On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, local children of survivors reflect on their legacy — and their responsibility to share it.
It was 1942, a few days after Passover. Hirsch Kaidanow was 12 years old, his little brother Yudel only 8-and-a-half, when their mother hid them in a shed attached to their house.
Nazis and their collaborators murdered Hirsch and Yudel’s parents later that day. Their mother was brutally beaten, then shot. Their father was burned alive in a barn with about 50 other Polish Jews. In fact, every single family member on their mother’s side still in Poland perished in the Holocaust.
Hirsch Kaidanow, now 90, goes by Howard in English. He still has nightmares about the day his parents were murdered. It is still very difficult to talk about what happened, “but the truth must come out,” he said. “This is more than just about my parents. People must understand that there were six million Jews who were murdered.”
Both Kaidanow and his wife Esther, 84, participate in meetings of the Baltimore Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants group. Esther was born in the former Yugoslavia. While her immediate family survived the Holocaust, many in her extended family were murdered by the Nazis. Both Kaidanows share their stories at this and other venues to make sure it is not forgotten by the next generation. Esther said she hopes that the knowledge they impart will translate into tolerance for other people.
The mission of Baltimore Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants is to commemorate and honor the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, educate the community, combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers, and to preserve and pass on Jewish heritage to younger generations.
The group’s founder, Felicia Graber, was born in Poland in 1940. In June 1942, her parents, Salomon and Tosia Lederberger (who later went by the names Andrzej and Zofia Bialecki) were forced to move with young Felicia to the Tarnow ghetto. The family managed to survive the war, and in 1947 they moved with her then-infant brother to Brussels. She married an American Army chaplain in 1959 and moved to the U.S. in 1963.
Based on her father’s oral history and edited with her brother, Dr. Leon Bialecki, Graber’s book “Our Father’s Voice: A Holocaust Memoir,” is dedicated as follows: “To our children, grandchildren, and to the generations yet to be born because You are the only gravestone markers our murdered ancestors will ever have. You are their memory. You are their future.”
Now 80, Graber coordinates the Baltimore-based group, which convened most recently on a Sunday afternoon at the Park Heights JCC.
One participant in the group is Bernardo Rozencwaig. His parents, Hanka Zagdanski and Joel Rozencwaig, were both from Radom, Poland. Born in 1921 and 1922, respectively, they were teenagers when World War II began. They lived in the Radom “big ghetto” from 1939 to 1942, according to Bernardo, but then the Nazis shipped them to different camps.
“It is fortunate that they were young and strong enough to be able to do work — that’s how they were able to survive,” Rozencwaig said. After the war ended, they both ended up in displaced persons camps, and found each other through other survivors, lists, and people they knew from home.
After the Holocaust, Rozencwaig’s parents moved to Argentina, and then his family moved to the U.S. when he was about 15 years old. His father passed away in 2002, and his mother in 2008. He said that his father was willing to talk about his experience during the Holocaust a little bit, but his mother almost never wanted to talk about her own.
“In the middle of 1944, my mother was sent to Auschwitz, where she spent between seven to nine months before it was liberated,” he said. “I cannot imagine what my mother did for those seven to nine months to survive.”
Rozencwaig said he keeps his parents’ memory alive by coming to the Survivors and Descendants group, by attending and supporting events related to the Holocaust, and by taking Yiddish classes every Friday at the Pikesville library.
“We have first, second, and third generations who come to our meetings,” Graber said. “Once they retire, they feel the need to get in touch with their roots; many second-generation descendants cannot, because their parents refused to talk about it, [while others] are able to piece something together to make sure that Holocaust victims are not forgotten.”
Jan. 27 will mark the 75 years since of the liberation of Auschwitz, a reminder of how much time has passed and how few survivors are left to share their firsthand experiences.
A Family Legacy
Rachel Glaser is a retired Jewish educator at Beth Israel Congregation. Her parents, Emily (nee Osmou, born in 1913) and Emmanuel Velelli (1911) were Greek Jews.
Of the 78,000 Jews in Greece before the war, 10,000 remained, according to Glaser. Emily and Emmanuel Velelli lost siblings and brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews, but managed to survive in hiding, she said. After the war, the Velellis eventually moved to the U.S. with with the help of HIAS, and received assistance from Jewish Family Services in Baltimore until they were on their feet.
“I feel the responsibility to tell that story and keep it alive,” said Glaser. “I am a Jewish educator partly because of the experiences of [my] parents trying to survive as Jews and always teaching us that that characteristic of us is very precious, and it was almost wiped out and we should always cherish it.”
Her parents gave oral testimony to the Yale Holocaust Project, and the Greek family that hid them were honored as Righteous Gentiles in a Baltimore Holocaust remembrance event in 1984.
