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Holocaust Survivor

A scene from 'I Am Here'. Photo courtesy of @Micha Serraf/ Sanktuary Films

By Jeffrey Sanzel

The opening of Jordy Sank’s documentary I Am Here is a montage of news reports from recent anti-Semitic events. It is a visual and emotional assault, with the ever-present and always disturbing swastika. From this, he cuts to a disc jockey at a Jewish radio station talking about Holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal’s response to a hateful attack from a Holocaust denier. In Blumenthal’s letter, she offers to meet with the author. She wants to answer hate with a connection. 

I Am Here is an account of Blumenthal’s life. Celebrating her 98th birthday in Cape Town, South Africa, surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and friends, she relates her story. 

A scene from ‘I Am Here’. Photo courtesy of @Micha Serraf/ Sanktuary Films

Born in Warsaw, she was 18 years old when World War II broke out in 1939. She lost 23 family members—“dear souls”—sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. She, her father, and her niece, Roma, went into hiding, but following the Ghetto uprising, the three were deported to Majdanek. She witnessed her father struck down by a guard—which was the last time she saw him. In 1943, she and Roma were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau (where she was tattooed prisoner 48632) and finally ended in Bergen-Belsen before liberation. 

Blumenthal shares her harrowing journey with passion and raw honesty. Speaking of things that she had held inside for years, her details evoke deep pain. She remembers the smell of burning feathers in the destruction of the Ghetto. She tells of the room in which they were held before deportation. At night, guards would come and take young girls and rape them. 

The camps’ horrors are told in vivid, clear detail. She relates of nearly being gassed but getting a reprieve because the quota of five hundred exterminations had been filled. She describes the hanging of a prisoner after an escape attempt. At one point, Roma was contemplating suicide by throwing herself on the electrified fence. When they arrived in Bergen-Belsen, the camp had become nothing more than a charnel house, with the dead and dying everywhere. But even in this nightmare, she states: “I never lost hope, even in the darkest times of my life.”

She believes it was neither luck nor chance but God that helped her survive. Even in her tenth decade, she shows joy, light, and appreciation for all she has. She strives to bond with people, making visits, going on Facebook, and talking to her niece, who lives in New York. She believes that we must “make friends and show kindness.”

Her post-war life led her to Paris, then Palestine, where she met her South African husband, Isaac. They wed after only knowing each other for thirteen days. After that, they moved to Johannesburg, where they opened a business and raised a family. Her married life is shown in a wealth of home movies.

A scene from ‘I Am Here’. Photo courtesy of @Micha Serraf/ Sanktuary Films

Juxtaposed with her history are clips of her current life: spending time with family, swimming, walking, and even making the Sabbath challah. References to “no food must be wasted” and “the plate must be cleared,” as well as a certain frugality (the use of one tea bag to make multiple cups), are presented with humor tinged with the shadow of one who went without.

What separates I Am Here from similar documentaries is the 2D animation. Created by Greg Bakker, the rough cartoons enhance the narrative with muted colors and stilted movement. These sections are more effective and affecting than the standard archival photos and stock footage that are employed elsewhere in the film. These moving illustrations create haunting images.

At the behest of her husband’s family, Blumenthal had her tattoo removed, an unusual and disturbing request, essentially eradicating her experience. She claimed the resulting scar was from a freak car accident. For years, she did not tell her children about her suffering “because the open wounds were still bleeding.” And yet, the adult children speak of her waking up screaming from nightmares. Blumenthal said that these terrible dreams were of the Nazis taking her children. Unfortunately, these questions and ramifications are not fully addressed. The letter from the beginning of the film is never mentioned again.

Blumenthal touches on some of the things that still haunt her. When speaking of her lost family, she muses, “Every person has a grave to go to. I have none. Not even ashes.” She admits that she had trouble mixing with people after the War for they did not know what she went through. She had to build a family to find a new world.

