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Holocaust

Holocaust survivors and residents living at Gurwin Jewish ~ Fay J. Lindner Residences assisted living community in Commack paid homage to  the victims of the Holocaust with a candle lighting vigil on Friday, January 26 in advance of Saturday’s commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Today’s ceremony honors the 79th  anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau,” said Dina McDougald, Assistant Administrator at Gurwin Jewish ~ Fay J. Lindner Residences. “Over the years we have been honored to care for many Holocaust survivors and are privileged to currently have 13 such residents in our care. As time passes, the numbers of those who can recount their experiences are dwindling. Each year we share their stories as a reminder of the effects of indifference to hatred, in the hope that these atrocities never happen again.”

Among the survivors living at Gurwin is Polish-born Cilia Borenstein. At 97 years old, Cilia vividly recalls her encampment at Auschwitz and the brutality of the Nazis.  The only member of her family to survive, Cilia holds their memories in her heart, telling their story so that the world will never forget. 

Despite the horrors perpetrated against her, Cilia chooses to see the beauty in life and people and is thankful for the gifts she was given. Her faith buoyed her spirits throughout her days at Auschwitz, “God came to me in the worst times and helped me to survive,” she said.

The memorial ceremony was led by Gurwin Assisted Living’s staff and chaplain Rabbi Israel Rimler, who called upon residents to each light a candle in remembrance of the friends and family who died at the hands of the Nazis.

Photograph of an American tank during the Battle of the Bulge, above. File photo from Getty Images

“The same day I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha [in Germany]. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however, that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.” — Supreme Allied Cmdr. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

At that moment almost 78 years ago, Hitler’s Third Reich was rapidly crumbling away.

This was in large part due to the massive strength of Eisenhower’s armies, which were determined to finish the war in Europe. With the end in sight, Allied soldiers entered German soil with the hope of receiving a speedy surrender. During this advance, American soldiers quickly noticed that the enemy had some notable similarities to their own countrymen. 

The German population was similar in size to the American middle class, and lived in heated homes surrounded by picturesque natural beauty from the German and Austrian landscapes. As Allied forces continued their eastward push, however, any feelings of closeness with the enemy quickly evaporated, as they had come to learn of Hitler’s “final solution.” American soldiers, many from neighborhoods along Long Island’s North Shore, had discovered and liberated the German death camps. 

For the men who witnessed this shocking brutality, these experiences would never be forgotten. Although hardened by the Battle of the Bulge and other combats against a fanatical resistance unwilling to surrender its losing cause, Americans were utterly unprepared for the scenes at these camps. Some had heard of the cruel treatment inflicted by the Nazis, but they were horrified after entering these camps. At once, the medics distributed food, water and medical treatment to save as many lives as they could. 

After visiting the Ohrdruf concentration camp on April 12, 1945, a sickened Eisenhower said, “We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, we know what he is fighting against.” Renowned journalist and radio broadcaster Edward R. Murrow accompanied the American 6th Armored Division into the Buchenwald concentration camp. Laying witness to the atrocities, he reported, “I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words. … If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry. I was there.”  

“The inmates liberated by our forces were skeletons. … It was enough to make strong men weep — and some American officers did so unabashedly.”

— Robert Murphy

Diplomat Robert Murphy was also present to see the conditions of these camps. He recalled: “The inmates liberated by our forces were skeletons. … It was enough to make strong men weep — and some American officers did so unabashedly.” Many American soldiers were ordered to see these camps for themselves, as Eisenhower wished to prevent any future deniers of the Holocaust.

Two local heroes

Among these soldiers was the late John D’Aquila, resident of Belle Terre. A member of the 11th Armored Division, he served under Gen. George S. Patton’s famed Third Army. D’Aquila was a native of Middletown, Connecticut, who landed in France during the Battle of the Bulge. As a medic, he was ordered toward the strategic Belgian town of Bastogne which was surrounded by German forces. During one of the worst winters in recorded history, D’Aquila treated wounded soldiers as they turned back this German offensive. For his valiance and unceasing treatment of wounded servicemen, D’Aquila received a Purple Heart after being wounded during this battle.

