Tag Archives: Holocaust

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‘Tell Your Story’

110813_tell-your-storyWhile it may not seem like the breaking of glass windows at Jewish-owned buildings by the Nazis would have inspired any creativity at all, two upcoming concerts at Strathmore Hall in Bethesda prove that it takes a lot more than that to quiet art.

In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, more than 300 people from 22 area synagogues will perform a concert entitled Voices of the Holocaust on Nov. 10. The night before, an original opera called “Lost Childhood” will make its debut before a full orchestra.

Sunday night at 7:30, a concert featuring cantors and youth and adult choirs from the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia area will perform a musical work organized in five parts. It has been arranged from 22 original melodies written by Jews while they were living in the ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust.

“It’s a major undertaking. We are talking about a lot of volunteer choirs. Each group has to sing some Yiddish, and not everyone is comfortable with that,” said Cantor Laura Croen of Temple Sinai. She, along with Cantors Marshall Kapell of Congregation B’nai Tzedek and Susan Berkson, who teaches at Howard County Community College, are co-chairs of the event.

“It’s going to be amazing,” added Berkson, who has been cantor at Temple Emanuel in Kensington and Congregation Ohr Chadesh in Damascus. “All the cantors each are doing a solo or a duet. It’s going to be a very, very big thrill.”

“But there are moments when we will all be singing together,” said Croen.

Voices of the Holocaust marks the third time area synagogues have performed together. They also did for Israel’s 60th birthday and the 350th anniversary of Jewish music in America.

Performing along with the synagogue choirs will be singers from Juniata College in Pennsylvania. The Columbia Orchestra will accompany the singers, and Jason Love, a conductor and cellist from Howard County, will lead the entire production.

A discussion with arranger Sheridan Seyfried and moderated by Tara Sonenshine, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, will precede the concert. Following that, there will be a short service to commemorate Kristallnacht.

About two years ago, Berkson was visiting her son at Juniata College and attended a school concert with music from the Holocaust.

“We were just amazed how wonderful it was,” she said, adding that the concert became the seed that eventually led to the upcoming communitywide concert.

Individual choirs have been practicing separately and will only get together as a group two times before the actual concert.

The night before, an opera that has been 16 years in the making will be performed. It is a collaboration by two cousins and tells the story of a troubled Jew, who was a child during the Holocaust, and a younger German from a prominent family of Nazi sympathizers. It is loosely based on the book “The Lost Childhood” by Yehuda Nir, but it mainly centers around a fictitious meeting of the two as adults.

Composer Janice Hamer, who teaches at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and librettist Mary Azrael of Baltimore, who writes poetry and teaches poetry writing at Johns Hopkins University, collaborated on this production.

Azrael, the mother of two and grandmother of three, has lived in Baltimore and has written poetry most of her life. She has had a few books published, some poems set to music and is a co-editor of “Passager Journal” and an editor at Passager Books, a press that focuses on the work ofwriters over 50.

After reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” as a child, she knew at once she wanted to be a writer.

“I got from her that it’s really important to tell your story, because the world can change at any minute,” Azrael said about Frank.

Azrael had collaborated once before with Hamer and won a national award. “So we were kind of giddy,” and they thought they should keep working together, Hamer with the music and Azrael with the story and words.

They decided to write an opera, thinking it would consume a year or two of their lives. They spoke of doing something about Anne Frank or some other child who had been in hiding during World War II.

A set of coincidences followed, and Hamer met Nir, who gave her a copy of his memoirs, and Gottfied Wagner, the great-grandson of composer Richard Wagner. Hamer and Azrael are fascinated by the way both men’s childhood experiences continued to affect their lives.

Nir’s anger arose from his youth when he had to pose as a Polish Catholic during World War II after his father was killed by the Nazis. Wagner was horrified by his family’s strong anti-Semitic views, which he continues to fight.

“They shared a kind of anger,” said Hamer, whose parents live in Rockville. She noted that Wagner has nothing to do with his family. And Nir “called himself an angry Jew,” explaining he was not a victim but a veteran of the war. “He had kind of an aggressive stance.”

Azrael began writing the words (the libretto) after reading Nir’s book.

