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Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories

March 15, 2018 Leave a comment

Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories

©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in New Horizons Newspaper (1999)

 

On a January morning students at Omaha’s Lewis and Clark Middle School file in an auditorium to hear a tale of survival by Bea Karp, a petite Jewish woman of 66 who as a child in her native Germany, and later in France, endured the Holocaust. She and her younger sister, Susie, are among their extended family’s few survivors. As Bea’s harrowing tale unfolds, the students listen with the stilled respect due the haunted figure standing before them. Not all survivors can speak about their experiences. Some want only to forget, but for Bea, and thousands like her, there is a need to speak out. To bear witness. Why?

“I tell this story in memory of my parents and the six million Jews that died. I don’t want the world to forget. It’s a lesson to the future and the future is in your hands. And it’s up to you to make sure nothing like that will ever happen again,” she tells the students in what is a solemn plea. Her German-accented voice rings strong and clear. Her words intoned as in prayer. Her kind eyes shimmer with sadness, yet burn with defiance. Her resolve remains unshakeable. Her will, unbroken.

One wonders if these comfort-laden kids understand the true horror of what she describes. Then again, who among us really can, save another survivor?

But the rest of us do have much to learn from her. If nothing else, that the human spirit can persevere in the most awful circumstances. Because she has so much to offer, Bea often shares her story with school, church and service organization audiences. She does it, she says, so others may know “how terrible hatred and prejudice is and what a terrible sickness it can be when you are not tolerant of other people.” In 1936, the former Bea Stern had her childhood stolen at the hands of Nazi tyranny. Stripped of the most basic human rights, her family was imprisoned in work camps during the Second World War. While Bea and Susie were rescued by a children’s refugee organization, their parents, along with scores of cousins, uncles and aunts, were killed. The orphaned sisters were fortunate enough to have relatives in England to take them in. By their teens the sisters came to America and remade themselves – marrying, bearing children, leading full lives. While Be a’ post-war years have not been tragedy-free, she’s found meaning in life and dedicated herself to educating others.

Every survivor has a story. Ultimately, it’s one of rebirth. Of going into the abyss and coming back out, scarred, but alive, and, as in Bea’s case, compelled to testify. As the number of survivors dwindles each year, there is added urgency to having their stories recorded for future generations. In 1994 that same urgency drove Steven Spielberg to establish the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation as a vehicle for preserving survivors’ testimonies. To date, the Los Angeles-based foundation has videotaped interviews with 50,000 survivors, including Bea, worldwide. The goal, says executive director Michael Berenbaum, is developing the most comprehensive multimedia archive of survivor testimonies and making this material available via computer technology for educational used in schools, libraries, museums, et cetera. Further, he adds, the project is giving survivors like Bea a voice and face in history.

Omahan Ben Nachman, who interviewed 60 people for the project, says of survivors: “They’re the most special people in the world. They’re the most morally correct people I’ve ever found. I never see hate in them and they’ve got every reason in the world to hate. They’re my heroes.”

The telling, painful as it is, has not gotten easier for Bea. She began talking about her experiences years ago at the urging of her then young children. She’s since shared her odyssey with her seven grandchildren and scores of other young people in schools.

“At first I had a very bad time about it. It was very difficult for me,” she says. “After all these years, I still get emotional. It pulls me back too much and the emotions I felt then I can still feel. But I think it’s helped me a lot psychologically. I don’t hold it all inside of me. I feel like I’m doing something good and I feel my parents really want me to do it too. If I can just teach one person each time I tell my story, it’s well worthwhile.”

To appreciate the arc of her story one must go back to the beginning. To when the darkness descended and innocence ended. The year was 1936. Bea was 4 and living with her family in her birthplace, Lauterbach, a scenic rural village in western Germany. A sedate place where children played safely in the unpaved streets. Her family had a good life. Her studious father, Moritz, owned a textile store that her resourceful mother, Rosa, helped in. Their nice spacious home accommodated the immediate family as well as Bea’s grandmother and an uncle.

Bea remembers, “We always had an open house. There was lots of goings-on. My aunts and cousins used to come and visit all the time. We enjoyed music. My mother and father loved dancing. Lauterbach was the only childhood I knew.” Far removed from Berlin, the Sterns were at first unaffected by Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. But things soon changed. Jews were made to wear the yellow star. Signs emblazoned with “Juden verboten” (Jews forbidden) sprang up. Restrictions on their activities enacted. The black-booted, brown-shirted military began brutalizing the Jewish citizenry. Bea still sees the approaching apocalypse in the form of a rumbling tank.

“The first time I was aware that something was wrong came while playing in the streets. Suddenly, a tank came rolling onto that same street, going very slowly but still kicking up dust. I got terribly scared and screamed, ‘Momma, momma, momma.’ That was the start of it all. That was kind of like the end of my childhood.”

She recalls arguments at home between her father and uncle over whether to stay or flee. Her uncle favored leaving, her father did not.

“I think my father was a bit scared of leaving Lauterbach because, you know, where were we going to go? What were we going to do? My father had responsibilities. He had a family to feed.” As things worsened, her uncle left, taking his mother and sister with him to Palestine. Her father did act when anti-Jewish decrees effectively made them non-citizens. “Hitler decreed Jews could not own any property,” she notes, “so therefore we had to give up our home and my father had to give up his textile store. There was no means for him to make a living.”

She says her parents were in a state of disbelief over the turn of events. Numbed over being branded outcasts in their own country, a county the Sterns had called home for generations.

“They were shocked because they thought of themselves as German. That’s when I really felt personally what Hitler was doing,” she says.

In the face of such hostility the family moved to Karlsruhe, a city on the western border of France, near the Black Forest. It proved no friendlier. “Nobody wanted to rent an apartment to a Jewish family,” Bea says.

“By then the Gentile community was afraid to have anything to do with Jews. We stayed at the apartment of an aunt and uncle and their three children. It took my father six weeks to find a small apartment of our own.” Her father, unable to ply his trade, worked as a manual laborer.

Their lives grew ever more restricted. With religious services banned, her Orthodox family went to a nearby apartment for clandestine prayers. A lookout on the street below watched for approaching soldiers. School became a nightmare for Bea and her Jewish classmates. “I hated going to school. The other kids would push us on the street. They’d yell at us, ‘Dirty Jew, Christ killer.’ It got so bad my father had to go with me.” She says grownups were at even greater risk, targeted by roving gangs and thugs. A male cousin disappeared without a trace. The parents of her Gentile friends were quite cruel.

“I had a friend across the street and we used to play with our dolls together. I loved her very much. One day I knocked on her door and her mother opened it, looked at me and closed the door in my face. That was the end of our friendship. I was heartbroken. I didn’t realize she wasn’t Jewish. When you’re small you don’t think that way. I never thought about being different.”

As Bea and her family were made strangers in their own homeland, the less secure and more frightened they became. “These were very, very difficult times on my parents and us children. We really felt the hand of anti-Semitism. It wasn’t a good feeling.” With conditions deteriorating, she says she grew angry at her persecutors and turned from a shy, sweet-mannered girl into a loud rebel, once even daring to vent her anger at a soldier.

