Category Archives: Holocaust

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

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

  

  

Belarus Holocaust Memorial Project

How does one keep the memory alive of the 800,000 Belarusian Jews killed during the Holocaust? For two Jewish families with links to Florida., along with a couple from England, the answer was simple: One monument at a time. 

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Jews in Belarus were its third largest ethnic group in this Eastern European country. The population of cities such as Minsk, Pinsk, Mahiliou, Babrujsk, Vitsyebsk, and Gomel was more than 50% Jewish. Tragically, some 800,000 Jews—80% of the Jewish population—together with transports of Jews brought for extermination from the remaining communities in Western Europe, were killed in Belarus during the Holocaust. Many were killed by mass shootings, or “Holocaust by bullets,”  in which executioners massacred the victims in their own villages before the eyes of the neighbors.

In 2006 Dr. Michael Lozman, a Capital District orthodontist,  introduced Dr. Warren Geisler, a Capital Region dentist, to the Holocaust By Bullets in Belarus. As a one time partnership they, together with personal donations with the help of community donations as well, built a memorial to the 433 victims of the Holocaust in Grozovo, Republic of Belarus. The late Dr. Miles Kletter, a Capital District dentist and philanthropist as well as a dear friend of Geisler, generously donated to the site.

“Miles and Warren felt strongly about the injustice of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Shoah,”said Marilyn Kletter. “They knew more needed to be done to remember the victims and serve as a warning to the future generations of what hate and bigotry can create when the people fall silent.”

Kletter researched and located Michael and Diana Lazarus in London, England, who had been building these memorials since 2003 through their Simon Mark Lazarus Foundation. After multiple discussions, Miles and Marilyn Kletter and Warren and Beverly Geisler and their respective families each formed foundations in 2008. Their donations, together with the Lazarus family, would be placed into what was called the Belarus Holocaust Memorials Project (BHMP) through the American Jewish Committee in New York City. 

These three foundations, together with Jewish communities and organizations across Belarus, established the Committee for the Preservation of Holocaust Victims’ Memory in the Republic of Belarus. The Committee, comprising dedicated and steadfast members of the community’s representative bodies, provides crucial support in identifying the locations and coordinating the construction of Holocaust memorials. 

In 2012, Cary and Joni Kletter, the son and daughter of Marilyn and Miles Kletter, took over their father’s work when Miles died of cancer. They are involved with BHMP on many levels: facilitating the foundation’s financial involvement, designing and managing the BHMP website; traveling to Belarus for ceremonies; coordinating with officials in Belarus; and working on the content and layout of the website.

The Geisler family is no longer is involved with the BHMP as Geisler is now   dealing with serious health issues. The Kletter children now manage the project. “The Geisler family was part of an incredible existential exercise into replacing the lost humanity on the ground,” said Geisler. “It was an incredible learning experience bonding with the Belarus Jewish Community. I walked the talk. No regrets.”

Beverly and Warren Geisler and Marilyn Kletter now split their time between homes in Upstate New York and Florida,  in West Palm and in Boyton Beach respectively.

Through research and the help of those individuals who lived in the area during the war, over five hundred mass killing sites have been identified. The number of Jews that died at each site ranges from 2  to thousands. Each year, the Belarus Holocaust Memorial Foundation selects up to six sites to place a memorial. As of May 2018, 110  Holocaust memorials designed by Belarussian architect Leonid Levin have been erected at Holocaust massacre sites in cities, towns and villages throughout the country. The goal of the BHMP:  To have memorials at every site.

At each killing site, a black granite tombstone, set on a flagstone platform mounted on a pedestal. Each contains inscriptions in three languages – Belarusian, English and Hebrew – stating that this monument was erected in memory of the victims of Nazism. Where known, names of the victims are noted.

On July 26, 2009, a plaque was placed on a bridge abutment by a river  where 3,400 Jews  from the Baranovichy Ghetto were pulled off the cattle cars, shot, and dropped in the river in the Zeliony Most region. Another memorial has been placed in a rolling field near Bagerovo, Belarus, village  in which where approximately 4,670 Jews were forced to strip to their underwear, lined up, shot and buried in an anti-tank trench.

Dedication ceremonies drawing hundred of people are held at each killing site upon completion of the memorials. Many are from Belarus: representatives of the local authorities, members of the Jewish community, and representatives of Jewish  organizations functioning in the region. The Israeli ambassador to Belarus as well as ambassadorial staff members from Germany, United States, Great Britain, Israel, and the United States have also attended. Kletter said that at a dedication in 2017 the ambassador from Germany to Belarus publicly apologized to him and all the attendees for the atrocities that were committed.

