Their voices are unique: kind and direct, light and lilting, warm and motherly. So, too, are their experiences: watching Nazis burn Torah scrolls and prayer books on Kristallnacht, being selected for the gas chamber at Auschwitz, fleeing the Nazis and hiding as an Aryan Catholic.
But the mission of Holocaust survivors Martha Weiman, Goldie Kalib and Felicia Graber is the same: telling their stories for years, some for decades, to friends and family, writing books and essays and letters, visiting classrooms full of children and meeting rooms full of adults, and in more intimate gatherings with their understanding peers, sharing their stories with each other.
In a world bent on building walls instead of bridges, they and their children want to make sure that their stories and voices are not only heard, but remembered, and not only remembered but passed on and on and on…
Felicia Graber’s bright and airy apartment on the eighth floor of a Park Heights Avenue high-rise overlooks miles of the Baltimore landscape, a far cry from the home in Tarnow, Poland, where she was born in 1940, six months after the Nazi invasion. Two years later, she and her parents were forced into the Tarnow ghetto, where her grandparents were removed in the first deportation, during which 21,000 Jews were killed. Graber believes her grandparents were either shot at Tarnow’s Jewish cemetery, taken to Belzec killing center in Southeast Poland or executed in nearby Buczyna forest, where Nazis buried Jews in mass graves.
That September, her father managed to keep them off transports bound for Auschwitz and secure false IDs for her and her mother, who spoke fluent Polish, identifying them as Roman Catholics. Her father could not “pass” as an Aryan, so he stayed behind in the ghetto.
She and her mother moved from town to town, ending up in Warsaw, trying to keep up appearances as a Catholic family with a father MIA in the Polish army. Her father escaped the ghetto in the fall of 1943 and joined them, not as Felicia’s father but as a friend of her father, who her mother hid in their one-room apartment. Felicia, who did not recognize her own father, also did not know she was Jewish or that the “friend” was her father until she was 7 years old and the family fled again, to Belgium.
But the diminutive and jovial Graber, now 78 and among the youngest of Holocaust survivors, said she never considered herself a survivor. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates there are about 195,000 survivors left in the world.
“Not only myself, but I would say 95 percent of people in my situation, who were very young children through the Holocaust, didn’t consider ourselves survivors and we were told by numerous adults, including parents, ‘You don’t remember. What do you know? You were so lucky because you were so young,’” she said.
Graber said it wasn’t until the 1990s when she got involved with the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants and the Anti-Defamation League’s Hidden Child Foundation that she began to understand and embrace her survival story as valid.
As middle-class German Jews living in Bocholt, Germany, Martha Meier Weiman’s family was rooted and assimilated in German society, but things began to change in the mid-1930s.
“We left Bocholt because we had to, in 1936,” Weiman, 84, said. “My parents wanted to move to a big city. A place where we thought, as many German Jews did, that this was a passing phenomenon. When we got to Frankfurt, they had to start over. And it wasn’t long before they recognized they would have to leave.”
“Kristallnacht was the turning point,” Weiman recalled from the sunny sitting room of her Lutherville home.
On Nov. 9, 1938, her parents locked her and her two brothers in an upstairs bedroom, from which they witnessed Nazi soldiers storming their synagogue in the pre-dawn hours.
“I remember my brother lifting me up to look out the window and seeing a huge fire in the street,” she said. “They looted it, they took out all the Torahs and the prayer books and they threw everything into a great big heap in the middle of the street and set fire to it.”
The next night, Nazis ransacked their home and arrested her father, who had been trying earlier in the day to get to Stuttgart for emigration documents.
“They started going through the whole house, looking for what they called ‘eligible’ men,” Weiman said. Later, “my mother found out he was in Buchenwald,” then a camp for so-called political prisoners. Her mother managed to cobble together the needed documents and three months later, her father returned.