“One day my sister and I were playing in the street when two Nazis passed by. I went ahead and picked up pebbles from the gutter and threw them at them. One of the pebbles hit them and they turned and came after us. All of us ran and we escaped them in an alley. My mother, who had watched the whole incident from the living room window, was furious with us.”

Bea recalls family discussions regarding plans for departing Germany.“I think we were very close to being able to leave,” she says, but once the borders closed and refugee quotients enacted, “then it was too late. On November 9, 1938 the Nazis unleashed a nationwide pogrom foreshadowing the atrocities ahead. Mobs swept through the streets smashing windows, looting shops, burning synagogues and ransacking homes of Jewish residents.

Bea recalls the glow outside her bedroom window and thinking all of “Karlsruhe” was on fire.” The terror campaign didn’t stop there, either, as Jewish males were attacked and some killed, The glass shards littering the streets came to symbolize not just shattered windows, but shattered ideals, morals, laws and lives. It came to be known as Kristallnacht of The Night of the Broken Crystal. When Bea’s father didn’t arrive home that evening from work, her mother grew distressed.“I still remember her pacing. He never did come home that night. We learned he and other men had been rounded up and taken to Buchenwald, one of the worst concentration camps. I shall never forget the day he came home. He was covered with blood and mud. He was trembling. He was a sick man for a very, very long time and never quite recovered from his ordeal.”

By the fall of 1940 Jewish children were not allowed to attend school, and Bea, then 8, was increasingly running wild, getting into trouble.

One day, without warning, there was a pounding on the apartment door. The Gestapo. The armed men barked orders to pack enough for two weeks. Bea remembers her mother asking, ‘Where are you taking us”’ and being roughly rebuked. “You ask too many questions. Mach schnell! Mach schnell!,” (hurry up, hurry up) the men yelled. In the chaos Bea retrieved her favorite doll but a Gestapo goon shook her arm, saying cryptically, “Where you’re going you don’t need this doll.” Bea was scared, then angry, and threw the doll on the floor, its porcelain face breaking. She gripped a table leg, sobbing to her mother, “‘I just know we’re never going to come back here.’ I was very agitated,” she recalls.

“My mother had a horrible time prying my hands loose and getting me out the door.” So traumatizing was the episode that Bea recalls only her mother during this period, even though her sister and father were present.

“I was beside myself for a long time. It was like they uprooted me.”The family was taken to the city’s railroad station, where they and many others were forced aboard a passenger train, their destination unknown. “As we moved into the countryside some people jumped through the windows of the moving train,” she says.

“But there were soldiers on the roof and they shot at the people. I don’t know how many escaped.” The train stopped at a French-German border station, where a voice on a loudspeaker ordered everyone to get rid of money or else be shot. When she saw her mother trying to hide money, she screamed, ‘No!.’ “My mother said, ‘Here…get rid of it,’ and so I took the money, went to the restroom and threw it down the toilet. Coming back to our compartment I saw, sure enough, the Nazis searching everyone. They took people off, lined them up on the platform and shot them.”

When the train stopped again in southern France, the prisoners were ordered off, loaded onto trucks and transported to the work camp Gurs. Bea remembers it as “a dismal place. All gray, brown and black. Barbed wire strung all around the camp. There were so many barracks that it looked like a small village. Guardhouses towered above the barracks.” Upon arrival the men and women were separated. “And that’s the next time I’m conscious of my dad again,” she says. “Because I had to say goodbye to him, I just clung to him.”

She saw her father only twice more. Once, she and her sister defied orders and bravely marched past guards to the men’s compound, finding their dad frail and weak. While in his barracks she recalls each of the men being given a raw egg, an unheard of delicacy. The famished Bea could “already taste” it. When cracked open, however, the eggs were all bloody inside.

 “My father got very agitated because as an Orthodox Jew he could not eat such an egg. It’s not Kosher. The Nazis were playing psychologically games. But I thought, ‘My father will surely make an exception. We’re starving, after all.’ Well, to my utter surprise he threw the egg against the wall, and I went to the wall to lick off the yellow ooze, but when I saw the expression on my father’s face I couldn’t do it. I was so furious I stomped my feet on the floor. He took me and my sister in his arms and then we all cried. Looking back on it, I now admire my father’s fortitude.”

She saw her mother endure her own indignities, as when her pierced gold earrings were “pulled right off her ear lobes. To this day I can hear her cry out from the pain.” Bea, Susie and their mother were assigned a barracks with dozens of others. The trio shared a rickety bed with a straw-filled mattress. Lice and rodents abounded. There was no medicine to treat sores, which invariably became infected. It rained often, leaving the compound a muddy quagmire. Their diet consisted almost entirely of watery soup. The entire barracks’ daily bread ration was but one loaf and its division caused bitter fights.

“If one person would get just a little bit more than somebody else,” Bea says, “the other women would jump on her. These women, who used to be ladies, ruined into animals. It was horrible.”

To survive, Bea became like a feral child — scrounging and scavenging garbage cans for food. Any respite from the misery and tedium was welcome, as when a visiting Red Cross worker sang for the children and treated them to Swiss cheese wedges. But in such conditions even acts of kindness were soon perverted. “The stronger of us would take cheese from the weaker,” Bea says. “One day I even took a piece from my sister…a terrible thing to do.”

While adults worked as slave laborers, children went on long forced walks. Stopping invited beatings. Still, life went on. Children played games. Inmates performed music. Secret classes met. A black-market thrived. The family was at Gurs several months when Susie, who developed an infection from scratching her lice-infested head, was among a group of children taken out of the camp by the O.S.E. (The Osay), an international humanitarian organization operating homes in France for refugee children. Saying goodbye, not knowing if they’d ever see each other again, was hard on everyone.

Some time later, in about late 1941, the cholera-stricken Bea was herself rescued by the O.S.E. from the work camp Rivesaltes, where Bea and her parents had been taken. Each time, Bea’s mother was given the impossible choice of letting a daughter go or stay to meet an uncertain fate. Some mothers refused to give their children up.

“It must have been terrible for my mother,” she says. “First, one daughter, and then her other daughter leaving her. I don’t know how she did it. I don’t know how much she knew. Maybe only that we’d be better off anywhere than in the camp. At the time though I didn’t want to leave.”

But leave she did, staying in a series of safe houses where refugee children like her were fed, supervised and educated. Over the next couple of years she moved 14 times, eventually reuniting with Susie. Once rejoined, the sisters were inseparable. The homes, scattered throughout southern and central France, were large chateau estates. The children attended classes and performed chores. They received mail from family, although Bea and Susie heard nothing more from their parents after early 1942.

Bea describes it as “an uncertain time,” adding, “I never knew how long I would be staying in one place. I never made close friendships.” By 1943 The Final Solution was in full gear and the homes , which the Vichy regime tolerated at its discretion, were no longer safe havens. The children were dispersed — some to Christian families and others, like Bea and Susie, to a convent in Millau. The girls were given French names and identity cards, staying there nearly till the war’s end.

