Fifty years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, some 4,000 Holocaust survivors fathered here last weekend to focus on the lives they built from scratch after the war.
The survivors used the opportunity to take pride in their accomplishments, and especially in their children and grandchildren.
It was these children and grandchildren who were most apparent at the two-day gathering, which was sponsored by the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
Some of them were carrying on the search for lost family members begun by their parents and grandparents right after the war.
Nine-year-old Erica Robel of North Miami Beach was at the gathering, holding a sign requesting information on the Szerin family from Lublin.
“I first heard about the Holocaust when I was four years old,” said Robel. “It’s exciting to be here. Maybe I’ll find some cousins.”
Her mother, Louisa Robel, went around to different survivors trying to make connections and perhaps learn the fate of her father’s younger sister. “My father passed away, but still I’d like to find out what happened to his baby sister,” she said with tears in her eyes. “We did find his brother after looking for 22 years, so there’s always hope. I made two connections here today.
Robel then went to leave a message on the bulletin board which was crammed with notes from survivors seeking information on lost loved ones.
But seeking information was not the only purpose of this gathering. There was also the celebration of life, of what the Holocaust survivors have accomplished in the 50 years since their liberation.
William Helmreich, a sociology professor at the City University of Yew York, told the audience about his research, which indicated that most survivors who came to the United States did extremely well after the war.
“They didn’t go on welfare. Most of them were determined to prove they were worthy of being let into this country,” he said.
The biggest miracle, according to Helmreich, is the fact that the survivors decided to have children. “Having children reaffirmed their belief in life, their need to transmit their values to other generations,” he said.
Children of Holocaust survivors are less likely to intermarry, and generally have closer-knit families than most American Jews, Helmreich said.
The survivors’ pride in their children and grandchildren was palpable at the conference.
Gussie Radoi struggled to open a locket revealing pictures of all seven of her grandchildren. “This is what I’m most proud of,” she said.
Radoi was 22 when she came to the United States in 1946. She met her husband and the two of them started a chicken farm in South Fallsburg, N.Y. “I’m a nature lover and after the war I wanted to be close to nature once more,” she said.
Many Jews pursued unconventional paths in order to succeed after the war.
Charles Weinbaum came to Canada in 1947 as a lumberjack after being liberated from Mauthasen. A Canadian official did not want to grant Weinbaum a visa at first, saying that Jews did not work as lumberjacks.
“I said,`this Jew will work as a lumberjack.’ He told me Canadian Jews didn’t work as lumberjacks. I asked him who is he hiring, Canadian Jews or me? He took me and nine other Jews to be Lumberjacks,” Weinbaum said.
After serving out his 10-month contact, Weinbaum became a butcher in Montreal and worked in the meat industry until his retirement.
Emanuel Gold was 19 when he came to the United States in 1947 under a special program for teen-agers. He lost his whole family in the war, yet was determined to start over and succeed.
Within two years of coming to this country, he had married and began building a small business in upstate New York. “I figure I’ve paid over 2 million dollars in taxes to the United States, so the United States didn’t make a bad deal when they let me in,” he said.
Joe Bukiet of Philadelphia said he believes the greatest miracle is not that the survivors survived, but how they survived.
“When the war ended we had no education, no parents, no family connections,” Bukiet said. “According to the way of the world we should not have accomplished all that we accomplished. We’ve helped build schools and synagogues in every place we live. Survivors are part of the leadership in every community. We’re part of the fabric of this country, of the world.”
Joel Mest came to the United States from Lodz in 1949 at the age of 23. He speaks English with only a slight accent. “I learned English from reading the signs on the subways and listening to people talk,” he said.
“I tried to make the best life I could,” said Mest, who lives in Philadelphia. Like so many of the survivors gathered here, he bragged about his children. “I have two sons, both doctors,” he said.
“I’m happy that I had an opportunity to raise my children to be proud of being Jewish,” said Lucy Niskar of Montreal. “When I was growing up in Poland, being Jewish was not something I was proud of.”
Some survivors still cannot talk about what they went through. Helen Kryska was born in Warsaw and not divides her time between Skokie, Ill., and Miami. “I was only 14 when the war started. It was an awful time. I still can’t talk about it,” she said.
Many others are on a mission to tell their stories while they still can.
Gold, of New York, devotes part of his time to telling college and high school students what he endured at their age. “Part of our legacy is to make sure the world remembers, so it can’t happen again,” he said.
Bukiet is also determined to make sure that another Holocaust does not occur. “Most people think that four-letter words are the dirtiest words in the English language. I think that the dirtiest words are `those,’ `them’ and `they,’” he said. “When we talk about `those blacks’ or `them Jews,’ we segregate people from ourselves and make them less important. That was the first step in the Holocaust.”
Indifference, not evil, is the opposite of good, Bukiet said. “The Holocaust happened because the world didn’t care. We’re here to make sure people always care.”