Yom HaShoah honors ‘Righteous’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

More than 800 people filled Shaare Zedek Synagogue in University City Sunday evening, April 19, to pay tribute to those who risked their lives to heroically rescue Jews during the Holocaust as part of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. In welcoming the attendees, Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek noted that the name of the congregation means, “Gates of Righteousness.”

Several St. Louis survivors, among the estimated 200 in St. Louis, shared personal testimonies of acts of righteousness, courage and valor and how lives were saved. Among them was Rena Benrubi Abrams, marketing director of Plaza Frontenac, who told the compelling story of how her mother’s Orthdox Christian Greek family saved several Jews during the Nazi invasion of Greece. Abrams’ mother, Rachel Benrubi, formerly known as Elenitsa Maka, 84, was at Abrams’ side during her telling of the story. (The story was featured in the April 15 edition of the Jewish Light.)

Other survivors who gave testimonies included Jerry Koenig, Elizabeth Mayer and members of the late survivor Elia Telman’s family. In addition, Kent Hirschfelder, chair of the Yom HaShoah Committee, and Dan Reich, curator and education director of the HLMC, shared stories of their own family connections to the Shoah. The event was organized and hosted by the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HLMC), a department of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Hirschfelder noted that his grandfather, Heinrich Hirschfelder, was born and raised in the small community of Rexingen, Germany, 40 miles from Stuttgart. “The remarkable thing about this village of 1,200 — 30 to 40 percent of whom were Jewish — is that the Jews and Gentiles got along remarkably well; there was little or no anti-Semitism,” he said.

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Noting that the Gestapo was unable to engage any local men who would carry out the burning of the town’s synagogue and Jewish-owned businesses on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, Hirschfelder said that Nazi thugs were imported to carry out those actions. “There were two Torahs in the synagogue. When it was torched, one of them was found by a Gentile villager in the gutter of the street. He took it to his home, hid it in his attic and the next day gave it to a Jewish neighbor who took it home, hid it in his attic and the next day gave it to a Jewish neighbor who several months later smuggled it out of Germany when he emigrated to the U.S. Since then it has been in the ark of the Connecticut congregation of that family and is used on a regular basis.” The other Torah was saved by the town’s postman who ran into the burning synagogue. He wrapped it up, buried it outside the cemetery gate and dug it up a year later and sent it to Israel, where it is displayed with honor at a Haifa synagogue.

In his remarks, Reich took note of his own family’s losses during the Holocaust. “Growing up, I knew that my mother had emigrated from Lithuania, a few years before the invasion of Nazi Germany. I was also aware of the tragic fate of the cousins, uncles and other relatives who did not emigrate. Throughout my childhood, I also heard stories about my great uncle, Rabbi Ephraim Epstein, who was the Midwest coordinator of the Vaad HaHatzalah, the Council of Rescue-an organization which constantly petitioned our government and organized a rabbis march on Washington to demand assistance for the Jews of Europe. This family history is part of the reason that I stand before you today.”

Jerry Koenig, another survivor, offered testimony about how his family had been hidden by a Gentile family in a Polish town, after his family had escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto. With the promise to the Gentile family that they could take ownership of the Koenigs’ 60-acre farm after the war, the family allowed 11 Jews, including Koenig’s family, to build a hidden shelter in a barn on the farm.

Koenig related that after World War II his family could not resume a normal life in Poland because of widespread confiscation of Jewish homes and pogroms against the Jewish survivors who emerged from hiding. The family was forced to emigrate to the United States.

The program also included a solemn lighting of seven candles, one to commemorate one million of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and one to represent ongoing genocides, such as those unfolding in Darfur, Sudan. Members of the survivor community, their children and grandchildren took part in the candle lighting ceremony.