By then Bea’s parents were presumed dead, yet there was nothing concrete. “There were rumors” about death camps,” she says. “I knew something terrible had happened. That they were gone, but where or how, I didn’t know. For the longest time I still had hope that maybe, maybe they escaped. I remember thinking, What am I going to do? My sister and I are left all alone in the world.”

She knew the war in Europe was won when American and Russian planes filled the skies in 1945. That’s when the O.S.E. reentered her life and placed her and Susie back in a chateau. An ad in an international Jewish newspaper requesting contact with any living relatives netted responses from Israel and England. That same year the girls, then 13 and 10, left for London to live with an uncle and his family. There, Bea and Susie began a new life and with it learned new customs and a new language. As teens they made yet another transition, coming to America to live with an aunt and her family in New York, Queens to be exact.

Soon after graduating high school Bea married American-born Bob Pappenheimer and in 1949 moved with him to O’Neill, Neb., where he worked in the grocery trade. They raised four daughters there. It was in O’Neill when she got official word her parents had died at Auschwitz.

“I was very much upset because it was so final. On the the other hand, part of me was also relieved to finally know.”

In the 1960s the family moved to Omaha, Her husband, Bob, died of cancer in 1987. Her second husband, Harold Karp, died also of cancer. Even after losing so much and then being twice-widowed, her indomitable spirit carries on, her righteous path continues. How?

“It’s like I told my sister when we left England: “Susie, we’re just turning another corner.’ That’s my attitude. Take things in stride. Otherwise, you give up.” Her resiliency springs from a near epiphany at one of the children’s homes.

“I was going down the staircase to the dining room, holding onto the railing, wondering, Why am I feeling happy? — things are just terrible. And it suddenly dawned on me happiness is something that comes from within. It was like a revelation. I learned to just take care of the moment. To not worry too far ahead. That it isn’t so much what life hands you, as how you cope with what you get. And I always remembered that through everything.”

It is a survivor’s philosophy. One from which we might all benefit.

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Milton Kleinberg: Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of memoir

November 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Holocaust survivor stories come in every conceivable variety, just like the people and lives behind them.  I’ve had the privilege of telling many such stories in the course of profiling survivors who settled in Nebraska after World War II or later.  Each story, each survuvor, is distinguished by elements that make them singular.  I thought I had heard and read it all when it comes to these sagas but then along came Milton Kleinberg’s story.  There may be more dramatic or traumatic tales but I can’t imagine one that covers as much time and distance as his tale.  It is epic in terms of sheer scale yet it’s also achingly intimate.  I don’t pretend to capture more than just the surface of his story in the following Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) article, but it should give you a sense for the aamazing rc of his surivival experience.  For a full appreciation of what he endured, you must read his book Bread or Death.

 

 

 

20141001_bs_4865Milton Kleinberg

Milton Kleinberg

Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of memoir

Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
November 5, 2014
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a child in Poland, Milton Kleinberg got caught up in a little known chapter of the Holocaust when he and his family were among Jews exiled to Soviet labor camps. The forced journey took them from occupied Poland to the siege at Stalingrad to the vast wastelands of Siberia. To be uprooted, thousands of miles from home, was awful, but it also meant being beyond the reach of death camps.

The 77-year-old native of Poland and longtime Omaha resident endured many hardships. Forced to travel on foot and by train, he was confined to warehouses, barracks, and institutions. He witnessed starvation, disease, suicides, beatings, executions. He weathered illness, injuries, predators. The epic ordeal spanned thousands of miles and many years. He experienced things no child should face. To defend himself and others he took actions no one should have to take.

His saga continued after the war in displaced person (DP) camps. After reinventing himself in Milwaukee, he went years not saying anything about his odyssey, not even to his wife and children. After moving to Omaha in his middle-years he still kept quiet. Keeping silent is not uncommon among the survivor community, for whom the trauma of loss is difficult to relive.

“When I came to America I made a pledge to myself I was going to put this behind me, that I was not going to dwell on the past, and that I was going to start a new life,” Kleinberg says. “My whole attitude was that the past was the past and I didn’t care to look back.”

Then circumstances conspired to break his silence. His grandchildren visited Holocaust sites and pestered him with questions. In applying for Social Security benefits he discovered his birthdate was different than what he thought it was. A genealogical search turned up two step-sisters, with whom he shared a father. The women posed more questions.

Always alert to anti-Semitism and to events in Israel, which he’s visited several times, he’s grown concerned by the rise of militant, extremist elements around the world. Finally, he decided, he should recount his story. In 2010 he self-published Bread or Death. He gave it to friends and relatives as well as clients of his successful business, Senior Market Sales Inc., which employs more than 170 people.

This past year he expanded the book with the help of professionals, including Institute for Holocaust Education staff who developed a teacher’s guide, a glossary, study questions, and historical background sections. IHE develops Holocaust curriculum for schools state-wide.

Released in August, the new edition is available to schools and youth-serving organizations as an educational tool. IHE executive director Liz Feldstern says Kleinberg’s made a valuable contribution to understanding the Holocaust survivor experience.

Bread or Death adds another important voice to understanding a narrative that affected millions of people in millions of different ways,” Feldstern says. “Anne Frank has become the voice of those who went into hiding. Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi are the voices of Auschwitz. Gerda Weissman Klein is the voice of the death march. Hadassah Rosensaft is the voice of the DP camps. Perhaps Milt Kleinberg will be the voice of those deported to Soviet labor camps.”

The memoir completes an obligation Milt felt to himself and his family.

“I wrote the book as a legacy for my children, grandchildren, and siblings that were born after the war,” he says. “Everyone had bits of information on what happened during the war. I was the only one with all the pieces of information. I could connect all the dots. So, I have written it all down.”

“Milt has fulfilled his responsibility admirably to share his story and break a lifetime of silence so that others can learn from that history…and hopefully not repeat it,” Feldstern says.

Milton M. Kleinberg shortly after arriving in America

Though reticent most of his life about his own experience, he’s never shied from confronting anti-Semitism. While residing in Milwaukee he actively opposed a neo-Nazi group there through the Concerned Jewish Citizens of Wisconsin, a group he helped form.

“We decided we were going to respond to the Nazis rather than stand silent or lay down. Some of us had learned hard, tragic lessons and sacrificed far too much to allow these haters to get a foothold in our city, in our neighborhood.”

It wasn’t the first time he stood up. He and his wife, Marsha, co-hosted a Milwaukee radio program. They bought the air-time for themselves in order to present and comment on Jewish news.

His book is a cautionary tale of what occurred as the world slept. It may help ensure another holocaust doesn’t happen in this new era of hate.

“After what happened to me and my family and to millions of Jews in the war, I simply would not keep silent about things I perceived to be wrong.”

Ultimately, Bread or Death is a testament to how a life well-lived is more powerful than any retribution.

