Category Archives: History

We continue and they continue: The Czech Torahs

Each Memorial Scroll is a memory of the past and a messenger for the future” Memorial Scrolls Trust, London, U.K.

They escaped destruction by the Nazis. They survived Communism, They found their ways to new homes around the world. This is a story of three Torahs that had their roots in vanished Czechoslovakian Jewish communities.

Up until World War II, Czechoslovakia had a thriving Jewish population that first reached the area over 1000 years ago. With the rise of Hitler came increased anti-Semitism and eventually The Final Solution. Throughout Europe, synagogues were burned and the vast majority of Jews were murdered. Almost all Jewish artifacts—Torahs, candlesticks, heprayerbooks—were destroyed.

 The one exception was the Bohemia and Moravia, with its population of 115,000 Jews. This area in Czechoslovakia was declared a “German protectorate”. Miraculously, except for the items in Sudetenland, most of the artifacts remained unscathed during the early years of the war.

In 1942, the Nazis ordered all Jewish synagogue possessions in the region to be sent to Prague. The Jewish communities of Prague, believing the Judaica would be safer if stored in one place, worked closely with the Nazis to collect and catalogue over 210,000 items. In the end, it took 40 warehouses to store the treasure. Unfortunately, nearly every Jew who worked on the project were sent to their deaths in the concentration camp. 

The Czech Torahs survived the war but almost did not survive Communism. The Torah and other scrolls, believed to number between 1800 and 2200, lay in a musty, damp warehouse until 1963. At that point, Czech government, in need of foreign currency, sold the scrolls to Ralph Yablon, a philanthropist and founder member of Westminster Synagogue in London. On February 5, 1964,  1564 Torah and other scrolls arrived at the synagogue. They were divided into three categories: those in usable condition, those in need of some repair; and those deemed too far damaged to be restored.

The Memorial Scrolls Trust was then set up to preserve and restore the Czech scrolls. Each one had an identity plaque fixed to  one of the etz chaim, the wooden shafts onto which the Torah is rolled. They were loaned out to Jewish communities and organizations around the world in need of a Torah, with the understanding that the congregation was responsible for the scroll’s upkeep. The Torah, as per stipulations by the MST, were never sold or donated but allocated on loan on the understanding that they would only need to be returned if the synagogue no longer operated. According to Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Chair, MST, 1400 scrolls have been allocated on loan around the world. Approximately 150 scrolls remain in the Memorial Scrolls Trust museum, which also has some 500 binders and wimples.

At least six Czech scrolls are on loan in the Capital District and surrounding areas: Beth Emeth, Congregation Ohav Shalom, Gates of Heaven, Temple Sinai, Congregation Beth Shalom, and Congregation Beth El.

I first had the honor of holding a Holocaust Torah as a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clifton Park, New York. In1981, the synagogue requested from MST a replacement for three that had been stolen. Abbey and Richard Green, CBS congregants, helped fund the costs of shipping the Czech Torah MST#293 (circa1870) from London. A tag, dating back to the dark days of the Shoah, read “The Elders of the Jewish Community in Prague”.

At the time, Beth Shalom was less than ten years old, an irony that was not lost on one of its congregant. Yetta Fox, herself the child of Holocaust survivors, stated that having the Torah at a new congregation was “almost like a second life.”“Having lost one community,” said Yetta, “there is now a new community that can nurture this Torah.”

Early in 2007, the congregation arranged to have needed repairs done on the parchment of the 137-year-old Torah. That June, the congregation held a rededication ceremony, which included a procession from the Clifton Park town hall to the synagogue five minutes up the road. During the march, the scrolls were passed from hand to hand under a chuppah that the children of the Hebrew school had decorated with Stars of David. Upon its arrival, the Torah was wrapped in a wimple, the cloth traditionally used to wrap a boy at his circumcision. “This is our baby,” said Fred Pineau, a former president, “so we’re wrapping it on our Torah.”

David Clayman, the current president, reported that the Torah is still in good condition. To preserve it, however, it is left rolled to Parasah Beshalach, which contains “The Song of the Sea,” gently unrolling it only once a year as prescribed by the MST. Every year, in the month of Shevat, the torah is brought out and Beshalach is chanted. “The scroll is so fragile, we are afraid to roll it to other parashot,”said David. The congregation brings out the Holocaust scroll twice more each year to be ceremonially held: On Kol Nidre, the solemn service commemorated during the opening hours of Yom Kippur; and on Simchas Torah, a holiday that celebrates the completion of the reading of Deuteronomy, and the beginning of Genesis.

When we moved to Florida, we joined Congregation Shalom Aleichem, which was founded in 1981, ironically the same year Congregation Beth Shalom had received its Czech Torah. Initially, congregants met at the Kissimmee Women’s Club. When Harry Lowenstein, a Holocaust survivor whose parents and sister number among the six million Jews killed during World War II, joined with his wife Carol, he began to press for a building of their own. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Harry, “and I was determined to build another one.” Starting with a $120,000 contributions from Sandor Salmagne, another Holocaust survivor, the Lowensteins through their own and other contributions raised another $60,000 for building expenses.

As the synagogue on Pleasant Hill Road neared completion, the Lowensteins worked to obtain the prayer books for both every day and holy days, the Torah finials, and the Yartzheit (memorial) board. Most important to the congregation, however, was to obtain a Torah.

Lowenstein and other members reached out to the Memorial Scrolls Trust, noting in the correspondence that four of its members were Holocaust survivors. “Our Temple will be dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust,” wrote then president Henry Langer. “We would therefore deem it an honor to have you lend us a Scroll for our Temple.” With the Lowenstein’s financial support, they were able to obtain Scroll MST#408, from Pisek-Strakonice in what was then Czechoslovakia, about 60 miles south of Prague and dated back to circa 1775.

Once they received word that they would indeed be loaned a Czech TorahThe Lowensteins asked British friends who had a vacation home near the synagogue to be responsible for getting it from Heathrow to Orlando International airport. “[Our friend] sat on the plane with the Torah on his lap for 12 hours,” recalled Carol Lowenstein. “He would not let it out of his sight until he could hand the Torah to Harry.”

For those who had miraculously escaped hell, welcoming the Torah was like welcoming another Holocaust survivor. “It’s like holding a piece of history” said Phil Fuerst in a 1993 Orlando Sentinel article. “You feel like you own a piece of a world that survived.”

According to Marilyn Glaser, the congregation president, The congregation is making arrangement for the atzei chayim, which are broken, to be replaced in accordance of the terms of the loan agreement with MST.

In 1982, Sharon and Barry Kaufman, now residents of Kissimmee, obtained a Czech Torah in honor of their daughter Robin’s Bat Mitzvah for their Texas synagogue their congregation in Spring, Texas in honor of their daughter Robin’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah. While awaiting completion of their new building, Jewish Community North, a congregation in Spring Texas, was holding services at Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Church. Their only torah was on temporary loan from another Houston-area synagogue. The Kaufmans worked with Rabbi Lawrence Jacofsky, the regional director of the United Association of Hebrew Congregations, to obtain Torah Scroll MST#20, written circa 1850.

When their precious cargo arrived at the Houston airport in February 1982, Barry and Sharon immediately brought the Torah to the church to show Father Ed Abell, Good Shepherd’s priest and their good friend. The three of them carefully unrolled the scroll where it had last been read: Yom Kippur 1938. The tenth of Tishri 5699 ( October 4 and 5, 1938.) Shortly after that service, the Jews that had worshipped in the Kostelec/Orlici synagogue were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, most—maybe all— never to return. 

To commemorate the moment and to the shock and awe of the Kaufmans, Father Abell, using the yad (pointer) from the loaner Torah, read from the scroll in flawless Hebrew. That evening, Sharon and Barry brought the Torah home to show Robin. As they slowly unrolled the entire scroll on their pool table to make sure is was undamaged, they found a cardboard tag that had been attached when the scroll was catalogued by Jewish librarians and curators when the scroll arrived at the Central Jewish Museum Prague during the Shoah. Aeltesternrat der Juden Prague, it read in German. Elders of the Jews of Prague. 

At Robin’s bat mitzvah in May 1982, the Torah was dressed in a cover sewn and embroidered by Barry’s mother. In a moving speech to the congregation held at Good Shepherd, Barry spoke eloquently about the Torah’s history.

If this Torah could talk—might it share with us the heart-wrenching knowledge of a prosperous people whose world had suddenly been taken from them, whose home and synagogues were gutted and destroyed for the value of their belongings? Would it tell us of the helpless terror in the fragile hearts of old men and women forced to watch their children brutally slaughtered before their own end was to come?”

