity. I meet with them in their homes, apartments and retirement communities, amid their plush furniture, artwork and family photographs, often including some pre-war portraits that were somehow rescued or presciently mailed to relatives in America. They’re dressed nicely, the women often in skirts and sweaters and stylish scarves, and the men in collared shirts and slacks. They’re grandparents, and even great-grandparents. Seventy years ago, they were emaciated and ill, their clothes rags. They lived in filthy, lice-ridden ghettos or barracks. Or hid in forests or attics. They fought hunger and cold, some in the frigid wilds of Russia.
I’m impressed by the survivors’ willingness to share their stories for publication, including the most graphic details of beatings or bodily searches. But, occasionally, there’s a deal-breaker: the birth year.
“People here don’t realize I’m 92,” one survivor confided to me, referring to her retirement community. “Do you have to use it?”
Still, sharing these stories can be painful and sad. Violet Raymond, the first survivor I interviewed for the series, cried for almost the entire two and a half hours we were together. I teared up along with her, especially when she talked about her first husband, George Singer, who died of starvation in a labor camp at 19. She was 17 and pregnant. When I visited her a second time, she wept for another hour and a half. Violet had previously told her story only to family members, but she was determined to speak to me, and via the Journal, to the world at large.
Often the tears begin when the survivors describe the last time they saw a family member. For Rosalie Greenfield, this happened while telling me about her chaotic and terrifying arrival at Auschwitz. She was abruptly separated from her mother, who hurriedly handed her a blanket and cautioned, “Don’t catch a cold.”
Describing the postwar homecomings can also be emotional. Joseph Davis returned to find his family’s apartment in Munkács, Czechoslovakia, completely emptied, with only a few pages from a children’s book lying on the floor. “I started to cry,” he recalled, choking up in the telling.
Lidia Budgor is an exception. “Every time I tell my story, I’m back with my family,” she told me.
For contrast, and to most poignantly depict what the Nazis destroyed, I always ask the survivors to describe some happy times they shared with their families before the war.
Jack Adelstein, who was only 4 when he was captured by the Nazis and has few early memories, recalls going down to the river and swimming with his pony. Gitta Ginsberg remembers her grandmother picking her up from nursery school in Brussels every day, always bringing her a cookie. And most of the survivors fondly recall Shabbat dinners with their families — the home-baked challah, the table covered with a white cloth and their mother lighting the candles.
Parts of our interview can be challenging. I work chronologically, but it’s not always easy to keep survivors on track. Those who have told their story multiple times often have a set way of narrating the events. And for those who have rarely told their story, sometimes not even to family members, the memories emerge in haphazard order. A few with fading memories struggle to recall words or incidents.
And I know the survivors are annoyed — or frustrated — by my constant requests for specific dates and names. Yes, I’m writing about their life, but I also want to place it in its historical context as accurately as possible. When did you arrive in the Lodz ghetto? When did you set off on the death march from Blechhammer? More than once, a survivor has smiled and said, “You know, we didn’t have calendars in the camps.”
At the end of the interview, I can usually count on the survivor showing me memorabilia. Sometimes they have photo albums, previously published articles, letters from schoolchildren thanking them for their talks, and war or postwar documents ready to share with me, spread out on the dining room table when I arrive. Sometimes the memorabilia is displayed on a bed. Or framed and hung on walls. The most precious objects are photographs of their wedding, which frequently took place in a displaced-persons camp, where they dressed in borrowed finery. Or the pre-war pictures of parents and siblings.
Also precious are the photographs of their children, grandchildren and often great-grandchildren. Many, I’m sure, share Gloria Ungar’s sentiments. Proudly showing me pictures of her 18 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, she said, “I have a beautiful family. This is my revenge.”
Albert Rosa’s entire house is a testament to his Holocaust and Holocaust-speaker experiences. First, he shows me photographs of his late wife on a shelf near the front door. “This is the most beautiful woman in the world,” he says. In his den are photos and souvenirs from a talk he gave to 500 pilots at Edwards Air Force Base. His hallway walls are covered with various framed or laminated letters of thanks, commendations and appreciation from schools, police departments and the military. In a bedroom is a Purple Heart he received for rescuing an American general under enemy fire. His knee was grazed by a bullet in that action; he raises his pant leg to show me the scar. In the same room, a bayonet sits on the dresser. “The German stabbed me with it here,” he says, pulling up his shirt to reveal an abdominal scar. Albert then wrestled the SS soldier, grabbed the bayonet and stabbed him.
After every interview — and after I’ve compiled a chronological history — I follow up with a second interview, phone calls or, for those survivors who are tech savvy, e-mails to fill in the missing pieces. Some of the information, particularly dates, I can find online. Sometimes the survivor will suddenly remember a needed fact or know where to find it. Hadasa Cytrynowicz recalled — and found — a tape of her family’s history that her uncle had recorded. Sometimes a son or daughter helps out. Rodney Liber, Sol Liber’s son, was tenacious — and continues to be tenacious — in researching his father’s Holocaust history.
The survivors are often surprised by the response that follows the publication of their profile — the many phone calls, letters and invitations to speak. “You made me a ballerina,” Motek Kleiman, now deceased, called to tell me when his profile appeared. Residents in his retirement community lined up to receive copies. And Idele Stapholtz recently e-mailed to tell me she had been asked to speak to several organizations about the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
“You know, that was the reason I hoped you would keep a space for me [in the Jewish Journal],” she wrote.
Connections have also resulted. A first cousin of Liselotte Hanock, who lives in Australia, had been searching for Liselotte, but knew only her maiden name. He came across her Jewish Journal profile and contacted her. Another survivor got in touch with Alex Friedman, now deceased, to talk about their shared experience in Mühldorf. And Fred Wolf and Julius Bendorf, both of whom were profiled, met to talk about their imprisonment in Buna-Monowitz. These are only a few of many such stories.
Many survivors continue to call or e-mail me, long after their profiles have appeared. They suggest names of other survivors to interview and recommend articles and books for me to read. They convey holiday greetings, and they comment on other survivors’ stories. They also contact me to correct errors, which occasionally occur. (Thank you, Zenon.)
I’d also like to thank the 30 survivors who participated in the “Survivor Portraits From the Jewish Journal” exhibition that opened Jan. 26 at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, sharing their photographs and stories with the museum’s many schoolchildren and other visitors. That show closes on April 27 and thereafter will travel to schools and communities with whom the museum partners. A second exhibition is being planned for next year to include additional men and women featured in the Journal’s Survivor column.
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, I’m proud to count these 50-plus survivors as friends. They’ve graciously opened up their homes and their hearts to me. They’ve fed me and hugged me. They’ve been patient with my questions and generous with their time. And they’ve taught me about courage, resilience, love, luck and the kindness of strangers.
To all of them, I’d like to say, as Adela Manheimer said to me recently, “Stay in touch.”
Jane Ulman interviews Holocaust survivor Frank Schiller, here.