Like many other soldiers at the end of this war, D’Aquila wondered if he would survive. On May 5, 1945, the 11th Armored Division entered the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. By the end of the war, those camps in Central Europe had considerably higher death rates as they were the last to be captured by Allied forces. D’Aquila remembered the inability of the local Austrian citizens to accept responsibility for the savagery committed there, despite the stench of death that hung in the air, the piles of bodies stacked up “like cordwood.”  

After the war, D’Aquila attended college and later earned a degree in law, where he defended the interests of insurance companies. Locally in Port Jefferson, he was on the board of directors of Theatre Three, and a play was later created by Jeffrey Sanzel, “From the Fires: Voices of the Holocaust.” Until his death, D’Aquila openly addressed his wartime experiences because he wanted to ensure that citizens, especially the youth, did not forget the severity of the Holocaust.

In 2008, D’Aquila described his experience of liberating Mauthausen during a Veterans Day program at Rocky Point High School. As though it had just occurred, D’Aquila spoke of his duty to medically care for the survivors of the concentration camp as they were finally being liberated. At another program at the high school, D’Aquila joined Werner Reich, who had survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Mauthausen, and was liberated by the 11th Armored Division.  

Reich was a 17-year-old young man who weighed only 64 pounds at the time of his liberation. In this condition, he was not expected to survive. At RPHS, he looked at the audience and vividly stated that if it had not been for Americans like D’Aquila, then he would have surely perished from starvation. Although from different backgrounds, both men were inextricably tied to one another through their shared experience of “man’s inhumanity to man.” For years, Reich has spoken to high schools across the North Shore to ensure that good people do not stand by when innocent people suffer from such atrocities. 

Even though World War II ended long ago, the world now watches history repeat itself through the images of fighting in the Ukraine. Americans are again learning of the massive losses of Ukrainian civilians suspected of being killed by Russian forces. People such as D’Aquila and Reich made it their mission in life to alert people that history will repeat itself if good people do nothing. We must learn from the examples of the past, we must always act, protect and preserve the rights and freedoms of people everywhere.  

Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School and adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College.

Pexels photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

He was a part of my wife’s family’s inner circle for years. He appeared at summer gatherings and at significant family events and celebrations.

With his white hair, his signature smile and a Polish accent that seemed as fresh in each conversation as it likely was the first time he arrived in the United States, Carl wandered in and out of conversations and rooms, often smiling and always listening.

He seemed as comfortable in his own skin as anyone I’d ever met, paying close attention to his wife, interacting with his children and grandchildren and soaking up life the way everyone around him soaked up the warm rays of the sun.

Carl watched one day almost 20 years ago when my daughter got too close to the pool’s edge, falling in before she could swim. I immediately jumped off the diving board and brought her back up, where, as I dried her off, she protested that it took too long for me to get her.

When my daughter felt comfortable and confident enough to walk away from me, Carl waited for me to make eye contact.

“That’s what you do when you’re a father,” he smiled.

I nodded and sighed while my blood pressure and pulse returned to normal.

Several times over the years, Carl and I sat next to each other, sharing buffet-style meals of chicken kebobs, pasta, and filets.

Carl didn’t have the numbers tattooed on his arm, but I knew some of the story of his life. I didn’t want to bother him or upset him with a discussion of what was a painful and difficult period.

Once, when we were alone inside a screened-in area, I raised the topic.

“Hey, Carl, I understand you survived the holocaust,” I said.

When he looked me in the eyes, he narrowed his lids slightly, processing what I said and, likely, trying to figure out whether he wanted to talk.

“It’s okay,” I said, immediately backing off. As a journalist, I have a tendency to ask questions. I recognize, however, the boundaries that exist during social interactions and with family and friends. I wanted to speak with him to hear about what had been an unspoken part of his life.

“Yes, I survived,” I said.

“How? Where?”

“In the woods,” he said. “I lived in the woods when the Nazis came.”

He described how he was so hungry that he ate leaves, bugs and bark. That, however, was far preferable to being caught by the Nazis, who had murdered the rest of his family. Carl had been a teenager when he escaped to the woods, avoiding Nazi guards who were always searching for people they deemed enemies and who they readily killed.

Surrounded by a collection of other people who might, at any given time, vanish forever, Carl survived for several years, emerging at the end of the war to try to restart a life shattered by violence and cruelty.

After a brief description of his experience, he told me how important he felt it was that people study the specifics of World War II and understand what really happened to him, his family and people in so many other countries. It angered him that people tried to ignore a history that took so much from him.