After Barry spoke, the Ark was opened, and the Czech Torah was passed from the rabbi to Barry to Sharon to Robin. Clutching it tightly, Robin walked through the congregation. For the first time in two generations, a B’nai Mitzvot carried it with joy and reverence throughout a tearful congregation.

Three Czech Torahs. Three congregations. Thankfully, in the end, the Nazi’s plan to eradicate the Jewish people. As Gloria Kupferman stated in her speech at the rededication of the Congregation Beth Shalom Torah in 2007, “We are by no means extinct. We are alive. We are thriving.”

Special thanks to Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Chair, Memorial Scrolls Trust, London, U.K. Thanks to David Clayman, Yetta Fox, Marilyn Glaser, Frank Gutworth, Harry Lowenstein, Flo Miller, and Sharon and Barry Kaufman for their input.

Published in Jewish World (Capital Region NY), June 9, 2022 and Heritage Jewish News (Orlando, Fl) June 10, 2022

Sources:

https://www.albany.edu/news/releases/2005/nov2005/holocaust_scroll.shtml

www.cjcn.org

http://www.congregationbethshalomcp.webs.com

www.czechtorah.org/thestory.php.

www.memorialscrollstrust.org.

http://www.shalomaleichem.com

Holocaust Stories Needed!

“You really need to talk to Harry.”

My friend Marilyn Glaser gave me this advice before one of our Friday night Shabbat services in our Florida synagogue. I was aware that Harry Lowenstein was a Holocaust survivor. But Marilyn, the shul president, knew I was a writer, and she knew his story needed to be preserved.

By this time, I had been writing for the (Capital Region, NY) Jewish World for over four years. The majority of my stories had been about my family: growing up in a small North Country town in New York; meeting my husband in 1973 to learning to live with him after our retirement in 2010; raising two children; moving to “The Sunshine State” in 2015. Up until that point, I had not tackled biographies. Fortunately, Harry was a willing story teller.

 As I sat at his kitchen table, I was riveted by his description of four years of hell, first in a ghetto and then in Nazi concentration camps. After liberation, Harry returned home to find that every one of his relatives had been murdered by the Nazis. He eventually made it to the United States, married Carol Sainker, raised three children, and owned and operated a clothing store in Kissimmee. Meanwhile, he was determined to carry on his family’s legacy. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Harry, “and I was determined to build another one.” With the contributions from friends and fellow Holocaust survivors, the Lowensteins raised enough money to build our synagogue.

After Harry’s story was published, my writing became more diversified. I was still writing my sometimes funny, sometimes poignant family stories, but I also took pleasure from interviewing what I referred to as “ordinary people with extraordinary lives.” A woman who has raised over $150,000 for cancer research after losing her 32 year old daughter to leukemia. A man whose introduction to a doomed ship as a boy resulted in his becoming a “Titanic fanatic;” a group of former Catskill workers celebrating a reunion.

But the stories that moved me the most were about who lived through—or died in—World War II. Jewish soldiers. Concentration survivors who were haunted with their memories until their passing. Righteous gentiles who had rescued others from the horrors. 

I have never been shy about my retirement avocation and never fail to tell friends and strangers I am a writer. This summer, I shared this information with Eva Nozik, who was visiting Summit County, Colorado. 

“My aunt, Golda Goldin Gelfer, who recently passed away, was a Holocaust survivor,”Eva said.”You need to talk to her children.” 

She set up a Zoom call with Anna Livits and Sofia Zukerman, Golda’s two daughters, and other members of the Goldin family. The Nazis, they told me, invaded Glusk, Belarus, on June 22, 1942, Golda’s 14th birthday. Six months later, Germans and local supporters rounded up and murdered over 1000 Jews, including Golda’s mother Elke and her two sisters, Chaisoshe (19) and Malka (8). Golda and her father Meir escaped certain death by hiding in an attic and eventually finding their way into the forest. The two soon joined Soviet partisans in their efforts to sabotage the Nazi offensive until Belarussian liberation on July 4, 1944. Several revisions (and many nightmares about the Holocaust) later, it was finished and ready The Jewish World’s next issue.

Even before it was published,, Anna expressed her gratitude. “I don’t have enough words to thank you for the work you have done,”she wrote me in a December 13 email. “I had a dream today that my mom was smiling. It’s like  she was in peace that we remember her family, Elke, Chaisoshe, and Malka.”

The descendants of Meir and Elke Goldin have more stories to tell. They are eager to recount Golda’s time in the woods, her life in the Soviet Union after the war, her move with her children to the United States. They also want me to connect with the son of a cousin who survived “murder by bullets” by falling into the pit.And, by the way, they have a friend whose parents survived the Warsaw ghetto. 

Meanwhile, I have other stories on my “To Be Written” file. My cousin Eric (Z’L) Silverman came over on a stolen visa just before the war. Trudi Larkin Wolfe’s parents, both concentration camp survivors, recently passed away, but their oral history is preserved on video as part of Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah project, and she and her sister will fill in any gaps. Ruth Gruber, a brilliant Jewish woman who was appointed by the FDR administration to oversee the Oswego Project, a refuge for Jews that is the subject of a New York State Museum exhibit. And I made a promise to a friend that I would write an article about his father, who came to the United States in the early 1900s via, of all places, China.

After hearing Golda’s story at the most recent meeting of SOL Writers, my group of fellow writers said that I am “a woman on a mission.” “You make the unbearable bearable,” one said. “Keep writing.”

Despite my passion, I initially questioned about pursuing more stories about this terrible time in humankind’s history.The Holocaust has already been the subject of innumerable novels, memoirs, plays, movies, and, and even children’s books.

I found the answer in a teaching from Pirkei Avot, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims from Rabbinic Jewish tradition. It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work,” wrote Rabbi Tarfon (46 CE-117 CE), “but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) When the Anti-Defamation League reports that Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms have “cracks in enforcement” that allow Holocaust deniers to disseminate hate speech; when a school administrator in Texas can tell a group of educators during a training session to “have an opposing view” when teaching the Holocaust; when 77 years after Soviets liberated Auschwitz, anti-semitism is on the rise; I must continue to tell the stories. My writing will certainly not “complete” the work of masters such as Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankel, and Steven Spielberg. But I cannot use that as an excuse.Whether my articles and, in the future, my book is widely read or languishes in an Amazon warehouse, at least I did not “desist.”

But I need help. If any of you have a Holocaust story you would like to be preserved in writing, please contact me via email at shapcomp18@gmail. com. Those who were lost as well as those who survive deserve to have their lives remembered and honored. Never again.

From Bialystok to Brooklyn: Part Three

Simova, Poland ➡️ Bialystok, Poland ➡️ Minsk, Russia ➡️ Moscow ➡️ Viana, Russia ➡️ Erkutcsk ➡️ Chita, Siberia ➡️ Harbin, China ➡️ Chanzhou, China ➡️ Darien, China ➡️ Sent back to Harbin ➡️Yokohama➡️Hawaii➡️San Francisco➡️Chicago➡️Brooklyn!

Unlike the majority of Eastern Europeans fleeing pogroms and poverty to America through ships sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Harry “Chonie” Oshinsky took a journey over three continents. His trip took a dangerous turn in Darien, China, where he and his fellow travelers were arrested, accused of being part of a murderous gang. Here is the final installment of Harry’s incredible journey. 

Harry and his two friends were thrown into a prison, where they sat on a stone floor, fed a diet of foul rice, and listened as the Chinese prisoners who shared their cell were beaten with a rope. An attempt at a hunger strike backfired, and the three hand-bound boys were taken by train back to Harbin. 

Miraculously, the story of their arrest was carried in The Forward (Der Forvertz), which triggered a protest in the Yiddish newspaper. Harry’s sister, when she herself read in New York about the arrest of “Chunya Oshinsky and two other boys,” realized for the first time that her little brother was alive. 

Soon after Harry and the others were moved from the Russian commandant’s office to a prison close to the Jewish Committee House, where Harry and Yankel had stayed earlier in their journey. Although the bottom floor held hardened criminals, the three were taken to the second floor, where around 30 political refugees were held. Conditions were good: they were fed given a decent bed and taken outside each morning for fresh air. Ironically, some of the other prisoners were actually paying money to be there: “This was so much better than being on the front lines and risking one’s life in battle!”they told Harry. Again, Harry’s tailoring skills proved useful as the overseer often called on him to do alterations for himself and others.