I Am Here offers a portrait of survival but a celebration of life. Blumenthal demonstrates gratitude for the family “next to her now” and “who can hear her when she laughs or cries.” People come to her for blessings as they see her as a source of positivity. She fears that what happened could happen again, and “we should not forget.” But her final message is “We must love people around us. Love everybody” — a powerful statement from a remarkable person.

Rated PG-13, I Am Here is now playing in local theaters.

Author Ruth Minsky Sender, center, with her brothers. File photo
‘Surviving one more day in the camps was spiritual resistance.’
Ruth Minsky Sender

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Ruth Minsky Sender’s three memoirs — “The Cage,” “To Life” and “The Holocaust Lady” — are must-reads. The books chronicle the author’s life in Europe, from before World War II, through her inhumane imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camp system, and beyond. Sender is a writer of exceptional ability: vivid, introspective and yet always accessible. I have seen her speak and she is every bit as strong and present in person as she is on the page.

Now, the East Setauket resident has a new and unusual offering, a book of poetry, with the majority of poems written while she was in the Mittelsteine Labor Camp (1944–1945). Translated from the Yiddish by Rebecca Wolpe, the poems are raw and disturbing — as they should be. But underneath many of them is her mother’s motto: “While there’s life … there is hope.”  

Miriam Trinh’s well-thought-out introduction shows the importance of “Jewish poetic creativity during the Holocaust as a reaction to Nazi oppression, persecution, and annihilation,” giving context to the writing as well as insight into Sender’s work. “This poetry,” writes Trinh, “was a direct reaction to her experiences during and after the Holocaust: the loss of her prewar identity, the realization that this loss was permanent and unrecoverable and the need to construct a new, postwar identity.”

In addition to the works written while she was in the camp, there are a handful of poems that were created in the 1950s and later. They are equally as important but are taken from a different perspective. All but two of the poems were written in Yiddish (those two in Polish), first on scraps of brown paper bags stolen from the garbage, later in notebooks.

She writes, “These poems were written in little notebooks while I was incarcerated in the Nazi slave labor camp in Mittelsteine, Germany, as prisoner #55082. I wrote them while hiding in my bunk. Every Sunday, I would read them aloud to the fifty other women living with me in the room. They were my critical and faithful audience. I endeavored both to depict scenes from our life and to give everyone a little courage and the will to continue. This was how we spent our Sundays, and anyone who had bit of talent did her best to bring a little happiness into our tragic lives.”

The notebook was given to her by the Nazi commandant after the girls were forced to perform at Christmas. They were told if they didn’t perform, all 400 Jewish girls would be punished. Sender read two of her poems (“My Work Place” and “A Message for Mama”) and somehow they touched the cold-hearted, pitiless Nazi commandant who presented her with the first book to record her verses.

Each poem is a delicate work of art. Some are a dozen lines, while others run to several pages. Given the cruel nature of the subject, it is difficult to comment. Needless to say, they are all vividly descriptive and fiercely honest.

“My Friend” explains the importance of writing. “Our Day” is a single day in the camp, from dreaming to sundown, and shows, even in the brutality, the glimmer of hope. “Greetings from Afar” addresses the day-to-day evil and sadism the prisoners relentlessly faced every moment. “Separation” expresses the pain of being split from her brothers. In “At Work,” the language depicts the harshness of the factory; in the clipped lines you can hear the merciless grinding of the machines.

“A Ray of Light” is just that: the courage to aspire to liberation in the midst of misery. “The Future,” one of the most complicated, looks at liberation from a different aspect: what will become of them and, even more so, where will their anger go upon being freed? It is a breath-taking piece. 

“We Need Not Their Tears” faces the issue of where to go when returning to your home is a deadly option. “Where Is Justice?” is offered in two versions: one composed in the camp and the other written many years after. Both are the horrific story of a prisoner forced to beat another prisoner, driving the girl mad. In a book of challenging pieces, it is one of the most unsettling and haunting.

