Several months ago, my 8-year-old son ran in through the door like he does, floppy stomps, calling me names in the kitchen in some colorful foreign language he gleaned off Fortnite. He sat at the table and quieted, a rare hush fell over him, a kind of sadness, a tenderness. He explained he had just returned from planting daffodils at Congregation Chaverim outreach from his beit midrash studies, to honor the 1.5 million children murdered in Shoah (the Holocaust), as part of the International Daffodil Project. He said the daffodils represent the stars Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. His little-kid mind cannot comprehend the idea of boys and girls his age yanked away from their homes, their toys, their parents, their brothers and sisters, their very existences, and slaughtered. He was captivated by the pluck of survivors who spoke, and he got to meet a few of them, see their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The massacre aspects he can barely, if at all, comprehend. The bravery aspect he can. Reece understands how a simple ceremony of planting daffodils is living proof there is bloom and growth wherever you are planted.
* * *
If you want to feel insignificant, sit at a roundtable group with folks who survived the most calculated, brutal, mass annihilation in human history. That’s where I am, inside an upstairs florescent-lit conference room at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) center in Tucson. I am asked to speak to the group as a writer/journalist, and tell some of my story. I am pretty uncomfortable. Who the hell in this room would give a shit about my life?
Sharon Glassberg leads this weekly meeting for Holocaust survivors. She is a whip-smart clinical therapist who “provides support and wellness services” to Southern Arizona Holocaust survivors. Among other duties, she schedules their speaking appearances at middle and high schools, remembrance events and at the Tucson Jewish Museum and Holocaust Center, and oversees group social activities, which may involve, say, a trip to hear the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. The main idea is social interaction and limiting the isolation for these folks. She has been working at the JFCS nearly five years. (Note: the JFCS also offers in-home help, transportation services and financial assistance for survivors. Funding comes from the international Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, private donations, grants.)
The Tucson-born Glassberg, a former educator, and a married mother of four, previously worked at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, which led to her current role. Glassberg gets very close to these folks, and they her. She has even traveled to Eastern Europe for the annual “March of the Living” international memorial with several area survivors. It happens on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) as a tribute to all Holocaust victims, and includes a march in southern Poland from Nazi death camps Auschwitz to Birkenau.
It is an honor for her to work with them. She tells me, “My motivation is them. I would do most anything for them. It’s also about giving them a voice. Their suffering was not in vain.”
It is community, yes, but also family, and heartbreaks are many. “There have been a lot of deaths among them in the last two years,” she says, her tone rueful.
I look out at the table of elderly gentlemen and women, they could be the old folks behind you in line at Safeway, except, perhaps, three of them wear ballcaps that read “Holocaust Survivor.” There are roughly 62 Jewish survivors alive and living in Southern Arizona. Five are tuned in on Zoom today, and six more are in the room, plus a few wives and caretakers. Today is their first in-person meet in two years, due to COVID.
Glassberg breaks challah bread and leads a recitation of the shehecheyanu, a Jewish prayer expressing gratitude. They honor Walter Feiger, a beloved survivor who recently died.
I talk. I tell them my wife is Jewish, and I am not. In that moment, I can’t help but wonder of this group's dreams and recollections, horrors likely well beyond the scope of any reasoning in the present. I can see and hear, in living proof, how life-changing atrocities and genocide is with you to the end but, mostly, I see how some survivors are able to confront their history and numbness and share their tales, some of whom waited decades to tell even sons and daughters their story.
They joke and wisecrack, tell me, “Ah, you’re Jewish, at least honorary!” That sort of thing. A lovely musicality floats off their various accents.
It is congenial, and welcoming. Each of them is curious. Each of them is kind. As a survivor, or even a loved one to a survivor (one wife says, “I am a survivor of a survivor”), none have led a life that I could possibly imagine. They talk of their love of Tucson, agree on its womb-like warmth and cradle of the surrounding Sonoran Desert.
Then, one by one, each goes around, via a big Zoom screen or in the room and introduces themselves, says a bit about who they are. For roughly two hours in quick bursts, horrific events come to life, beatings, murders, encampment, starvation, relocation. Themes recur: social inclusion, coming-of-age, isolation, conformity, surrender, Hitler, survival, hope and self-determination.