 

 

Milton Kleinberg Omaha Magazine Cover Story

 

 

Walter Reed: Former hidden child survives Holocaust to fight Nazis as American GI

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

About nine years ago I was given the opportunity to meet and profile Walter Reed, whose story of escaping the Final Solution as a Hidden Child in his native Belgium and then going on to fight the Nazis as an American GI a few years later would make a good book or movie.  Here is a sampling of his remarkable story now, more or less as it appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  You’ll find many more of my Holocaust survival and rescue stories on this blog.

 

Walter Reed: From out of the past – Former hidden child survives Holocaust to fight Nazis as American GI

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Imagine this: The time is May 1945. The place, Germany. The crushing Allied offensive has broken the Nazi war machine. You’re 21, a naturalized American GI from Bavaria. You’re a Jew fighting “the goddamned Krauts” that drove you from your own homeland. Five years before, amid anti-Jewish fervor erupting into ethnic cleansing, you were sent away by your parents to a boys’ refugee home in Brussels, Belgium. Eventually, you were harbored with 100 other Jewish boys and girls in a series of safe houses. You are among 90 from the group to survive the Holocaust.

Relatives who emigrated to America finagle you a visa and, in 1941, you go live with them in New York. You abandon your heritage and change your name. Within two years you’re drafted into the U.S. Army. At first, you’re a grunt in the field, but then your fluency in German gets you reassigned to military intelligence, attached to Patton’s 95th Division, interrogating German POWs. If this were a movie, you’d be the avenging Jewish angel meeting out justice, but you don’t. “The whole mental attitude was not, Hey, I’m a Jew, I’m going to get you Nazi bastard,” said Walter Reed, whose story this is. “I had no idea of revenging my parents. We were really more concerned about our survival and getting the information we needed.”

By war’s end, you’re in a 7th Army unit rooting out hardcore Nazis from German institutions. You don’t know it yet, but your parents and two younger brothers have not made it out alive. You borrow a jeep to go to your village. Your family and all the other Jews are gone. You demand answers from the cowed Gentiles, some you know to be Nazi sympathizers. You intend no harm, but you want them scared.

“I wasn’t the little Jewish boy anymore,” said Reed. “Now, they saw this American staff sergeant with a steel helmet on and with a carbine over his shoulder. At that point, we were the conquerors and those bastards better knuckle under or else. I asked, What happened to my family and to the other Jewish people? They told me they were sent to the east into a labor camp. That’s about all I could find out.”

It is only later you learn they were rounded-up, hauled away in wagons, and sent to Izbica, a holding camp for the Sobidor and Belzec death camps, one or the other of which your family was killed in, along with scores of friends and neighbors.

Walter Reed, now 79, is among a group of survivors known as the Children of La Hille, a French chateau that gave sanctuary to he and his fellow wartime refugees. A resident of Wilmette, Il., Reed and his story have an Omaha tie. After the war, he graduated from the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism and it was as a fund raising-public relations professional he first came to Omaha in the mid-1950s when he led successful capital drives at Creighton University for a new student center and library. “Part of me is in those buildings,” he said.

More recently, he began corresponding with Omahan Ben Nachman, who brings Shoah stories to light as a board member with the local Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation. A friend of Nachman’s — Swiss scholar and author Theo Tschuy — led him to accounts of La Hille and those contacts led him to Reed. In Reed, Nachman found a man who, after years of burying his past, now embraces his survivor heritage. With Reed’s help, Tschuy, the author of Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz and His Rescue of 62,000 Jews, is researching what will be the first full English language hardcover telling of the children’s odyssey.

On an April 30 through May 2 Hidden Heroes-sponsored visit to Nebraska, Reed shared the story of he and his comrades, about half of whom are still alive, in presentations at Dana College in Blair, Neb. and at Omaha’s Beth El Synagogue and Field Club, where Reed, a Rotary Club member, addressed fellow Rotarians. A dapper man, Reed regales listeners in the dulcet tones of a newsman, which is how he approaches the subject.

“I’m a journalist by training. All I want is the facts,” he said, adding he’s accumulated deportation and arrest records of his family, along with anecdotal accounts of his family’s exile. “I’m simply overwhelmed by the wealth of information that exists and that’s still coming out. In the last 10 years I’ve found out an awful lot of what happened. I don’t have any great details, but I have vignettes. So, my feeling when I find out new things is, Hey, that’s terrific, and not, Oh, I can’t handle it. None of that. Long, long ago I got over all the trauma many survivors feel to their death. I vowed this stuff would never disadvantage me.”

As he’s pieced things together, a compelling story has emerged of how a network of adults did right amid wrong. It’s a story Nachman and Reed are eager for a wider public to know. “It shows how a dedicated group of people, most of whom were not Jewish, coordinated their actions to prevent the Nazis from getting at these Jewish children,” said Nachman, who paved the way for the upcoming publication of a book by a La Hille survivor. “They chose to do so without promise of any reward but out of sheer humanitarian concern. It’s a story tinged in tragedy because the children did lose their families, but one filled with hope because most of the children survived to lead productive lives.”

Walter Reed as a child in Germany, circled at top left

 

 

It was 1939 when Reed made the fateful journey that forever separated him from his parents and brothers. Born Werner Rindsberg in the rural Bavarian village of Mainstockheim, Reed was the oldest son of a second-generation winemaker-wine merchant father and hausfrau mother. His was among a few dozen Jewish families in the village, long a haven for Jews who paid local land barons a special tax in return for protection from the anti-Semitic populace. Reed said Jews enjoyed unbothered lives there until 1931-1932, when Nazism began taking hold.

“I was aware of the growing menace and danger when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I recall constant conversations between my parents and their Jewish peers about Hitler. The Nazis marched up and down our main street with their swastika flags and their torches at night, singing their songs. This was a very close-knit community of about 1,000 inhabitants and you knew which kid had joined the Hitler Youth and whose dad was a son-of-a-bitch Nazi. Pretty soon, the kids began to chase us in the street and throw stones at us and call us dirty names. Then, the first (anti-Jewish) decrees came out about 1934 and increasingly got stricter.”

Pogroms of intimidation began in earnest in the mid-1930s. Reed remembers his next door neighbor, a prominent Jewish entrepreneur, taken away to Dachau by authorities “to scare the hell out of him. It saved his life, too,” he said, “because that hastened his decision to get the hell out of Germany. This stuff was going on in other towns and villages where I had relatives. In those places, including where my mother’s brothers and sisters lived, the local Nazis were more rabid and…they hassled the Jews so much they left, and it saved their lives.”

Things intensified in November 1938 when, in retaliation for the assassination of a German diplomat by an expatriate Polish Jew outraged by the mistreatment of his people, the Nazis unleashed a terror campaign now known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). Roving gangs of brown-shirted thugs attacked and detained Jewish males, vandalizing, looting, burning property in their wake. Reed, then 14, and his father were dragged from their home and thrown into a truck with other captives. As the truck rumbled off, Reed recalls “thinking they were going to take us down to the river and shoot us or beat the hell out of us.” The boys among the prisoners were confined in the jail of a nearby town while the men were taken to Dachau. Reed was freed after three nights and his father after several weeks.

