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Monday, November 03, 2003

Holocaust Survivors Reunite

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 11/03/2003
via UJC.org
Washington --- There were hugs and tears, old photos and reminiscences, music and food --- lots of kosher food. It could have been a class reunion or a very large bar mitzvah, until the geographic names on the signs at the tables came into view: Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz . . .

"This is a very special family reunion," said Louise Kruk of Wallingford, Conn., one of 3,000 Holocaust survivors who attended a tribute here Sunday as part of the 10th anniversary observance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "We talk about our children and our homes, but it always comes down to this horrible experience we share. Other people just can't comprehend." Kruk and her brother were the only members of an extended family of 80 to survive the Nazi plan to exterminate Jews in her native Poland and elsewhere. Sitting beside her was her husband, Leon, who estimated his loss of kin at 50.

Every table, every voice, told a similar, terrible story.

"Close your eyes, and you can see the invisible faces of those we left behind," author Elie Wiesel told the gathering during a short ceremony.

The survivors came from all over their adopted country and represented every dark corner of the genocide that claimed 6 million Jews.

As they milled around the museum grounds on a warm afternoon, their accents formed an aural map of a vanished world. Now old, many of them used canes and walkers as they toured the exhibits, which were closed to the public for the day so the people who lived through the experience could remember.

It was hard to believe that these well-fed, gray-haired elders were the same emaciated youths shown in the museum when they were liberated at the end of World War II.

"I have always insisted that my children finish the food on their plates," said Hanna Marx of San Diego, who came with 14 children, spouses and grandchildren. She was a fever-ridden 60 pounds when Allied troops came upon her in 1945.

Marx, a German Jew, was standing in front of a map of concentration camps as she explained her complicated feelings about the country that deported her to Latvia to die. "I used to hate Germany," she said. "I refused to let German be spoken in my house." Then her hometown, Hamm, invited her back to speak about the Holocaust, sending a limo driver with a bouquet of flowers to meet her plane in Frankfurt. She had forgotten how beautiful the German countryside could be, she said, and felt her emotions soften as she decided children are not to blame for the sins of their fathers.

Many survivors lingered in front of a model of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, where more than a million lives were extinguished.

Murray Lynn, a retired Atlanta businessman from Hungary who lost his mother and three brothers there, stared at the plastic figures meant to depict the tangled chaos of hundreds of humans struggling in vain for breath. Lynn, the only member of his family to survive Auschwitz, said that he would like to go back. "That's my mother's grave," he said. "I've written a letter telling her what's happened to me since she left. I'd like to read it to her and then leave it with the ashes."

Behind the museum, two long tents were set up with food, music and "affinity tables" whose signs marked them as gathering places for survivors of various ghettos and camps.

The German section, several people noted with amusement, was farthest from the stage. One of the largest contingents, the Polish, snapped photos, told jokes and debated who they despised more, the Nazis or the Soviets.

Like Southerners meeting on a sidewalk in Manhattan, some survivors from the same hometown were getting acquainted for the first time after more than half a century in America.

"I was in Block 8," announced Eva Uszerowicz, who went from Lodz, Poland, to Auschwitz to Brooklyn. Dora Menkin of Fort Lee, N.J., also from Lodz, almost dropped her fork. "I was in Block 25," she said. Uszerowicz looked perplexed. "I thought everyone in Block 25 went . . ." She wiggled her fingers in the air to indicate the smoke escaping a crematory chimney.

Not all of the survivors did time in a ghetto or camp. One table, with the intriguing label "in hiding," drew people who had hidden from the Nazis or had been taken in by the Resistance as children.

Sonia Goodman and her sister Olga Leisman, both New Yorkers, were schoolgirls in Antwerp, Belgium, when the Nazis started deporting Jews to death camps in the east. Their father died at Auschwitz in 1942, swiftly gassed because he had bronchitis and was deemed useless for forced labor. Their mother turned the girls over to strangers from the Resistance.

"Every friend we had in school died," Leisman said. "That's one of the reasons I came here today," Goodman said. "I keep hoping I'll find someone else I knew who made it."

She hasn't, but she keeps looking.
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution