Category Archives: Jewish History

From Bialystok to Brooklyn: Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

business that remained in the family throughout their lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Opposing View to the Holocaust!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

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

Fradel’s Story: Fulfilling a Daughter’s Promise

I am posting this blog on September 1, 2021, what would have been my beloved mother’s (“Z”L) 104th birthday. It is with pride and love I announce the publication of my third book, Fradel’s Story.

What better way to start off Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, than to publish a new book? Fradel’s Story, my third book since 2016, is especially sweet as it was co-written with my mother, Frances Cohen.

Ever since I could remember, my mother was the family storyteller. Give her an opening, and Fran, or “Fradel” as she was known to her close family, would regale any audience with family stories any audience with stories of her grandparents’ and parents’ lives in Russia, her early years of marriage to “My Bill” Cohen, their life in small towns in the North Country. She told of raising four children, watching them leave for college and for marriage, and their returning with her grandchildren to visit her and my father in their beloved cottage on Lake Champlain. 

As my parents got older, my mother realized that she needed to record these stories. We never were one for video cameras and tapes, so she began jotting them down on lined paper, usually the five by eight notepads. The writing was messy, with words misspelled and whole sections crossed out, but she began to keep a written history. 

In 2006, after a number of health setbacks, my three siblings, our spouses, and I insisted that my parents sell their condo in Florida and move back up north That May, they moved into Coburg Village, an independent living facility only four miles from our home. 

Soon after moving in, my mother called me to tell me she was joining Coburg’s monthly writing group to finally finish all those stories she carried in her head and on those scraps of paper. When she brought her first story to the group, her accounting of why she and my father moved to Coburg, she was surprised to find that the group enjoyed her writing style. “They loved my story, Marilyn!” she told me. “They said I have a real flair for storytelling!” After that, my mother’s voice in phone calls after the monthly Wednesday meetings was filled with pride. 

Mom rarely had difficulty finding a topic and writing it down with pen on paper. However, the group leader requested that the stories be typed so they could eventually be published in the semi-annual collection and distributed to Coburg residents. My mother asked me to type them. While I was at it, could I, “My daughter the English major,” do some proofing and minor revisions so that they would read more smoothly? 

Thus began our five-year collaboration. Every month, about a week before the group met, my mother would give me her hand-written story. I would do some editing, including spelling, grammar, and even some tightening of the narrative. Her oral stories evolved into polished narratives,— funny, poignant, sad, and sometimes painful, but always entertaining.

When my father passed away in November 2008, my mother’s contribution for December was an open letter to my father. She wrote that she was moving into a smaller apartment down the hall. “Wherever I go, you also go in spirit,” she wrote. Grieving quietly, she continued with her life at Coburg, going to the concerts, visiting with friends and family who were always stopping by to see her, and continuing with her writing. All the children asked her to write about our births and early childhood, but she always postponed those stories, focusing on the Old Country, her childhood, her Bill. 

On December 22, 2010, my mother had a heart attack. The doctors recommended hospice care and living her remaining time to the fullest. She complied, enjoying visits and calls from the children, grandchildren, her extended family, and the many friends she and my father had made in Coburg and in their lifetimes. She kept writing. 

In February 2011, with my sister Laura and me sitting close by, my mother shared her story, “The Birth of My First Child,” with her writing group. She described her joy in having a beautiful little girl and her fears that she would not be able to be a good mother. The last words, written in pencil on the bottom, were “To be continued….” She died four weeks later, the day of the club’s March meeting. 

I had made a promise to myself that one day I would gather her stories in a book. When COVID-19 shuttered so many of my activities, I decided that it was time. Over the past eighteen months, I have worked on editing, filling in the gaps, and finally ordering the stories in chronological order to make the book flow smoother.

I too had family stories, articles I had written over the years capturing memories of our old Victorian in Upstate New York, our cottage on Lake Champlain, my father’s obsession with boats, bugs, and bats; my mother’s words of wisdom; my siblings’ accomplishments. I decided to include those in the book.

By this March, I was ready to send my first draft to my editor, Mia Crew. She was responsible for formatting the book for paperback and Kindle format as well as inserting the 80+ photos, many of them family pictures that dated back to 1914. Fradel’s Story has been launched on Amazon, in time for my target, September 1, what would have been my mother’s 104th birthday. 