All those years later, Carl seemed so easy going and relaxed, so prepared to laugh and smile and to enjoy another bite of lunch or dinner.

Carl recently died. I’m sorry for the loss to his family. I’m glad to have known him and to have shared a few meals, a few smiles and a few stories. All those days, months and years of life, like initials carved into a tree, showed that he was, indeed, here and, having seen his family react and interact with him, that his life had meaning.

Steven Klipstein, who taught at Suffolk County Community College for 49 years, is also the academic lead for the Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding. Photo from SCCC

Stony Brook resident Steven Klipstein may be retired from his college post, but it seems hard to stop him from teaching.

Klipstein spent one year shy of five decades at Suffolk County Community College, where he taught in the English department, though he is much more widely known for his course on the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany during World War II. 

Steven Klipstein continues as the Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding at SCCC despite being retired. Photo from SCCC

He talks with a soft urgency about his passions, whether it’s teaching, his time as adviser to the college newspaper, or his work with the college’s Holocaust center, which is now called the Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding. For those students who knew him, that demeanor bled into his lectures, especially in the Holocaust class. He has taught that course for well over 30 years, and even now after he is a professor emeritus at SCCC, he still tries to teach young people about the massacre of over 6 million Jews.

And as people of the Jewish faith reach the end of Hanukkah this year and looking back to last year where New York was the site of multiple anti-Semitic attacks at the end of the Jewish holiday, such understanding becomes ever more important.

“At least New York mandates a day in high school, a mention of the Holocaust, so at least most New York kids know that it happened,” he said. “But most of the country doesn’t, so they have no idea what it is.”

It’s because the point Klipstein makes is while too many people see the Holocaust as a distant event, a pothole in the historical timeline, the reality is that it was not some kind of aberration, but the culmination of years of anti-Semitism both in Europe and in America. The U.S., while touting its role in defeating the Third Reich, was also the home to much of the time’s leading anti-Semites, such as Henry Ford, who in 1938 received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest medal Nazi Germany could bestow on a foreigner.

But even closer to home, Long Island was one of the few places to have a real Nazi element in its backyard. In 1935, Camp Siegfried, a Nazi youth camp, opened in Yaphank. Though back then it may have seemed more like a camp to celebrate German heritage, even with the young men in brown shirts marching down roads named Hitler Street with arms outstretched in the classic Nazi salute. Klipstein talked about that camp, among other topics, in a recent six-hour American Heroes Channel documentary, “Hitler’s Empire.”

Although it is common knowledge today, Klipstein said it took decades for a common understanding of those events to take root, both in Germany and in the U.S. But now, he said, he’s seeing some of that understanding slip away.

Though occasionally he received critical glances from students about some point in his lectures, he has never encountered a Holocaust denier in his academic history. Still they are out there. The professor emeritus cited a tale told by Ruth Minsky Senderowicz, a Holocaust survivor from Commack, who has said a denier called to get her to say her story — of her mother being taken from her at the Lodz Ghetto in Poland and the daughter being sent to Auschwitz — was a lie.

“It takes a lot of courage to fight them, because they’re not really scholars, they’re provocateurs,” Klipstein said.  

Though the issue is now in getting more students to volunteer to learn about those horrific events. He continues to teach the Holocaust class, but said his lecture is down to small numbers. He stressed how important it is for people to not only learn about those days in the death camps but come to see the world differently through that understanding.

“I think for a lot of students, it’s eye opening,” he said. “And if you’re in tune to it, you learn and you will think about it in different philosophical terms than what you’ve been thinking before about the nature of the world and humanity — the Holocaust can can’t help but make you face those realities.”

Legacy at SCCC

The venerable educator got started at 25 years old, back when academia was coming into its own in Suffolk. Stony Brook University was growing at a rapid rate, and places like SCCC were attracting new blood into its ranks. Klipstein had a good interview and “got lucky,” and was hired on the spot.

That hire would come to bite a few campus administrators in the proverbial butts later down the line. Years later, when he was assistant head of the English department, effectively also the head of the college’s journalism department, he said the campus newspaper, The Compass, was “moribund,” effectively on the brink of death. He came in after there was a reported brawl inside the paper’s office.