Representatives of the Geisler, Kletter and Lazarus families have attended every ceremony, “Families suffered unspeakably tragic losses in Belarus during the Nazi occupation,” said Cary Kletter. “It is our earnest hope that knowledge of these memorials, in the cities, towns, villages, farmer’s fields, and forest clearings, the very sites where the massacres took place, will afford some small comfort.” 

Geisler said one his most unforgettable moments was when the last living survivor of the Minsk ghetto came to a dedication. After introducing himself, he thanked Geisler and BHMP for what they are doing to make sure that the Holocaust would not be forgotten.

Those who lost relatives or witnessed the atrocities also attend. A member of one of the grieving families said, “Now we have somewhere where we can stand to remember and mourn.”

Participants in the ceremony light candles in memory of the victims, say prayers, including Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim, and place flowers and stones on the monument. “It is a Jewish value to honor the dead,” Kletter said. “I feel like I am fulfilling a mitzvah.”

Geisler stated that there is urgency to build more of these sites as survivors and witnesses to these crimes of humanity pass on. Along with the 500 recognized sites in Belarus, more than 1,200 exist in the Ukraine alone. “There should be a memorial for the people, a memorial for where it happened,” said Kletter. “If nothing is done, these locations are lost to history.”

The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe has been disconcerting, noted Dr Geisler. In 2014, the Belarus Government requested that a memorial be placed at a site where 2,500 children from the Orsha Ghetto were killed in November 1941 soon after their brutal separation from their parents. The dedication was attended by numerous Belarus government officials and was broadcast on national television. Within a short time, the site was burnt and vandalized. Although it was rebuilt, the specter of hatred remains.  

“Let the world know this insanity must never be tolerated again,” said Geisler at one of the many dedications he has attended. “ Hundreds of years from now,  visitors of future generations coming to these  killing sites will bear witness to what happened.”

Further information regarding the Belarus Holocaust Memorials Project can be found at its website http://www.belarusmemorials.com.

Remaining part of bridge where 3,400 Jews were shot and thrown into river. Geisler and Kletter families.

10 decades of memories: Patriarch Geisler to note 100th birthday

Southern Florida, will be rocking on May 17. On that day, Morty Geisler, a veteran of World War II and a successful businessman, will be celebrating his one-hundredth birthday. Dr. Warren Geisler, a retired Albany dentist and one of his six surviving children, shared stories about his beloved father. 

Mortimer Arthur Geisler was born on May 17, 1918, in Harlem, New York,  to Maxwell and Anna Grossman Geisler, both immigrants from Poland.Eighteen months later, Maxwell died in the Great Flu Pandemic. Life was tough for the family. Geisler grew up in a two bedroom walk-up with his mother, younger brother, and grandfather. They were supported by his grandfather and Anna’s three brothers.

Geisler, however, was bright and resourceful. After graduating high school at fifteen years old, he took a job as a stock boy in a haberdasher store. He made ten dollars a week, half which went to his mother.

In 1942, Geisler married Sylvia Sheer.  A year later, he was drafted into the army, where he, like many Jewish GI’s, Geisler encountered anti-Semitism. When some “Southern boys” began picking on him, he complained to his captain. Geisler never had any problems again. 

Geisler and six thousand other soldiers were shipped over to England. The soldiers were piled ten high in bunks in the bowels of a Liberty ship, which he remembered as a “floating cork.” Geisler and his division landed on Omaha Beach on June 9, three days into what would be known as D-Day.  He then followed General Patton’s 3rd Army through St. Low to Pont de Masson relieving Bastogne and crossed the Rhein and Ruhr Rivers on the way to Magdenburg where he joined General Simpson’s 9th Army on the way to Gottinger. His division was involved in closing the pocket in Hamm where 100,000 Nazis were captured and surrendered.

In May 1945, Geisler’s division entered Dachau concentration camp two days after its liberation. “My father witnessed the ferocity of the evil that the Third Reich had created,” his son Warren, a retired dentist from Albany, New York. ”Those images are still seared into his being until this day” 

“Thousands of corpses were scattered through out the camp,” said Geisler. “Survivors, mostlyJewish, were lice infested, walking skeletons. Still in their striped uniforms, these hollow-eyed slouched over beings managed to still smile as they thanked us GI’s for saving them.”

The war was still not over for Geisler. His division advanced to Pliessen, Czechoslovakia, where they faced off on the banks of the Elbe River against Soviet forces which kept  them from invading Czechoslovakia. Two weeks later he was transferred to Paris where he met up with his brother Maxwell and his recent French bride.

In October 1945, Geisler shipped out on the Queen Mary with 14,000 other GIs back to New York City. Five days at sea with seasickness was the tour du jour. My father never missed a meal and stayed top side for four of the days at sea. Once stateside he was honorably discharged two weeks later. The war and its battles were over.

