Survivors’ stories keep memory of Shoah alive

Szyfra Braitberg (center) lights a candle of remembrance during the 2015 Yom HaShoah community commemoration on Sunday at Kol Rinah. Photo: Andrew Kerman. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As a young woman just out of her teens, Szyfra Braitberg can still recall watching in shock as Nazi troops led by a cavalcade of motorcycles and flanked by rows of tanks marched proudly down the streets of her native Lodz, Poland, greeted by a shower of flowers from the local German population.

We couldnt understand and believe what we saw, said Braitberg, who just celebrated her 96th birthday. Germany was a cultural country, intellectual with so many parties. Who could believe that people will follow Hitler? I still its …” 

Her voice trailed off in search of words to convey events that remain inexpressible and inexplicable even after the passage of three-quarters of a century.

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Braitberg was one of six asked to light candles during Sundays community Yom HaShoah observance at Kol Rinah in University City. The late afternoon blend of stories, prayers, remembrance, soulful music and quiet reflection drew hundreds of area residents to the event, a somber annual tradition.

It is a commemoration, a memorial service, not just for the 6 million Jews who died but for the fact that there are still genocides going on, said Marci Rosenberg, past chair of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.

Dan Reich, museum curator and director of education, said that this years marking of the 70th anniversary of the wars conclusion was an opportunity to also honor the veterans who helped bring the war to a close.

This years theme was Liberation and Survival: Where Do I Go Now? It highlighted the struggle that confronted those who were newly liberated from the camps and would need to find ways to put the pieces of their lives back together in a new and very different world.

[Liberation] just started the next chapter of survivors not knowing where to go, not knowing what family members had survived, not knowing if there was a home to go back to, Reich said. It was obviously joyous but wasnt something that was celebrated in a jubilant way because there was just too much that was unclear at that point.

In addition to remarks from dignitaries, Sundays proceedings featured survivors’ stories told in their own voices or by family members. 

The audience learned about Felicia Wertz, a toddler from Warsaw who lost both parents and was separated from her brother for two decades before coming to the United States and, by 1979, to St. Louis. 

They heard about Frances and Abe Gersten who were born in different towns in Poland. Frances was liberated from a death march through Czechoslovakia, Abe from a camp in Austria, both by American soldiers. The pair would eventually meet in Italy and come to St. Louis in 1949. They are preparing to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary this year.

Veteran Walter Finke, a native of rural Illinois, told of being one of more than three dozen Army personnel assigned to gather evidence for the Nuremberg Trials from the Berlin Document Center, where the Nazis kept meticulous records of the horrors they perpetrated.

And Hilda Lebedun, an Auschwitz survivor from Czechoslovakia, read some of her poetry and asked that the memories of the fallen be forever cherished.

Till the end of time, till the rivers and oceans run dry, she read, till there is somebody left to lift their eyes to the sky.

For those survivors in attendance, the stories brought back  memories. Braitberg recalled seeing her fathers beard hacked off—along with some flesh—by a knife-wielding German soldier. 

Such horrors prompted her to fight her way with three friends across occupied Poland to comparative safety in the Soviet Union.

The Germans didnt let us out and Russians didnt let us in, Braitberg said.

Ultimately, none of her family lived to make it out of Europe.

The world was crazy in 1938 until 1945, Braitberg said.

George Spooner of Creve Coeur remembers the same insanity coming to Austria. Raised in Vienna, he, too, recalls the Germans being greeted enthusiastically by locals. 

His father was sent to the Dachau death camp while Spooner watched his community succumb to anti-Semitic looting and violence.

At the age of 9, I lost my innocence because I saw things you shouldnt have, Spooner said.

Spooner was one of 10,000 children who escaped on the famous Kindertransport rescue mission in the months leading up to the war. 

His parents were lucky as well. His father had been a soccer star with the Austrian national team, and his mother went from one Nazi bureau to another until she found a sympathetic official who remembered him and secured his release from Dachau. The family reunited in Britain, a nation toward which Spooner still feels gratitude.

They were the only ones that opened up and took in refugees—the only ones, he said. The rest of the world just stood by.

Spooner said he tries to convey the importance of his story to children.

What it means to me is that if we do not learn from history, then history repeats itself, he said.

Not all escaped the flames with family intact. Rachel Miller was just 7 when the Nazi horror reached her home in France. Her father had already been killed by the time her mother sent her away for her own protection. 

Three days later, her mother and siblings were transported to Auschwitz. She never heard from them again and spent the rest of the war as a hidden child under an assumed name. 

If my mother hadnt sent me away, I wouldnt be here today speaking to you, said Miller, who is well known in St. Louis for founding Shaving Israel, a group that sends personal care supplies to Israeli soldiers.

Miller said she is disturbed by the continuing genocides since the Shoah. 

We said it could never happen again, but it is still happening, she said. I just hope that from today on, well remember that weve said it should never happen again, and make it not happen.

Before her poetry reading, Lebedun showed her Auschwitz tattoo. Asked whether the world has learned the lessons of the Holocaust, she sadly shook her head.

Does she think it never will?

I dont say never, Lebedun said. If I would say never, then I wouldnt be standing here talking to you, would I?