Reflections on Holocaust by a Jewish state legislator

Stacey Newman is Missouri state representative of the 87th District, which includes Clayton and parts of Brentwood, Ladue, Richmond Heights and University City.

St. Louis, along with numerous U.S. and Israeli cities, observed Yom Hashoah, the “Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust” this past week.  Signed into formal law by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1953, it is a yearly reminder for each of us to “never forget.”

Recent U.S. Muslim-targeted travel bans and illegal immigrant deportation efforts hits our family close to home.  We are reminded of the life and death struggle to find safety for those persecuted of their faith, wherever that safety might be.

As first generation Americans, my husband Burt Newman along with his cousin, Ellen Mandel, recently published “Sophie’s Prophecy,” the story of their immigrant parents and grandmother Sophie Neumann, who escaped Nazi Germany for St. Louis in 1938.  

He gifted “Sophie’s Prophecy” to the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, whose mission is” “through the lessons of the Holocaust, we inspire all people to confront hatred, promote human dignity and prevent genocide.” Burt speaks there regularly to groups of all faiths, ages and backgrounds bringing his family’s story alive to those who can’t imagine the horrors.

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His close knit family never spoke of the Holocaust while Burt and Ellen were growing up in the 1950s.  Assimilating as Americans, becoming U.S. citizens, making a living and raising the next generation in a safe land was foremost on their parents minds. Holocaust was only talked about in high school history classes.

Two years ago, on the death of Ellen’s mother, Meta Feist, bags of letters written in Old German, were found hidden away for years. After translation, they revealed haunting pleas from family and friends trying to locate those missing, including a chilling list in Meta’s handwriting detailing which death camp loves ones were believed to have been sent.

Sophie was one of 10 sisters and a brother.  Many in our family now scattered across the country proudly display in our homes the only surviving family portrait of Sophie, her parents and siblings taken before they had grown up, married and had families of their own.  That portrait taken in 1905 means everything to us because only Sophie and one other sister survived Hitler’s death camps.  Eight of her sisters, their spouses and children were all murdered. 

We understand fully the anguish of parents desperately seeking asyslum in a land where their children can find safety.  Sophie’s and her four teenage children hunted to find someone who would sponsor them in America as required by U.S. government. That savior was Sophie’s cousin Leontine Mayer who lived in south St. Louis on Cherokee Street where she and her husband Sallie operated a bakery.  In three separate precarious journeys out of Germany via Ellis Island, they made it to a tiny attic over the bakery and began their lives over, learning a new language, new currency and new customs.  Remarkably, Leotine arranged visas for 19 additional Jewish immigrants, also saving their lives.

Burt’s father Marcel americanized his name as soon as he could, becoming Max Newman.  Recent immigrants throughout St. Louis know the routine — find a job, find a place to live with your family and become a productive member of the community as soon as possible. I am proud that St. Louis continues to be a proud welcoming host of immigrants from around the world who have made our city a diverse and vibrant metropolis.  It wasn’t always easy for Sophie and her children (who left behind everything they knew) but they helped each other start businesses and focused on raising the next generation without fear of being taken away in the night for how they chose to worship.

I am enormously proud of the research that Burt and Ellen put into creating “Sophie’s Prophecy,” along with the updated family tree including Sophie’s great-great-grandchildren. However we are painfully cognizant that Sophie’s sisters and their families are forever absent. 

I’ve referred to this story in the past on the floor of the Missouri State House as we’ve argued “English only” bills and when offensive Holocaust comments were made in other heated debates. On April 24th, I joined with Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, to officially call for a one-minute moment of silence on the House floor in commemoration of Yom Hashoah. As one of the few Jewish members in the legislature, I feel it’s my responsibility to educate my colleagues of religious persecution — why it must never be allowed ever again. 

Regardless of past history, our current presidential administration has plunged full steam towards irrational discrimination.  We’ve seen those detained at customs borders to those who are Muslim, including travelers with legal visas.  Those of us who are descendants of immigrants (almost all of us, right?) cheer on our judges and attorneys who fight pro bono on behalf of families torn apart, students stranded and refugees blocked from final steps to a new safe home.  

Sophie Neumann is our matriarchal heroine as we pass down the lessons of “Sophie’s Prophecy” to our next generation. We want every family of every religion, not just ours, to have the gift of safety and protection – right here in our city and state.  

To remember always, Burt and I named Sophie Neumann’s youngest great-grandchild in her memory — our own daughter Sophie, now a graduate student in Kansas City.  We both firmly believe that hate must not be allowed to win ever again and most certainly not in our state.