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Aging Holocaust survivors visit homes to recount memories
Apr 14

The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) _ Henry Fenichel apologized in advance for what he felt would be an incomplete presentation on how he survived the Holocaust.

Standing in the Clintonville living room of Mike White and Emia Oppenheim on April 4, Fenichel, 80, explained that he normally uses a PowerPoint presentation to help the audience better visualize his experience.

``A picture is worth a thousand words,'' he said.

It didn't matter. For the next 75 minutes, standing between a fireplace and piano, Fenichel painted a vivid picture with his words.

He was one of 12 speakers participating in a program put on by JewishColumbus (created last year by a merger of the Columbus Jewish Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Columbus) called Zikaron Basalon, which translates as ``remembrance in the living room.''

And remember he did, telling his tale of personal tragedy and recalling the Holocaust's grim statistics _ 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis, including 1.5 million children. When he said, ``I'm here to represent those children,'' the 30 people in attendance responded with somber stillness.

Similar scenes played out April 4 across central Ohio, where the number of living survivors has dwindled to fewer than 225, according to JewishColumbus.

Zikaron Basalon is an international program that started in Israel and came to Columbus in 2017. It has grown from six speakers that year to nine in 2018 and 12 this year, including the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. About 250 people attended in total, according to JewishColumbus senior community shlicha (Israeli emissary) Merav Livneh-Dill.

``When you hold events like this in houses in front of small groups, it becomes very intimate,'' Livneh-Dill said. ``People are more open to hear the stories when it's not a big ceremony.''

Here is a look at how the evening went in three of the 12 homes.

Fran Greenberg sorted through a stack of 8-by-11 photo frames, pulling out several to show the 18 teenagers squeezed into a living room in New Albany.

One showed two small children, plump and well-dressed.

The second, taken several years later, depicted the same pair _ Greenberg and her sister, Gisele _ looking haggard and uncomfortable, Greenberg's back curved from the scoliosis she developed due to malnutrition during World War II.

Born 81 years ago in Paris, Greenberg spent her childhood shuttling among crowded foster homes after her father was arrested and sent to a concentration camp and her mother was eventually forced to flee to the French countryside. There were numerous close calls in between, such as when Greenberg and her family hid in the attic of a French apartment, barely escaping a Nazi search when the landlord plied the soldiers with food and wine.

After the war, a relative shipped Greenberg and her sister across the Atlantic to stay with an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania who allowed a West Virginia family to adopt her at age 12.

Greenberg, of the East Side, choked up several times during her talk, raising her voice while discussing the warning signs she sees in modern America.

``I left all that hate, and now that hate is here,'' she said.

Claudia Sestak, of New Albany, spent the evening perched on the couch, eyes wide, for Greenberg's 45-minute presentation, which she delivered standing, without taking one sip of water.

``I'm glad we came,'' Sestak, 14, said. ``Even though it happened so long ago, it's still relevant today.''

Fenichel, a Cincinnati resident and native of the Netherlands, was just a toddler when Germany invaded his home country in 1940. But he still has perhaps the most well-known and degrading symbol of that time: a yellow Star of David that the Nazis forced all Jews to wear.

``I have a `medal,''' Fenichel said. ``As children, we wore these with pride, unaware of the hatred and discrimination this represents.''

Henry's father, Moritz, was quickly sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he died in 1942. Henry and his mother, Paula, went into hiding but eventually were arrested and sent to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany.

After about five months, Henry and his mother were saved and sent to British-held Palestine as part of an exchange involving 220 Germans who had moved there before the war. Arriving in Palestine, where he was temporarily sent to a resettlement camp, didn't ease all his concerns, however.

``I was furious with my mother because she had promised, `No more camps,''' said Fenichel, who immigrated to the United States in 1953.

Fenichel's takeaway was for people to say something about any injustice or persecution they witness, unlike those Germans who did nothing to stop the Nazis.

``Don't be a bystander, be an upstander,'' he said.

Attendee Douglas Calem, 59, of Clintonville, said events like this are important so that people are exposed to personal testimony.

``It gives you a visceral experience,'' he said.

Trudy Blumenstein recalled the first time she realized Jewish people around her in Wiesbaden, Germany, were disappearing: She'd gone to her friend Miriam's house to play, only to find the home ransacked and deserted. She was 5 or 6 years old.

She was separated from her parents twice, the 87-year-old continued _ the final time in 1942 when Klara and Salomon Hochmann were taken to the death camp Auschwitz, from which they never returned. Blumenstein managed to survive the war only because nuns hid her in a convent for four years. (Her older brother, Helmut, spent time there and at a monastery.)

Speaking to a small group of young adults in the Dublin living room of Michael and Laura Dattner, Blumenstein explained how her experience lingers with her today. Fireworks still startle her, and she's terrified of police officers. The Grandview Heights resident has become fixated on reading historical accounts of the time period _ ``I want to understand where all the hatred comes from'' _ and haunted by the last words of her older brother, Helmut, who died nearly four decades ago: What was it all about?

``I shouldn't be telling you this,'' Blumenstein said. ``These are terrible stories, but I'm here. You wanted to know what it was like.

``I escaped the worst, but it's all up here,'' she said, pointing to her head. ``I didn't escape.''

Perri Levine, 24, of the Short North, said she was grateful to hear a Holocaust survivor speak for the first time, especially in such an intimate setting.

``There's still a community that adamantly denies the Holocaust happened even while survivors are alive still,'' Levine said. ``It will be that much harder to fight against when there are no other survivors. It's important to make sure the next generations know these stories.''

For years, these were stories that Blumenstein said nothing about. When she arrived in the U.S. at the age of 16 to live with an aunt in New York City, her relatives told her to keep quiet about her past, to assimilate. That's one of the reasons it's so difficult for her to trust others with her story, she said, especially since she still experiences anti-Semitism.

But engaged audiences like this make it easier, said her daughter, Deborah Kramer.

``I'm glad my mom has a place where her history matters.''


Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019