But ultimately triumph and beauty, such hard-earned careers after landing in America, as doctors and plumbers, teachers and artists, and becoming parents, grandparents, great grandparents and, learning to manage eternal PTSD and not try to outrun their pasts, and tell their stories. Hearing unedited stories in person all at once is an emotional onslaught, and it would be reductive to even try to unfurl any in short space. This is flesh and blood, human and fluid, not documentarian talking heads or actors, or censored for tender ears. This is the last generation of first-hand witnesses.
On Zoom, 94-year-old Margot Heuman is lying on a bed from her home in Green Valley. Here is a woman who survived multiple concentration camps, tells of seeing dead bodies lining the road and stacked high. Her little sister and parents were murdered at Auschwitz. Like everyone here, she is self-reflective and smart, led a long successful life. She says the Holocaust made her who she is. A play based on her life, The Amazing Life of Margot Heuman, premiered at the Brighton Fringe Festival in 2021.
Severin Szperling doesn’t utter a word until it is his turn to talk. He tells of the quiet sadness in his home, his wife had died since this group last saw each other in person. He was born during the Nazi occupation in Częstochowa, Poland, and is one of the few Jewish Częstochowa children to survive. He was 2 and a half years old when his parents smuggled him out of the Jewish ghetto/annex to live with a Polish couple, his mom and dad were shot against a wall. Ninety percent of his family were murdered. This Polish couple, his foster parents, risked getting killed for him, they changed his name, and later baptized him into Catholicism. He would say to his foster mother, “You’re not my mom, my mom was skinny.”
He often survived hiding in a rabbit hutch hole near the house so the scent would camouflage him from Nazi patrols and their dogs. Upon liberation, he remembers, “A Russian soldier giving me chocolate. I will never forget him. And I never had chocolate before.”
He began to learn of his biological family, found relatives in Israel, where, in 1964, he got a prized-possession picture of his father. (He has spent 50 years looking for information of his real mother, no luck). He landed in America in 1970. Two years later his Częstochowa fiancée arrived. He ran a construction company and has two daughters. He arrived in Tucson in 1996 and ran a hotel, retired 20 years ago.
I later learn Szperling became a well-recognized numismatist for his Holocaust medal collection. In 2010, Szperling published a book, A Catalog of Holocaust Medals with his daughter Julie. He has donated many of the medals to museums.
There is spry Chris Tanz on Zoom, a highly educated baby survivor, born hidden under the threat of death between German-occupied Warsaw and the Russian line in an old TB sanitarium, in 1944 (during Yom Kipper). She is an author and renowned artist whose magnificent work defines monuments of sites and culture, (for example, the sweeping Sun Circle sculpture in Rillito River Park) and colors Tucson.
Polish-born Pawel Lichter, who gives his age as “90-plus,” is the group cut-up. (He later tells me how humor is set like a pre-emptive against pity. Mild sarcasm and insider jokes are aplenty today. “We always had humor. Look, it helped us survive.”) He happens to speak seven or more languages, including Yiddish, whose usage was nearly rendered extinct by the Holocaust. His intellect is youthful. He can shift to a serious tone on a dime, tells of his family, who were affluent—his dad owned a prominent movie house in Rypin—and it was all taken from them, his uncle dragged away, tortured and murdered. Once, in late 1939, they were escaping Nazi-occupied Poland, heading to Russia by horse and carriage, with whatever necessities they could carry, and were stopped by Nazis, and lined up to be executed. “I was a little boy, 8 years old,” he says. “At the last second a German officer said to my father, ‘You look like my professor!’ and he let us go. I don’t know why. It was a miracle.” He met his wife of 64 years, who is seated next to him, in Mexico City. They raised a family in Nogales, Arizona.
Wolfgang Hellpap, his wife Vilma by his side, wears a Holocaust Survivor cap, a little concave in a wheelchair, on oxygen. (His recent hospital bout with COVID nearly got him.) He turns 91 in June and is sharp, yet talks at a reserved clip. Born in Berlin to an unmarried couple, a Christian mom and a Jewish dad, who left Berlin before things got bad. Because of the insane pre-war Nuremberg Race Laws, Wolfgang suffered early, was yanked from second grade, mid-class, when it was discovered he was Jewish. Other kids spat at him.
