Ellen Cohen, Morris Kornberg, Alice Lebowitz and Klaus Zwilsky are senior citizens enjoying retirement in Southern Maryland. But their similarities extend beyond geography: They all are Holocaust survivors who know that as witnesses who overcame a terrible fate, they are fading historians.
“People always say, ‘Well, why do these people open up after 40 or 50 years later?’ I think it’s [because] enough time has gone by so they can feel they can talk about it, but they’re looking also at their own mortality and saying: ‘If I don’t tell my story now, then it’s going to be buried and it will never be heard,’ ” said Zwilsky, 74, a Port Republic resident who moved to Calvert County six years ago. He did not began discussing his Holocaust experiences more openly until the late 1990s.
Zwilsky and the three other known Holocaust survivors living in Southern Maryland share piercing memories and experiences that have defined who they are, but they also have starkly varied backgrounds. They come from different parts of Europe, and each has coped with the pain of the past in different ways.
But on Saturday night, the four were together for the first time. They gathered in Waldorf with one purpose: to remember the millions murdered under Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship. Also at the gathering was Holocaust survivor and visiting Michigan author Miriam Winter, 73, who spoke about how and why her parents — rightly fearing the worst for their family — gave her up when she was 8. As a child during World War II, Winter was turned over first to a woman who had a “chance meeting” on a train with another woman who then helped Winter live in Poland as a Jew in hiding during the war. After that experience, Winter didn’t acknowledge her Judaism until December 1962, when she was almost 30.
Winter was in the Washington area Saturday for an appearance at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she spoke with visitors and signed copies of her book, “Trains.” She visited Waldorf that night on the invitation of Congregation Sha’are Shalom, the only Jewish congregation in Charles County, to mark the Day of Remembrance, a holiday declared by the Israeli Parliament in 1951.
The program took place in a hall at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where the 35-family congregation meets. Sha’are Shalom plans to break ground this summer on what will be the first synagogue in Charles County.
“The tragedy is always with us — not just one day,” said Lee Weinberger, former congregation president and one of the event’s organizers, at the start of the remembrance program. “To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that Charles County has had a special program open to the public to remember, because everybody must always remember not to forget.”
Winter later recited passages from “Trains” with a kind of syncopated rhythm. Dressed in black with the exception of a white blouse, she revealed how she “let my tears fall” decades after her childhood at a memorial service with other “hidden children” who survived the Holocaust.
Before Winter spoke Saturday night, she, Cohen, Kornberg, Lebowitz and Zwilsky each lighted a Yahrzeit candle, including one for non-Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Lighting the candles is considered a memorial act, meant to remember the dead. In the darkened, silent room, an audience of about 120 included Charles County Democratic commissioners Reuben B. Collins II, Sam Graves and Gary V. Hodge, and state Del. Peter F. Murphy (D-Charles). The Mourner’s Kaddish prayer that followed does not mention death — “because we’re glad to be alive,” said Rabbi Randy Schoch of Congregation Sha’are Shalom.
For many Holocaust survivors, living means dealing with survivor’s guilt or anger toward Germans and coping with haunting memories. “It’s not so easy to throw from the head,” said Lebowitz, 83, after the program. (Her story is one of many that Steven Spielberg has immortalized in an interview for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.)
Waldorf resident Kornberg, a Polish Jew, survived hard labor, death marches and three concentration camps. Today, he fears ever returning to visit Auschwitz because he isn’t certain he could survive the emotional strain. On Saturday night, his eyes filled with tears at the thought.
But though visiting a concentration camp proves impossible for Kornberg now, he has opened up to tell the story about what he lived through. Last weekend, for example, he spoke at the Adas Israel synagogue in Northwest Washington; in March, he spoke to two classes at North Point High School in Waldorf. Kornberg, 89, said the students’ comments and notes of thanks touched him deeply. “I think you’re some sort of hero,” one student said. “Like you are an example of the horror and tragedy that people experienced, and you are the living soldier who got through your own ‘bloody war.’ ”
Lebowitz, who lives in La Plata, saw her father sent to a group destined for the crematorium in Auschwitz. She eventually was transported to work as forced labor in a German factory. Zwilsky and his parents survived in Berlin because his father was an administrator at the only remaining Jewish hospital in Germany. Cohen, who lives in Waldorf, said she and her family were able to escape to Chile, but nothing can erase the memory of seeing the synagogue near her school in Stuttgart burned by Nazis in November 1938.
One non-Jewish audience member, Waldorf resident Alma McGuire, said she came to the service with her daughter and son-in-law and their four children because family members want the children to be exposed to the lessons of such events. After listening to Winter’s story, both McGuire and her 19-year-old granddaughter, Rachel Lloyd, said they were surprised by the maturity Winter displayed at such a young age.
To improve her chances of survival, Winter was given the Christian name Marysia. Before she was given away, she was taught the Lord’s Prayer by her father and how to make the sign of the cross. She was told by her father never to admit she was Jewish. She was reminded to read newspapers when the war ended because family members abroad might look for her. And she obeyed.
But Winter also never saw her Polish family again.
“Our parting seemed uneventful. All I can recall are rushed actions, short instructions. No hugs, no crying, no kissing?” Winter read from her book. “Where was Mother? What did she say? How did she look? Did she touch me? Nothing.”
She ended her reading with these words: “I often wonder why I survived. I’m all that’s left [of the family]. . . . If I hadn’t lived, there wouldn’t be a soul to say that they even existed. I am their witness.”
Published in the April 19, 2007 edition of The Washington Post