 

 

The barn near Toulouse, France, where Walter Reed
stayed as part of a children’s rescue colony

 

 

In that way time has of bridging differences, Reed’s recent search for answers led him to a group of school kids in Gunzenhausen, a Bavarian town whose Jewish inhabitants met the same fate as those in his birthplace. The kids, whose grandparents presumably sanctioned the genocide as perpetrators or condoned it as silent witnesses, have studied the war and its atrocities. Reed began corresponding with them and then last year he and his wife Jean visited them. He spoke to the class, and to two others in another Bavarian town, and found the students a receptive audience.

“Frankly,” he said, “I find these encounters very worthwhile and uplifting. I was told by the teachers and principals it was quite a moving experience for the students to come face-to-face with history. My visit is now on the web site created by one class. On it, the students say they were especially moved by my stated conviction that the most important lesson of these events is to hold oneself responsible for preventing a repetition anywhere in the world and that each of us must bear that responsibility.”

When his father returned from Dachau, Reed recalls, “He looked awful. Emaciated. He wasn’t the same man. When we asked him what it was like he just said he’s not going to talk about it.” It was in this climate Reed’s parents decided to send him away. He does not recollect discussions about leaving but added, “I recently found a letter my father wrote to somebody saying, ‘I finally persuaded Werner to leave,’ so I must have been reluctant to go.”

A question that’s dogged Reed is why his parents didn’t get out or why they didn’t send his brothers off. It’s only lately he’s discovered, via family letters he inherited, his folks tried.

“Those letters tell a story,” he said. “They tell about their efforts to try and get a visa to America. My dad traveled to the American consulate in Stuttgart and waited with all the other people trying to get out. They gave my parents a very high number on the waiting list, meaning they were way down on the queue. There are anguished letters from my father to relatives referencing their attempts to get my brothers out, but that was long after it was too late. In no way am I castigating my parents for making the wrong decision, but they could have sent my brothers (then 11 and 13) because in that home in Brussels we had boys as young as 5 and 6 whose parents sent them.”

 

Walter Reed, third from right in the front row, at the chateau in La Hille, France,
where a smaller group of children were transferred from the barn near

 

 

Home Speyer, in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht, is where Reed’s journey to freedom began in June 1939. Sponsored by the city and afforded assistance by a Jewish women’s aid society, the home was a designated refugee site in the Kinder transport program that set aside safe havens in England, The Netherlands and Belgium for a quota of displaced German-Austrian children. Where the transport had international backing and like rescue efforts had the tacit approval of German-occupied host countries, others were illegal and operated underground. Reed said the only precautions demanded of the La Hille kids were a ban on speaking German, lest their origins betray them as non-French, and a rule they always be accompanied outside camp grounds by adult staff. Despite living relatively in the open, the children and their rescuers faced constant danger of denouncement.

The boys at Home Speyer, like the girls at a mirror institution whose fates would soon be mingled with theirs, arrived at different times and from different spots but all shared a similar plight: they were homeless orphans-to-be awaiting an uncertain future. Reed doesn’t recall traveling there, except for changing trains in Cologne, but does recall life there. “For a young boy from a small Bavarian farm village,” he said, “Brussels was an exciting city with its large buildings, department stores, parks and museums. We made excursions into the beautiful Belgian countryside. And there was no more anti-Semitic persecution.”

This idyll ended in May 1940 when German forces invaded Belgium. Reed said the director of the girls home informed the boys’ home director she’d secured space on a southbound freight train for both contingents of children.

“We packed what we could carry and took the streetcar to the train station,” he notes. “Late that night two of the freight cars were filled by the 100 boys and girls as the train began its journey to France.”

Adult counselors from the homes came with them. The escape was timely, as the German army reached Brussels two days later. En route to their unknown destination, Reed said the roads were choked with refugees fleeing the German advance. Unloaded at a station near Toulouse, the children were trucked to the village of Seyre, where a two-story stone barn belonging to the de Capele family quartered them the next several months. It appears, Reed said, the de Capeles had ties to the Red Cross, as the children’s homes did, which may explain why that barn was chosen to house refugees.

“It lacked everything as a place to live or sleep,” he said. “No beds, no mattresses, no running water, no sanitary facilities, no cooking equipment. Food was scarce, Pretty soon we ran out of clothes and shoes. Everything was rationed. A lot of us had boils, sores and lice.”

 

Walter Reed with a close friend who would
perish not long thereafter

 

With 100 kids under tow in primitive, cramped conditions, the small staff struggled. “They were trying to manage this rambunctious group of kids, who played and fought and caused mischief. The older kids, myself included, were deputized to sort of manage things. We taught classes out in the open. We worked on nearby farms in the hilly, rolling countryside, cutting brush…digging potatoes. For compensation we got food to bring back. It was like summer camp, except it was no picnic,” he said. “We all grew up fast. We learned about survival, self-reliance and cooperation for the common good.”

It was not all bad. First amours bloomed and fast friendships formed. Reed struck up a romance with Ruth Schuetz Usrad, whose younger sister Betty was also in camp. He also found a best friend in Walter Strauss.

The barn’s occupants were pushed to their limits by “the harsh winter of 1940,” Reed said. They got some relief when the group’s Belgian director, Alex Frank, got the Swiss Children’s Aid Society, then aligned with the Swiss Red Cross, to put Maurice and Elinor Dubois in charge of the Seyre camp, which they soon supplied with bedding, furniture and Swiss powdered milk and cheese.

With the Nazi noose tightening in the spring of 1941 the Dubois relocated the children to an even more remote site — the abandoned 15th century Chateau La Hille, near Foix in the Ariege Province — where, Reed said, “they were less likely to be detected.” It was here the children remained until either, like Reed, they got papers to leave or, like others, they dispersed and either hid or fled across the border. Some 20 children came to the states with the aid of a Quaker society.

As chronicled in various published stories, Reed said that in 1942, a year after he left, 40 of the children, including his girlfriend Ruth, were arrested by French militia and imprisoned at nearby Le Vernet. Inmates there were routinely transported to the death camps and this would have been the children’s fate if not for the intervention of Roseli Naef, a Swiss Red Cross worker and the then La Hille director, who bicycled to Le Vernet to plead with the commandant for their release. When her entreaties fell on deaf ears, she alerted Maurice Dubois, who bluffed Vichy authorities by threatening the withdrawal of all Swiss aid to French children if the group was not freed.

The officials gave in and the children spared. Reed said he has copies of records documenting Naef’s termination by the Swiss Red Cross for her role as a rescuer of Jews, the kind of punitive disapproval the Swiss were known to employ with other rescuers, such as diplomat Carl Lutz.

In getting out when he did, Reed realizes he “was one of the lucky ones,” adding, “Others had to use more extraordinary means to escape, like my friend Walter Strauss. He tried escaping across the Swiss border with four others. They were caught. He was sent back and was later arrested and killed in Auschwitz.” Ruth left La Hille and led a hidden life in southern France, joining the French Underground. She reportedly had many narrow escapes before fleeing across the Pyrenees into Spain and then Israel, where she helped found a kibbutz and worked as a nurse.