As the prison stay extended into its fourth month, Harry realized that his only chance of release was to have money sent to him from America. Not knowing the address of his four siblings, he sent a desperate plea to Yankel, whom he hoped had already made it to America. He mailed a letter to “The Goldbergs, 22 Ludlow Street, New York.”Just as a bird gets lost from his home in a tree and gets caught and put in a bird[cage],” Harry wrote, “so this has happened to me.”

A few weeks later, Harry again faced the Russian commandant. The officials in the consulate had never been able to confirm he was a murderer; however, they decided to conscript him into the army. Before reporting, he made one last trip to the Jewish Committee House. Fate shone on him again! Two hundred rubles had been sent from America for his release!

On a bitter cold winter’s night in March 1917, Harry and three other Jewish refugees began their three day trek on foot back across China into Japan. Once over the border, they traveled by train and boat, at one point cutting across Korea to Yokohama.

They arrived at the Japanese seaport in time to hear the news that Czar Nicholas II had been overthrown. Three weeks later, on April 10, 1917, Harry and his companions boarded the Shino Maru

When the ship stopped in Honolulu, Harry was filled with “sheer happiness and joy” when he touched American soil for the first time. . His twenty-four hour stopover was almost extended when a tour of the island resulted in a chance meeting with a Jewish men’s clothing store owner. After hearing Harry’s story, the owner offered Harry a job as a tailor and salesperson. “I thanked him for his goodness,” Harry later recalled, “but I was determined to go to New York to be with my family.”

The Shino Maru arrived in San Francisco on April 29, where all immigrants were processed through Angel Island. The next morning, a representative of HIAS met with Harry to arrange for his train trip across the United States.

Harry arrived in Grand Central Station during the first week in May 1917. He heard his name being called; it was Yankel Goldberg, his friend with whom he had traveled until their separation in Yokohama. His siblings Zalman David and Leah did not recognize Harry until Yankel shouted to them, “Here! Here he is! This is your brother Chonie!” They fell into each other’s arms, kissing and crying. After a two and a half year journey, Harry was finally reunited with his siblings.

Settling in Brooklyn, he found employment in a factory that sewed soldiers’ uniforms. In a few weeks, he was making enough money not only to rent his own apartment but also to help support his siblings. He enrolled in night school to learn English and in dance school to improve his social life. In his spare time, he explored New York City and attended lectures about the ongoing war and politics. 

The November 11, 1918 armistice brought relief to Harry. knowing he would not have to return to Europe to fight in the war. Hewas able to send a letter home. ”I am alive and living in America.” A few weeks later, he received an answer. “Everyone is alive!” His sister was reunited with her fiancé, who had been a prisoner of war, and Poland was an independent country.

Eventually, Harry earned enough money to bring his younger draft-eligible brother Yitzchak from Poland to America. With Harry’s help, Yitzchak found a job as a salesperson in a Lower East Side candy store. 

After Harry’s parents passed away, his sister, now married with her own family, decided to remain in Poland. (Tragically, she and her family were later killed in the Holocaust).

During the Depression, Harry supplemented his income by opening a candy store he opened with his brother Yitzchak. The 

business that remained in the family throughout their lives.

 In 1927, Harry met Frieda, a young woman from his own area in Poland, and they were married that August. Harry and Frieda had two sons, Leonard and Robert (who both shortened their surname to Oshins). Both married and had children of their own. Robert and his wife Natalie settled in Schenectady and were active members of Congregation Agudat Achim. After a career working for the post office, Lenny and his wife Bobbe moved to Clifton Park to be closer to their daughter Cindy and her family and joined Congregation Beth Shalom.

Harry passed away in 1976, but he left his legacy and his history in a 12,000 word autobiography that was originally published in Yiddish in Der Forverts in the late 1960s. Lenny Oshins gave me a copy the document, which had been translated into English by Simon and Anne Paktor , friends of Robert and Natalie in Schenectady. 

Lenny (Z”L), it took me way too long to finally write your father’s story. I hope you, your parents, your wife, and brother are all reading this in heaven and k’velling over a life well-lived.

From Bialystok to Brooklyn: An immigrant’s trek across three continents

When reflecting on my family’s Jewish immigrant experience, I conjure up images of fleeing westward in hay wagons; crossing the Atlantic Ocean in crowded steerage; catching the first glimpse of the Stature of Liberty, and waiting and worrying in long lines at Ellis Island.The descendants of Harry Oshinsky, however, recall his much more circuitous—and grueling— trek. At age sixteen, Harry left his Eastern European home and traveled by train, boat, and foot through Russia/Siberia, China Japan, Hawaii, and San Francisco before reuniting with his siblings in New York City. Harry’s amazing two year long journey was originally published in Yiddish as a series of articles in The Forward (Forvertz) in the 1970s. In 2014, soon after I began writing for The Jewish World,Lenny Oshins, Harry’s son and my friend in Clifton Park, New York, handed me a 60 page manuscript—thankfully translated into English—in hopes I would shape it into a more succinct article. Although Lenny passed away in 2017, with the help of his daughter, Cindy Barnett, and his sister-in-law Natalie Oshins, both Capital Region residents, I am finally fulfilling a son’s wish for his father’s story to be told to another generation.

Harry (née Chonie) Oshinsky was born in 1898 in what was then known as Simova, a small Jewish community in the northeastern corner of Poland. Around 1904, Harry’s father, a hardworking but poor blacksmith, left his wife and children for more lucrative employment opportunities in New York City. He sent money and, over time, passage fare for the four oldest of seven children with plans to have the entire family reunited in Der Goldene Medina, the Golden Land, in the not too distant future. 

Soon after his father left, Harry began attending chedar (school)—the “classroom” tables and chairs set up in a barn—with several other Jewish boys in Simova. The six-year-old proved to be a bright, able student. Within a year, Harry was proficient enough in Yiddish to write the letters to be sent to America not only for his mother but also for other grateful wives who had been left behind. “I had to help keep up the romance,” Harry later recounted. Relying on examples from Yiddish newspaper and texts, Harry composed missives like the following:“My dear husband, I miss you so! When will you send for me?” 

As reports of pogroms in nearby villages began drifting into their town, the Oshinskys received a very welcome letter from their father “Get ready! You will be leaving soon for America!” Enclosed were instructions and tickets for their passage. After weeks of preparations, Harry’s mother and the three siblings piled into a horse drawn wagon driven by a hired agent to make the trip across Poland to the seaport in Bremen, Germany. Unfortunately, Harry’s mother failed the required physical when she was diagnosed with tracoma, a contagious and potentially blinding infectious eye disease. The four, crushed with disappointment, returned to Poland, settling in Ostrów Mazowiecka (commonly called “Ostroveh” by Jewish residents) near the family of a maternal aunt. Despite efforts by eye specialists in the nearby city of Bialystok to stop the progression of the disease, Harry’s mother eventually lost her eyesight.

The family tried to adjust to the new “normal.” Harry’s older sister assumed all household responsibilities while six year old Yitzchak was enrolled in a yeshiva. Although their father continued to send money , Harry, now twelve years old, decided he needed to help support the family by learning a trade. After completing a six-month apprenticeship, he found work as a “tailor boy,” traveling with his employer to small villages where he sewed peltzes, heavy coats, in exchange for room, board and the promise of clothing and shoes. He eventually returned to Ostroveh and found steady work sewing clothes for both civilians and the military. The skills he learned in the tailor trade and the knowledge he acquired through the establishment of nascent local unions shaped both his career and his lifetime commitment to workers’ rights.

Although his “formal” education had ended, Harry used every opportunity to  increase his knowledge. He read newspapers and devoured books he obtained from the town’s tiny attic library. His library “card” came with the commitment for him to provide community service through Bikur Cholim, a volunteer organization established to provide companionship and reading aloud to the sick, thereby strengthening his own literacy skills. He also frequently earned additional income as a “scribe,” writing letters and documents as needed in his community.

Just before Purim, 1914, Harry’s father wrote, “I am coming home!”  Since the family was not able to go to America,, he was returning to Poland. Within two weeks, Harry’s father began lecturing his son on the need for Harry to immigrate to America “where a person who sews with a needle and does tailoring can earn ten times as much as here.” At his father’s insistence, Harry found a job in Bialystok to get more tailoring experience in a “big” city. Harry made a good salary and began dressing like an American with a fashionable “hat and walking stick in my hand.” By August 1914, Harry had developed enough confidence to make plans to travel to America via Bremen, Germany, to New York City, the same route he, his mother, and two siblings had tried to take over four years earlier.