“He literally appeared at the house wearing the same thing he had on when he left. He was in terrible health, he had been badly beaten. That followed him until the day he died,” Weiman said. “Within a few weeks, we left. We packed everything up, but it was all confiscated or disappeared. Nothing. Zero. We left the country with one suitcase a piece and 10 German marks.”
Her grandfather tried to flee with them, but was put off the train at the Dutch border. She never saw him again, and later learned that he and his sister were deported to Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia.
Goldie Kalib, at 7, was the youngest of five children living with her family in Bodzentyn, Poland, when the Nazis invaded in 1939 and life became a brutal horror, with random killings and torture in the streets.
Three years later, her father deflected plans for the family to be rounded up and sent away, probably to an extermination camp. Instead, he managed to have them sent to a German slave-labor munitions factory in Starachowice, Poland. But Kalib, too young for labor, went to live with a Christian woman in a nearby village. A year later, having been recognized, she was smuggled into the labor camp and reunited with her family, where they endured horrendous conditions and disease.
But in July 1944, with the Russian army advancing, inmates were packed onto trains for Auschwitz in blazing conditions with no food, water or toilets. Her father and her younger brother died during the two-and-a-half-day trip. Once in Auschwitz, she and her mother survived starvation for four months and then Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous chief camp physician, came to their barracks.
“I was actually in the last selection. Dr. Mengele came into our barracks, plus a few other barracks, and they gathered about 200 or so, and we were all put on trucks,” Kalib said. “We were kept for a few days in a very dark, windowless room and we thought for sure that any minute, any day, they would come and take us to the crematoria. Instead, a few days later, one of the Nazis came in, put us on a truck and we were sure that that’s where we were going. But they took us back to our barracks.”
The Russian army was very close and the Germans started dismantling the crematoria.
“They had gotten orders not to cremate people anymore,” she added. “That was the only time that people were picked to go to the crematoria at Auschwitz and actually survived.”
In January 1945, Kalib was put on a forced death march toward Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, 500 miles away. Those who survived after a few days were put on trains with open cars.
“It was the middle of the winter and people were freezing and dying,” Kalib remembered.
By 1945, Bergen-Belsen was a hellish graveyard of the barely living and the dead, but Kalib and her mother and two sisters were alive when the British liberated the camp in April, although her mother died three weeks later — the day Germany surrendered to the allies. More than two dozen close family members died in the Holocaust.
“No one survived except one uncle and one cousin,” Kalib said. “I had two sisters, and they survived. And two brothers who did not.”
Although all three women suffered physical and psychological ill-effects from their experiences, Graber, Weiman and Kalib eventually married and had families and full lives. After arriving in Baltimore, they sought out and found the Baltimore Holocaust Remembrance Commission at the Baltimore Jewish Council, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, where they began telling their stories, as difficult as that was, to the public through its speakers bureau.
“Somebody with the Baltimore Jewish Council said, ‘You ought to get involved with the Holocaust Commission because you can tell your story,’ and one thing led to another,” said Weiman, who eventually served as president of the BJC.
Jeannette Parmigiani, director of Holocaust programs for the BJC, has been working with survivors for more than 20 years, since she began volunteering in the mid-1990s. An Italian Catholic, Parmigiani’s life was changed when she read a book she found at St. Mary’s Seminary library, “The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Anti-Semitism” by Edwin Flannery, a Catholic priest.
The HRC initially did events around the Holocaust, including annual Yom HaShoah gatherings and concerts. The speakers bureau was formed, and following the opening of the USHMM in Washington, D.C., in 1993, teacher training workshops began. The commission offers teacher resources and education materials, including the 2005 documentary “Survivors Among Us,” stories of Baltimore-area Holocaust survivors.
Baltimore Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, founded by Graber, is sponsored by the BJC. And Jewish Community Services, also an agency of The Associated, offers Holocaust survivors social services support, as well as resources and information about reparations as well as the Holocaust Survivors Social Club.