 

Walter Reed during one of his many public speaking apperances

 

 

It was at a 1997 reunion of Seyre-La Hille children in France that Reed saw Ruth and his former companions for the first time in 50-plus years. Keen on not being a “captive” of his past, he’d dropped all links to his childhood, including his Jewish identity and name. Other than his wife, no one in his immediate family or among his friends knew his survivor’s tale, not even his three sons.

For Reed, the reunion came soon after he first revealed his “camouflaged” past for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History project. Then, when his turn came to tell his biography before a Rotary Club audience, he asked himself — “Do I step out of my closet or do I keep hiding from my past?” Opting to “go through with it,” he shared his story and “everything flowed from there.” After attending the ‘97 La Hille reunion, Reed and his wife hosted a gathering for survivors in Chicago and another in France in 2000.

On the whole, the survivors fared well after the war. Two Seyre-La Hille couples married. A pair enjoyed music careers in Europe — one as a teacher and the other as a performer. Nine of the adult camp directors-counselors have been honored for their rescue efforts as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. Reed has visited many of the sites and principals involved in this conspiracy of hearts. The Chateau La Hill is still a haven, only now instead of harboring refugees as a rustic hideout it shelters tourists as a trendy bed-and-breakfast.

For Reed, taking ownership of his past has brought him full circle.

“Even though our lives have taken many different paths all over the globe, nearly all my surviving companions feel a strong bond with each other. Many have strong ties to the places and persons that gave us refuge during those dangerous and turbulent years of our youth. I think a lot of things happened then that shaped me as a whole. It inculcated in me certain attributes I still have — of taking responsibility and running things.”

Above all, he said, the experience taught him “to resist oppression and discrimination,” something he and his wife do as parents of a child with cerebral palsy. “For me, recrimination and anger are not a suitable response. It’s important we strive for reconciliation and understanding. Then we live the legacy.”

A not-so-average Joe tells his Holocaust story of survival

September 8, 2011 7 comments

Another of my Holocaust stories is featured here. Joe Boin tells his story of defiance and survival.

A not-so-average Joe tells his Holocaust story of survival

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

It’s not as if Joe Boin hadn’t spoken about his Holocaust survivor tale before. He shared his story for the Shoah Visual History Project. He’s told it to school groups. He helped form Nebraska Survivors of the Holocaust to raise awareness and to commission public memorials as reminders of what happened.

But until now the Berlin, Germany native never laid out his story for publication. The time seemed right. The 87-year-old widower resides at the Rose Blumkin Home, where he scoots around in his motorized wheelchair with aplomb, American and Go Big Red flags affixed to the back. The amiable man makes friends easily and lives a credo of looking ahead, not back, but the searing memories never dim. Alone with his thoughts, his odyssey is always near.

His wife Lilly, a fellow survivor he met and married after the war, passed away 14 years ago. A Vienna, Austria native, she told her survivor tale in her 1989 book, My Story. Everyone close to her died in the Shoah.

Remarkably, Joe’s entire immediate family made it out alive. His parents are long gone and his only two siblings live in Israel. Palestine is where Joe, Lilly, his sisters and eventually his folks migrated after the war. Joe and Lilly’s two children, Heni Alice and Gustav Daniel, were born and raised in Israel. Joe suffered wounds in the fight for Israel’s independence. The couple’s children preceded them to America and Joe and Lilly followed in 1966.

After hopskotching the country to be near their children, Joe and Lilly made it to Nebraska in the late-1970s, residing first in Lincoln before settling in Omaha.

Today, Joe lives for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He sees them when he can but they all live out of state. He’s spending Hanukkah and New Year in Phoenix with his daughter and her family.

Joe insists his story is nothing special. “I’m not too interesting,” he says through his thick accent. “I’m not important.” But Joe knows better. He knows that while every survivor story shares certain commonalities, each is its own wonder, even miracle, of fortitude and fate. He knows, too, it’s his obligation to bear witness.

Born Joachim Boin, he was the only son of Arthur and Bianca Boin, an educated Orthodox Jewish couple whose roots were in Germany and Poland, respectively. Joe’s father was a World War I veteran who fought in the German Army. He had his own accounting firm. Joe’s younger sisters, Ruth and Gisela, soon followed.

The family lived in a mixed district of Berlin where Jews and Christians lived and did business together. Next door was a Christian family, the Kruegers, who were old friends. They took an active hand in helping the Boins once the Nazi’s anti-Jewish laws took effect. They even ended up hiding Gisela during the war.

Before the rein of terror, Joe’s early childhood was idyllic. “It didn’t last long but it gave me a taste of what life could be or can be,” he said. “I had dreams but it became impossible for me to even follow them after Hitler came — that all went.”

Growing up in Berlin, Joe witnessed the fascist fervor in its huge rallies and parades that kindled the worst kind of nationalism. The mass public displays included virulent anti-Semetic screeds, all meant to sway the Aryan citizenry, to inflame hatred, to intimidate Jews and other supposed enemies of the state. The Nazi regime tapped the fears of a shaken people by offering security and scapegoats.

“Like everywhere in the world Germany was in a very deep depression, people were out of work and they had big families,” noted Joe, “and so Hitler came and said, ‘Well, if you elect me as your leader I will put bread on your table and I will make sure you have enough money to pay your bills and rent.’ Of course, everybody went for it.”

To the Christian majority Hitler appealed to widespread prejudice in blaming the Jews for Germany’s decline since World War I. For most Jews, the rhetoric and restrictions aimed at them seemed nothing they hadn’t seen or heard before.

“In the very beginning when he was elected he organized the political police and then when people found out what really was going to happen it was too late, they couldn’t do much about it,” said Joe.

A strapping, athletic young man, Joe competed as an elite Maccabi club tennis player, boxer and gymnast, yet Jews like him were ostracized from German national teams and games by the Nazi regime’s racial policies. This exclusion was a bitter pill to swallow for Jewish athletes when Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympics.

“It was pretty painful, I’ll tell you that.”

Amid unprecedented propaganda and pageantry the Nazis attempted to gloss over their campaign of hate against Jews and while some observers saw through the facade most of the world did not. As far back as the Berlin Olympics, Joe’s family was warned of the impending danger facing them.

“In 1936 my mother’s brother, who lived in Berlin, too, came to my dad and said, ‘Arthur, now is the time to leave this country.’ My dad looked at him and said, ‘I was in World War I, I pay my taxes, I have a legitimate business, why should I leave?’ If anybody had any idea what was going to happen, they would have left,” said Joe, but the Boins like most people could not conceive that what seemed another pogrom would become the systematic genocide known as The Final Solution.

Until the fall of 1938 things were tolerable. Jews couldn’t go where and when they pleased as easily as they once could, owing to growing restrictions on their movements and activities, but they didn’t fear for their safety. Clearly, though, life was far from normal and things were getting more tense. Roving gangs of Nazi Brown Shirts were becoming a menace and the mere fact of being a Jew, identified by a Yellow Star, made you a target of these thugs.

The Kruegers, the Christian family who lived next door to the Boins, became a lifeline. “Our neighbors were very nice people and they supplied us with some food and so on, sometimes without taking payment, so that we could live a little,” said Joe.