Fate of global proportions interceded: “The War to End All Wars” erupted in Europe. Ostroveh was filled with “tumult and noise,” recalled Harry. German planes flew above them. Polish soldiers, followed by peasants with horse and wagons, marched through the streets on their way to the front. Harry’s younger sister’s fiancé, who had just returned after serving four years in the army, was forced to reenlist. Harry and his father were required to register to work as part of the home guard, which provided weak and ultimately ineffective attempts to stop the encroaching Germans.

As the Polish army fell and the Germans moved closer to Ostroveh, Harry, who had just turned sixteen, was in imminent danger of being drafted into the army. Harry’s father, insisting that his son find whatever way possible to the United States, to safety, gave him the family’s passport as an illicit form of identification  With Europe engulfed in trench warfare and German u-boats lurking in the Atlantic Ocean, Harry and Yankel Goldberg, a friend also facing conscription, decided to take  an alternative but much more grueling route. Ellis Island was no longer their destination. Instead, the two would make their way across Russia/Siberia to China and Yokohama, a Japanese seaport, and first touch American soil on Angel Island Immigration Center in San Francisco. They boarded a train in Bialystok for Minsk, Russia, in late fall 1914. 

Although eventually reunited in New York City with Yitzchak, his youngest brother, Harry would never see again his parents, who died in Poland, or his younger sister and her family, who were murdered in the Holocaust. Harry and Yankel, the two refuges at least for the time being were free—at least for the time—and on their way to America.

Harry’s Journey Part I: Simova, Poland ➡️ Bremen, Germany ➡️ Ostrów Mazowiecka , Poland➡️ Bialystok, Poland  ➡️ Minsk, Russia

First published in (Capital Region NY) The Jewish World, February 17, 2022

No Opposing View to the Holocaust!

“You make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust that you have a book that has an opposing view,” a Carroll County,Texas, administrator recently told a group of educators during a training session on what books were allowed in their library. Fierce backlash resulted in an apology and an investigation, but to many it hammered home the fear, denial, and outright ignorance that surrounds the teaching as well as recognition of the reality of the systematic murder of six million Jews. For that reason, there will never be “too many stories” about the Holocaust, including that of Galina “Golda” Goldin Gelfer (Z’L).

On June 22, 1941, Golda woke up on her 14th birthday to a beautiful sunny day in Glusk [now known as Hlusk], Belarus. Despite her family’s status as Jews in a highly anti-Semitic country, she and her family—her father Meir, her mother Elke, her eight year old sister Malke, and a large extended family— were happy in their small shtetl. Then, their world changed when news that Germany had declared war on the Soviet Union. Five days later, Nazis marched into their town. Soon after, Golda’s older sister, Chaisoshe returned home to join her family after Minsk University was evacuated, walking the last 30 miles with a friend. With limited means of escape, the entire Jewish population was trapped.

All Jews were registered and forced to wear yellow stars on the clothes and post the yellow stars on their homes. A Judencrat (Jewish council of three men) was formed to organize labor. While Chaisoshe remained hidden in their homeMeir and Golda worked long hours in menial jobs: cleaning and plowing the streets, digging up bricks, and mucking out horse stalls. All other work by Jews was forbidden.“We performed useless task mainly to make us feel we were slaves,” Golda later wrote in an autobiographic essay in The Holocaust DID Happen. (Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, 2010) 

For the next five months, as reports of mass executions of Jews in neighboring villages were reported, Golda and her family lived in absolute fear. On December 2, 1941, their worst nightmare was realized when they learned in the early morning hours that Nazis were beginning to round up all the Jews in Glusk for a “death march.” As the Goldin dressed in multiple layers of clothes and hastily packed bundles of food, they made plans to split up, run, and hide. Chaisoshe and a college friend were first to leave.“ You have some friends,” Elke told her husband. “Take a child. You may survive.” As Meir took Golda’s hand, Golda grabbed Malka’s. But Elke insisted that her youngest child hide with her in their shed.

Meir, Golda, and another relative they found in the street began frantically knocking on the doors of their Russian neighbors, begging for places to hide. But they were repeatedly turned away because of fear, ignorance, or indifference.The circle of Germans, politsaislocal collaborators, and dogs surrounding them grew tighter.

The three finally found refuge in the attic of an abandoned store on the main street. They climbed up to a loft filled with hay and silently watched the street below. The streets were soon filled with dushegubka, trucks modified to divert engine exhaust into a sealed internal gas chamber, As the Nazis forced women and children into the black-topped vans, Golda recalled in 2010 Yad V’Shem video, could hear a single woman screaming in agony as the van moved towards a former hospital that the Germans had converted into the slaughterhouse.

When these precursors to the gas chambers used in the concentration camps could no longer keep up with the number to be killed, the remaining Jews were herded together by Germans and the politsais. They were helped by local residents who joyfully made a game out of rounding up anyone trying to escape. “Jude! Jude,” they would yell to the Nazis, who would then shoot the “offender” and leave the corpse on the street. The numb, terrified victims could do little but march to their almost certain deaths.

Throughout the terrifying day, Meir, Golda, and the cousin heard the sounds of gunfire from Myslotino Hill, an area two and a half miles outside of Glusk. They learned later that over 1000 Jews men, women, and children were killed in a volley of bullets and then thrown in pits prepared earlier by the Germans. 

At two a.m., all was quiet. Praying that somehow members of their family had survived, the three fugitives descended from the hideout and began walking to the town’s outskirts.They narrowly missed falling into the hands of a roving band of Russian murderers who were “drunk on blood and vodka” and bragging about the number of Jews they had killed.

The threesome began their trek through deep snow and bitter cold to Zhivun, a village 23 miles from Glusk. As Meir had been born, raised, and, as an adult, done business there, they hoped to find help. While in route, Meir and Golda hid in the forest while the relative attempted to enlist the aid of friends. The two heard a volley of bullets, and the cousin never returned. 

Meir and Golda had better luck. For the next six months, Golda stayed with the local peasants helping with housework and, when necessary, being spirited from home to nearby forest to another home to escape discovery by the Nazis.Meanwhile, in between trips back to Zhivun, Meir worked with the partisans, members of the resistance movements who lived in the forest. The war had not lessened their anti-semitic feelings as they were initially reluctant to accept Meir into their circle. Meir, however, proved to be worthy comrades, helping the partisans to bomb railroads, ambush German convoys, and do whatever they could to fight the German forces.

During this time, two eleven year olds they encountered in Zhivun who had also escaped from Glusk gave Meir and Golda the bad news regarding the Goldin family. The two children initially had hidden with Elke and Malka until Elke told them to go back into the village where she correctly believed their blonde hair and blue eyes would help them blend in with the Gentile population. Two days later, a Belarussian neighbor and his son, with whom the Goldin had had a close relationship before the Nazi invasion, came to search for valuables and steal the cow. They found Elke and Malka hiding in the hay and turned them over the Nazis, who killed them. Chaisoshe and her friend met the same fate two days later when four local teenagers found their hiding place and turned them over to the Germans for bounty money. Meir and Golda later learned that 32 members of the Goldin family they had left behind had been killed.

Once he was established with the partisans Meir went back to Zhivun to get his daughter, who was at fifteen now old enough to participate in the guerrilla warfare. In addition, a Jewish doctor who joined the ragtag group enlisted the help of Golda and a 17-year-old Jewish refugee in providing needed medical assistance. (The two woman remained lifelong friends.)

Meir and Golda survived in the forest for the next two years, living as did the real-life partisans portrayed in the 2008 movie Defiance. They finally gained their “freedom” on July 4, 1944, when Belarus celebrated heir victory over the Germans (The Germans and Soviets continued fighting through May 1945).“Freedom,” however, still had its limitations. When they first met with Red Army soldier, their initial comment was, “I thought the Nazis killed all of you Jews!” Meir, Golda, and the new families they created after the war lived in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, when, upon Golda’s insistence, relocated to the United States.

Golda’s story has been saved for posterity in her two hour interview in Russian as part of Steven Speilberg’s Shoah project. In addition, her descendants continue to carry on her and the Goldin legacy through their family reunions, Zoom meetings throughout the pandemic, and through their sharing this story with me. No, Texas, there is no “opposing view to the Holocaust.” Just ask those, like Golda, who lived to tell their tale. 

To be continued….

First published in (Capital Region NY) The Jewish World, December 16, 2021.

Holocaust survivor Albert Kitmacher and his five miracles

Looking steadily into the camera, Al Kitmacher recounted his personal story of the Holocaust for the Bay Area [California] Holocaust Oral History Project. He told of his early life in Poland, his year with his family in the Warsaw Ghetto, and his subsequent sometimes miraculous survival in work camps, in salt mines, and on a death march.