At around 8 years old, he taught himself to read and write. He was terrified of the Gestapo, who caught him and threw him into an orphanage, where children were whipped awake and taken to camps. His mother rescued him by arguing he wasn’t actually Jewish. He hid with an uncle outside Berlin, lived in a shed separate from the house. By 1943, the bombing began. He was not allowed in the shelter with the others, forced to stay upstairs, where he watched and suffered bombings day and night. It’s a miracle he survived any of it.
He later made it to Israel (then Palestine), caught up on schooling. At 17 he fought, defending the new state of Israel against bordering Arab countries, nearly losing a leg after getting shot. He healed and went back to fight. With the help of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), he and his mother made it to America, where a year later he was drafted in the U.S. Army and sent back to Germany as an American soldier. He served, returned to San Francisco and eventually started his own janitorial business. He retired to Tucson in ’05.
A survivor chimes in, “You helped liberate Israel! You gave us a home!”
An air of earned sophistication and grace floats around Ukrainian-born Yuliya Genina, who escaped Nazi capture with her mother and twin sister by crossing the frontlines on foot to the then-Soviet Union. She tells of children circling dead mothers, Messerschmitt fighter planes shooting people fleeing from an escape train. She later became a doctor.
A conversation breaks out on anti-Semitism in Ukraine, how Yuliya felt it long after the war, into the ’60s. She arrived in Tucson in 1996. “The anti-Semitism in the Ukraine was so hard, that’s why I left,” she says. “In World War II they were murderous people. World War II was to kill fascists, I understand. But right now?”
There is a pause in the room. Glassberg weighs in: “It’s so hard to avoid this topic.”
Another says, “I thought this was no politics?”
Glassberg adds, “All of our experiences are our experiences, and our experiences are our truths.” Everybody nods. There is no arguing. It is a conversation that quickly dissects and identifies fissures between good and evil.
Sharon moves the discussion along. Others talked, more heartbreaking and restorative accounts from Annique Dveirn, Simon Katz, Theresa Dulgov and Sidney Finkel. (Finkel’s harrowing survival story is documented in his great memoir everyone should read called Sevek and the Holocaust: The Boy Who Refused to Die.)
By the end, another theme rose throughout and it defined this group of folks: the very simple idea of human responsibility; righting wrongs in the world. Tikkun Olam. Spreading kindness to heal the world. It is their wisdom. It is their grace.
The meeting ends and Sharon asks for volunteers for upcoming speaking engagements, some are assigned. Soon the folks flicker off Zoom and the others mingle, laugh, grateful to see one another in person, and slowly shuffle out of the room.
Sharon and I head down the stairs, its walls softened with Jewish art and remembrances, to the exit. We talk of the group members, their long immersions into America, into Tucson, immigrations into a dream, and how very American it all is. How they love this country, despite a rise of anti-Semitism and racism and an entire American political party fueled on a raging undercurrent of white nationalism.
She says, “For years they pushed so much of their existence behind so they could survive the trauma. They were thrust into a new world, this was a new opportunity for them to live their lives, as Americans. Really, America saved them. It let them lead their lives, as normal as possible. It was the land of opportunity to be who they are. I mean, that was the American dream. Can you think of inside the mind of a holocaust survivor coming here and being respected? In what mind could they ever imagine where they weren’t killed or gassed or tortured?”
They are the daffodils. Perennial, lasting, teachers for the future.
The daffodils allow my son Reece perspective and gratefulness. For his baby sisters, for food in the refrigerator, for the love from his parents and wider tentacles of family, all of which get to grow together, and for a safe home and free public parks and education. He is learning to appreciate such things right now through the sufferings and deaths of others, and the survival of even others. It’s really about those daffodils.
Required reading: Volumes one and two of To Tell Our Stories: Holocaust Survivors of Southern Arizona (2015 and 2018, Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Southern Arizona) are available. Volume One is now a free e-book on Amazon.