While Nir and Wagner “are really good friends,” she chose to place them in conflict. Their story, she explained, deals with the question, “If you are not my enemy, who are you? Who am I? This is not only a story about Jewish persecution.”

She wrote what she felt, imagining the rhythms and spirit of the music and what instruments would be played as she went along. Azrael plays piano and hammered dulcimer and considers poetry the closest word form to music.

Meanwhile, she spoke with Hamer as she progressed, working to “inspire Janice enough to write the music for it.”

Then Hamer worked on the music, hearing “the sounds in my mind, all the colors,” she said.

The result is a score of 473 pages that took about 10 years to write, five years to orchestrate and another two years to proof read. The women raised $100,000, too.

The pair utilized lots of workshops sponsored by American Opera Projects in New York. This gave them a chance to hear the work sung by top singers and get audience reactions. The opera was performed using just a piano during a summer festival in Tel Aviv in 2007. The concert by the National Philharmonic at Strathmore Music Center on Nov. 9 will be the first performance with full orchestra and soloists. National Philharmonic will make a recording of that performance, which the two women will send around hoping to convince opera companies take it on.

See related articles:
Kristallnacht: 75 years since the Night of Broken Glass >>
On Deaf Ears: Cartoonists spoke out against Kristallnacht, called for the U.S. to help save the German Jews >>

Suzanne Pollak writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.

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On Deaf Ears

110813_on-deaf-ears“I could scarcely believe that such a thing could occur in a 20th-century civilization,” President Franklin Roosevelt declared in the wake of the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom, which devastated the German Jewish community 75 years ago next month.

Most Americans, like their president, were appalled to read of Nazi stormtroopers burning down hundreds of synagogues, ransacking thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, murdering some 100 Jews and hauling 30,000 more off to concentration camps Nov. 9 to 10, 1938. In the days following the pogrom, three American editorial cartoonists would try to channel the public’s sympathy for the victims into concrete steps to help German Jewry.

In response to Kristallnacht, President Roosevelt recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany for “consultations” and extended the visitors’ visas of the approximately 12,000 German Jewish refugees who were then in the United States. But at the same time, FDR announced that liberalization of America’s tight immigration quotas was “not in contemplation.”

In the wake of Kristallnacht, humanitarian-minded members of Congress introduced legislation to aid German Jewry. The Wagner-Rogers bill proposed the admission of 20,000 German refugee children outside the quotas. Nativist and isolationist groups vociferously opposed the Wagner-Rogers bill.

Typical of the opposition’s perspective was a remark by FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration. She warned that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

An appeal to FDR by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to support Wagner-Rogers fell on deaf ears, and an inquiry by a congresswoman as to the president’s position was returned to his secretary marked “File No Action FDR.” Mindful of polls showing most Americans opposed to more immigration, Roosevelt preferred to follow public opinion rather than lead it. Without his support, the Wagner-Rogers bill was buried in committee.

Ironically, when Pets Magazine the following year launched a campaign to have Americans take in pure-bred British puppies so they would not be harmed by German bombing raids, the magazine was flooded with several thousand offers of haven for the dogs.

Most American editorial cartoonists, like most Americans, exhibited little interest in the plight of Germany’s Jews. But there were exceptions. A handful of cartoonists used their platforms not only to express sympathy for the refugees, but also to call for practical steps to help them.

Six days after Kristallnacht, Paul Carmack, staff cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor, drew a cartoon titled “The Best Answer to Race Persecution.” It showed a large hand, labeled “Humanity,” handing a document titled “Assistance” to a crowd of Jewish refugees.

Five days later, the Christian Science Monitor published another editorial cartoon responding to Kristallnacht, this time by J. Parker Robinson. It showed a mass of people, labeled “Jews,” marching past a sign pointing to “Exile,” with a giant question mark looming over the horizon. He titled the cartoon “Wanted: A Christian Answer.” The question was the fate of the Jews; the answer, the cartoonist insisted, was for Christians to accept their moral responsibility to help the downtrodden.

Meanwhile, in the pages of the Chicago Daily News, another cartoonist pleaded for help for Germany’s Jews. Staff cartoonist Cecil Jensen drew a group of Jewish refugees on a large rock, surrounded by turbulent ocean waves. They can see, in the distance, a 17th-century-style ship, labeled “World Rescue Efforts.” Whether or not the ship will save the refugees is unclear. Jensen titled the cartoon “Mayflower,” invoking America’s own powerful historical symbol of refugees from religious persecution reaching a safe haven.