“You have great composure,” commented Rick Levine, the interviewer.

“I could never open up and tell my story before,” said Kitmacher. “But I am in the twilight of my life, and I have to tell the story to somebody.”

Kitmacher had had the last physical scar from his horrors—a tattoo with the initials KL (Koncentration Lager, German for concentration camp), removed in the 1970s. But Kitmacher could never remove the emotional scars. The memories, the survival guilt, the nightmares were only kept at bay with a lifetime reliance on medication. It was only at the urging of his son Ira that the 74-year-old Kitmacher finally shared the horrors he and his family had endured. 

Albert Leon Kitmacher was born in Lublin, Poland in 1920, one of the four children of Miriam Naiman, a seamstress, and Gershon Kitmacher, a tailor. Gershon could not find work locally, he spent much of his time in Berlin. 

Soon after Hitler was named German Chancellor in 1933, Gershon was forced to leave Berlin because he was Jewish. The Kitmachers left their predominately Jewish neighborhood and moved to Warsaw to find employment. Al Kitmacher’s formal education ended, and he joined his father to work as a tailor.

By 1938, as things were getting more precarious for Jews, many were fleeing Poland. Gershon, however, refused to leave. “All Germans were not bad people,” he assured his family. With great reluctance, Kitmacher decided to remain with his parents; his two older sisters, Sara and Freida; and his younger brother Yitzhak. 

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Europe was at war. Kitmacher’s worst fears were realized when his immediate and extended family were forced to pack up whatever they could carry on pushcarts and move into the Warsaw ghetto.

Conditions in the ghetto were horrible. The family subsisted on one meager loaf of bread a day, shared a toilet with three other families, and sponge bathed only using a pot of heated water. Nights were especially frightening: they heard the sounds of German motorcycles and gunfire as people trying to escape were shot. 

Kitmacher worked for the Germans outside the ghetto where he was fed minimal amounts of food. He searched each night to make sure he brought no extras home upon penalty of death.

After a year of increasingly untenable conditions, Al and Freida made the decision to risk everything to save their family. They executed a daring early morning escape from the ghetto. Once outside the gates, they rolled down their sleeves to hide their yellow stars and boarded a train-without tickets. In what Kitmacher would later remember as his first miracle, they managed through trickery and bribes to reach Chelm, Germany, where members of their extended family were living. A second cousin, who was also a tailor, arranged for papers to be sent to Warsaw stating the need for the rest of the family to join them to sew German uniforms. Kitmacher’s parents and Yitzhak were allowed to leave, but Sara was taken away. Even the official papers could not save her.

The remaining family rented a room on a farm owned by Jews until forced into another ghetto in Jenishoff. Here, Kitmacher worked ten hours a day digging an irrigation ditch until a combination of sunburn and illness resulted in Yitzhak, taking his place. When Yitzhak was caught smuggling food back to his family, he was beaten so badly that he also could not work. He was taken away and, like Sara, never seen again.

Soon after, Jenishoff was liquidated. Kitmacher’s parents and Freida were packed into a cattle car. His last memory of seeing them alive was watching as Gershon was struck down by a guard when he tried to follow his son.

Kitmacher, now alone, was sent to Buzzyn, a concentration work camp near Treblinka, where he and fellow prisoners spent 10 to 12 exhausting hours a day digging ditches subsisting on just enough food to survive. The Ukrainian guards were brutal, and people were killed daily for the slightest infraction. 

It was at Buzzyn that Kitmacher experienced his second miracle. After a terrifying nightmare in which he struggled to overpower a large bird by pushing him out of what appeared to be his father’s Warsaw tailor shop. Kitmacher woke up bathed in sweat, feverish, and weak Despite these symptoms of typhus, he connected his dream to his survival and asked a fellow prisoner to help him get to that day’s work assignment—digging potatoes. While in the field, he shared his dream with a religious man. “That is a good sign,” Kitmacher was told. “You fought the devil and won.” That night, he returned to the barracks and learned that the over 100 men who had stayed behind had been shot and killed.

When Buzzyn was closed, Kitmacher was assigned to an underground armaments factory set up by Germans in the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland.Over 1,700 prisoners worked in dark, dank conditions 1,072 feet below ground. Feeling as if he were buried alive, Kitmacher told his Polish captors that he was a sheet metal worker with hopes that a future assignment would be at least outdoors. 

Based on this new “skill,” Kitmacher was assigned to the Flossenberg camp where he and fellow prisoners a mix of Jews, political prisoners or “undesirables,” produced Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes and other armaments for Germany’s war effort. When a guard threatened to kill him if he did not give him his breakfast, Kitmacher escaped death again when the known bully and murderer was discovered making moonshine with another guard and taken away. It was Kitmacher’s third miracle. 

By mid-1944, the prisoners learned through the guards that Russian troops were advancing. The prisoners were herded into a train, where Kitmacher found a spot in the lower bunk. Several miles into their journey, the train was blasted by the English Royal Air Force. People in the upper bunks were killed, but Kitmacher had again escaped. This was his fourth miracle.

The train was damaged beyond use, so the Germans gave the prisoners each a blanket and a daily ration of one small turnip and forced them to march in the rain and cold for what Kitmacher remembered as several weeks. The dead or near dead were left by the side of the road. Once, when Kitmacher could not gather the strength to move another inch, he heard a voice behind him yell,“Kitmacher, don’t stop now!” Motivated by that anonymous angel, he kept walking.

Out of the hundreds that had started the march, only fifty emaciated prisoners straggled into what was to be their final destination, Stamsried, Germany, near the Czech boarder.The mayor of the town gathered them in the village market place with plans to kill them. It was then that Kitmacher had one final miracle. At that moment, American troops rolled into town. The officials disappeared. Kitmacher, an 82-pound living skeleton, had survived the Warsaw Ghetto and four German concentration camps. 

Kitmacher spent several weeks in a hospital. Over the next several months, while working on a farm, Kitmacher recovered physically but suffered emotional scars that never heal. He was put on anti-depressants, a prescription that he continued throughout his life. 

Kitmacher searched fruitlessly for his immediate family, who tragically had all perished. His only remaining relative was a cousin, Rose, who had lost her husband and baby. 

Kitmacher moved to a former Jewish ghetto in Munich, where he did tailoring work for Jewish people who were moving to Israel. He planned to move to Israel until another surviving cousin dissuaded him as Palestinians and Jews were in the midst of fighting for control from the British.

In 1949, Kitmacher obtained U.S. immigration papers through Jewish sponsors in Erie, Pennsylvania. In 1951 he met and married Pearl Harris, who had served as a WAVE in the U.S. Naval Reserve. They settled in Pearl’s home town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where they raised four children, Miriam, Lois, Gary, and Ira. Although he owned his own tailor shop for a short time, Al spent most of his career working at Besse-Clarke Men’s Store.

Although Kitmacher said that his wife and children “saved my life,” he continued to suffer from nightmares and insomnia. “I am fine all day,” he stated in his 1994 interview. “But every night when I lay down it comes back to me.” He also experienced survivor’s guilt. “Why am I the only one who survived?” he stated, “My family, my parents were nice people. Why did it happen to them? It is was not fair!” 

Did Kitmacher hold anger? “After the liberation, if given a gun, I would have killed the bastards,” he said in the 1994 interview. “Today, I am too old and too tired to do anything.” He quickly aded, “I was not brought up to hate, but I will never forgive them.” 

His daughter Lois Karhinen, a resident of Queensbury, NY, recalled that growing up in the home of a Holocaust survivor was not easy. She called him a sensitive, sometimes bitter man who could not communicate well emotionally. “My mother attended to my father and sacrificed her sense of self for him,” Lois said. “We children were an afterthought.”

Like all her siblings, Lois knew little about her father’s background until he shared his story on video, which is now part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum collection in Washington, DC. “I am glad that I was able to hear his story while he was still alive,” said Lois, “as it makes me understand so much about the way he was when I was growing up.”It has also given her a chance to forgive.

So much has been written about the Holocaust. Novels. Memoirs. Plays. And each echos the theme of “Never Again!” But have we really learned from the past? Millions of words later, we are facing a terrifying upswing in anti-Semitism. What can we do? We can keep writing, keep recording, keep remembering. And we can make sure that the voices of the those like Albert Kitmacher who survived and his family who perished are preserved. 

Sources:

Published in The Jewish World on November 5, 2020 and Heritage Florida Jewish News November 6, 2020

An Unsung Hero Rescued by Three Teenagers

Before leaving for Colorado in 2017, my husband Larry was checking our packed bookcase for something to read during our week’s stay. He walked into the kitchen holding Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project. 