A later poem (1955), “Teaching Children Yiddish” is a celebration of the language that still exists, a symbol of persistence, with education being at its heart.

“While There’s Life …” is a volume that should be read and re-read by people of all faiths. It is a portrait not just of survival but of how one woman transformed her pain in humanity’s darkest hour into art … into life.

To order your copy of ‘While There’s Life …’ visit www.yadvashem.org and choose the Shop icon.

Werner Hess shows students the passport Germans required he carry around as a young boy. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

By Victoria Espinoza

Young students in the Northport-East Northport school district were given a firsthand account of one of the most pivotal and horrific periods in human history.

Holocaust survivor Werner Hess, 96, spoke to Northport elementary students last week to share his story and encourage attendees to be kind and accepting of one another.

Hess’ life changed when Hitler came to power while he was living in Frankfurt, Germany. His mother was able to help him escape to England in 1939 and, Hess eventually arrived in the United States in 1940. He talked about how the events leading up to World War II were encouraged by racial hate speech, and isolating and mistreating certain groups of people.

“These horrible sufferings must not be forgotten, and the lessons of the Holocaust must not be diminished into just a footnote in history,” Hess said at Dickinson Avenue Elementary School May 26. “We must educate generations…and combat all forms of racial, religious and ethnic hatred before it is too late.”

The passport with a large red “J” for Jew. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

Hess told the children to imagine living how they are now, except being forced to no longer see their friends, and family members being sent off to concentration camps to do slave labor. Hess himself went through that reality when he was about the same age as the fourth- and fifth-graders he spoke to.

Hess’ family had lived in Germany for generations, and his grandparents fought for Germany in World War I. Hess had plans to go to college and become an accountant, however he said this became impossible once Jewish people were no longer allowed to attend college in Germany. This led Hess to drop out of school and learn how to make women’s handbags in a factory in his town. However, soon enough the government shut down the factory, and Hess’ Christian supervisor helped him get work elsewhere undercover, where he was hidden from inspectors.

The only part of Hess’ childhood the Northport students could relate to was that he was playing on a local soccer team. He was  the only Jewish boy on the team. He had played for years, however one Sunday in 1935 he was told by the coach he could no longer play due to his religion.

“Quite a blow to a 14-year-old boy,” he said.

Eventually Hess said Jewish-owned stores were closing down, with signs on their windows saying, “owned by Jews, don’t shop from Jews.” Books written by Jews were burned in his town, statues erected for well known Jewish leaders were destroyed and Jewish names were removed from street signs. Hess lost his citizenship, and was given a passport with a large red ‘J’ on it to identify his religion. Hess said he watched synagogues, including the temple where his bar mitzvah was held, Jewish owned stores, including his parent’s fish store and homes burned down by the government, and Jewish citizens rounded up and taken to concentration camps. He saw German troops marching through his streets singing, “Jewish heads must roll, Jewish blood must be spilt.”

Gestapo officers came to Hess’ house to arrest his father and bring him to a concentration camp.

“We are all created in the image of God, you may not like each person you meet in your life, that does not mean you must hate an entire race, ethnic group or religion. You must respect the human rights of everyone.”
—Herner Wess

“After they were convinced that my father was sick and dying, they asked for me,” he said. “I was hiding in the attic of the apartment we lived in. They told my mother I should report to them when I returned home or else I would be killed on site. Trembling and with tears in her eyes, my mother came to my hiding place and sent me off to the designated assembly point.”

When Hess arrived at the train station he was told the last round of transfers just left and they would get him on the next train, but it never showed and he was sent home.

“Whether it was just luck or higher powers that protected me I don’t know,” he said.

When Hess was 17-years-old, shortly after his father died, he was able to escape Germany and fled to England.

“Saying goodbye to my mother at the train station in Frankfurt was very, very difficult,” he said. “Put yourself in my position. Having just lost my father, saying goodbye to my mother and not being assured if we would ever see each other again. Forced to leave family and friends, and head to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language.”