Sadly, few Americans heeded the appeals of Paul Cormack, J. Parker Robinson and Cecil Jensen, despite the horrors of Kristallnacht. When a “Mayflower” ship called the St. Louis approached America’s shores just a few months later, President Roosevelt turned it away.

Expressions of sympathy were not matched by deeds. There were no U.S. economic sanctions against Nazi Germany, no severing of diplomatic relations, no easing of immigration quotas.

The Roosevelt administration’s muted reaction to Kristallnacht foreshadowed the terrible silence with which it would greet the Nazis’ Final Solution.

See related articles:
Kristallnacht: 75 years since the Night of Broken Glass >>
‘Tell Your Story:’ Two concerts to commemorate Kristallnacht, bring beauty out from the darkness >>

Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. This feature is adapted from his forthcoming book, “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust,” co-authored with Craig Yoe, and was provided by JNS.org.

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Kristallnacht

110813_Kristallnacht“How did I become aware of Kristallnacht?” asked Holocaust survivor Johanna Neumann of Maryland. “[Nov. 9 to 10, 1938] was not in the era of TV, of radio, etc.”

It did not have to be. Neumann, who was 8 years old at the time, discovered the horrors of the Night of Broken Glass, which continued into the morning, on her walk to school.

“I walked by our synagogue. Hordes of people were standing in front of it and throwing stones through the beautiful stained-glass windows. They had gone into the synagogue, ransacked it and threw the Torah scrolls into the streets,” Neumann recalled.

As soon as she arrived at school, her teacher said, “Something horrible happened last night. Your parents have been alerted, and they will come pick you up.”

Hebert Hane of Severna Park has a similar story. Only 3 1⁄2 years old at the time and born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, he said the morning after Kristallnacht, when his mom heard what happened, “she took me to see the local synagogue that was burned, and that has remained in my memory. What I remember is that the outer walls were still standing, but it was all smoldering, and you could smell the burning wood that was in ashes. My mother was very sad.”

On Nov. 9, it will be 75 years since Kristallnacht, literally Night of Crystal. The number of survivors who remember the terror are diminishing. But for those who do remember, the memories are often vivid, for they say the sadness and the fear of what became a turning point in the Holocaust is etched into their very souls.

On that night (and into the morning), the Nazis staged violent pogroms — state-sanctioned, anti-Jewish riots — against the Jewish communities of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. They broke synagogue windows, demolished and looted Jewish-owned stores, community centers and homes. Instigated by the Nazi regime, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, rioters burned or destroyed 267 synagogues, vandalized or looted 7,500 Jewish businesses and killed at least 91 Jewish people. They also damaged many Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools and homes, as police and fire brigades stood aside.

Kristallnacht was a turning point in Nazi anti-Jewish policy that would culminate in the Holocaust, the systematic, state-sponsored mass murder of the European Jews. That it was a turning point, said Victoria Barnett, is one of the reasons we commemorate Kristallnacht above and beyond many of the other equally as tragic points of destruction initiated by the Nazi regime.

Barnett, who is the director of the programs on ethics, religion and the Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said Kristallnacht foreshadowed the extreme violence to come.

“There was no denying what was going to happen after Kristallnacht,” she said.

Barnett described the Night of Broken Glass as a “big shock moment.”

In 1938, Adolph Hitler’s government began to expand, so people were becoming worried about Nazi Germany. But in November 1938, with this mass outbreak of violence, which targeted people directly — their synagogues and businesses and Nazis breaking into people’s homes and beating them and destroying their belongings — the National Socialist Movement became one that the Jews could no longer ignore.

“Until then, some Jewish families in Nazi Germany thought that they could muddle through. It was difficult to emigrate. After Kristallnacht, that illusion was gone,” said Barnett. “That is one of the reasons that Kristallnacht is etched in history in such a powerful way. It was so blatant, so direct and so widespread, in terms of the violence against ordinary people.”