My parents were not wealthy people. They had little of material value: a wedding ring, my Grandmother Ethel’s engagement ring, two beautiful, framed pictures of my father at thirteen and my mother at six, a few nice dishes. As my siblings and I sadly dismantled Mom’s apartment, my daughter was surprised that I wanted so little. “It’s okay, Julie,” I said. “I have her stories.” 

And now, I can share them with my large close knit family, with an incredible network of friends who personally knew my parents or knew their legacy, and hopefully hundreds of others who may find their own lives reflected in this collection.

Marilyn and Fran at Coburg Village, Rexford, New York, October 2006.

Route to Jewish life in States not always the same story

My family, like those of most of my Jewish friends, can trace their roots from Eastern Europe and Russia. The story of our lives have been captured again and again in movies and literature: Our grandparents, facing religious persecution and the fear of pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, fled to Der Goldene Medina, the Golden Country—America. Most landed at Ellis Island and started their lives and the lives of their children in New York City’s lower East Side. But other friends have shared stories that represent a more circuitous route. One such person is Hilda Gallant, whose own history starts not on Hester Street but in Havana.

Hilda’s parents, Simon Kiman and Golda Szejerman, were both born in Poland. When they were small children, their families immigrated to Cuba in 1925 and 1929, respectively. Growing up in the same Jewish neighborhood in Havana, the two eventually fell in love and married in 1950. Hilda (nee Gilda) was born eleven months later. By 1957, the Kimans were a family of five with the birth of two more daughters, Rose and Julie. 

Despite political tensions and the 1952 coup that resulted in the subsequent dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista, the Kimans lived a happy, comfortable life. Simon and his brother owned and managed a successful small variety store, while Golda was a full-time homemaker. Although they continued to speak Yiddish within their home, they also learned Spanish, the language of their adopted country. Hilda and Rose attended a Jewish parochial school, where they were taught secular subjects, including Spanish, in the morning. After a break for lunch, the traditional main meal, they returned in the afternoon for Hebrew lessons and Judaic studies.

In 1959, Cuba’s political world was upended. Open corruption and oppression under Batista’s rule led to his ousting by the 26th of July Movement, and Fidel Castro soon assumed leadership. Under his communist rule, all businesses were nationalized. Private ownership was forbidden, and Simon and his brother lost their store and their livelihood. As conditions in all areas, including education, deteriorated, the family made a decision to leave Cuba. Unable to get visas to emigrate to America, Simon and Golda applied and were accepted into Israel. A few months later, Hilda’s maternal aunt, uncle and grandmother also emigrated to Israel and lived across the hall from the Kiman’s. Simon’s family eventually immigrated to the States and settled in Philadelphia.

Out from under Castro’s iron thumb, Simon and Golda still found life in “The Promised Land” very difficult. Simon, who had no formal education or training, worked a job an orange packaging factory. Golda supplemented his salary by learning the diamond cutting trade. Struggling with Hebrew, they continued to mostly speak Spanish and Yiddish with other immigrants of similar background.Hilda and her sisters adjusted well to life in Israel as children.

When Hilda was approaching her 16th birthday, Simon and Golda yearned to be with their family in the States. They sent her to Philadelphia to live with her father’s sister and husband and her paternal grandmother. She shared a room with her cousin Henry in a tiny home. Although she received much love, she missed her parents and sisters very much. 

Although she found math and science courses relatively easy, Hilda found courses that required English proficiency a struggle. Fortunately several wonderful teachers took her under their wing and provided extra help before and after school. “Henry also helped by introducing me to American TV,” said Hilda. “It turned out to be a great tool in learning a new language.”

Rose soon followed, and in 1968, just before Hilda’s high school graduation, her parents, youngest sister and grandmother finally obtained visas to enter the US. The family was finally reunited. Hilda’s parents purchased a small food/variety store and then a clothing store, and the entire family found happiness in the very large and tight-knit Cuban Jewish presence in Philadelphia.

After high school, Hilda’s aunt insisted that she continue her education. “You are in America,” she told Hilda. “Women don’t rush off to get married and have babies after high-school. You need to go to college.”

