Ben Nachman’s Mission


A dear friend of mine passed away recently, and as a way of paying homage to him and his legacy I am posting some stories I wrote about him and his mission.  My late friend, Ben Nachman, dedicated a good part of his adult life to researching aspects of the Holocaust, which claimed most of his extended family in Europe.  Ben became a self-taught historian who focused on collecting the testimonies of survivors and rescuers. It became such a big part of his life that he accumulate a vast library of materials and a large network of contacts from around the world.  Ben’s mission was to help develop and disseminate Holocaust history for the purpose of educating the general public, especially youth, and he did this through a variety of means, including videotaped interviews he conducted, sponsoring the development of curriculum for schools, and hosting visiting scholars.  He also led this journalist to many stories about Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and educational efforts. Because of Ben I have been privileged to tell something like two dozen Holocaust stories, some of which ended up winning recognition from my peers.  I have met some remarkable individuals thanks to Ben.  Several of the stories he led me to and that I ended up writing are posted on this blog site under the Holocaust and History categories.

His interests ranged far beyond the Holocaust and therefore his work to preserve history extended to many oral histories he collected from Jewish individuals from all walks of life and speaking to different aspects of Jewish culture.  He got me involved in some of these non-Holocaust projects as well through the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, including a documentary on the Brandeis family of Nebraska and their J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire (see my Brandeis story on this blog site) and an in-progress book on Jewish grocers. Ben’s passion for history and his generous spirit for sharing it will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend, you were truly one of the righteous.

Ben Nachman’s Mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Ben Nachman is on a mission.

For the past six years the Omaha native has documented the never-before-told stories of Holocaust survivors, including several Nebraska residents, as well as the heroic efforts of European diplomats in rescuing thousands of Jews during World War II. To date, he has applied his self-taught historical research skills to a pair of international projects — the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now known as the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education) and an international committee working to bring worldwide recognition to the humanitarian work of the late Portuguese diplomat, Aristides de Souza Mendes.

More recently, New Destiny Films, a production company with offices in Omaha and Sarasota, Fla., has engaged Nachman to research survivors and rescuers for two documentaries now in development.

One film, which Nebraska Public Television may co-produce, profiles survivors who resettled in Nebraska and forged successful lives here. The other, which American Public Television is to distribute, focuses on the massive rescue of Jews that the late Swiss diplomat to Hungary, Carl Lutz, accomplished amid the Nazi regime in Budapest. The latter film, called Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy, is intended as the first in a series (Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust) on rescuers.

Nachman and New Destiny’s Mike Moehring of Omaha have traveled to Europe to conduct interviews and pore over archives. The Swiss Consulate in Chicago has taken an interest in the film, providing financial (defraying airfare expenses) and logistical (cutting red-tape) support for Nachman’s and Moehring’s work abroad. Swiss Consul General Eduard Jaun, who is excited about the project, said, “This will be the first comprehensive film about Lutz.”

As Nachman, 69, has dug deeper and deeper into the Holocaust, his work has brought him on close terms with survivors and scholars and made him an authority on the subject. While not a survivor himself, Nachman shares a common Jewish heritage and legacy of loss.

A retired Omaha dentist, the Creighton University graduate began probing the Holocaust 30-plus years ago in a quest to understand what led 23 members of his family (grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins) to become victims of Nazi genocide. He read voraciously, eventually amassing a personal library of thousands of books. He began corresponding with some of the authors of those books. The more he found out about those dark events of the Second World War, the more drawn he was to the personal stories of survivors and rescuers.

His initial search was personal, following what few leads there were of his ill-fated family in Europe. His parents, who immigrated here in the early part of the last century, were from the former Ukrainian town of Kolomyja, which prior to the German invasion was part of Poland. Except for two uncles who survived in camps, all his relatives abroad perished.