“[After Kristallnacht], my father finally believed that his service in the German army during World War I would not help our family,” said Emmy Mogilensky in a project recorded by Jeanette Parmigiani, director of Holocaust programs for the Baltimore Jewish Council. “He came home from Dachau [prison] a broken man. My parents sent me away on a Kindertransport to England, and three months later, they sent my brother away, also. My parents were shot and thrown into a mass grave in Kovno with thousands of others.”

“After living through Crystal Night, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that there was no more life for a Jew in Germany,” Ingeborg Weinberger told the BJC.

 

Eva Slonitz was 12 years old in 1938, but she still remembers that night — and how after Kristallnacht, “we hardly ever left our house.”

Eva Slonitz was 12 years old in 1938, but she still remembers that night — and how after Kristallnacht, “we hardly ever left our house.”

DETERMINED TO LEAVE
This tragic and painful realization also happened for Baltimore’s Eva Slonitz (nee Stern), a resident of North Oaks Retirement Community, and her family. Slonitz was 12 years old at the time.

“Two polite policemen came to our door at approximately 8 a.m. and asked my father come with them. He thought that he was being taken into police protective custody. … He took his faithful briefcase, my mother made him some sandwiches, he took a bar of chocolate and a piece of soap with him, all of which was of great value in Buchenwald,” recalled Slonitz, noting that Buchenwald at the time was a political prison/concentration camp and not a death camp. “He was taken to the Siechhof [church], a place where all the Jews of Nordhausen were assembled, having been torn from their homes during the night. … That day, my father and a group of 56 men and boys 17 years of age and older were taken to Buchenwald. As I remember, seven of them died there at the time. … The important task now was to do everything possible to get the men out of there; all the women worked every angle to achieve that goal.”

At that point, the Sterns determined to leave.

“After Kristallnacht, we hardly ever left our house,” said Slonitz, who never saw the burned-out synagogues or smashed storefronts. She noted that some of her friends were taken for a “sightseeing tour” before being taken to the Siechhof.

“‘See what we have done to your house of worship!’ I heard all of these horrible stories, but I did not experience them,” said Slonitz.

Shortly thereafter Slonitz was sent to England on a domestic permit. Her mother secured visas to Peru for her herself and Slonitz’s father.

“Thanks to these visas, my father came home from Buchenwald after four weeks, looking thin and with shorn hair. When we told him, ‘You are going to Peru,’ he was shocked. He never told me anything he had experienced in the concentration camp, but others, when they came home, told me that my father was very calm, and one night when the Nazis sent wild dogs into the barracks, my father cautioned, ‘Lie still, do not move, and they will not hurt you.’ He probably saved the men from injuries or even death,’” said Slonitz, who survived the Holocaust along with her parents, reuniting in Baltimore several years after the war. “I heard terrible stories about the seven men I know who died. I prefer not to go into details. Only one story stands out: The father of a young Hebrew teacher was killed. Then the young [teacher] took his own life by drowning himself in the cesspool. A short while later, his poor mother got visas.”

The arrests were widespread. Area survivor Herbert Friedman vividly recalls the night.

“About 8 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1938, there was a bang on the door and a shouted command, ‘Open Up.’ My parents, sister and I froze with fear. Two stormtroopers had come looking for my brother, who fortunately was not at home. They debated taking me,” Friedman said. “My mother pleaded, ‘He’s just a little boy. He hasn’t don’t anything.’ They left without me. My uncle escaped capture by hiding under a kitchen table, which was covered by a long tablecloth.”

Friedman left Austria a month later on a Kindertransport.

Mogilensky said she was babysitting at the time of Kristallnacht.

“The Nazis broke into the house, looking for the father. ‘Not here — sick — in the hospital,’ I stammered, but they refused to believe me and looked for him all through the house. I pulled the sleeping children out of their beds and cribs moments before the bayonets went through the bedclothes,” Mogilensky said.

Werner Cohen was himself arrested, as was his father. He was attending a Jewish school in Cologne, about two-and-a-half hours from his home. He left early in the morning, unaware of the night’s destruction. When he arrived, the school gates were closed. A non-Jewish English teacher nearby whistled him to the side.

“Don’t you know what happened?” the teacher asked Cohen.

Herta Baitch says,  “I grew up in an  atmosphere of fear.”

Herta Baitch says, “I grew up in an
atmosphere of fear.”

