Home for Holocaust survivors sees last generation
Home for Holocaust survivors sees last generation
Nov. 03, 2013
CHICAGO (AP) — Listen to the many harrowing stories of war, suffering and survival, all under one roof:
On the third floor, there's Margie. A prisoner of Nazi labor camps, she hauled backbreaking cement bags and was beaten with clubs. Sometimes, she had only a piece of bread to eat every other day. She weighed 56 pounds (25.4 kilograms) when she was freed.
Down the hall, there's Edith. Though pregnant, she miraculously avoided the gas chamber at Auschwitz. She lost her mother, father and husband in the camps. After liberation, she faced even more heartbreak: Her son died days after his birth.
Up on the eighth floor, there's Joe. As a boy of 10, he was herded onto a cattle car and transported to a concentration camp — the first of five he'd be shuttled to over five cruel years.
These Holocaust survivors share a history and a home: a retirement community founded more than 60 years ago for Jews who'd been victims of Nazi persecution. For decades, it was a refuge for those who'd endured the living hell of Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Mauthausen and other camps.
The Selfhelp Home, as it's called, once bustled with Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Hundreds were on a waiting list. But that was long ago.
Only 12 Holocaust survivors — the youngest in their mid-80s, the oldest 102 — remain. So do a few dozen other Jews who escaped Hitler's reach, often leaving behind family as they started new lives in Kenya, China, Colombia and other distant lands.
They're now the last generation to bear witness to one of the greatest horrors of all time.
Seventy-five years ago, Margie Oppenheimer awoke with a Nazi pointing a rifle in her face.
It was Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht — the night of broken glass — when the Nazis coordinated a wave of attacks in Germany and Austria, burning synagogues, ransacking homes, looting Jewish-owned stores.
So began seven years of terror that took Oppenheimer to a series of labor and concentration camps. She fought hunger and fear, lice and typhus, repeating to herself: "I WILL be strong. I want to live."
One day at the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, Nazis marched Oppenheimer and others naked into an open field for inspection. Those strong enough to work were directed to the right. Oppenheimer, who was emaciated, was ordered to the left with hundreds of older women. She was placed into new barracks and had the Roman numeral II scrawled on her left forearm.
Death seemed inevitable.
"I'm thinking this is the last time I will see the sun," she recalls.
That night at the camp, two friends did the unimaginable: Without saying anything, they pulled Oppenheimer under an electrified fence to another side of the camp. She scrubbed off one number on her arm so she was no longer marked for death. She stayed in those quarters and at the next day's 6 a.m. roll call, she tried to hide her skeletal frame behind a tall woman.
"The commander said, 'There is one person extra. Who IS that person? Come forward!'" Oppenheimer recalls. An elderly woman was pulled from the line and dispatched to her death.
"She was killed because of me, because I wanted to be free," Oppenheimer says, her eyes clouding with tears. "And I feel guilty about that until this living day."
Oppenheimer now lives in a sun-lit apartment filled with four generations of family photos. Oppenheimer has found comfort there. "I'm happy to know that there are people here who went through the same thing," she says.
Even when it's unspoken, the past is the emotional connection for these survivors.
"I think it has been very important for them to live as a group, even though they don't talk about it," says Ethan Bensinger, who made a 2012 documentary, "Refuge," about the place his 101-year-old mother, Rachel, calls home.
Rachel Bensinger left Germany as Hitler's dictatorial grip tightened. She moved to what was then Palestine, but her life was unalterably shaped by the Holocaust — she lost 25 members of her family.
These traumas have been enormous, but they've not been all-consuming.
"They don't want it to be the focus of who they are, they don't want to be marked," says Hedy Ciocci, the home's administrator. "They want to be defined by who they became and what life they've had."
The home started as an association in the mid-1930s when a branch of a New York organization called Selfhelp formed in Chicago. Selfhelp was a philosophy for refugees who didn't want to depend on public aid. Instead, they started a support group, collecting meager dues to help each other find jobs or apartments, learn English and navigate daily life.
About 15 years ago, with increasing numbers of survivors dying, Selfhelp began opening its doors to Jews who weren't European war refugees.
Soon, the reason this home was founded will cease to be.
Edith Stern remembers her improbable wedding ceremony in Theresienstadt. A concentration camp inmate with meningitis, she was too weak to stand, but strong enough to take her vows.
"All the people cried," she says with a wistful smile. "I laughed. I'd married the man of my dreams."
Months later, she and her mother were on a transport, thinking they were heading to a German labor camp where they'd be reunited with their husbands. Instead, they arrived at Auschwitz. Her mother was dispatched to the gas chambers, Stern to work. She was ushered into the camp by a female guard who pointed to the chimneys, and delivered a chilling taunt:
"'You see those flames? Those are your parents, your husbands, your children burning.'"
Stern also remembers the anguish when the pregnant young widow, newly freed, arrived at a Prague hospital. The staff, seeing a scrawny woman with a shaved head, thought she was a prostitute and the baby's father a Nazi. After three grueling days of labor, her son, Peter, was born. He had blood in his skull. He died three days later.
"He was," she says, "a beautiful baby."
Stern moved to Chicago in 1965 and joined the staff of Selfhelp, developing an instant rapport with the other refugees. "The reason I wanted to work there was I could never do anything for my parents because they were killed," she says. "These people could have been my parents ... I loved them and they loved me."
Bensinger, the documentary maker, conducted 30 interviews five years ago. Since then, more than two-thirds have died.
But on any evening, there are silver-haired, slightly stooped survivors, profiles of determination and fate, who gather for dinner and end another day.
There's Trudy, 100, who settled in Kenya with her husband, leaving her parents in Germany. She never saw them again.
There's Hannah, 93, the sole survivor among her family, who's never forgotten her sister's parting words: "Hannah, you were my best friend."
And there's Joe Chaba, 85, and his wife, Helen. Married 55 years, they're inseparable, holding hands on the rooftop garden, whispering to one another, sharing meals. Helen, 89, has dementia.
Chaba quietly pulls two photos from his wallet, of handsome young men. One is him, and the other is his older brother, David, his protector in five camps, now dead. They were the only survivors among their family of seven.
"By God's sake I'm still alive," he says, his voice quavering.
On the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, everyone will gather in the social hall for prayers, readings and a candle-lighting ceremony.
There's no need for constant reminders of the past, says Efrat Stein, an outreach worker: "This is a place to LIVE."
Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.