According to Nachman, Kolomyja was once home to 40,000 citizens, including 20,000 Jews. At the time of the Nazi occupation Jews from outlying areas were rounded-up and forced to live in two overcrowded ghettos within the town. He said some 55,000 Jews were interred there and “as best we can find there are only 200 survivors” today.

 

NJHS celebrates 30th anniversary

 

 

Nachman has unearthed few details about what happened. The skimpy facts he does know came from an uncle who survived a Siberian labor camp.

“I know only my grandfather was murdered in a forest outside of that town (Kolomyja) and my grandmother was murdered in her bed. I spent about a year trying to find some of the 200 survivors and I finally did. I phoned them. I wrote them letters. I did everything I could to try and piece together a story. But I’ve never really pieced together much of one.

“In all my contacts I’ve only had one occasion when someone remembered a member of my family. It was a man in Chicago, and when I showed him a picture of my grandfather he said, ‘Joseph Nachman, The Parquetnik,’ which referred to the fact my grandfather laid parquet floors” in the Old Country.

Determined to visit Kolomyja in the hope of uncovering more clues, Nachman pestered the Cultural Attache at the then-Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. to seek entry into what was a Soviet-controlled and, therefore, restricted region. In 1988 he and his wife were granted permission to visit, but only allowed a few hours on-site.

“We got to the Jewish cemetery there. It was in the most disastrous condition. Some graves were open clear down to the caskets. Some caskets were decayed to the point you could see bones within them. There was a huge mound in the middle of this cemetery, and that’s where several hundred people had been killed on the spot and put into a mass grave. I looked up, and there was a lady with a few goats feeding in the cemetery. She put her hand on the side of her face and shook her head as if she realized how terrible this must have been to me,” he said.

Dissatisfied by the brief visit he was accorded, he vowed to return one day. After the Soviet Union fell, he did return in 1992, accompanied by his daughter, and enjoyed freer access. “We found the cemetery had been totally dug up. Any Jewish records in this town had been destroyed. At our escort’s suggestion we went to the local Catholic church, where she thought there might be duplicate records. We were able to find the birth certificate of a cousin born in November 1940 and murdered late in ‘41 or early in ‘42. I got a copy of the certificate and had it translated. That’s the only remnant I’ve ever been able to find of my family.”

His attempts at tracing the tragedy brought him face to face with the bleak reality of a terrible past now largely buried or forgotten.

“My daughter and I walked into the forest where my grandfather was forced to dig his own grave and we saw several mounds of earth that I’m sure represented thousands of people. There were no markers. The survivors and their families were finally given permission to put up a memorial in 1993. I was asked to go back, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to.

“An uncle once told me, ‘You should never go back. There is nothing to see.’ And after having been back twice, I agree. The memorial erected there was originally inscribed with the words: ‘Here in this spot, several thousand Jews were murdered by the Nazis.’ After several months the Ukrainians took that inscription down and changed it to read: ‘Several thousand Ukrainians were killed here.’ So, you see, they really managed to erase any traces of what happened.”

His trip did yield one bonus when he and Sen. Jim Exon (D-Nebr.) aided 10 Russians in obtaining long-refused exit visas. The Russians immigrated to the United States.

The opportunity of helping collect a permanent record of Holocaust stories convinced Nachman to participate in the Shoah Foundation’s five-year project videotaping survivor testimonies. From 1995 to 1998 he was an official interviewer for the Los Angeles-based Foundation, which filmmaker Steven Spielberg started shortly after completing Schindler’s List, the Oscar-winning film credited with sparking a revival of interest in the Holocaust.

For the Shoah project Nachman conducted exhaustive interviews with 70 survivors in the Midwest. Videographers captured the sessions on tape. His work introduced him to individuals who, despite immeasurable losses, have continued embracing life. He feels privileged to have been in the presence of men and women who have borne the burden of a lost generation with such grace.