Geisler found a job as a hosiery salesman for Ma-Ro Corporation, where he became its youngest national sales manager. In 1959, Geisler and  three other salesman opened Proudfoot Hosiery. As the eventual sole owner, Geisler licensed the first National Football League’s tube sock and the first non-slip sock. His company won the licensing for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. He eventually sold the company, working for the corporations that carried his lines. He retired at 85.

Geisler and Sylvia had four children, Steven, Warren, Edward, and Jayne.  The Geisler was active in the Jewish community and were responsible, along with other Jewish World War II veterans for the founding of Temple Beth Emeth, a conservative synagogue in Hewitt, New Jersey. “They all wanted to work and provide for their families in a religious setting safe from the hell of the war’s mass murder and genocide,” said Warren. All three sons were bar mitzvahed there. Geisler was also a member of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization that provides philanthropic work for numerous causes.

Sylvia passed away in 1971. A year later, he married Enid Friedman, a widow who had three children, Iris, Daniel, and Paul. While enrolled at Princeton University, Paul, a natural athlete and president of the college’s Big Brothers/Big Sisters,  was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. After his death, the devastated parents donated a library in Paul’s name at the Israel Tennis Association(ITA) in Kyriat Shemona, Israel. 

Geisler’s experiences in the war, Sylvia’s volunteer work for the American Red Cross, and Paul’s legacy instilled in the six surviving children a sense of service and provided a cornerstone for philanthropic  work for the entire family. 

Geisler now lives in an independent living facility in Tamarac, Florida. Although he himself says he is “slowing down,” he paints (a skill he learned when he was ninety years old) and watches sports and operas. He and his 94-year-old friend Evelyn Mitchell step out often for dinner, she in her stiletto heels. “She drives; I buy,” quipped Geisler.

Seventy-three years later, however, the images Geisler encountered in Dachau continue to haunt him. “When I was growing up,  I remember tapping him on the shoulder to wake him up,” recounted Warren. “I immediately stepped back in fear as he jumped up as he were still defending himself.”  When asked to be video-taped the research department of Yad Vashem the world Holocaust memorial Jerusalem, he refused. “He still has nightmares,” said Warren, and he could not relive the horrors.

Geisler is devastated by the atmosphere of hate and intolerance seen today in the world, especially his beloved United States. “I want my children and grandchildren to understand that we are a great people, a great country,” said Geisler. “I worry how the new generation will survive all the current animosity.”

Meanwhile, the Geisler family is planning a big party later this month. His six surviving children as well the eleven grandchildren and five great grandchildren will be there to celebrate the life of what one of the surviving members of The Greatest Generation.

“Many GIs did their duty and sacrificed their lives, limbs, and even their sanity as asked by this nation,” said Warren. “May those who have died either in the war or as long-time veterans rest in peace.”

Geisler himself looks back with gratitude. “I’ve lived a long, wonderful life,” the centenarian said. ”I’ve had two wonderful marriages and seven wonderful children. I am truly blessed.” 

Happy Birthday, Morty. May you live 120 years.

Jewish World, 

Pictures are available through the following link: http://jewishworldnews.org/10-decades-of-memories-patriarch-geisler-to-note-100th-birthday/

Profile of a mensch that I know

harry_lowenstein_category

Harry Lowenstein speaking about his Holocaust experiences.

This year, for the first time in sixty years, Harry Lowenstein will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah without his beloved wife Carol. It will be a bittersweet occasion, only a few short weeks after what would have been their sixtieth anniversary. But Harry is a survivor—as well as a mensch—a person with integrity and honor.

Harry Lowenstein was born in Fuerstrau, Germany, in 1931, the younger of two children. When he was seven years old, Harry was expelled from school for being a Jew. In 1940, he and twenty members of his family were deported to the Riga ghetto in Latvia. The train carrying approximately one thousandJews left Bilefeld, Germany, on the first night of Chanukah. Someone had brought candles on the crowded compartment and started singing Ma’oz Tzur, Rock of Ages. Soon the entire train joined in. That last sweet memory sustained Harry for the next six years.

In the ghetto, his entire family was crowded into a two-room apartment. A year and a half later, the family was sent to the concentration camp of Riga-Kaiserwald, where the men and women were separated. “Return home after this is over to find us,” his mother begged before she said goodbye.

One day, Harry found a piece of bread outside a building and brought it to his father to share. “Where did you find this?” his father asked. When Harry told him, his father said, “You just took that bread away from someone who is as hungry as you were. Give it back and apologize.” When Harry returned, his father slapped him on the face. “I still can feel that slap,” said Harry. “What a lesson in ethics he gave me!”

Soon after, Harry’s father fell ill and was sent back to the ghetto, which was liquidated in November 1943. Harry never saw his father again. While in Riga-Kaiserwald, Harry remembers the constant fear of being chosen for the gas chamber and the ongoing, intentionally cruel actions by Nazi guards. When Harry stole a piece of bread from a kitchen, Nazi prison guards stood him outside in the freezing cold and blasted a water hose down his shirt. “I thought to myself, ‘I will somehow survive,” said Harry. “You learned to live minute to minute—not even hour by hour— to make sure the next day comes.”