Cohen said he immediately returned to his hometown of Essen. As he approached his home he was struck by a “huge crowd, mostly neighbors, standing around my house. They had to part like the Red Sea to let me go through. … My mother said, ‘The police have been here and they have taken your father into custody, and they were asking for you. They may come back, so go upstairs and hide there.’ They did come back, and they found me and took me into custody.”

Cohen was taken to Dachau. “There were so many of us, and we were given little food. We had to stand at attention beginning at 5 a.m. to be counted. We were left standing for three or four hours in the cold,” Cohen recalled.

He stayed in Dachau for four weeks, and then, shortly after his 17th birthday, by miracle he was let free. His former principle, Erich Klibansky, had added his name to a list of students who would be sent to learn in England, sponsored by a synagogue there. The cutoff for Kindertransport was 16, but Klibansky got him, and later his sister, through.

Cohen’s rescuer, however, was killed during the Holocaust.

Said Cohen: “He ended up together with his wife and three sons, all younger than 11, on transport to Minsk in 1942. … The train was emptied … everyone ended up in the trenches, which the Germans had dug with Russian prisoners of war. Klibansky, his wife and children were shot on the rim of those trenches, and they perished.”

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Stamping Out Intolerance

Special education teacher Janna Freishtat (left) and English teacher Cyndie Fagan have been instrumental in moving the Six Million Stamps Project forward. Shown here, they sit with a tub of thousands of stamps, many still waiting to be processed. (Photo by Melissa Gerr)

Special education teacher Janna Freishtat (left) and English teacher Cyndie Fagan have been instrumental in moving the Six Million Stamps Project forward. Shown here, they sit with a tub of thousands of stamps, many still waiting to be processed.
(Photos by Melissa Gerr)

Six Million.

For the past five years, since 2008, students at Mount Hebron High School have been working on a project trying to comprehend what those words stand for and to create something tangible that could adequately represent their meaning.

As part of their curriculum, incoming freshmen read “Night,” a memoir by Elie Wiesel about surviving Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Many students had not heard of the Holocaust or had difficult questions, struggling to grasp what six million means. High School teacher Cyndie Fagan wanted to help them understand.

She began by showing students a book from the Paper Clips Project (Tennessee high school students collected 15 million paper clips to have a tangible reference and commemorate those who perished in the Holocaust), and Fagan’s class thought something similar would help them comprehend the number and the gravity of the Holocaust. The class decided stamps would be a good way to commemorate the lives lost.

Fagan, who collected stamps as a child said, “Each of those postage stamps tells a story, just like each person who died had a story.”

Dozens of ninth-graders each year become involved with collecting, cutting out and counting the stamps. The completed work is stored in dozens of huge plastic tubs in closets and Fagan’s classroom. They get lots of donated stamps (they’ve inherited them from deceased collectors, and a parent who owns a utility company regularly donates several hundred stamps from mailed-in payments). They still have a long way to go, and many students remain involved well after ninth grade.

110113_Stamping-Out-Intolerance2“It’s kind of a way to make people aware because six million is so intangible,” said sophomore Tara Bellido de Luna. “It’s hard to realize how many stamps and how many people that really is. … It does represent people in the Holocaust, but it could also represent what potentially could happen if we don’t start tolerating people. … People don’t fear other people, they fear the difference in what they don’t know. That’s kind of what starts it all.”

Junior Emily Kader has been involved since her older brother Joey was a freshman, the year the project began. She’s collected stamps when attending Camp Louise; neighboring Camp Airy participated, too. Her synagogue, Beth Shalom in Columbia, also contributes.

“My zayde [Fred Kader] was actually a Holocaust survivor, and so the whole cause is important to us; he helped us cut and count the stamps and has been a part of the process,” said Kader.

Freshman Amogh Arun just joined the project, and he’s building a website to get out the word for more stamps. Freshman Evan Johnson’s brother chose this for his bar mitzvah project, so his family has been gathering stamps the whole year. Collectively, the students are working on a video to send to the Ellen DeGeneres show, “Ellen,” in hopes that she’ll help get the word out and that stamps will start flowing in.

Special Education teacher Janna Freishtat co-teaches the English class with Fagan. Her grandmother is, and her late grandfather was, a Holocaust survivor.