“I built-up a tremendous love affair with the survivors,” Nachman said. “They’re a wonderful bunch of people. They’ve endured a great deal. They live with what happened every day of their lives, yet hatred is not there — and they’ve got every reason in the world to hate. They’re the most morally correct people I’ve ever found. They’re my heroes.”

Filmmaker Mike Moehring, who taped many of Nachman’s Shoah interviews, has also been affected by his work with survivors: “The thing I come away with from these people is their tremendous resiliency. I feel very fortunate and honored they share part of their experience with me. I know I’m a different person for it,” he said.

Among the survivors Nachman interviewed is Lou Leviticus of Lincoln, who as a hidden child in The Netherlands escaped the Nazis. He lost virtually his entire family. After the war Leviticus lived in Israel, working as an engineer, and later immigrated to America, where he was an agricultural engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Before his Shoah interview, he had never spoken of his ordeal. He was one of 50,000 survivors worldwide interviewed for the Shoah project, whose data is available to educators, historians and authors.

Until his involvement, Nachman had rarely sat across from survivors to hear, first-hand, their personal trials of lives interrupted, of innocence stolen, of everything held dear ripped asunder. In getting them to recount their stories in intimate detail, he was not prepared for the impact the experience would have on him or his subjects.

“It was a very exacting interview we did with each survivor. We went into every little detail of exactly what happened to them during the war — whether they were in a concentration camp or a ghetto or in hiding. All the interviews lasted in excess of two hours. Many survivors were reluctant to talk about their lives, but we managed to get them to really open up. We had times when some startling things were said.

“A lady in Chicago told me about being raped. That’s a really shattering thing to sit and listen to. The trauma was still fresh in her mind. At times like that the survivor would break down. When we finished an interview the survivor and I were spent. It was an emotionally draining experience.”

More recently, Nachman has turned his attention to a segment of survivors whose lives were spared only by the intervention of individuals who, at great risk, helped them evade capture, deportation and almost certain death in the camps.

“I got very interested in the rescuers of Jews. I was interested in knowing what made these rescuers do what they did,” he noted. “I think most of them did it because of their own personal convictions rather than out of some government mandate. For them, it was the only thing to do. They were very, very special people.”

 

 

Carl Lutz

 

 

One rescuer in particular captured his imagination — Carl Lutz. “In my reading I ran across Lutz. And in writing, searching and chasing around the world I found his step-daughter, Agnes Hirschi, a writer in Bern, Switzerland. We started corresponding regularly. She introduced me to the man who is the biographer of Lutz — the Rev. Theo Tschuy — a Methodist minister living outside Geneva. He has done tremendous research into the rescuers and he particularly knows the story of Lutz. He and I have become about as close as two people can be.”

Nachman has completed interviews with Hirschi and Tschuy for the Lutz film. In her filmed  interview, Hirschi describes her step-father as “almost obsessed by the idea of having to save these people. It was really like an obsession.”

While the deeds of some rescuers, like Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, have been widely told, a full accounting of what Lutz did has been largely ignored. By the late spring of 1944, the Nazi occupation of Hungary was complete, the borders closed, emigration halted and the mass deportation of Jews under way. The situation was desperate. That is when a man of rare courage and insight — Lutz — then Swiss vice consul to Hungary, began a campaign to thwart the Final Solution.

By all accounts, Lutz embodied the fiercely independent nature of his homeland — specifically, the Appenzell region of Switzerland. A fervent Methodist, Lutz was American-educated. An early diplomatic tour in Palestine well-acquainted him with the Jews’ displaced status. In Hungary, he had already assisted the Budapest-based Jewish Agency of Palestine (JAP) in finding safe passage for 10,000 orphaned children. By April 1944 there were still 8,000 children under his protection waiting to leave for Palestine, but their passage was blocked.

 

 

One of the safe houses Carl Lutz kept

 

 

Lutz negotiated with German and Hungarian officials to keep the group under his protection. When refused more exit permits, he took matters into his own hands. Overceding his authority and defying the wishes of his timid government, he made Swiss neutrality and the power of diplomatic immunity his weapons in taking assertive steps to safeguard Jews.