Hilda enrolled at Gratz College in the Judaic studies program. She worked full time during the day as a bookkeeper to help support her family and took classes at night and on Sunday. Because of her time in Israel, Hilda spoke fluent Hebrew and became friends with many of her Israeli classmate, along with a part-time native Philadelphian.

Stuart Gallant had grown up in the “City of Brotherly Love,” the only child of first-generation Americans and the grandson of Eastern European/Russian refugees. Along with his public school education, Stuart attended the usual 3-days-a-week Hebrew school through his bar mitzvah. The rabbi of their Conservative synagogue of which his parents were co-founders enticed Stuart and some other boys to engage in additional learning including Torah reading and leading services. Raising the stakes, the rabbi then insisted that his students attend Shabbat services weekly “Until my high school graduation, I became a fixture at the shul,” Stuart said. “I read Torah on Saturday morning, taught Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah students, lead junior congregation and, in my senior year, served as president of the local chapter of United Synagogue Youth”.

After he graduated high school, Stuart enrolled in Drexel University for a degree in electrical engineering. Struggling to balance his new classes and the slew of Jewish holidays that fell on during his first weeks on campus, Stuart had to cut back on his attendance at services. His “school vs. shul” decision resulted in falling out with the rabbi. He stopped going to services, even avoiding driving near his synagogue. 

Despite his estrangement from formal religion, Stuart enrolled in Gratz College part-time to further his Jewish education. During one of his classes, he noticed the lovely young woman who spoke fluent Hebrew. Intrigued by what he thought was her Israeli background, Stuart asked her out. On their first date, however, Hilda called her parents to alert them that she might be late coming home due to bad weather. “She certainly wasn’t speaking Hebrew,” said Stuart. It was only after that phone call that he learned about Hilda’s Cuban-Jewish background. As a matter of fact, throughout their courtship and their marriage, Stu could not converse with Hilda’s grandmother since he never learned fluent Spanish—or Yiddish. 

After completing his masters at Drexel, Stuart began a career in biomedical engineering that took him and Hilda to Minneapolis, Baltimore, and eventually to California. Hilda initially stayed home to raise their two sons, Joshua and Avi. She eventually used her strong accounting skills in several jobs, including Stuart’s own medical device start-up company.

The “school vs. shul” decision long behind him, Stuart, along with Hilda, became actively involved in their synagogues through their lives. Stuart served on synagogue boards, Hilda called on her background in Judaic Studies to teach in a Jewish-nursery school. 

For Hilda, the journey that started in Cuba has recently brought her only 400 miles from her birthplace (although she would never visit!). This past year, Hilda and Stuart moved to Florida to be closer to their children and grandchildren, who live on the East Coast. Now that pandemic restrictions have eased that look forward to in-person meetings with their new neighbors as well as fellow members of their new shul, Congregation Shalom Aleichem, who have only been recently faces and voices on the Zoom services. Wherever they go, Hilda and Stuart’s rich background and warm presence will be a blessing. 

First published in (Capital Region) Jewish World May 27, 2021

Photo of Stuart and Hilda Gallant’s engagement printed with their permission.

A Family of Stores

Before 23andme.com DNA kits, before genetic testing, before people poured through old census and courthouse records, our family had the best tool to connect with our ancestors—our parents, Fran and Bill Cohen.

Bill Cohen claimed he could sniff out family from ten feet or from 200 years away. According to Dad, we were related to Sir Moses Montefiore, a nineteenth century British financier and philanthropist; Stubby Kaye , American actor and comedian most famous for his role as Nicely-Nicely in Guys and Dolls; and Madeline Kunin, the former governor of Vermont. 

Dad didn’t regard fame as the only criteria to be considered mishpachah (Yiddish for a Jewish family or social unit including close and distant relatives ). If one had any Jewish connection, Dad would find some link no matter how obscure and embrace them as one of our own .

While my father connected, my mother, Frances Cohen, kept a more reliable account of our family tree. Even into her nineties, my mother could share the convoluted genealogical history of our huge family. To add to the complexity, my father’s grandfather married my mother’s great-aunt, first cousins married first cousins; and two sisters from Vermont married two brothers from Toronto.That is not only a great deal of mishpachah but a great deal of mishagas (confusion)! My brother Jay would listen for hours, jotting down rough drafts of the convoluted branches on yellow legal pads that he filed away for “later.”