“Have you read it?” Larry asked.

“I don’t even remember having it,” I responded. 

Larry opened the front cover and found a note from Cindy Smith, a friend of ours from Clifton Park who had moved to Arizona several years before. 

“Thought you would enjoy this,” the note read. “My daughter Heather is good friends with Megan Stewart, one of the people in the book.”

“You HAVE to read this book, Marilyn!” Larry repeated both on the plane and on quiet moments in Frisco. I complied, and I soon was as enraptured as Larry. As schools and colleges across the country open, the story within  a story of a high school project that brought world recognition to a virtually unknown Holocaust heroine is worthy of retelling. 

In September 1999, Norm Conard, a high school social studies teacher in the small rural community of Uniontown, Kansas, encouraged his students to participate in an extracurricular project for the annual National History Day event. Conard gave a ninth grader, Elizabeth “Liz” Cambers, a folder with a clipping from a March 1994 issue of the US News and World Report entitled “The Other Schindler.” Circled in red ink were few paragraph about Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker. “She gave nearly 2,500 children new identities, and buried their real names for safekeeping,” read the first paragraph. The article outlined how the Polish social worker successfully smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto and to safety. When Cambers asked Conard if Sendler was famous, the teacher said that he had never heard of her.”You could check it out,” said Conard. “Unsung heroes. Anyone can change the world, even you.”

Cambers was intrigued and decided to use the snippet of information as a springboard for a National History Day project. Conard recruited two other students to work with her: classmate Megan Stewart, and an eleventh grader Sabrina Coons. Their research in the upcoming weeks included information from The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) and first-hand accounts from Holocaust survivors in the Kansas City area who were willing to share their stories. The team decided that they could best represent Sendler’s story in the form of a ten minute play, which they called Life in a Jar, depicting scenes of Sendler interacting with the captives in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Over the course of the next three months, the team learned more of Sendler’s story. Most Polish gentiles did little in 1940 when Hitler herded 500,000 Polish Jews behind the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto while awaiting liquidation. Sendler, a Roman Catholic, mange to obtain a permit through her job as a social worker to enter the ghetto on the pretense to look for signs of typhus. Shocked by the deplorable condition, Sendler joined ZEGOTA, an underground group dedicated to helping the Jews. Realizing the inevitable tragedy unfolding, she persuaded parents and grandparents to allow her to bring children to safety. 

Sendler and others in the network took babies and children past the Nazi guards using many means of escape—smuggling them out in carpenter’s boxes, coffins, and ambulance, Once the children were outside the ghetto, she set up adoptions in the homes of Gentile Polish families or hideaways in convents and orphans. In order to keep track of the children, she and her network made lists of the children’s real names, put them in glass jars, and buried them in her garden. 

The three teenagers’ research stopped short of finding out what had happened to Sendler. Through the JFR, they learned that a son lived in Warsaw but letters to him went unanswered. Efforts to find Sendler’s burial place were futile as well. 

In late January 2000, the three teens performed a well-received dress rehearsal in Uniontown. Soon after, the JRF: shared stunning news. Sendler was alive and living in Warsaw, Poland.The girls immediately wrote a letter to the address given describing their play, asking several questions, and sharing their admiration for her courage. “You are one of the great women of the past century,” they wrote.

In February 2000, Mr. Conard and the three girls drove to Columbus, Kansas, for the state competition, where Life in a Jar won first prize in the performance category. News of the play spread rapidly, and they were swamped with numerous requests to perform throughout Kansas. 

Soon after,Sendler responded in Polish to their initial letter. With the help of a translator, they were able to understand in her own words why y she pursued the dangerous undertaking.  “During the war, the entire Polish nation was drowning but the most tragically drowning were Jews,” Sendler had written. “For that reason, helping those who were most oppressed was the need of my heart.” 

Further correspondences unlocked the other missing pieces of the story. In April 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis, severely beaten, and sentenced to death. However, the Polish underground bribed a guard at Pawiak Prison to release her, and she went into hiding until the war ended. Sendler subsequently married and had three children, one who had died in infancy.Ironically, her son Adam had died of a heart attack on September 23, 1999, the exact day that Mr. Conard had handed the original folder to Cambers. 

Under the “long shadow of Communism,” almost all references to the Holocaust were buried. In 1991, when the Iron Curtain fell, public recognition of the tragedy and celebration of the rescuers was stymied “by another kind of occupation,” the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Sendler’s story, like the jars with the names of the rescued children, had been buried until the high school students uncovered it.

Cunard and the three teens traveled to Washington DC in June 2000 for the national competition. Although Life in a Jar did not win a prize, the project had already taken on a life of its own. “This is way beyond National History Day,” said Dr. Cathy Gorn, Executive Director of National History Day, soon after the awards were given “You started out as students of history and you’ve become agents of history.” 

Immediately following competition, the group was invited to New York City, where they performed in front of an emotional audience of JRF board members, staff, and Holocaust survivors. “You tell a simple story,—a simple and dramatic story,” said one survivor, “that tells a simple and dramatic truth.”

When they returned to Uniontown, the group received requests to perform their play from groups throughout the United States. It was at one of their presentation that they encountered a miracle: John Shuchart, a local businessman, was so impressed with their performance that within two days he had raised the money for the group to go to Poland to perform the play in front of Sendler. 

In May 2001, the three teens and five adults flew to Warsaw.  Throughout their visit—during their numerous tours, interviews, and meetings with international press and public and private groups, Cambers, Stewart and Coons, were treated as “rock stars.” The highlight, of course, was their emotional meetings with Irena Sendler in her small Warsaw apartment. “You are our hero—our role model,” Conard said in a toast. “We will carry on your mission—your deep commitment to respect for all people. L’Chaim!”

The group made five more trips to Warsaw before Sendler passed away on May 12, 2008. In April 2008, Hallmark Hall of Fame released a movie version of Sendler’s life. Jack Mayer’s book was released in 2010 and was listed as one of the top ten Holocaust books for The Life in a Jar students continue to share her legacy through the play, the www.irenasendler.org web site, through schools and study guides, and world media. Founders and original performers.  Liz Cambers-Hutton and Sabrina Coons-Murphy still participate in the project when possible. Megan Stewart Felt works as director of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, which works with students and educators across diverse academic disciplines to develop history projects that highlight role models who demonstrate courage, compassion and respect. 

Professor Michael Glowinski, who had been rescued by Sendler when he was eight, summarized the feelings of all who had been touched by the Righteous Gentile. “Now you girls—you are rescuing Irena’s story for the world. You rescued the rescuer.”

First published in the (Orlando) Heritage Florida Jewish News, September 6, 2019

A Memorial Day Tribute to a Jewish Hero

Albert Gellman Circa 1944

Private Albert Gellman was mad as hell.  It was June 1944, and his United States army unit of the 34th Division had been cut off behind German lines. Two of his buddies had just been killed in the battle, and Gellman knew “someone had to do something.”

This was not exactly the life a Jewish man from Albany had imagined. The son of William and Tilli Gellman, the twenty-six year old private first class had grown up with his parents and two sisters in a house on Washington Avenue that his father, a Russian immigrant, had built in 1923.

After attending Phillip Schuyler High School, Gellman became a partner at the Modern Food Market on New Scotland Avenue. In 1940, he married Marion Rosenthal, and their son Stephen was born in December 1942. Thirteen weeks later, Gellman received his draft orders and reported to basic training with the 135th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division.

Initially stationed in North Africa, the regiment was soon sent to Italy to participate in the Battle of Anzio, a massive campaign launched in 1944 to capture Rome from the Axis Powers. Gellman and his regiment were given orders to push through the boot of Italy. “My father later told me the conditions were horrific,” his son Steve Gellman recounted. “Rain and snow impeded their path, and they often encountered mountainous terrain where the infantrymen had to climb hand over hand up cliffs.” Gellman, terrified of heights, was not comforted by his commander, whose only advice was as follows: “Don’t scream if you fall because you will expose others.” Many lost their lives falling silently to their death. 

On June 1, 1944, Gellman’s regiment was engaged in an assault against strong enemy forces in the vicinity of Castelleone, Italy. Four US tanks preceding the attack were knocked out of action by enemy anti-tank guns holed up in a group of Italian farmhouses. Gellman and fellow members of his  squad withdrew to a shallow ditch in front of area.

The  Americans shot at the enemy soldiers who were seen inside the buildings. One of the Germans hoisted a white flag of surrender, but the enemy soldiers refused to leave the safety of the farm house. 