“I told the other administrators that something’s got to be done, and they said, ‘Well, OK, do it,’” Klipstein said.

Cutting out the rougher parts of the staff, and just with two or three young people, he revitalized the paper. With the help of new editorial staff, they were putting out a good-sized, 20-page campus newspaper that won awards from the likes of Newsday. The paper also did not shy from getting involved in campus controversy. They went after administrators for nepotism in hiring family members for dead-end jobs or highlighting discrepancies with the college budget.

“It was really kind of enervating and exciting being the troublemakers on campus,” he said. “And we embarrassed them more than once, you know, which I confess that I loved.”

While administration couldn’t fire Klipstein as a tenured professor, he said it would regularly threaten his position as adviser to the paper. He would hold that position at the paper for 13 years.

Of his near 50-years at Suffolk, there are several things that Klipstein said he takes pride in. The paper, for one, was an act of helping to build something from effectively nothing. Though now that he’s stepped back from a full-time role in academia, the professor can’t help but see what he called a decline of people’s appreciation for arts or culture, which breaks down into a decline in appreciation for history or even today’s current events.

“A lot of our problems come from the fact that we have completely denuded the liberal arts,” he said. “I said, so many times, it’s going to start creeping into our politics — we are going to elect someone who is just basically from image, no substance, just image. And that person is going to get us into a lot of trouble. I swear I said it so many times, it was coming out of my ears, and sure enough, there he is.”

Though Suffolk has not cut any of its liberal arts programs, he said there has been a steady decline in the number of students taking those kinds of classes. Less degrees are requiring liberal arts classes as well. He points to places like Stony Brook University which in 2018 suspended admission into its theater arts, comparative literature and cinema arts programs.. The backlash led to the then-College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sacha Kopp stepping down.

“A university can’t do that, that’s not thinking in the long run … that basically what students really need to learn, more than anything, is how to critically think,” Klipstein said. “I think without the ability to think, without the ability to understand the classic structure of your society, both politically and culturally, you lose what you have.”

Editor’s note: The author of this article was a student of Klipstein when the educator still taught full time at SCCC.

Holocaust Survivor Werner Reich's passport with a large red “J” for Jew. File photo by Victoria Espinoza.

By Rich Acritelli

This past January marked the 75th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz Extermination Camp in Poland. Like that of the horrific surprise of the American and British military forces that freed the western and central European camps in the spring of 1945, the average Soviet soldier who entered this camp never knew what its main purpose was before they walked into Auschwitz. They unknowingly freed the largest extermination camp that the Germans built some five months before the war ended.  

‘Here heaven and earth are on fire

I speak to you as a man, who 50 years and nine days ago had no name, no hope, no future and was known only by his number, A7713

I speak as a Jew who has seen what humanity has done to itself by trying to exterminate an entire people and inflict suffering and humiliation and death on so many others.’

—Auschwitz Survivor and Writer Elie Wiesel 

As Auschwitz was not known by most of the Allied combat soldiers, it was understood to be the final stop for many Jews, gypsies, political opposition, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, etc. In 1941, Hitler began to authorize the deportation of the Jews to Poland. While Germany had its own concentration camp system, the later killings of Jews and other “enemies of the state,” took place mostly in the east. As the German military continued to show its dominance against every nation that it fought against, more Jews came under their control. Although the Nazis always needed additional workers, they did not provide any decency to those groups that were deemed to be “inferior” populations against the German Reich.

The SS, under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, was determined to capture and kill every Jew in Europe. Most of these plans were to be carried out at Auschwitz, which was located 50 miles southwest of Krakow. This western area of Poland was originally known as Oswiecim, a sparsely populated town that had 12,000 citizens and included some 5,000 Jews. At first, this camp was created to handle the flow of Polish prisoners of war and partisans who opposed this German occupation. During the Jan. 20, 1942, Wannsee Conference that was chaired by SS leader Reinhard Heydrich and representatives of 15 departments of the German government, they met to decide the final fate of the “Jewish Question,” which resided within their conquered territories.

Heydrich, who was later killed by Czechoslovakian-British commandos, was the driving force to carry out the orders of Hitler and Himmler to transport and kill the estimated 11 million Jews in Europe. He worked with the bureaucracy of his government to ensure that there would be enough resources and logistics to follow Hitler’s directives to destroy these self-proclaimed enemies of the regime. 