Jay also spent a great deal of time talking to our parents about the chain of family run department stores that are intrinsically entwined into our family’s history.

Pearl’s Department Stores began in the early 1900s, when our maternal great-uncle Paul Osovitz, unable to continue in the New York City sweat shops because of respiratory problems, was given money by his older sister Lillian to start a business in Vermont. Initially living with his uncle Archic Perelman in Burlington, Paul peddled wares he carried on his back throughout the rural parts of Vermont and Upstate New York.He saved enough to purchase a horse and cart. As his business grew, he invited his brother Joe to join him. 

Paul and Joe opened up their first store in Alburg, Vermont. As people knew them as the “Perelman Boys,” they chose the name of “Pearl’s Department Store.” To make the moniker even more accurate, they and most of the family changed their surname to Pearl. They opened a second store in Swanton, Vermont. Joe eventually went back to New York City. Paul began building a small dynasty of over 20 stores, employing his relatives as managers and clerks. Our father, Bill Cohen, was one of those relatives, spending most of his life managing one of Uncle Paul’s stores in Keeseville, New York.

By the late 1980s, however, big box stores and highway systems like the Northway, rang the death knell for small-town family run businesses. Pearl’s closed its last store in 1988, only remembered through those that worked or shopped there and dusty records.

In 2015, my brother Jay, retired and always loving “minutia and trivia,” began researching the history of each of the stores and the families involved. He Googled the internet for news stories, advertisements, and pictures. He contacted historians in the stores’ towns. He reached out to the descendants of the relatives that managed or worked in Paul’s stores. He then expanded his research to include stores and businesses owned by mishpachah that were not connected to Pearls, including paternal relatives and my in-laws, who owned Shapiros of Schuylerville in Upstate New York.

Jay incorporated all his findings into a website he called afamilyofstores.com. “If you grew up in upstate New York (‘the North Country’) or in northern Vermont anywhere from the 1930s through the 1980s you probably remember a Pearl’s Department Store in your hometown,” Jay wrote on the site’s home page. “You went there with your mom or your friends. You bought your Wrangler jeans and your school clothes or a Christmas gift. A Pearl’s store was there before the Kmart’s, Ames, and Walmart’s and the Northway.”

The ongoing project, which Jay calls a “labor of love,” also drew on his interest in genealogy. His two sons began hounding him. “Learning about Pearl’s is fine,” they said. “But when are you going to pull out all those yellow legal pads you have stuffed in a drawer and create a family tree for posterity?” It took a pandemic to motivate Jay to dig them out.

Early in the COVID lockdown, my three siblings and I connected with our paternal first cousins through weekly Zoom sessions. As we continued to shelter in place, our group of seven expanded to include over 22 cousins, their spouses, and even their children. 

Each meeting was consumed by the question, “How are we all related?” Jay, who had screen shared his afamilyofstores.com website, offered to pull it all together. 

Using a template from ancestry.com, Mom’s notes, his website, and updated information he gathered from the Tuesday Zooms, Jay  meticulously created the framework of a family tree that will document both paternal and maternal sides of  our ever expanding family. When finished, it will include everyone from Moses Montifiore (Dad was right, as he was about Stubby Kaye and Madeline Kunin) to my nine-month old grandson, a span of over 200 years. Thanks to Jay’s efforts, we not only know our roots but also our far-flung branches.

Why don’t we all submit our DNA to one of the popular ancestry sites to learn more? Two reasons. First, our entire family history goes back to the shtetl in Eastern European. Those of us who have had tests done show us as 98% Ashkenazi (Jews with roots in Eastern Europe). No surprises there. The second reason is that—well— we have more relatives than we can handle! Jay said that he expects to connect the family tree to over 1000 people. 

And if we finally cave in, send a sample of our saliva to a testing site, and find even more? Bring them on! After all, we are Bill and Fran Cohen’s children. And we love our family…all of them. 

Published in (Capital Region, NY) Jewish World on January 7, 2020.

Holocaust survivor Albert Kitmacher and his five miracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

An Unsung Hero Rescued by Three Teenagers

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

“Have you read it?” Larry asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Memorial Day Tribute to a Jewish Hero

Albert Gellman Circa 1944

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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