In the fall of 1944, as the Russian front drew close, the Nazis tried to avoid the Allied forces. Harry, along with thousands of other Jewish prisoners, were shipped by boat to Danzig and then by barge to the Stuthoff concentration camp in Poland. On March 9, 1945, the camp was liberated by the Red Army. He and other survivors were brought to a makeshift hospital. For six weeks, he and fellow survivors were fed a diet of oatmeal to help them regain their strength. The next day—and freedom—had come.

Remembering his mother’s instructions from years earlier, the 14-year-old returned to Fuerstenau to reunite with his family. His trip was in vain. He was the sole survivor.

As the High Holy Days approached that fall, Harry visited a fellow survivor, and a group of them went to services in a makeshift shul. A Polish Jewish officer serving in the British army asked Harry if he had had his bar mitzvah. When Harry said no, the Polish officer said, “Then you will be bar mitzvah today, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the rest of your life.”

After spending the next four years in children’s homes in Hamburg and Paris, Lowenstein emigrated to the United States in March 1949. He stayed in the Bronx with an aunt and uncle who had emigrated to the United States in 1928. He worked in a butcher shop during the day and attended school at night, trying to build on two years of schooling he had before the war.

In 1952, after serving two years in the army, Harry moved to Florida, where he got a job working in his uncle’s clothing shop. “Selling a pair of pants or some shoes was easier than hauling sixty pounds of frozen ‘trief.’” said Harry. He hung up his butcher’s apron for good.

On February 14, 1957, Harry went on a blind date with Carol Sainker, the daughter of another butcher. After only six weeks of long distance dating (they lived four hours apart), he proposed. They were married on August 18, 1957.

Harry and Carol lived in England during the 1960s, and then moved back to Florida in the 1970s with their three children, Berna, David, and Karen. In 1974, Harry and Carol took over Goolds, clothing store in Kissimmee, that had previously been run by another uncle, Luther Goold. Carol and he ran the business for thirty years, expanding the building from 1600 to 6000 square feet. As the only department store in town, it sold what everyone wore in Central Florida—jeans, cowboy shirts, and boots.

The Lowenstein’s attended Congregation Shalom Aleichem, which had met since its founding in 1981 at the Kissimmee Women’s Club.The Lowensteins 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  Lowenstein’s—through their own and others’ contributions — raised another $60,000 for building expenses.

Once Congregation Shalom Aleichem opened, the Lowenstein continued to work tirelessly to obtain a Torah, the prayer books for both every day and holy days, the Torah rimonim (filials),  and the Yartzheit (memorial) board, most coming from their own pockets. Carol served as treasurer for over thirty years, and Harry held “every position on the board,” except president. “My language skills were not up to my standards,” explained Harry.

Rabbi Karen Allen, Congregation Shalom Aleichem’s spiritual leader, expressed her admiration for the extraordinary and exemplary hospitality that characterized the Lowensteins at home as well as in their role as congregation leaders  ” It was my privilege to be their guest on many Friday nights after services, and I will always be grateful for the kindness and generosity of their elegant graciousness,” said Rabbi Allen.”It is easy to understand how such caring and sensitive people could have created a successful business that for so many years contributed greatly to the growth of our community.”

Their daughter Karen remembered her parents as “the most loving couple” with an old school work ethic that they instilled in their children:“Be honest, put in 110%, be truthful, and remember that being on time was being late.” Karen has especially fond memories of the High Holy Days. “My mom would spend weeks cooking. On the night of the dinner, the table was set with our best china, silverware, and crystal, with flowers gracing the center.”

Unfortunately, Carol faced major health problems throughout most her life. She experienced her first heart attack at thirty-eight, and that began years of cardiac issues.  “Each time she was hospitalized,” recalled Karen, “we thought it was the end. We were blessed to have her for so long.” Carol died peacefully on February 10, 2017, at the age of eighty-one.

Despite his grief, Harry remains intensely committed to the Congregation Shalom Aleichem, its building and its spiritual aspects. He quietly continues his tzedakah—his charity—to many others.

As he has done for many years, he gives frequent talks about his Holocaust experiences to local synagogues, schools, and other public venues. Video accounts of his first person narrative are on file in both The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida in Orlando and Stephen Spielberg’s the University of Southern California Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Harry shows no bitterness about his experiences in World War II. “The Nazis couldn’t take away from me who I am in my heart.” said Harry. “They could not change me. I was and still am a Jew.”

And most importantly, Harry is a mensch. I know many people who share this sentiment: May you live for many more High Holy days in which you make your life—and Carol’s memory—a blessing.