Auschwitz was established for this exact purpose. Even through the massive fighting that Germans had to wage on every front, Hitler demanded that his orders of the “Final Solution” were to be followed through the creation of other smaller centers at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. The first victims at Auschwitz were 850 Soviet military political prisoners of war that were killed by Zyklon B gas. This chemical was primarily used to deter rodents and it later was utilized by the SS to kill almost one million people at Auschwitz.  

This massive area constructed by Germany was broken into two separate places for the prisoners. Birkenau held most of the gas chambers and crematoriums for those people that were selected right away for death. The other portions of Auschwitz were built for massive slave labor where their prisoners worked within factories established inside and outside of this camp. As some were chosen to live, the Germans calculated the minimum number of calories that were needed to survive. These people were expected to eventually die from the spring of 1942 to the fall of 1944. People from all over the German-occupied land, ranging from France on the Atlantic Ocean to the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, were deported to Auschwitz.  

By the end of the war, when Hitler was all but assured that the Allies would defeat his armies, the killing continued at a faster rate against the Hungarian Jews. This was one of the few Jewish populations that were still protected by their own government. But after a regime change that supported the Nazis, many Jews were deported right away to Auschwitz. Adolph Eichmann, who was later captured by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1961, was driven to capture as many Hungarian Jews and deport them to their death. Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg was sent to Hungary through the indirect support of the United States. When it became apparent that the Germans would not stop, this was a last-ditch attempt to save these Eastern European Jews who were not yet targeted by the Nazis.

Wallenberg bribed Hungarian officials and issued Swedish passes that made these Jews citizens of his nation. Even as he was engaged within this vital humanitarian mission, Wallenberg met with the Soviet military after they liberated Hungary. The diplomat, who regularly risked his own life, was believed to be an American spy by the Soviet KGB. Wallenberg was taken by the Soviets and never seen again.

A main question that people have pondered since 1945 is why the Allies did not do more to limit the extent of the Holocaust. Around the clock, American and British bombers targeted every military and industrial location in Germany. Auschwitz was located near the eastern part of Germany and it was within the range of Allied aircraft that operated from English, Italian and later French military bases. Early in the war, when evidence was sent to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, they initially refused to believe that the Germans were committing wide-scale mass murder. But as the war continued, increased stories emerged from the people who escaped from the death camps looked to identify to the world the true intentions of Hitler.  

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

When it was completely proven to Roosevelt and Churchill that the Germans would never halt this policy, the Western Allied leaders did little to stop this genocidal policy. Since 1945, many of the inmates of Auschwitz openly stated that they would rather have died from aerial bombs seeking to destroy this factory of death than by being personally led to the gas chambers. Information was smuggled out of Auschwitz that described the location of the railroad lines, gas chambers and crematoriums that were later analyzed by Allied leaders. Both Roosevelt and Churchill believed that the only way to end the Holocaust was not to divert any major resources from quickly winning the war. The issue with this policy was that there was not even a limited effort to thwart the carrying out of the Holocaust.

Captain Witold Pilecki was a Catholic Polish cavalry officer who gathered intelligence for his government. The Polish were in hiding after their country was taken over by the Germans. When rumors continued to circulate about the true intentions of Auschwitz, he volunteered to purposely get arrested and be sent to the camp. He spent almost two years at Auschwitz, where he smuggled out reports that were read by western leaders. Pilecki organized the under-ground resistance efforts to possibly take over the camp. He believed that if this facility was attacked from the outside by either the Polish resistance or the Allies, that his men were able to control the interior from the Germans. When he realized that help was not coming, Pilecki escaped from Auschwitz. He later fought against the Nazis and was again taken as a prisoner, but he survived the war. After Poland was liberated, he returned home to oppose the communists, and he was later killed by his own government as being an accused spy that supported the democratic government that was in exile in England.

At the end of the war, as American forces were destroying the German army on the Western Front, additional camps were discovered by the U.S. military. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with generals Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton, were sickened at the sight of Hitler’s “Final Solution” in Western Europe. Under the orders of Eisenhower, he directed large parts of his army to personally observe camps like Berga, Dachau, Mauthausen and Ohrdruf. It was his belief that current and future people would deny the existence and purpose of this organized terror. Today, as many Holocaust survivors are well into their 90s, they fear that resentment is at heightened levels toward many different religious and ethnic groups. And like the concerns that Eisenhower presented some 75 years ago, many of these survivors believe that the lessons of the Holocaust are being forgotten, and that there are more Holocaust deniers around the world who seek to suppress the knowledge of these crimes against humanity.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. 