Meanwhile, at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, a partner of the Holocaust Remembrance Commission, Holocaust education is an ongoing mission.
“Even as the number of first-person survivors dwindles, the urgency of understanding the Holocaust and modeling the behavior of ‘upstanders’ has never been greater,” said museum director Marvin Pinkert. “That’s why we’ve dramatically increased our attention to Holocaust education.”
Back at the BJC, the speakers bureau, which initially had about 30 survivors, now has about 12 active survivor members ranging from their late 70s to mid-90s, plus a half-dozen descendants.
“Not everyone wants to speak,” Parmigiani said. “Could you imagine standing up in front of strangers and telling this horrible story? But they are committed and afraid of deniers. They’ve really done a wonderful job and inspired so many students.”
Parmigiani said preparing for the inevitable, when all of the survivors are gone, is a heartbreaking thought and a challenge of how to keep those compelling first-person narratives alive. She doesn’t have any definitive answers, beyond preserving oral histories, family members’ stories and encouraging schools, teacher training and students.
“We’ve been honored and blessed to have their testimony. It’s just wonderful that we’re touching and hearing first-hand history,” she said. “They are family to me and when we’ve lost them it hurts like losing a family member.”
Cantor Sylvan Kalib convinced his wife Goldie in the 1980s to begin talking about her experiences, which she said was very difficult at first. But talk she did. Sylvan also interviewed her sisters and together the Kalibs wrote the book “The Last Selection: A Child’s Journey Through the Holocaust.”
Graber was fortunate that an American journalist interviewed her father in 1981 and the family made a copy of the recordings. It took years, but Graber said she was finally able, emotionally, to listen to the tapes and eventually, with her brother, transcribed and edited them into a 2006 book called, “Our Father’s Voice: A Holocaust Memoir,” which she followed with her own memoir, “Amazing Journey: Metamorphosis of a Hidden Child” in 2010.
For Weiman’s daughters, Robin, Carol and Judy, involvement with Holocaust remembrance organizations and events is vital. For Robin and Carol, that also means involvement in the Baltimore Holocaust Survivors and Descendants group. Robin feels the visceral legacy of her family’s ordeals.
“I think that their story had a huge influence on all of our lives. I knew about it from a very young age,” Robin said. “We are all a reflection of [Martha]. She has set the example of what citizens’ responsibilities are. Knowing what happened in Germany, it’s very important that it doesn’t happen here. Now it’s scarier than ever. I’ll tell my family’s story to whoever will listen.”
Carol was active for years with BJC’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission, including chairing the community-wide Yom HaShoah event. She sees parallels with the Holocaust and today’s immigration policies.
“As Holocaust survivors are getting up there in age and some have passed, it is my obligation to remember and to pass the stories on,” Carol said. “Based on my past history, I do plan on getting more involved with the current immigration issues.”
The recent rise in anti-Semitism has their mother concerned.
“We’ve seen swastikas and signs of Nazism here, in this country, and it’s very, very frightening,” Weiman said. “I think the kids very much get that, and we’re going to get the third generation hopefully involved. If ever there was a time to be mindful, it is now.”
Graber worries that once all of the survivors are gone they will be forgotten.
“Our families don’t have a cemetery plot with a tombstone, so the only way that they can be remembered is if we tell their story,” she said. “We try to teach people what hate can do, to try to warn them. The goal is education, so the more people know about it the better.”
“As we get older and we start disappearing, the Holocaust deniers say that the Holocaust didn’t happen,” she added. “When I speak to children, I usually end my speech with a message: ‘Don’t just be a bystander. If you see someone being bullied don’t just stand there. Don’t join the crowd. Go and get help.’”
When Goldie Kalib and her husband were living in Detroit, a student interviewed her and made a presentation on her life. Her book, “The Last Selection,” was translated into Polish and performed by group of elementary school students in her hometown. And back in Baltimore, Goucher College students came to her home and captured Goldie’s story on video. Hers, and many others’ stories will live on.
