Category Archives: World War Two

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.

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

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

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

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

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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.