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Jewish Journal

Passing the Torch

"1939" Club turns to a younger generations to carry on a half-century of Holocaust philanthropy and education.

by Michael Aushenker

January 30, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Longtime "1939" Club member William Elperin didn't know what he was getting himself into when he became the leader of the Holocaust survivors' organization.

"I signed on for one year," Elperin recalled.

But when the "1939" Club -- entering its second half-century as a social club for Holocaust survivors and a dispenser of Holocaust education -- assembled on a warm January night at the brightly lit, yellow-and-ochre-striped social hall of Congregation Beth Israel in the Beverly-Fairfax area, members voted unanimously for an amendment to its charter to extend Elperin's presidency to an unprecedented sixth term.

At 54, Elperin is one of the club's youngest presidents. But even he is on the graying end of the club's spectrum, and the "1939" Club, which counts philanthropist Max Webb and Shoah Foundation associate director Daisy Miller as members, is turning to its second- and third-generation members to carry on a five-decade legacy of social and educational outreach linking young Jews with their history.

"What's unique about our club is that the second and the third generation have equal power to plan programs," Elperin said.

In October, the "1939" Club celebrated its 50th anniversary with a gala dinner-dance that attracted 500 of its 1,000-member roster.

The "1939" Club compels Elperin because "they're a unique group of people. Their perseverance; their coming to America and coming with nothing and succeeding at universities, in business, or in life, getting married, raising children and making sure they go to college.... Considering all they went through, it's a lot easier to give up."

A business litigation attorney, Elperin began his association with the club in 1975 for personal reasons.

"Both of my parents were survivors," Elperin said. "My in-laws were members of the club, and when I graduated law school, they approached me to create a sons and daughters division."

Negative connotations associated with aging Holocaust survivors do not ring true here.

"Contrary to popular opinion, they're very up," Elperin said. "They're not a bunch of downers. They are full of energy and zest for life, and at our last affair, they were dancing till 1 a.m."

Felicia Haberfeld is one of those up people. At 92, Haberfeld is one of two remaining founding members, along with Leopold Page's widow, Mila. The former club president (1957-58), whom Elperin calls "the grand dame of our club," remembers when the club consisted of 14 people who met every Saturday night at Henry and Brenda Nadel's place.

Like the survivors themselves, the "1939" Club is self-reliant.

"We do not receive any grants from The Jewish Federation," Elperin said. "We have no office, no real estate, just volunteerism -- 40 volunteers to do mailings and e-mails. We don't ask for money from outside sources. In fact, we give away money."

The "1939" Club has given away more than $5 million over its five decades to March of the Living, a UCLA Holocaust studies chair, a Chapman University lecture series, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and Tel Aviv University Hospital.

The club has also honored professor Marilyn Harran, a "1939" Club member who is not Jewish and directs Chapman University's Holocaust studies department; Deborah Lipstadt; the late Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during World War II; and the late Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania who issued exit visas to save more than 6,000 Polish Jews.

Past-president Freddy Diament (1985-87) has chaperoned March of the Living, which allows Jewish teens worldwide to visit Israel and Polish concentration camp sites.

"When they are finished after those two weeks," said Diament, 79 , "those children realize what a privilege it is to be part of the Jewish community, and they feel a moral obligation to transmit their Jewish experience."

The "1939" Club recently expanded its membership when it merged with another group, Shoah Survivors of Orange County and Long Beach. Around 60 members turned up at the annual meeting to participate in club elections, among them the club's youngest members, who belong to the sons and daughters division. A strong emotional connection with their parents' ordeals drew them to the group.

"I feel compelled to continue whatever work I can do to educate, alert and be a moral voice," CSUN professor Dorothy Clark said.

Susan Golant, the annual meeting's emcee, finds the club's charitable and educational outreach a great emotional outlet for long-held feelings of frustration.

"As an adult growing up with Holocaust survivors," said Golant, whose parents have been "1939" Club members since 1963, "there's a sense of impotence and anger in the face of their suffering and the silence of the world during the Holocaust. My parents, who are good people, were very much in pain."

Even as the "1939" Club courts younger members, its senior set stays connected.

"The club is like an extended family," Diament said. "Interestingly enough, the older we get, the more we need the club. We need each other now more than ever before."

For information on the "1939" Club, call (310) 491-7802 or visit www.1939Club.com.

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