Glaser’s husband, Rick, is also a child of survivors. Rick’s parents, Kurt Glaser (1915-2009) and Susanne Stein (1923-2002), were Viennese Jews. Rick Glaser said his parents and older brother were ultimately able to escape from Switzerland to the U.S. with the help of Henry Morgenthau Jr., a distant relation and then U.S. Secretary of the Treasury during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“We got out just in the nick of time,” Rick Glaser said. He estimates that at least 35 immediate family members perished in the Holocaust, some at the Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp and others at Auschwitz.
The experience of his parents “made us keenly aware of discrimination, extremely aware of antisemitism, and extremely aware that we are lucky to be around,” he said. “Because we are thankful, we want to make sure that our children and grandchildren know what happened to the family.” The Glasers incorporate both sides of their family’s history into the Passover Seder every year.
A Ticking Clock
Madeleine Fagan said she thinks about her late father, Holocaust survivor Andre Weiss, every day.
“I never stop telling his story,” said Fagan. “He would never want the story to die out. He would want the story told for generations forever.”
Andre Weiss was born in Romania in 1926. He was 17 years old when his family was moved to a ghetto in Cluj, Hungary. The following year, they were deported to Auschwitz. Weiss and his father survived the Auschwitz. His mother did not.
Weiss became a doctor and worked as a staff physician for the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1956, he and Fagan’s mother moved to Maryland. He practiced general medicine in Harford County for a few years before he decided to do a residency in psychiatry, at one point working at Sheppard Pratt, a privately-run psychiatric hospital in Towson. Later, he worked Taylor Manor Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital. He also had a private practice in his home for many decades. Fagan’s parents alternated living in the U.S. and Switzerland for many years, finally settling in Columbia, Maryland in 1984 permanently. He died in December 2017 at 91 years old.
Fagan said that her father taped oral testimony about the horrors he lived through during the Holocaust. Fagan and her family keep her father’s story alive by sharing the oral history video with younger family members. She believes that her father’s experience influenced her decision to go into service professions, first as a social worker and later as an attorney. Her brother Stephen Weiss became a physician as well.
It was not easy for her father to talk about the Holocaust, Fagan said, but once he was able to talk about it, he spent many years writing and sharing the experiences of his childhood.
“With survivors aging, we have to do it as quickly as we can,” Fagan said of the work to preserve and honor the memory of Holocaust survivors. While mandatory Holocaust education in schools is critical, Holocaust museums “allow children on field trips to see and to learn about it in a way that will make it hard for them to forget.”
A Personal Responsibility
Isabelle Horon’s parents, Bernice and Ira, were born in the same Polish town of Częstochowa but were brought together in a displaced persons camp in Sweden after the war.
Bernice Horon (nee Bram) was born in 1924. The Bram family was huge, said Isabel Horon, with more than 70 living members before the war. “My mother’s grandparents owned a paint shop, which had an apartment building attached to it with nine apartments: one for the grandparents and one for each of their eight adult children and their families,” she said. With exception of mother, her grandmother Ruth Bram, and two of her cousins, the entire family perished in the Holocaust.
Ira Horon was born in 1920. He, his two brothers, and two cousins were the only survivors from his family. Isabel Horon doesn’t know where or how his parents died. “Most of the Jews from Częstochowa were sent to Treblinka, as far as we know,” she said.
Treblinka was divided into a forced labor camp (Treblinka I) and an extermination camp (Treblinka II). It is estimated that 900,000 Jews were killed in Treblinka’s gas chambers.
After the war, Isabel Horon’s parents moved to New York. In the 1960s, the family resettled in Lewistown, Pennsylvania; her father, by then vice president of a large stereo manufacturing company, was sent to manage a new plant. Although her mother hated the quiet of Pennsylvania at first, within a few years, “she absolutely loved it,” said Horon. “She would say that she felt safe and at peace there for the first time in her life.”
Horon said that being a descendant of Holocaust survivors shaped her life in many ways. “It’s been the backdrop of my life. You can’t grow up in a household where there has been so much pain and so much sadness and not let it have enormous impact.”
Horon’s parents did not share that they were Holocaust survivors with Horon until she was 14 years old. “I think my parents wanted to protect us,” she said. Her mother eventually wrote a memoir; Horon said it is excruciatingly painful for her to read it.
Now 66 with three children in their 30s, Horon said her kids all know that their grandparents were Holocaust survivors.
“The Holocaust was such a horror in general, but to have it affect your immediate family in the way that it did so many families is hard to fathom,” observed Horon. “It’s hard to imagine that my parents went through what they did and not only survived, but built a life, were productive, contributed to the world, raised children. It’s hard to imagine how they did it and how every other survivor family managed to do it.”
Although Horon finds talking about her parents’ story of survival difficult, she participates in the Survivors and Descendants group on a regular basis, she said. “It’s important to me to be connected to the survivor community, and to not let people forget. Now that mom and dad are not here, it’s my responsibility to do what I can to make people remember.”