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Village Chabad Center for Jewish Life & Learning in East Setauket hosted a historic evening with Holocaust survivor Irving Roth  Feb. 23. The 91-year-old Roth, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, shared his story to a sold-out crowd.

“Over 300 people packed our ballroom at Village Chabad to hear Mr. Irving Roth. You could hear a pin drop in the room for over an hour as he shared his fascinating personal story of survival and courage. He left everyone inspired by his unshakable faith in God, his uncompromising hope in humanity, and most importantly, his calling to each of us to do our part to increase goodness and kindness in our world every day,” said Rabbi Motti Grossbaum.

The event also included a performance by violinist Wendy Fogel of the Sound Symphony Orchestra and was followed by a book signing of Roth and his son Edward’s novel, “Bondi’s Brother: A Story of Love, Loss, Betrayal and Liberation.”

Irving Roth, circled, at liberation Photo from Village Chabad

Local residents are invited to the Village Chabad Center for Jewish Life & Learning  in East Setauket Feb. 23 to hear the firsthand account of Irving Roth, 90, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. Readers of TBR News Media can also receive discounted tickets to the event when ordered Feb. 13 through 16.

“Irving Roth is a true survivor,” said Rabbi Motti Grossbaum of the Village Chabad. “Not only did he physically survive the terrors of WWII, but he lived on with his heart and hope intact. Roth’s presentation is sure to be moving, inspiring and educational for all who attend.”

Roth was just 10 years old when Nazi Germany invaded his native country of Czechoslovakia. He suffered through the horrific conditions of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and miraculously survived, emigrating to the United States in 1947. During the first time he returned to Auschwitz in 1998, Roth realized the importance of sharing his story with today’s generation. He has since devoted all his efforts to educating young and old about the perils of anti-Semitism and prejudice.

The evening is catered to all ages and will include a question and answer session following the main presentation.

“It is an honor for us to host Mr. Roth, and we are so fortunate that he has agreed to come to the Three Village area to share his riveting story,” said Grossbaum. “I encourage everyone who can — young and old — to come hear this remarkable person tell his incredible story of courage, faith, and survival.”

Due to limited space, advance ticket purchase is highly recommended and can be purchased at www.myvillagechabad.com. Tickets fees are $20 for advance tickets and $15 for students. A VIP option is also available that includes a reception with Roth, an autographed book and premium seating. Roth will also have copies of his book on sale.

TBR News Media readers can enter code TBR2020 when ordering tickets Feb. 13 to 16 to get a discounted $10 ticket.

Call 631-585-0521 or visit www.myvillagechabad.com for more information.

 The center is located at 360 Nicolls Road, East Setauket. The event begins at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. 

Holocaust survivors at Gurwin Jewish/Fay J. Lindner Residences participate in World Jewish Congress’s 2019 #WeRemember campaign.
Survivors take to social media to ensure the world never forgets

COMMACK: Seven decades have passed since the end of the Holocaust, yet for the survivors, the horrors they witnessed remain vividly clear.  On the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, Holocaust survivors now living at Gurwin Jewish/Fay J. Lindner Residences assisted living community participated in the third annual WeRemember campaign to ensure the world never forgets the atrocities committed against humanity. 

Tina Kamin fled the Nazis in Poland and lived in the woods for a year.

Organized by the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the #WeRemember social media movement was created three years ago to combat anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, genocide and xenophobia. The initiative is considered to be the largest global event ever organized to commemorate the Holocaust.   

Survivors, family and friends, celebrities and world leaders representing a wide range of faiths were among the thousands of people from around the world who posted photos of themselves displaying “#WeRemember” signs on Facebook and Twitter. Photos were shared by WJC and then live-streamed on a jumbotron at the gates of Auschwitz, where more than one million people were murdered by the Nazis.

Sally Birnbaum survived four concentration camps.

Eight Holocaust survivors from Gurwin’s assisted living community as well as members of Gurwin’s administrative staff participated in this year’s social media movement.   Among them were survivors of Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and other concentration camps, Hidden Children and Kindertransport refugees, each with a unique, horrific story to tell.  

