Tonight begins Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
For the last several years, I have sent a note to the congregation noting the survivors from our community who have died since last yom HaShoah. As we know, those who survived the Holocaust as adults are now in their 90’s or older, and the youngest of the survivors -- those too young to remember anything about the experience -- are nearly 70. Each year, we note the losses of survivors in our community, who were our links to a world destroyed.
This year, I think especially of Gerda Stuiver z”l, mother of USH member Jake Stuiver, who died last April in her 80’s, and Lee Berendt z”l, father of USH member Chuck Berendt, who died just a month ago at age 90.
Gerda Stuiver was originally from Vienna. When she was 8 years old, in 1938, she was one of the approximately 10,000 Jewish children from Europe who were brought to England as part of the Kindertransport rescue mission. She was fortunate to be reunited with her mother during the war, as her mother managed to become a chaperone or escort for the children on the Kindertransport mission, but she lost many other relatives and childhood friends. She married her husband Elko, who also survived the Holocaust in the Netherlands, and they lived in Israel and then in Philadelphia until she died almost one year ago, immediately after Yom HaShoah 2013.
Lee Berendt was from a town in Poland called Sompolno. As a teenager, he was taken by the Nazis from Sompolno as a slave laborer to Germany. He would later learn that his slave labor helped to build the German Autobahn. Meanwhile, most of his entire family was murdered at the Chelmno death camp. Lee was fortunate to be one of the very few survivors from Sompolno. He came to the United States, where he married and raised his family.
One particular incident in Lee’s life seems especially relevant on this day of Yom Hashoah. Around the year 2000, still relatively early in the history of genealogical research on the internet, Lee Berendt came upon a photo taken in 1941, a group photo of over 100 Jewish men from Sompolno. Apparently this photo was taken immediately before a deportation. Lee recognized himself in the photo, and with his prodigious memory, he realized that he remembered the names of many of them. His son Chuck told me about how he assisted his father in painstakingly labeled each person in the photo with a number, and then listing the personal information that he remembered for 98 of them. This labeled photo and Lee Berendt’s list are now online on the Internet (see http://www.zchor.org/sompolno/somplist2.htm) , and I presume they have been used by many people seeking to gather information about their relatives. Of those in the photo, fewer than 20 survived the war. For many of the men in this photo, it may be the only surviving photo of them, anywhere in the world. Thanks to Lee Berendt’s commitment to bearing witness, their relatives are able to locate their image on this photo - and in a small way, the memory of those who died in the Shoah is being perpetuated.
A survivor in our community of a different kind was William Jurman z”l, father of USH member Karen Jurman, whose funeral took place this morning; he died on Thursday evening at age 90. William Jurman grew up in the United States, and as a teenager he was drafted into the US Armed Forces. He fought against the forces of Nazi Germany, showing significant heroism and bravery in combat even after being wounded, for which he was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart medals. At his funeral today, his nephew described how William Jurman returned from the war with significant physical pain and mental torment; it took him four years to truly re-enter society. But he quickly recaptured his courage, pursuing a successful career as an ironworker who walked fearlessly on the girders of structures like the Verezzano Bridge and the World Trade Center while they were being built. (Our dear friends and USH members Bernard Kammer z”l and Joe Israel z”l, who also died this year, were also World War II veterans and also played a role in bringing the Holocaust to its conclusion.)
May the memories of Gerda Stuiver and Lee Berendt be for a blessing, together with the memories of all those who died in the Holocaust, and all those who endured it and survived until more recent years, and all those who played a role in bringing the Nazi death machine to its conclusion. As the responsibility to transmit their stories is gradually shifting to us, may we fulfill this sacred obligation, in tribute to their memories.