The lieutenant asked for volunteers to take the guns out. Gellman had learned Yiddish while growing up. He believed this language skill, along with his very limited knowledge of German, would help. The 26-year-old private first class volunteered with Private Smith, another member of the regiment, to charge a machine gun emplacement guarding the left flank of the farmhouse. 

In his haste to reach the building, Gellman forgot his carbine rifle. That didn’t stop him. Brandishing a .45 revolver and loaded grenades, he ran into the yard yelling  “Komm raus Mit deinen Händen! (Come out with your hands up!)” Four Germans were so  startled that they dropped their weapons and immediately surrendered. While Private Smith was taking those prisoners back to their platoon  Gellman sprinted to the first house and told the solders in Yiddish to surrender.  By the end of the day, with the help of more Yiddish and some strategically lobbed hand grenades, Gellman had almost singlehandedly taken over thirty prisoners and had destroyed some of the German anti-tank guns.

 Using the information Gellman provided,  the army notified US navy destroyers off shore. The ships’ artillery leveled the farmhouse, taking out the remaining guns and any German soldiers who had refused to surrender.

Three days later, Gellman used the same technique to single-handedly capture an additional four German soldier who were holed up in an Italian farmhouse near their abandoned German tank. 

Gellman and his regiment saw more action in Northern Italy through the next several months. In the spring of 1945, Gellman was hospitalized with back pain and extreme battle fatigue. It was in the Italian hospital that Gellman was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for combat heroism.The award included the following, “Private First Class Gellman’s intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 34th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.” He was also presented with the Italian Military Valor Cross.

Gellman returned to the United States on a hospital ship. After a brief respite in the Army’s reassignment center in Lake Placid, he finished out the war as a military policeman in Albany. 

He was later presented with New York State’s Conspicuous Service Cross, three Bronze  Stars, and numerous other awards. Asked later how he felt about his actions, Gellman downplayed his moniker as a war hero. Gellman said, “I was shaking in my boots,” he later recounted.  “After all, I’m still a civilian at heart.” 

After the war, the Gellmans had two more children, David and Toby. Gellman initially ran an open-air fruit stand on Upper New Scotland Avenue. In 1948, he opened Al’s Market, adjacent to Modern Food Market, which he operated until 1955. Gellman continued to work the wholesale food industry for Service Food Company and Archway Bakery until his retirement in 1980. The family were members of Congregation Ohav Shalom.  He was also a member of  Jewish War Veterans Albany Post 105, the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans and Albany City Lodge of Knights of Pythias. 

His son Steve said that his father rarely talked about the war while he and his siblings were living at home. If he did, Gellman emphasized to his family his role. “I never killed them,” Gellman insisted.  “I just captured them.”

Steve, however,  clearly remembers one incidence in which he saw another side of his father. Just before his bar mitzvah, Steve was walking with his parents to synagogue when a drunk yelled an anti-Semitic epithet at his mother and then kicked Gellman. Steve watched as his father changed from the gentle man he knew to a killing machine. “Dad picked the man up, slammed him against a car, and put him in a headlock.”  The Gellmans did not press charges against the man, but Steve never forgot the expression on his father’s face. “It was like he was back in Italy,” Steve said.

It was not until forty-eight years after the war that Albert Gellman was able to confront his own demons. In 1998, the 76-year-old decorated World War II veteran entered counseling for post traumatic stress disorder.  The memories of horrors of war and the guilt and shame he carried for “leaving my buddies behind” finally surfaced and left him frequently in tears. 

It was after he had been to counseling that he was able to finally talk to his family about what he had endured. He had seen men blown up, had been begged by fellow GI’s in flames to be shot; he had killed German soldiers. These memories haunted him until his death at the age of 83 in 2001.

In 2006, Albany County Executive Mike Breslin and the Honor-A-Veteran Committee commemorated Gellman at a ceremony which included flying a flag in the late soldier’s honor. And the honors may continue. Gellman is currently one of 157 World War II Jewish War Veterans being considered for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor. Steve, who served in the US Air Force from 1960 to 1964, is working with the JWV to realize this goal. “With or without the Medal of Honor, I regard my father as a hero, a man who was bigger than life,” said Steve. “He sacrificed so much for this country, his time, his physical and emotional health. He truly represents The Greatest Generation.”

Thanks to Stephen Gellman for providing newspaper articles and other documents that were used to write this article.

First published in (Capital Region New York) Jewish World, May 16, 2019

Synagogue of the Summit Shabbat brings Shapiros solace

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Shabbat in the Rockies with Synagogue of the Summit

My husband Larry and I were enjoying our annual stay in the Colorado Rockies. As we had done many years before, we were hiking, spending time with our family, and taking advantage of all a summer in Summit County has to offer. The world surrounding us, however, was filled with troubling news. Both of us—especially me—needed to find peace and comfort. Fortunately, we were able to find both when we joined Synagogue of the Summit (SOS) for Friday night Shabbat service at Sapphire Point on this past June. 

The overlook sits at 9,500 feet between Keystone and Breckenridge atop of Swan Mountain Road. We placed our potluck snacks onto the waiting tables and set up our lawn chairs in anticipation of the evening service. We joined several SOS congregants for an easy hike along the half mile Old Dillon Reservoir trail, offering spectacular views of the Ten Mile Range and the Continental Divide. 

Barry Skolnick, SOS’s lay leader, began the service shortly after the hikers’ return. I will lift up mine eyes unto mountains from whence shall my help come, Skolnick said, quoting Psalm 121. My help shall come from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth. Barry swept his arms to point to a perfect blue summer sky etched with the Gore Mountain Range as Lake Dillon Reservoir sparkled below. 

Skolnick’s beautiful voice and the guitar and percussion accompaniment of musicians Ron and Betsy Cytron immediately drew me into the Shabbat service. Some of the melodies and prayers were new, but others were familiar to me from our congregations in Upstate New York and Florida. Board members and congregants were called up to light the Shabbos candles (non-flammable, to conform to the fire ban in the mountains), and take part in readings throughout the service.

Just before the Kiddish, Leah Arnold gave a short dracha—sermon—on Parashat Balak, the Torah portion for the week, The passage from Numbers recounts the story of Balak, the king of Moab, who summons the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. On the way to his mission, Balaam is berated by his donkey (Yes, the donkey talks!), who realizes that an angel of God is blocking their way. Whenever Balaam attempts to pronounce his curses, his mouth instead pours out blessings.

In a moment of pure synchronicity with my own feelings, Arnold reflected that this particular week seemed to be filled with curses raining down on those who were trying to make the world a better place. “The possibility of turning back curses lies not directly with God or magical donkeys or angels,” Arnold shared with me later, “but with us, and our ability to channel the Divine within ourselves by following the prophet Micah’s words: ‘to seek justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’” 

Her closing poem was a reminder to all that calling out for God to help us do what He wants of us  is more useful and effective than simply cursing our situation. “I meant to curse you.” Arnold said, reading from a poem by Stacey Robinson. “Instead, I called out Your name.”

After the closing prayers, everyone shared challah, wine, and the food attendees had brought. Larry and I were warmly greeted by many members of SOS. One had a daughter and son-in-law moving to Frisco, four blocks from my own daughter’s family. Another sported a shirt from a golf community near us in Florida. His wife and I, both writers, found we had been impacted by a collection of children’s drawings and poems discovered after the Holocaust and captured in the book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Another couple owned a condo in the building next to ours. As we made our way back to our car, I told Larry we had found our summer Jewish home in the Rockies.

Over the next few days, I learned more about the congregation through research on the SOS website and conversations with its synagogue board members.

Although Denver has had a significant Jewish presence—over 40,000 in the 1970s—the Jewish population of Summit and adjacent Eagle counties was small. Religious services were held in the Interfaith Chapel at Vail, requiring a ride over Vail Pass. A beautiful drive, but treacherous during the winter months in the Rockies.

Recognizing the need for a Jewish community in Summit County,  Sandy Greenhut of Dillon organized the Summit County Jewish community and formed Synagogue of the Summit in 1990. The first years barely drew enough people for a minyan—the required ten adults over the age of thirteen. Meetings and High Holy Day services, as well as a Sunday School for children, were held in people’s homes for the diminutive but enthusiastic group. 

By the mid-1990’s the population of Summit County grew, as more people discovered life in Colorado. The Jewish population increased. Many purchased second homes or moved permanently to the mountains. “SOS membership now ranges between 120 and 140 families. About half the congregation are permanent residents, while the other half spends two to six months in Summit County,” stated outgoing SOS president Jonathan Knopf.