Recognizing the campaign’s powerful impact and its global reach through social media outlets, the survivors were eager to participate, holding signs and giving testimony to their own personal experience during the Holocaust, because, according to Kindertransport child Ruth Meador, “the whole world needs to know… and care.”

Photos from Gurwin Jewish

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Above, the Wiener family, Željko, Beruria, Frances and Julius circa 1941. Photo courtesy of Beruria Stroke

By Donna Newman

Most Holocaust survival stories, told by those still around to bear witness, describe boxcars and concentration camps, starvation and abuse, and the horrific separation of children from their parents.

In a recent program at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket, titled Grazie Italia, local nonagenarian Beruria Stroke told her story of survival and it was quite different. She described a long and tortuous journey from Zagreb, Yugoslavia, to Campobasso, Italy, where advancing Allied forces liberated the Wiener family, who had been fleeing the Nazis — often day by day — for two and a half years.

Stroke’s life story had all the elements of a thriller and, in the discussion that ensued following her presentation, most of those in attendance encouraged her when she said she was thinking about writing a book. The general consensus: It is a story that should be shared.

Beruria Stroke answers questions after the library program on Nov. 2. Photo by Donna Newman

Speaking without notes, Stroke began her narrative in an idyllic-sounding childhood in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. Her parents, Julius and Frances Wiener, were intellectuals — people of means — and very well read. She credits her father with the ability to foresee the events of the second World War after reading Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf.”

In 1939 her parents traveled to Palestine, then under British control, and applied for papers for their family to immigrate. As they waited for the papers, they established a plan to leave Yugoslavia. It was a long wait. When transit visas finally came through on April 4, 1941 Beruria, her parents and her younger brother Željko, fled to the east via the famous Orient Express. They only made it as far as Belgrade.

In Belgrade, the train was stopped and all passengers had to find overnight lodgings. They expected to board the train the following morning to continue their journey. But that night, while staying at the apartment of an uncle, young Beruria experienced the horrors of war firsthand. She described hearing sirens at 3 a.m. but then was told it was “just an exercise.” At 6 a.m. there were no sirens — just bombs falling. The next day, after realizing they could no longer go forward, they learned of a train that could take them back to Zagreb. They negotiated the rubble that Belgrade had become, walking past dead bodies in the street. As fate would have it, they missed the train, but were directed to a spot where another train would be forming. They waited there, inside a boxcar. By the time the train left, the boxcar was filled beyond capacity. In Stroke’s mother’s words, “Not a needle could come between one person and another.”

Back in Zagreb, things had changed over night. Jews were made to wear identifying cloth badges bearing the letter Z topped by an accent mark that looked like a V — the letter representing the word for “Jew” in the Croatian language. Heads of families were being arrested and incarcerated. In exchange for their large apartment, Julius Wiener negotiated travel papers and safe transit to a train headed toward the Italian border. Stroke said, “We left in the nick of time. That night the Nazis came [and would have taken us] to a concentration camp.”

Throughout her story Stroke made note of unexpected but lucky moments that allowed her family to survive intact. It was serendipity, she said, that got them through the German occupation — serendipity, and the help of many good people along the way.

After the family made it to Italy, they still had the difficult task of avoiding capture. Stroke told of their journey south along the eastern coast of Italy on bicycles — another of her father’s brilliant ideas — sheltering overnight wherever they could find space, so as not to be outdoors after curfew.

The Wieners were among those liberated by Canadian forces on Oct. 14, 1943 in the city of Campobasso in southern Italy. That event launched the next phase of her young life, which led to her emigration to Palestine in 1945. But that’s another story.

This was only the second time Stroke has shared her story publicly. The first time was this past April at the invitation of Rabbi Joseph Topek of Hillel, a Jewish student organization on the Stony Brook University campus. Israeli premed student Eilona Feder worked with Stroke to facilitate her talk.

Feder is the Israeli-American Council “Mishelanu” (Hebrew for “from ourselves”) intern on campus, tasked with connecting Israeli students as well as offering educational and cultural programs open to all. Feder has been involved in Holocaust education for years, ever since her middle school days in Israel. “I became so involved,” she said, “because my grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, and he was never willing to tell me his story.”

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.

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