He said traveling to England was not easy, and people were constantly taken off trains by border guards and shipped to concentration camps to be murdered — including his aunt, uncle and cousins.

Eventually Hess was able to bring his mother to England and in 1940 he left for America. Three years later he was drafted into the Army.

“It was not only the Jewish people who suffered during this time,” Hess said. “Millions of innocent people of all religions were killed. We are all created in the image of God, you may not like each person you meet in your life, that does not mean you must hate an entire race, ethnic group or religion. You must respect the human rights of everyone.”

After Hess finished speaking students asked him dozens of questions about his life, what soccer position he played, what it was like making handbags, what he misses about Germany and if he’s ever been back. Students looked in awe at his original passport he used to travel out of Germany, and saw the red ‘J‘ and Swastika symbols covering the front.

“In those 12 years he [Hitler] turned one of the most civilized nations in the world into one of the most barbarous of all time,” he said. “Please do not bully your friends, because everyone is different, but that doesn’t mean you need to hate them. So be nice to each other.”

North Shore resident Ivan Kalina is remembered by many as a man of adventure. Photo from Yvette Panno

By Yvette Panno

Ivan Kalina, 84, of Setauket died peacefully the morning of May 27 following a brief illness.

Originally born in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, in 1932 to beloved parents Geza and Ilonka, Kalina’s life was defined by courage, strength and resilience. First as a European Jewish Holocaust survivor, later as an escaped refugee from Communism to America, his story shaped not only his life, but also the history of a generation.

During World War II, Kalina was a young child who managed to survive the Nazis’ early invasion of Czechoslovakia and the deportation of the Jews to concentration camps through the help of Christian friends and false papers.

In the final years of the war, he separated from his mother and father and went to Budapest, Hungary, to hide in an apartment with relatives just blocks from Gestapo headquarters that was bombed day and night by American, Russian and British forces.

Returning to Kosice, his was among the few Jewish families to survive.

Although his education was delayed for years by the war, as a testimony to his determination, in 1956 he graduated as the valedictorian of his medical school class from Charles University in Prague, as a pediatrician. That same year, he married his beautiful wife Vera Atlas, a histopathologist, in Kosice.

With the onslaught of Communist persecution of both Jews and democratic sympathizers, Ivan and Vera realized they could never be free in their oppressive homeland.

In 1965, they left their close families and planned a daring escape through the Yugoslavia border into Austria, until they could manage a flight to New York City with their two young children, Peter and Yvette. They came to this country with two suitcases and $200. With prison sentences awaiting them if they returned to Czechoslovakia, they dedicated themselves to making new lives. Ivan and Vera worked long hours at Bellevue Hospital and New York University while he took his medical board exams in English – his fifth fluent language.

Ivan’s favorite expression – said with characteristic humor and positive spirit – was “that’s why I came to America.”

To this country, Kalina brought with him the grit, charm and fun-loving outlook to be successful. His career spanned a private practice in pediatrics in Rocky Point as well as medical director of Little Flower Orphanage in Wading River, associate professor at Stony Brook University, and attending physician at both St. Charles Hospital and John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson.

Always athletic and tanned, he was a fiercely competitive, daily tennis player and longtime member of the Harbor Hills Country Club near his original home in Port Jefferson. A perfect day was sitting in the sun near the backyard pool reading a newspaper. A remarkable skier until the age of 70, he loved to travel and took multiple trips out to his condo in Vail, Colorado, and traveled several times a year around the world.

His love of children was no greater than that for his five grandchildren, who called him Papi and of whom he was most proud: Olivia, Mia, Sydney, Jake and Sam.

He is also survived by his children, Dr. Peter Kalina and Yvette Kalina Panno; daughter-in-law, Michelle Kalina; and long-loved partner, Carolyn Van Helden.

As he would say in Hungarian: Sok Szeretet, Servuse Tatulko.