Jewish Journal

Surviving the Darkness and Embracing the Light

by Lia Mandelbaum

October 8, 2012 | 9:33 pm

© Laurel Johnson Photography

Last year, I went to a park in Ventura County, to attend the joyous 80th birthday party of my Aunt Ruth’s mother, Ann.  Every single birthday has special significance for her, because she is a survivor of the Holocaust.  As I looked around the party, I was profoundly moved by all of the guests that were there celebrating her life.  I thought about how differently her story could have ended. It was empowering to think that because she survived, there are now several generations of my family that can carry on her legacy.

Ann was not the only survivor at her birthday party.  I had the pleasure of meeting another couple Bernd & Judy Simon.  From the moment Ann introduced us, it was obvious that they both had a very special presence.  He began to share a bit of his story with me, and spoke in detail about the horror he experienced on Kristallnacht.  I knew that I wanted to hear more about his life and asked if it would be possible to meet again.  He embraced me with open arms and invited me to come to his home. We set a date and my friend Laurel Johnson and I traveled to Ventura to conduct an interview and to capture some photographs to use for this blog.

Bernd Simon was born in North Western Germany on May 20, 1920.  He is now ninety-two years old, and lives at home with his wife Judy.  His life was changed forever on November 10, 1938, the night that we now refer to as Kristallnacht.  It was on that tragic night that Gestapo came to his family’s home.  They busted down the doors in early morning, chased them into an ice-cold cellar and then raided their apartment.  All of their belongings were thrown out into the street and into the backyard over the balcony.  The Gestapo then told him he had to clean up the street so that the traffic could pass.  The Gestapo did not take Bernd that day, but later came back for him and forced him on to a freight train heading straight towards Dachau concentration camp.  For two horrific days and two painfully long nights they were packed into the freight train, riding the “journey into hell.”  People died standing up, and fell to the ground when the doors were opened as they reached the gates of Dachau.

During Bernd’s time as a prisoner in the camp, he was shot at three times, and lived with the reality that any day could be his last.  But he never gave up hope, and lived his life with faith.

Bernd managed to survive Dachau ultimately because of a brilliant and heroic act performed by his mother.  She devised a plan to falsify documents claiming that Bernd was requested for work out of the country and that he was needed immediately.  Her plan worked and amazingly, he was released.  With four dollars to his name, he went and lived in Cuba for two years before moving to the US and joining the US military.  Initially, the military thought that he was a spy for the Germans, but he was able to prove otherwise.  Bernd became an Army Air Core Intercept Officer and flew a B24 four-engine bomber.  After his Air Corp discharge in 1945 in Vienna, he became a U.S. War Department Intelligence Officer with the CIC.  His job was to track down, interrogate and arrest Nazi war criminals in post-war Europe, which he did with a vengeance until 1948.


                                                          © Laurel Johnson Photography                                                             

There are so many amazing and courageous accomplishments that Bernd has achieved in his lifetime.  I could spend all day writing about the heroic and honorable life he has lived.  I was blown away by his ability to transform the darkness and despair he was forced to experience into a life filled with light, love, purpose, gratitude and service to others.  From 1975-1985 Bernd worked as a full-time employee with the Ventura County Sheriffs.  He worked with the inmates in booking, providing support services and making sure that every inmate was given food and clean clothing.  He knew all too well how it felt to be hungry and believes that every person on this earth deserves to be treated with dignity.

As Bernd and I sat in his living room that day, it became clear to me why I was so drawn to his energy. He is a perfect example of transforming darkness into light.


                                                         © Laurel Johnson Photography                          

A short time later, as I began to go over my notes from Bernd’s interview, I glimpsed down at the cover of Astronomy Magazine.  I was drawn to a headline on the cover titled “Turning clouds of darkness into Stars of light” by Bruce Dorminey.  I instantly thought of my friend Bernd Simon.

I learned that there are places in our Galaxy that are so dark they actually appear to be nothing at all.  When the shadowy patches of clouds in the Milky Way were first seen through a telescope, astronomer’s actually thought that they were seeing holes in the fabric of space.  These dark clouds, called bok globules, are the coldest objects in the natural universe.  “Despite their apparent nothingness, these molecular clouds turn out to be exceedingly important: They are the places where stars are born.”

The connection was so clear to me.  It is often in the darkest of places, that you can find the brightest of lights.


To see a short video of Bernd Simon, please click HERE

To see more work from Laurel Johnson Photography, Please click HERE

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Lia Mandelbaum is known for her advocacy, passion, creativity, and empathy, and is fiercely driven to make a difference.  She is especially passionate about impacting our...

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