Category Archives: Holocaust

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.

What Makes Us the Same? Trip to Shoah Museum Inspires Writer to Find Commonality

 

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On a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, Larry and I visited the Holocaust Memorial. A pathway strewn with bronze sculptures of unfinished lives—a violin, a teddy bear, a torn prayer book, —brought us to a curved wall. Two columns were engraved with the brief history of the events that led to Hitler’s rise and its unfathomable consequences on Europe and the world. Plaques etched with memories from survivors are placed on a wall representing barbed wire. One read “As I looked back, my mother turned her face to avoid mine and my little sister gave me a frail and knowing wave;” another, “The fear has never left me.”On the back of wall were carved the names of family members of Oregonians who were lost in the Shoah. Below the names was the following statement:

Our precious life rests not on our ability to see what makes us different, one from another, but rather on our ability to recognize what makes us the same. What ultimately defines us is the moral strength to believe in our common humanity, and to act on this belief.

These words struck me especially hard on that beautiful June afternoon. Larry and I had flown out of Florida just days after the Orlando Pulse tragedy. As I stood in front of the memorial, I was overwhelmed with grief for all those lost in the Shoah.  I also thought of those innocent lives lost to another madman who could only focus on differences and destroy so many lives with another act of senseless violence.  I began to reflect on my own live  and question as to whether I had done enough to focus on “what makes us the same.”

As a child, I knew I was different from most of the people in our small upstate New York town. Along with one other family, we were eleven Jews in a Christian town, an overwhelming .5% of the population. There were a few anti-Semitic instances: A teenage boy yelling “Heil Hitler!” and giving me the Nazi salute as the six-year-old me played innocently on my front yard; “lost” invitations to parties by those my parents tagged as anti-Semites; whispered jokes about my Jewish nose that went unnoticed by my teachers. For the most part, however, the people Keeseville embraced us, shared their Christmas trimming with us; came over for matzoh brie around our formica covered kitchen table. We focused on what we have in common.

Although exposed to diversity on our family’s visits to New York City , as a student at University at Albany, and through—as always— countries and cultures explored through reading, my everyday encounters rarely took me far from my white, Judeo-Christian environment. This changed, however,  when I took a teaching position with the Capital District Educational Opportunity Center

The EOC, a  division of Hudson Valley Community College, offers tuition-free academic and workforce development opportunities to disadvantaged and educationally under-prepared New York State residents sixteen years and older. Through my interactions with staff and students, I learned to appreciate many different cultures and backgrounds and their personal struggles. A Muslim pharmacist,  after being imprisoned in her native country for giving medicine to a Christian, disguised herself as a Bedouin to flee to Egypt then to Albany. A young man had escaped with his family as one of the Vietnamese boat people. Both completed our GED and College Preparation Program and  then graduated from Hudson Valley Community College. One of my fellow instructors had overcome a troubled background in Schenectady’s inner city to graduate from the cosmetology program, open his own salon, and then come back to the EOC to instruct hundreds of cosmetology students in the technical and life skills to succeed in his chosen field.  I may have taught my students essay writing and grammar and study skills, but the people I encountered at the EOC taught me about courage and dignity and overcoming incredible obstacles. Our differences were secondary to our common goal of creating a better life for ourselves and our families. We all believed in our common humanity and acted on those beliefs. Even when I moved out of the classroom and into an administrative position, my greatest joy was meeting with students, having them share their stories with me, and promote the EOC through its many different success stories.

In the past few weeks, our country has experienced numerous tragedies that resulted from actions by those who failed to believe in the common humanity. Orlando, Florida. St. Paul, Minnesota. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dallas,Texas. The list of cities where incidents of senseless violence continues to grow.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” wrote the late Elie Wiesel, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” My protests may not take me to the streets, but it will take me to the written word, where I hope I can make a difference.

But maybe, it must start with children. When we lived in Clifton Park, our next door neighbors were an interracial couple—he a Caucasian from Massachusetts and she a Whitney Houston look-alike from Jamaica. We shared our yards and our lives with them and their four children who had inherited their mother’s brown eyes, mocha skin, and curly hair. One day, Julie and Katie, who were the same age, were shopping for matching lockets.  When we brought the jewelry up to the counter, Julie, my blue eyed, blonde haired daughter, announced to the sales clerk, “I know we look like twin sisters. We’re not. We’re just best friends.”

Best friends. Or just friends or neighbors or fellow citizens. Whatever it takes, let us all strive to recognize what makes us the same, to prevent injustice, to repair the world. Tikkun Olam. Amen.

Never Forget

How does one comprehend the unfathomable? How does one grasp how six million Jewish lives were snuffed out by a world gone mad? For me, it was through the lives of Anne and Elie and Sophie and Pavel and many others. Thanks to brilliant writers, I have experienced the Holocaust through literature.

Neither of my parents spoke of lost relatives as their families had emigrated from Russia by the early 1900s. My first in-depth exposure to the Shoah came from reading The Diary of a Young Girl.  I was thirteen years old, the same age as Anne Frank when she started her journal. While I was worrying about acne and first crushes while living in a small, upstate town, Anne was worried about having enough food and not being caught by the Nazis while hiding in an Amsterdam attic. Her words were prominently displayed on a poster on my bedroom wall throughout high school and college: “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Her journal, found after she perished in Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, remains one of my most beloved books

As a  first year high school English teacher, I was assigned to teach Police State in Literature. It was a challenging course, made even more difficult for me as I was replacing a well-loved teacher who purportedly made Brave New World  fun.

Instead, the students faced a young, idealist Jewish teacher who had been told to include in the curriculum. Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his life in the Nazi concentration camps The following June, two of my students handed me their yearbook to sign. They had drawn swastikas on my picture. Refusing to sign them, I sadly realized Wiesel’s shattering tale had not impacted them as it had me.

Anne and Elie showed me the Holocaust through teenage eyes. Sophie’s Choice forced me to see it through the eyes as a grieving parent. William Styron’s novel depicted the story of a young mother who was forced by  a camp doctor to make a heart-wrenching decision as she entered Auschwitz: She must choose which of her two children would die immediately in the gas chamber and which one would be allowed to live, albeit as a prisoner. Hoping her blue-eyed, blond-haired son had a better chance at survival, she sacrificed her daughter.  I read the book when I myself was a mother of two young children. Reading about the grief and guilt that haunted Sophie for the rest of her short, tragic  life broke my heart. Shortly after finishing the book, I woke up in the middle of the night screaming, “Don’t take Julie! Don’t take my daughter!”

Reviews of the subsequent movie were outstanding, and Meryl Streep won an academy award for her performance as Sophie. I myself have never seen the film. It was hard enough to read the book.

In 1994, a  collection of art and poetry provided a  way for me to revisit the Holocaust through the art and poetry by Jewish children who lived—and perished— in Theresienstadt concentration camp. A line in a poem by Pavel Friedman (1921-1944) provided the book’s name. “For seven weeks I’ve lived here/Penned up inside this ghetto/But I have found my people here./The dandelions call to me/And the white chestnut candles in the court,/Only I never saw another butterfly.

The butterfly became my symbol of the Holocaust.Even today,  each time I see a butterfly, I am reminded me of that young man standing behind a barbed wire fence wishing for freedom. In honor of Paval and the six million, I wear a chain on my neck with two gold charms: a Jewish star and a butterfly.

In recent years, literature helped me explore the Holocaust from the perspective of those on the other side of those camp fences: people who eked out their lives in war-torn Europe during Hitler’s reign  Kristin Hannah’s novel The Nightingale followed the story of two sisters in Nazi-occupied France. The older sister Vianne desperately struggled to do whatever she could to keep herself, her daughter, and her friends—including a Jewish woman and her child—alive. The younger sister Isabelle risked her life to work for the Resistance. The description of  physical and emotional deprivation experienced by those living through the four years of Nazi oppression gave me appreciation for the brutal,often deadly, conditions that were a fact of life for everyone—Jews and non-Jews— under Nazi rule.

Through a novel written by the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I came to understand how experiences encountered in death camps often haunted not only the survivors but also their children. The Speed of Light, a novel by Schenectady native Elizabeth Rosner, tells the story of two adult children whose lives were shaped by their father’s time in Auschwitz. While Paula tried to bring her father joy through her globe-trotting career as an opera singer. Julian a scientist, lived as secluded, highly structured recluse. ‘My father …carried his sadness with him, under his skin, Julien states.”It was mine now.” How the siblings moved past their father’s demons and redeem themselves was a fascinating read.

I am grateful that despite all that has already been written about the Holocaust, the topic still generates literature that gives us new ways of examining one the darkest periods in civilization. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana.  I will never fully understand the horrors endured by so many. But at least through the extensive amount of quality of literature available, I can at least hope we can learn ways to assure “Never again.”