“What I can bring is the personal story, and it makes it more real for them because they say, ‘Oh, you mean you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that they lived?’ They were shocked that I would have been affected if I lived at that time. They couldn’t grasp that until we explained, ‘Your teacher or your neighbor could be taken,’” Freishtat said.

Fagan is determined to complete the project, and Freishtat claims, in addition to stamp donations and the students’ work, it is Fagan’s energy and perseverance that keeps it going. To give some perspective, six million stamps would cover three-and-a-half football fields. When finished, plans are to create a mural with the stamps dedicated to tolerance of others, and the remaining would be held in a giant Plexiglas cylinder near the mural.

Part of the goal is to help students connect the experience and the project to something bigger.

Fagan said, “My hope is that something we shared with them during this ninth-grade year, that when they’re adults, they will hear something or see something, and it will trigger that ‘aha’ moment for them.”

No donation is too big or too small
Mount Hebron students have collected two million stamps, and they need more. As the students are saying: “Please send stamps!”

Mail stamps to:
Mount Hebron High School
Attn: Cyndie Fagan
9440 Route 99
Ellicott City, MD 21042

For more information, visit click here.

Melissa Gerr is JT senior staff reporter and digital media editor — mgerr@jewishtimes.com

Frieda Pertman, 96, who lost her parents and six siblings to the Holocaust, displays her aunt’s more-than-100-year-old crocheted lace. At right, Frieda at 26 in Russia with son Allan, daughter Rita and late husband Chaim.

The Precious Gift of Frieda Pertman

The first thing Frieda Pertman did during an interview late last week was lovingly display delicate tendrils of crocheted lacework and embroidery on her lap. She had just received them in the mail from a newly discovered cousin.  But the lace was more than a thoughtful gift.  It helped weave together pieces of an extended family torn apart by two world wars.

Frieda Pertman is the only survivor of her parents, six siblings and many aunts, uncles and cousins.  The family members were killed in Poland during the Holocaust.  She and her late husband, Chaim Pertman, had fled to Russia in 1939 so they survived the war but not without living through horrendous, life-threatening conditions and years of arduous forced labor. They shared these horrors of war, but they also shared an impenetrably strong spirit.

The family left Europe for Israel in 1957.  After living a year-and-a-half there, the Pertmans and their four children — 5-year-old twins and two teenagers — arrived in Baltimore in December 1958.  A childhood friend of Chaim’s had sponsored the family and provided the needed paperwork. So with just a few clothes and personal items, and $140, the Pertmans began building their life in America.

“We came on a Saturday night, and on Monday my husband took a job,” Frieda said. “On Pratt Street was a factory that was making ladies’ coats, he was paid $5 an hour. He went to work there, and he was very good at it, he was very fast. He brought home the first week $90. … Well, it was enough to pay the landlady $40 for burning oil.”

It took some time for Baltimore to grow on Frieda.  Even through all she had endured, she was still used to living in bigger cities and attending events such as opera, theater and movies. To her, Baltimore had a small village feel and sensibility.  She had imagined a more sophisticated America.

“You would see in the car, a fancy car, a man in a T-shirt.  I didn’t like that,” Frieda said. “I didn’t like windows with the curtains closed, I was used to windows open with the curtains moved aside.”

Frieda Pertman, 96, who lost her parents and six siblings to the Holocaust, displays her aunt’s more-than-100-year-old crocheted lace. At right, Frieda  at 26 in Russia with son Allan, daughter Rita and late husband Chaim.

Frieda Pertman, 96, who lost her parents and six siblings to the Holocaust, displays her aunt’s more-than-100-year-old crocheted lace.

Another contrast was Frieda grew up in a very religious family, but when they came to Baltimore the days of attending shul and eating kosher were a distant memory. Years of fighting to maintain life one step ahead of hunger, disease and military evacuations took its toll. And as a new immigrant family, finances were tight, and paying for synagogue membership would have been too dear a luxury at the time.  But she maintained her Jewish family life and spirit nonetheless. Her husband had acquired work and the children were in school, so she was dedicated to staying and raising the family in Baltimore.

Some years later, Frieda proudly became a U.S. citizen. She was hospitalized at the time but managed to talk a doctor into letting her out because she was determined to participate in the ceremony.