When he was 15 he and his family moved to a town, Cottbus, where Joe’s father felt they would be more insulated from the Nazi grip. They did find there some kind Christians who lent aid just as the Kruegers had.

“Like everywhere else there were wonderful people that were kind to Jews, that tried to help,” said Joe.

But there ultimately was no escaping the threat. Things took a turn for the worse on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. Nazi goons came to the Boin home to take Joe and his father away to the town square where other Jewish residents had been rounded up and their homes and businesses vandalized.

“They took us to a marketplace where they had us surrounded by Nazis and by private citizens and they put dogs on one side and they gave us a spoon and we had to pick up the crap. We got beaten pretty bad. A lot of people got killed there, too. They put bodies in the synagogue and afterwards they burned it.”

For Joe, the nightmarish incident marked the end of his boyhood innocence and the start of a cruel new reality based on instinct, chance and survival.

“My life as a child (ended). I had two years of high school before Hitler kicked us out.” From then on out, life was a harrowing affair. “We were treated like animals, not as human beings, we had to walk on the street, we couldn’t walk on the sidewalks, we couldn’t go into certain stores.”

More and more, Jews found themselves targeted, isolated, marginalized. Then, in 1939, the year Germany invaded Poland and Czechoslovakia and instigated World War II, the family was forcibly split up. A band of Nazis came to the Boin home, this time demanding only Joe come with them. He described what happened:

“At midnight they knocked on our door, shouting, ‘We want your boy Joachim.’ I came to the door and asked, ‘What do you want?’ ‘We have come for you,’ they said, and they grabbed me and hit me and put me on a truck. ‘Where are we going; do I have to take something?’ ‘No, where we’re going you don’t need nothing.’”

The ominous reply presaged the unfolding horror of the next six years, a black time when he and his family were separated from everything they knew, including each other, as each endured his or her own survival odyssey. Joe, his father, his mother and his sister Ruth all ended up in either labor or death camps.

Only his baby sister Gisela was spared. She was hidden by the Kruegers in the Christian family’s Berlin home, where for three-and-a-half years she passed a secreted-away life that if discovered would have meant certain death for her and her benefactors.

“My dad always said to them (the Kruegers), ‘You know, if the authorities find out they’re going to kill you too,’ and they said, ‘We are responsible to God, not to him (Hitler), and we feel if there’s any way to help somebody and to do something that prevents anybody from getting killed, we do it.’”

This courageous attitude struck a chord in Joe, who has tried living up to the kindnesses people bestowed on him and his family.

“It’s amazing in a situation like this that you find people that have a different way of thinking and they feel it’s immoral for others to be killed or whatever just because they’re Jewish. People helped even though they knew if they got caught they would get shot. Despite the risk, they said, ‘No, we have a responsibility to God, but not to Mr. Hitler, and whatever happens, happens,’ and that’s why quite a few Jewish people had a chance to live.”

From the time Joe was taken away in the middle of the night to the war’s end, six years passed before he was reunited with his family. He would survive six camps in four countries, counting the displaced persons and refugee camps he ended up in after the war, before the ordeal was over.

“The first camp I was in was Sachsenhausen — it was a concentration camp close to Berlin where all kinds of political prisoners, religious people were together, gypsies too. Just a very, very interesting group of people, and then from there they distributed them to the other camps.”

He didn’t know anyone at Sachsenhausen.

“I didn’t want to know anybody because in a situation like this it’s very difficult to trust people you don’t know. Sometimes you had to, but unfortunately you had a lot of Jewish people who tried to inform the Nazis of what was going on, hoping they might have a better life, which didn’t happen.”

Upon his arrival, Joe was consumed with anger over the injustice of it all.

“I was 17-years-old and the only crime I’d committed was I was born to a Jewish mother. That’s why I could never understand why I had to go through all this. I wasn’t thinking about anything else but why I’m here. I didn’t steal anything, I didn’t murder anyone — why am I here, what’s the reason? Why couldn’t I get my education so I could become somebody and get further on in life later? Why? — because I was Jewish. I could not get over that.”

Then some things happened those first 24 hours in camp to change his outlook.

“I was so mad that when we came in the barracks in the evening I said, ‘I think if I ever by any chance come out of this place I will kill every German that comes in my way.’ Somebody tapped me on my shoulder and said, ‘No my son, if you do this you’re not any better than the Nazis.’” It started him thinking.

“The next morning we had to stand in a roll call and an elderly man fell down and, of course, I bent down trying to help him and one soldier came and shoved this rifle in my back and so I fell down, too. We were carried into the barracks and the older prisoners told me, ‘If you want to stay alive you don’t see anything around you.’ Well I was a person that wanted to see what life was all about and I was trying to live a little longer if I could, and so I followed this advice.”

Joe was also befriended by an elderly Catholic priest whose selfless example made a big impact on him. When the meager bread ration was given out, Joe said, the old priest gave away his portion to Joe and other young people. “He told us, ‘You need it more than I do, I have nothing to look forward to, it’s God’s will.’ It taught me there are people who really care for other people.”

After two years at Sachsenhausen Joe was transported to Buchenwald in 1941.

“Buchenwald was horrible for me because I was delegated to be on the railroad platform as trains came in from Holland and Belgium. I would pick up the suitcases and possessions people carried. The hardest thing for me was seeing women come with little children in their arms and the children, some not even a year old, were taken away and thrown on the platform. Some guards did much more worse — they used them as target practice. I still have nightmares about this.”

It took all of Joe’s self-discipline to not respond, not intervene, not retaliate.

“I was strong enough I could probably have killed some guards but that wouldn’t do me any good because two minutes later people would be shot on the spot. It doesn’t help me or nobody else either. It was a hard decision to make but unfortunately that’s the way it worked.”

Living conditions were abysmal in every concentration camp, but he said the treatment by the Buchenwald guards was particularly harsh.

“The guys that watched us were much more brutal in Buchenwald than they were in Sachsenhausen. They got a bottle of whiskey in the morning to drink to get them in the mood of tormenting us. They were specially trained, they had only one thing in mind, make sure the people don’t get out of here alive.”

As part of the Nazi program of humiliating prisoners, he said, inmates were given absurd tasks meant to break their mind and spirit.

“We had to do idiotic things, like they had a room that needed to be cleaned and they give us a toothbrush to clean the walls. It made you feel degraded. This is the evil of the world — to not treat us like human beings. They didn’t want you to feel as a human being anymore — well, they didn’t have any luck with me.”

Death, hunger, toil and beatings became every day occurrences.

“In our barracks we had bunk beds, with maybe four or five people laying there in a clump, and very often when you woke up in the morning somebody was dead. It took me a long time to get over those deaths,” he said.

Hardening himself to his reality became a necessary thing.

“I always thought a little bit different — that I’m in a situation where I have to do certain things and I’m looking for a loophole maybe somewhere to improve my situation. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I was able to be pretty open with the people that were surrounding me in trying to explain how important it was for our little group here to hold together and not go to the Nazis, that we had to stick together and try to improve our lives — that was the only way to make it happen. Some of them did and some of them didn’t.