First, he granted hundreds of asylum seekers sanctuary in the American legation building. Next, he transformed the Budapest JAP into the Emigration Department of the Swiss Legation, thus securing a measure of protection for its workers and its aims. Then he began issuing Swiss Schutzbriefe or safety passes (which declared their holders to be under the protection of the Swiss) to thousands of Jews (men, women and children) beyond the original quota of 8,000.

Thousands more Schutzbriefe were forged and distributed by Zionists. Next, he established 76 Schutzhauser or safe houses where thousands of Jews took refuge. And, finally, he worked closely with the Hechalutz/Chalutzim (Jewish pioneers) to provide security for the safe houses and communication with the Jewish populace and he cultivated sympathetic members of the Hungarian police and parliament to alert him to any Nazi movements directed at the people in his charge.

Nachman said the Schutzbriefe and Schutzhauser Lutz instituted became models for other diplomatic rescuers, including Wallenberg, who came to Budapest months after these measures were implemented. He said scholars estimate Lutz’s actions saved as many as 62,000 Jews, a number far outstripping that attributed to higher-profile rescuers. Nachman and filmmaker Mike Moehring have interviewed recipients of the Schutzbriefe and visited safe houses, many of which survive.

 

 

 

 

According to Nachman, Lutz persisted in his rescue efforts in spite of repeated orders by authorities to stop, constant threats to his life and continued resistance from his superiors in Switzerland. His defiance even extended to Adolf Eichmann, whom he confronted on many occasions.

At one point, as a way of pressuring Lutz, the Nazis made him identify authentic Schutzbriefe from forgeries held by a group of Jews — thus forcing him to condemn some of the safe passage holders to death. Despite such pressure, he persevered.

“He was just an obstinate, stubborn man who felt right was the only way to go. Lutz was a very devout man and he felt he wanted to be on the side of God, not man,” Nachman said.

The more he has studied him, the more Nachman has come to admire Lutz, who died in 1975 — long before international acclaim caught up to him. What does he admire most about him? “Probably the fact he acted as a man of conviction rather than as a diplomat. He used the office of Swiss consul to shield a lot of what he was doing, but he did things he didn’t have to do. This is one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever known of.”

Before his death, Lutz was honored by Yad Vashem in Israel as “a righteous among the nations.” He was posthumously nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Switzerland issued a stamp with his likeness on it. A touring exhibition, Visas for Life: The Righteous and Honorable Diplomats, includes a Lutz display.

In April, Nachman was an invited guest at a United Nations program honoring the diplomatic rescuers and their families. An English language edition of Theo Tschuy’s biography on Lutz (Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz) is due out this fall from Eerdmans Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

For Nachman, who has begun speaking publicly about his work, the investigation into the past goes on. There are more interviews, more archives, more stories to cultivate. “It has been the most exciting time of my life,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s had more meaning and made more of an impact on me.”

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  1. Shelley Mitchell
    July 6, 2015 at 2:55 am

    Like Ben, my family (Terner-Moldauer) was from Kolomea/Kolomyja. My grandparents emigrated to the US in 1920. Grandmother’s 2 brother fled to Shanghai from Vienna. They never spoke of what they may have gone through. My grandparents tried to get the family to come to the US but they refused until it was too late and too expensive. We presume they all perished. Aaron Hisler, long passed, worked with the Joint Kolomear Fund. His daughter translated his notes and printed a list of Jews from Kolomyja who survived. On that list is A. son of Izrael. My great uncle Izrael had a son Avram. He was never found. One great aunt married into a Delaytn family of Platzs, Some Platzs have been found coming to the US but since there were several Platz brothers, it’s impossible to know which mother was Perl. She and Isaac and two of their daughters were killed by the Ukrainians according to the Ukraine Red Cross.

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