“I was in the hospital, and I wanted to go to the court to be sworn in, and the doctor gave me two hours,” Frieda said. “I still had the hospital bracelets on my wrists. … I remember the questions the judge was asking me.”

The judge asked her who was the first president of the United States; she answered Abraham Lincoln. The judge smiled.

“No, Mrs. Pertman, it was George Washington. But most of the people born in the United States would answer the same thing,” she recalled him saying.

Frieda playfully claims she still answers more trivia game questions correctly than many of her native-born neighbors at Springwell Senior Living.

Frieda at 26 in Russia with son Allan, daughter Rita and late husband Chaim.

Frieda at 26 in Russia with son Allan, daughter Rita and late husband Chaim.

But that’s no surprise to anyone who’s met Frieda.  At 96 she’s thoughtful and talkative, small in physical stature, but big in spirit.  When she was younger she taught herself Russian and Hebrew. She learned English alongside her twins as they studied in elementary school.  She’s literally saved the lives of her children, survived and held her family together with scant resources and persevered under conditions that are inconceivable.  And recently she’s recovered from a stroke and still walks and exercises each day.

When Frieda laughs, her entire face lights up. Considering all that she’s endured, seeing her laugh is like a receiving a precious gift.

“She has a very deep understanding of the issues of life. She’s instinctively smart, she reads more than anyone I know.  She has insights deeper than anyone I know. She’s inspirational and she’s wise. … There’s something special about her that connects with virtually every life she touches,” said her son, Adam Pertman.
Frieda is the matriarch in an ext-ended family of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and in-laws across the eastern U.S. She told a story of her great-grandson, then 7 years old, making a point to invite her to his bar mitzvah. She asked him, “Do you know how old I am?”

“Yes, I know how to count,” he replied.  “I know exactly how old you’re going to be and I don’t care, but I want you at my bar mitzvah.
“Now I’m 96, and if I live to be a hundred, I have only four years. … It runs fast,” Frieda said. “But sometimes you just get tired.  You don’t get tired of living, you get tired of fighting to live.  And it’s hard.  At this stage of the game, if I give up, I won’t last very long, so I’m trying not to give up.”

Recently, thanks to an innocently uttered comment about two relatives and investigative work by her tenacious, impassioned granddaughter-in-law, Frieda discovered she has more relatives in the U.S. than she thought.  At the age of 95, Frieda met for the first time (over the phone) three octogenarian first cousins.  It turned out that two aunts, Bessie and Rachel, had left for the U.S. before World War I.  Soon after, the family members had lost all contact.  The newly found first cousins were the children of Bessie, who was Chaya Rojza’s (Frieda’s mother) older sister.  Chaya Rojza planned to leave Poland as well, but the war broke out and that made it impossible. She perished in the Holocaust.  It was Bessie’s daughter, Lillian, a newly discovered cousin living in Las Vegas that sent Frieda the crocheted lace gift.  Frieda turned over a piece of the handwork that lay in her lap.

“This is the work of my mother’s sister (Bessie) … that’s her handwork, this is more than a hundred years old.  … [Lillian] was keeping it all these years, she said, ‘Now it belongs to you.’  I got it last evening, they brought it to me from the mail, and I didn’t sleep.  At first she wrote me some jokes, I had a good laugh, then I had a good cry.  She said, ‘Now, now Bessie is home.’  She sent it to me to leave it to my children,” Frieda said.

Living and thriving through what she has endured, Frieda adopted a strong sense of, in her understated words, “do the best you can with what you have,” and also a deep gratitude for family.  She pointed to a group photo taken at her 95th birthday, showing her at the center of more than 30 smiling faces surrounded by a frame decorated with handwritten birthday wishes.

“This bunch.  This bunch keeps me alive,” she said.

Frieda had last seen her immediate family in Wohyn, Poland when she was 22 before she lost them forever in the Holocaust.  But she has created a progeny here on the other side of the world in Baltimore.  Now the worlds are connected once again, woven together like the delicate threads of lace in the heirloom she received from her newly found first cousin, to be handed down from generation to generation so that they may always remember.

Jennifer Mendelsohn contributed to this article. You can read Jennifer’s account of Frieda Pertman’s discovery of her first cousins at tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/139943/an-unexpected-family-reunion.