“Some didn’t have the will (to live) anymore. One guy told me, ‘What difference does it make?’ Some people had a little bit of sense left. I had the will to live. I prayed to God, ‘I know if you want you will give me the strength to fight back in a way to keep my mouth shut when I should,’ instead of saying something that would give them the opportunity to beat me or to restrict food from me.”

That resolve and restraint, he said, “was not very easy because when you work hard 10-12 hours a day with nothing to eat your mind is mush. I tried to get rest as much as I could because I knew that’s what I needed. Somehow I still kept on going.”

He kept alert for work details that might provide a scrap more food or be out of harm’s way. “If somebody was really weak I jumped in and told them, ‘I’ll do it.’” That may have saved his life when he got to Auschwitz-Birkenau in late ’44.

“I ended up in Auschwitz,” whose dark reputation, he said, preceded it — “somehow it went from camp to camp what happened there. I knew if I would stay there that would be it. My strength was down, we were beaten every day, we had no good food, we had to work. I wasn’t Superman, I just was a simple human being who can take only so much. I was lucky to get out of there.”

It just so happened a work detail was formed and Joe was in the right place at the right time to be assigned it. “I was there three weeks and then some officer came and he saw me and put me to work in the stone quarries on the Polish-German border, near Hindenburg. There was a big forest around us. We slept in tents.”

In early 1945 the quarry camp came under bombardment from advancing Russian forces and Joe and some fellow prisoners used the cover of chaos to flee.

“There were about 10 of us and we said, ‘Let’s go, no matter what.’ We escaped in the big forest there. Some of us were pretty weak. We were afraid the guards might set their dogs on us, so we tried to put as much distance between us and them, but most of the guards had fled    — they didn’t want to get in the Russians’ hands.”

After foraging on the road for six or seven days Joe and his mates were liberated by Russian Army troops. “We were lucky,” he said, “there was a Jewish major in their ranks who spoke Yiddish and he warned us not to eat the uncooked bacon the Russians spread out to feed us. He said after what we’d been through it would kill us.”

The major didn’t warn about the bottled drinks the Russians offered.

“It looked like water to me, I was so thirsty, so I drank and I almost died — it was 100 percent vodka,” said Joe, who can smile about it now.

Joe weighed 82 pounds when rescued. He spent two months in a Russian military hospital. Once he regained his strength, he made his way to Holland, mostly by hitching rides with G.I. transports. His family had agreed to meet there if they were ever separated during the war. His mother’s brother had fled there. He hoped his family had survived but he had no real expectation of seeing them again.

Amazingly, he said, “we all came out of it. We were lucky. Slowly but surely everybody made their way to Holland.” His mother had survived as a laundress for the German military, his father escaped a camp before being pressed into duty making military roads, Ruth worked in a labor munitions camp and Gisela remained hidden.

The Boins spent the next year in a D.P. camp, where Joe met the woman who became his wife, the former Lilly Engelmann Margulies. She was a survivor of Theresienstadt (Terezin). Having lost her husband, parents and siblings, Lilly was all alone and the Boins became her protectors and friends. There was a considerable age difference between Joe and Lilly but the attraction was mutual.

“We liked each other. Then, of course, I asked her one day ‘will you marry me?’ and she looked at me and said, ‘no,’ and I didn’t take no for an answer, I wanted an explanation. So she told me, ‘Well, I’m 14 years older than you,’ and I said, ‘So what?’ So we got married in Amsterdam and we were married 50 years.”

With no prospects or permits for starting a new life in war-ravaged Europe, the couple, along with Ruth and Gisela, embarked on an epic journey to reach the promised land of Palestine. Traveling with no visas, they made their way to France and Belgium.

Out on the Mediterranean Sea they risked being turned back by authorities or being turned in by mercenaries, but enough angels helped their cause. Making the trip more hazardous was Lilly’s pregnancy. They arrived in Haifa on a Turkish coal boat in 1946. Among the early Holocaust survivors in Palestine, their testimony of the genocide they witnessed fell on deaf ears at first.

“When we first went to Israel, our own people didn’t believe us. They said, ‘Oh you just want sympathy,’ until some of their relatives came and told them. It’s something people couldn’t imagine, that human beings can do this to other human beings, and to children.”

Like many survivors Joe was angry the world largely turned a blind eye to the plight of millions. He said while some lost their faith, he did not.

“Many people said, ‘Where was God? I don’t believe in God anymore.’ That’s your privilege, but let me tell you something, it had nothing to do with God — people are the ones who did it, you can’t blame everything on God. What happened, happened, I cannot repair it, I have to go with what I have now. You have to live with it and you have to make the best you can to keep on living.”

He joined the Israeli Army and was shot in the stomach during a rescue mission. A doctor told Lilly he wouldn’t make it.

“Here I am,” said Joe, the perpetual survivor. He worked odd jobs overseas. In the U.S. he was a botanical gardens curator before going into business as a locksmith. His picks can open anything but safes.

His wife Lilly died in 1995 after a long illness that saw him care for her at home. “I thought my life came to an end,” he said, “but there’s a reason for everything. I never want anybody to feel sorry for me. I’m grateful for what I have.”

He’s dismayed atrocities still go on around the world. “People killing in the name of I don’t know what. How is that possible? Why didn’t people learn and see what comes out of this? You have to sit down with people and talk to them — there always is a way if you have the will to do it.”

A supporter of Omaha’s TriFaith Initiative, Joe counts Christians and Muslims among his friends and he believes the more interfaith, multicultural dialogue there is, the less likely it is genocide will occur. He does not allow his survivor past to define him but instead uses the experience to practice and preach tolerance.

“You know, the memories are fading away, but this is something that’s inside you. I will never forget what happened, but I am a person that looks forward, I don’t want to look back. I learned not to hate anymore. It gives me more of a reason to try to see that other people are treated like human beings,” he said.

“Try to help whoever you can because you never know – someday you might need help and they will help you. I love life, I love people. I believe in live-and-let-live. Enjoy life as much as you can and do good as much as you can. If you’re a good person and trying to live in the world you have to respect other people’s beliefs, and I try to do that.”

The Kripke Library’s copy of Lilly’s book contains an inscription Joe could have written hmself: “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”

He’s written his own Holocaust reflections, including a prayer:

“I am thankful that I could see life from every angle. I learned how to be rich and how to be poor, how to give orders and how to take orders, how to live in a big family with a lot of friends and how it is to be completely alone. I learned to appreciate health, so I could endure pain. I met the ugly, so I was able to enjoy the beauty. I know how to live in a mansion, but be content to live in a bathroom … to own a Mercedes and to walk barefoot the dusty, stony road. When I was in prison I realized the value of freedom …

“I have met people who found consolation. In helping those who could not help themselves they had put their own life in danger…I saw goodness at its best and bestiality at its worst … I got the taste of almost unbearable disaster and I was blessed to have again a wonderful family, who brought so much happiness into my life … Thank you God … for all the experiences I had in two ways of life.”

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