“I think more so than anything else, what I would like people to understand is what prejudice, bigotry, what it can do. That they have to be tolerant and aware of what’s going on in the government,” Goldie said. “That’s what I would like for them to carry away so that it can’t, God forbid, happen again.”
Upcoming Holocaust Remembrance Commission Events:
- Kristallnacht: “Eyewitness to the Beginning of the End,” 80th anniversary of the Nov. 9, 1938 pogrom. Nov. 7, 2018, 7-8 p.m. Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation, 7000 Rockland Hills Drive.
- “Lessons of the Shoah, Becoming an Upstander: Sophia Scholl and the White Rose Movement,” Nov. 15, 2018, The John Carroll School, for grades 9-12. Contact Louise Geczy, email@example.com.
- 2019 Yom HaShoah Commemoration, May 5, 2019, at 2 p.m. Location to be announced.
- visit baltjc.org/holocaust-remembrance
Additional Online-only Interviews:
Morey Kogul’s father, a Polish Jew, survived the Holocaust by escaping over Poland’s border into the Soviet Union, where he was conscripted into the Soviet army, from which he later had to escape. “Running Breathless: An Untold True Story of WWII and the Holocaust,” is Kogul’s way to keep his father’s story alive for future generations. His use of first-person narrative technique puts the reader in Van Wolf Kogul’s shoes.
The book was accepted recently into the archives of the USHMM, where Kogul said the museum is actively seeking descendants of Holocaust survivors for family stories and artifacts.
“I think that the more we talk about our history and keep these memories alive and honor them for current and future generations, the more we can learn from them and understand some of the underlying issues that the Holocaust revealed. And those transcend Judaism and all other faiths — the importance of not dehumanizing another human being,” said Kogul, 43, of Columbia. “As people start to learn more, they’ll start to understand how another group of people systematically, proudly commit such atrocities against other people.”
In 2006, while taking a continuing education course at MICA, photographer Lisa Shifren got interested in portraiture and began photographing survivors she knew through the Holocaust Survivors Social Club, which she facilitates.
“I was really fascinated with why they chose to come to Baltimore, what their life was like here and how they picked up the pieces,” she said.
The exhibit, “Grace. Dignity. Humility. Compassion: The Holocaust Survivors of Baltimore,” includes 25 black-and-white photos, bios, and historical photos. She’s now thinking of publishing a book of the project.
“A lot of the people that I photographed have passed on, so it would be a nice memorial to them and to that community,” she said. “I’ve always felt privileged to work with this community and get to know them and hear their stories. It’s incredible what they survived and what they saw. I’ve always felt an obligation to share that, working so closely with them. They’re living history.” For more information call 410-843-7338 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to lisashifren.com.
Ilene Dackman-Alon, the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s education and visitor services director, said the museum is always looking for creative ways to tell survivors’ stories, including the Memory Reconstruction Project, a collage project with families of survivors.
“We continue to offer unique exhibit projects as starting points for discussion,” she said.
This February JMM will host Jewish Refugees and Shanghai, and in April, Stitching History from the Holocaust, a program about designer Hedy Strnad of Prague.
For 13 years, the museum has been running the Summer Teacher’s Institute, a for-credit program that is presented in conjunction with the BJC, Maryland State Department of Education and the USHMM. This year there will be a Winter Teachers’ Institute in February. Interactive exhibits such as the Lives Lost, Lives Found program for school groups are designed to make an impression. Future plans include a learning lab where students can produce an original retelling of a Holocaust story using primary sources.
While current survivors are, indeed, living history, programs such as “Becoming the Voices,” a project of the Center for Jewish Education and the BJC, has middle and high schoolers get to know survivors to continue that history into the future.
For more information on the Holocaust Remembrance Commission or any of its programs, visit baltjc.org/holocaust-remembrance