“Stories of Strength,” a Holocaust remembrance program, was hosted by the Parker Jewish Institute (PJI) in its New Hyde Park facility on June 15. The agenda focused on the memories of survivors of the Nazi horror, with commentary by Beth Lilac, director of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Glen Cove, Long Island.
Lilac discussed the importance of remembering. Initiating her comments with a portrait of a comic “Jewish dinosaur,” she said that Holocaust education is neither exclusively Jewish nor “so old it’s a dinosaur.” She stressed the responsibility of all citizens to be aware of the “red flags” once raised by Nazism and the responsibility to call out any similar red flags that are raised in contemporary society.
“It is important to speak about the Holocaust in light of the Jewish refugees turned away,” Lilac said.
She noted that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened a conference in Evian, France, in July 1938, only the Dominican Republic agreed to take Jewish refugees; the remaining 31 countries that had sent delegates to the conference did not. The Holocaust, said Lilac, must be taught in schools to avoid divisions among Americans.
“One of the first methods the Nazis used was to divide, denounce and dehumanize people. You can justify anything by dehumanization….Jews can teach other groups how to handle their own holocausts,” she said.
Introducing the three panelists at the program, Lilac said, “You are looking at survivors; you are looking at miracles.”
Chana Pfeifen recalled sitting at her family’s Sabbath table in Romania when Nazi soldiers burst into their home. Everyone was marched to the local court. The community’s men were taken away, killed and thrown into a pit. Women and children were to be burned alive, but instead were marched to Moldavia and crossed the Dniester River. Then, in pouring rain and with little clothing, they were shipped to Ukraine in an animal boxcar, finally arriving at a ghetto near the infamous Babi Yar.
“There was no food, no clothes. When a local woman left some borscht for the children, it was too frozen to eat,” she said.
Pfeifen described the 1944 arrival of a group of partisans and her family’s eventual liberation by the Russians.
“People were kissing the boots of the Russians. We had survived,” she said.
There was, however, no place to which to return. When people tried to return to their homes in 1945, they were threatened and forced to leave, fearing the Ukrainians would kill them, according to Pfeifen.
Driven by her desire for education and to “find a good life,” she tried to make Aliyah—to “go up” to immigrate to Israel. She returned to Transylvania, joined B’nai Akiva and finally received permission to go to British Mandate Palestine.
“We went to Bulgaria. The Bulgarians were kind,” she recalled.
After weeks at sea, they arrived at the port of Haifa, where they were captured by the British, taken to Cyprus and held for eight months. Golda Meir came to the camp, and Pfeifen begged for help to get to Israel.
“The Brits finally let us out,” said Pfeifen.
In 1947 the survivor arrived in Israel, and despite continual Arab bombardment, returned to school “driven to live.” In 1948 she joined the new Israeli air force and was able to welcome her family. The 1956 Suez Crisis, romance, marriage and finally arrival in America followed. She is the mother of two sons and grandmother of five.
Alice Tenenbaum survived Auschwitz.
“I was told to say I was 16,” she said.
After the first “selection,” she landed in a barracks of a thousand women. She was saved multiple times by a nurse working for the infamous Dr. Angelico; the nurse thought Tenenbaum looked like her sister. Tenenbaum described standing outside her barracks for four hours of “counting.”
“I wore the same dress for years—no underwear, winter or summer. On a death march to work camp, 40,000 became 5,000,” she reported.
She survived work camp and finally Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated by the British.
“More people died that day than on any other day. They died from eating,” she said.
Tenenbaum had a brother in America and was able to immigrate. She made her home in Manhattan, earning two degrees in art history and two in family therapy. She went on to marry and is a mother and grandmother.
With great emotion and more than a few tears, Mia Feuer spoke on behalf of her survivor husband, a Parker Jewish Institute resident. Imprisoned in a Transylvanian ghetto, he and his parents, brothers and sisters were taken to Auschwitz.
Despite the horrific experiences, “he survived and became the nicest person on Earth. We tried to have a beautiful family,” Feuer said.
The couple had one son and now have grandchildren.
“He is the most wonderful person,” said Feuer of her husband.
Rabbi Dr. Hillel Fox, the PJI chaplain, closed the program with words of solace and prayer.
“Survivors,” he said, “put human faces on this unprecedented time of human suffering. They are a reminder of the strength of the human spirit….Their stories of courage and perseverance must be shared, especially with the younger generation.”
“Memories,” said Director Lilac, “may be painful. They are important.”
In following issues, NYJL will explore the effects of the survivors’ experience on their children, the “second generation.” Recent studies indicate a continuing “legacy” that is both psychological and physical.
“Genetics are not destiny,” said expert on the second generation Dr. Eva Fogelman. “We are at a preliminary stage of understanding how trauma affects cortisone levels and the ability to deal with stress.”
She told NYJL that “preliminary studies show [survivors’] genes are somewhat transformed by stress, and such deformed genes can be passed to the next generation….The problem is not universally applicable….The compromised gene may not be dominant.”
Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation says it has a “pioneering spirit and unwavering commitment to superior patient care in a warm and supportive environment.” The institute was founded in 1914 as the Harlem House of the Daughters of Israel, a single room in an East Harlem house. It moved to a 119th Street house, and, in 1925, to an eight-story building at 1260 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Residents were often immigrants and others needing assistance.
By 1943 it cared for older, more infirm residents, and changed its name to the Home and Hospital of the Daughters of Israel. It was supported by private contributions.
As medical needs increased, an institution that would be “an inspiration to continued life” was planned to serve patients’ needs and function as a research and educational center. An eight-story facility near the Queens/Nassau border opened as the Jewish Institute for Geriatric Care in 1972, and was renamed Parker Jewish Geriatric Institute in recognition of the contributions of the Parker family. In 1997 the current name was adopted.