Pass it On

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Felicia Graber (David Stuck)
Felicia Graber
(David Stuck)

Born in 1940, five months after the Nazis invaded her native Poland, Felicia Graber has never thought of herself as a Holocaust survivor, but now she is a leader among that community.

“It’s not unusual for child survivors to deny that they are survivors,” said Graber, 74, who lives in the Park Heights neighborhood with her husband, Rabbi Howard M. Graber. “The adult survivors were always saying, ‘You’re so lucky. You were too young to remember what happened.’”

But while she might not remember all the details, Graber came to understand that the events of the Holocaust had affected her profoundly.

When Graber was 2 years old, her father managed to secure false identification papers so that she and her mother could leave the Tarnow Ghetto and escape deportation to a concentration camp. After they were smuggled out of the ghetto, she and her mother survived the war by moving around the country, posing as Catholics. Graber’s mother took on an entirely new identity and trained herself and her toddler to act convincingly. Meanwhile, Graber’s father spent the war years in hiding. Graber was 7 years old before she learned she was Jewish.

After the war, Graber, her parents and her younger brother left Poland, settling first in Brussels, and then in Frankfurt. After completing high school in England, Graber returned to Frankfurt where she met her husband of 55 years, a military chaplain. After marrying, the couple had two children before they immigrated to the U.S. Graber attended college and graduate school earning a master’s degree in teaching. She taught high school for more than 20 years. The family lived first in N.Y., then North Carolina and Pennsylvania and they finally settled in St. Louis in 1972. Two years ago the Grabers moved to Baltimore to be near their son and his family.

As early as her teens, Graber recalled wanting to visit Poland. “I wanted to see my roots, my town, my house … But she was afraid to make the trip while the country remained under communist rule,” she said. Later, she found it difficult to find a group trip that would accommodate her religious requirements. In the late 1990s she was finally able to visit. “It was a very emotional trip,” she recalled.

“Then something made me want to get in touch with other hidden children,” she said.

Graber contacted the Hidden Child Foundation, part of the Anti-Defamation League then attended conferences of the World Federation of Child Survivors and became more involved.

“I also became a docent at the Holocaust Museum [and Learning Center] in St. Louis,” said Graber. “Slowly, with the help of the curator there, I started speaking to groups about my experiences.”

In the late 1990s, Graber decided she wanted to start her own child survivor group in St. Louis. “A friend suggested I speak to the [St. Louis] Jewish Light, and I was interviewed for the paper shortly before Pesach that year.”

Graber was visiting Baltimore during Pesach and when she arrived home there were four messages from four women.

“They said, ‘I didn’t know there were other child survivors here.’ We bonded immediately and became sisters instantly,” recalled Graber.

Slowly the word spread and others joined the group.

“We realized we weren’t getting any younger, so we decided to reach out to the second generation,” she said, and in 2006, she helped to form a second generation survivors group. At first it was difficult to attract the busy young people and Graber noted that “just a handful of older second generations” attended the meetings. But gradually word spread and more people became involved.

In 2010, the child survivor and second-generation groups, which were still relatively small, merged, to become the St. Louis Holocaust Survivors and Descendants.

“I was the chair and the force behind it,” said Graber. “When I left, I heard the group was having some problems. Second generation groups struggle all over the country.” She added, “The good part is that now the group is being led by two second generation survivors.”

Graber, who now lives in Baltimore and is a member of Agudath Israel and Congregation Tiferes Yisroel, is determined to bring together second generation Holocaust survivors in her adopted city.

“I started talking to Jeanette [Parmigiani, director of Holocaust Programs for the Baltimore Jewish Council] and I was asked to join the Holocaust Remembrance Commission. During one of our meetings, I suggested we start a group for second generations,” said Graber.

She said the group’s chair, Alice Matsas Garten and vice-chair, Heller Kreshtool were both supportive of the idea.

“Felicia has come to us from St. Louis with a lot of experience gathering survivors and descendants,” said Garten, 46, whose father is a Holocaust survivor from Greece. “Although the idea of getting the next generation to become more active in Holocaust education has been tried before, it hasn’t really taken off. As survivors are aging, it is becoming more and more important that they become involved in educating the community.

“The group will be very inclusive and open to Jews of all different levels of observance,” she added.

“We want them [the second generation survivors] to take over for us when we can no longer tell our stories,” said Graber. “Once we are gone, Holocaust deniers will take over. We can’t allow the 6 million to be forgotten.”

The group will hold their inaugural meeting on Sunday, Jan. 11 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC. For more information or to RSVP by Jan. 5, call 410-542-4850 or email pgwynn@baltjc.org.

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