Jackie Balyeat, the incoming president, is optimistic about the future of the synagogue. “As newer members move into the county, they bring their previous work experiences enabling the congregation to tap into a variety of talents allowing SOS to offer different programming as well.” 

Although the majority of the congregants are retirees, young families are always welcome and SOS has several. The synagogue offers educational programming customized to the age of the children. There have been one or two Bar or Bat mitzvahs each year. 

SOS has no permanent building, a situation supported by the congregation. “This gives the congregation the opportunity to hold services in places all over Summit County,” explained Knopf.  Activities have been held in Breckenridge Library, the Frisco Senior Center and historic chapel, and the Silverthorne Municipal Building. Churches have also opened their doors to SOS, including Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church and the Dillon Community Church, where High Holy Day services will be held this September. In August, Skolnick conducted  a Shabbat Morning service at the historic Temple Israel in Leadville.   The building dates back to the 1880’s when Jews were participating in the mining days.  Although it is no longer an active synagogue, it is open for special events like those offered by SOS. 

Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, serves as the congregational rabbi six weekends a year. She also officiates at High Holy Day services, the annual Passover Seder, and special events. Whether run by “Rabbi Ruthie” or lay clergy, whenever possible, services and Torah studies are held at breathtaking outdoor locations throughout Summit County, including Sapphire Point, Keystone Mountain, and Lily Pad Lakes hiking trail. 

Along with spiritual events, SOS offers many social, cultural and outdoor programing.  Upcoming events this summer include potluck dinners, a hike to Shrine Pass near Vail, and a field trip to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. 

The congregation also is connected to the greater Denver Jewish community. Several members participated in the recent 22nd Annual Leadville Jewish Cemetery Cleanup Weekend sponsored by B’nai Brith. More than eighty people of all ages, are signed up to participate in the congregation’s first Annual Mitzvah Day on July 15th. The congregation will take on four service projects throughout Summit County, including trail clean-up in Breckinridge; landscaping of the Frisco-based safe house for Advocates for Victims of Assault; a path upgrade along Lake Dillon; and repair work at the Silverthorne Blue River Horse Center.

More information about Synagogue of the Summit is available through their website http://www.synagogueofthesummit.org

  

  

Patriot Weissman was POW in World War II

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Staff Sargent Melvin Weissman

Melvin Weissman didn’t have to fight in World War II. 

As a machinist for an essential industry, he needed permission from his company to even enlist. He was first rejected by the army as he had flat feet. But the twenty-two year old was determined to fight for his county.

Undeterred, Melvin, along with several of his friends, tried to enlist in the United States Army Air Corp. This time, he was accepted, flat feet and all. When he said good-bye to his family, Weissman was overcome with emotion. “I knew I would never see my father again,” Weissman later told his daughter Diane Silverman. 

After basic training, Weissman was assigned as a flight engineer flying B-17s with the USAF, 94th Bomb Group, 331st Squadron, out of Bury-St. Edmunds, England.

Worries of a Jewish GI

Weissman had grown up in Brooklyn, the son of Nathan and Dora Weissman, Jewish Russian immigrants. He knew that “H” for Hebrew,  Jewish designation on his dog tags could cause a problem if he was captured by the Germans. He requested that his tag be changed to “P” for Protestant, to be worn on each bombing missions. 

Weissman and his fellow soldiers flew ten successful missions over Germany. On his eleventh mission, however, the plane was hit. He and several soldiers jumped out the plane safely; others lost their lives when the plane crashed.

When his parachute brought him into enemy territory, Weissman realized that he had accidentally worn the dog tags with the Jewish designation, the letter  “H.” He quickly tossed them away before a ten year old German boy found the scratched and bruised solider and turned him over to Nazi soldiers.

During his interrogation, Weissman was asked questions in English from a commander. In the same room, behind a screen, was another commander telling the interrogator in German what questions to ask the captured soldier.  Because his parents spoke Yiddish in their house, Weissman understood the Germans and knew the questions ahead of time. To further hide his Jewish identity, he gave his name as “Veismann,” a more German form of his Jewish name.

Weissman was sent to Stalag 17-B, where he remained a prisoner of war from January 11, 1944, to May 3, 1945. While he was in prison camp,  a neighbor of the Weissmans heard a blurb on the radio that Staff Sargent Melvin Weissman had been captured. His father, who was in failing health, said the he would believe this was true only when he heard from his older son.  A letter finally came to their Brooklyn address on April 2, 1944. Nathan Weissman died the next day.  Weissman’s premonition had come true. “My aunts told me he was just waiting to hear that Melvin was ok.” said Diane

In April 1945, as the war was coming to a close, 4,000 of the POWs at Stalag 17-B began an 18-day march of 281 miles to Braunau, Austria. The remaining 900 men were too ill to make the march and were left behind in the hospitals. These men were liberated on May 9, 1945. Those who survived the death march were finally rescued by American troops.

J is for ?

Weissman and his fellow liberated soldiers were shipped home to New York City. While sailing, Weissman was taken ill. When he arrived, he walked down the gang plank where doctors, pulling him aside, put a giant yellow J on his shirt. When he asked how they knew he was Jewish, they laughed. “We don’t know if you’re Jewish,” they said. “But we DO know you are jaundiced.”

Weissman spent three months in a hospital in New Jersey recovering from his imprisonment and subsequent illness. When a rabbi came in to tell Weissman that his father was dead, Weissman said, “I know. My mother and sisters never mentioned him in his letters, but I knew I was saying my last goodbye to him when I left for basic training.” 

Once he was healthy, Weissman returned home and got a job as a machinist for Templet Industries in Brooklyn, New York. He met Sylvia Laskowitz in January 1948. They were married six months later, on June 27, 1948. Their daughter Mona was born fifteen months later, and their second child Diane was born in 1953. 

Diane remembers a happy childhood, marred only by quirks that she attributes to his status as a POW. 

PTSD

“Dad was not a very trusting person except for his wife and two daughters,” said Diane. Although he never spoke about his war experiences while she lived home, Diane remembers hearing her father cry out in his sleep. She often found him sitting on the edge of the bed, covered in sweat. Diane did her best to soothe him, to try to help him move past his nightmares. 

By 2007, Sylvia, his wife of 58 years,  and Mona had both passed away. Weissman had severe heart problems and reoccurring bouts of  post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) As he was no longer able to live alone, Diane and her husband Mark moved him into their home in Clifton Park, New York. More war stories started coming out. Weissman talked about his time in the camp. Conditions may have been difficult for American soldiers, but he spoke sadly of the treatment given to Russian and Polish POW’s. He also recounted his long days on the death march and his rescue. 

By 2010, Alzheimers had set in, and Weissman became very combative, “a tortured soul.” After some violent episodes in which he threatened Diane physically, Diana and Mark made arrangement to move him to Albany Stratton VA Medical Center. Three days before he was to make the move, Diane found her father dissolved in tears. “What is wrong, Daddy?” Diane asked. 

“I killed a man!” sobbed her father. 

“Do you mean in the war? Do you mean you killed a German soldier?” 

“Yes.”

“Daddy, if you didn’t kill him, he would have killed you. And you never would have been married to Mom or had your daughters, your four grandchildren, and the great-grandchild you have on the way.” 

This calmed him. It was also the last coherent conversation Diane had with her father. Hero’s Way, the hospice unit of VA Hospital, provided the care the exhausted and haunted ex-GI needed in his remaining days. Seven weeks later, on September 11, 2011, Melvin Weissman quietly passed away. His great-grandson Judah Benjamin Rome, who was given the Hebrew name Moshe Dov after Melvin and a paternal great-grandfather, was born November 22, 2011.

Noting Veterans’ Efforts

For several years, Congregation Beth Shalom had had a low-key breakfast on the Sunday before Veterans Day. Soon after his father-in-law died, Mark asked Diane if she wanted to honor her father by having them sponsor the breakfast.

Diane agreed, but only on her own terms. The danish and coffee were accompanied by huge plates of Diane’s luchen kugel, homemade quiche, and fresh fruit. Between seventy-five and one hundred members of the congregation and their guests, many themselves veterans,  attended the elaborate brunch for the next six years until the Silvermans moved to Connecticut in 2016.

Diane still has the American flag that was draped on her father’s coffin, and she proudly displays it on the wall of her living room. “I brought it to every Veterans Day brunch, and I proudly display it on the walls of our home,” said Diane. “It is my way of remembering an American Jewish GI, a former prisoner of war, and the best dad in the world!”

Originally published in The [Capital District] Jewish World on May 31, 2018 and the Heritage Florida Jewish News on June 1, 2018