NEVER AGAIN: Survivors stress importance of remembering, and never repeating, the Holocaust
By DAVE MASON, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Santa Barbara residents say they survived the Holocaust because of heroes, faith and decisive moments frozen forever in time.
For Thomas (Toivi) Blatt, 82, that moment came at Sobibor, a Polish extermination camp, where he was saved from the gas chambers because a Nazi officer picked him to shine his shoes.
"My will to live was strong, and I concentrated on this German and prayed, 'God, help me,' " Mr. Blatt, who was a teenager at the time, told the News-Press recently. "I was saying to him (telepathically), 'Take me, take me! ' " Mr. Blatt said he never did have to shine that officer's shoes. "But he beat me up a few times."
Later he was part of a prisoner revolt in which he and others escaped and survived to tell their stories.
Stories such as Mr. Blatt's must be remembered to prevent a repeat of tragedies such as the Holocaust, rabbis and survivors said. They explained that's why today — Holocaust Remembrance Day — is so important.
"It happened a long time ago. We can't live in the past, but if we forget what's happened, history will repeat itself," said survivor Maria Segal, 74.
"I don't hate the Germans. I hate what Hitler did to destroy my family," the retired social worker said. "We have to learn to forgive and live in peace with people. .... We must learn to accept people regardless of race and religion and not hate. We don't want another Holocaust."
Echoing that was another Santa Barbara survivor, Josie Levy Martin, 71, who talks to groups of young people about the Holocaust so that they don't allow it to happen again.
"Talking; we can't stop talking. We've got to educate people," said Holocaust survivor Regine Pringle, 79, of Santa Barbara.
Holocaust Remembrance Day makes a small difference, said Rabbi Stephen Cohen, 52, of Congregation B'nai B'rith on San Antonio Creek Road. "I'm a big believer in doing many small differences that may end up making a big difference. In a short commemoration, we can't teach the whole history. All we can do is light a spark that will inspire young people and adults to learn more."
Each year on the day, Rabbi Cohen's congregation is addressed by guest speakers, including Holocaust survivors and an American soldier who helped to liberate Dachau, the first concentration camp established by the Nazis in Germany.
Instead of having a one-day observance, Rabbi Yosef Loschak at Chabad of S. Barbara said it's important to remember the Holocaust throughout the year. He's teaching a six-week class about tolerance in the modern world — "Beyond Never Again: How the Holocaust Speaks to Us Today," which will begin April 27 and take place from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays at the chabad, 6047 Stow Canyon Road. Cost is $100.
"God created us all different," Rabbi Loschak said, referring to tolerance. "We don't need to be the same. We're allowed to be different. Most hatred comes from ignorance."
Dr. Elizabeth Wolfson, program director of "Portraits of Survival: Life Journeys during the Holocaust and Beyond," noted, "People are taught to hate. But they can be taught to embrace diversity."
The "Portraits" exhibit features the stories of Santa Barbara survivors of the Holocaust at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara, 524 Chapala St.
Some survivors have penned books on their experience.
Mr. Blatt wrote "From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival" (Northwestern University Press, 1997, $19) and "Sobibor — The Forgotten Revolt: A Survivor's Report" (fifth reprinting, 2004, $25). "Escape from Sobibor," a 1987 CBS-TV movie, was based on the latter.
Mrs. Segal, who authored "Maria's Story: Childhood Memories of the Holocaust" (2009, Boehm Group, $11.95), said she survived the Holocaust because of heroes who risked their lives to save hers.
Heroes like Stasia, a Gentile woman from Mrs. Segal's native village of Okuniew, Poland. Stasia smuggled Mrs. Segal, then 6 or 7 years old, out of the Warsaw ghetto where Jews were forced to live. (Mrs. Segal doesn't recall Stasia's last name.)
Mrs. Segal survived; she said her family didn't. A witness told Mrs. Segal her family was put on a train to a concentration camp.
"There's no grave. I don't know where their remains are," Mrs. Segal said. She said she plans to light a candle today in her family's memory.
Another Gentile hero who took care of Mrs. Segal after she left the ghetto was Wanda Hadrysiak, and Mrs. Segal saw her in 2008 in her city of Bydgoszcz, Poland, when she received a Righteous Gentile award from the Israeli ambassador to Poland for saving Mrs. Segal's life.
"When I was at the ceremony, I asked Wanda, 'Why did you do this?' She said, 'I never even thought (twice) about it.' "
Heroes saved the life of Dr. Stan Ostern, a retired Santa Barbara physician, and his family in his native city of Stryj, Poland (a city now in Ukraine after changes in the borders).
Before the Nazis could take them to a concentration camp, Belzec, Dr. Ostern and his family hid with other Jews — 35 in total — from 1942 to 1944 in a bunker built by a man whom Dr. Ostern identified as Mr. Morgenstern. Kazik Starko, a Pole, lived in the house above the bunker and provided food in exchange for gold.
"This was Anne Frank below ground," Dr. Ostern said, referring to the girl in "The Diary of Anne Frank."
Josie Levy Martin, 71, of Santa Barbara said a Catholic nun saved her during the Holocaust.
Her parents, Sylvan and Erna Levy, sent her to stay with Soer (Sister) St. Cybard in Lesterps, a small village in France.
"She was very brave," Mrs. Martin said. "She defied the Catholic Church to follow her conscience."
"She did not try to convert me, but she taught me prayers and how to cross myself so I could be passed off as Catholic," she said.
Mrs. Martin wrote about the experience in her book, "Never Tell Your Name." After the war, she reunited with her parents and came with them to Los Angeles in 1947. She said she became a school psychologist, in part to understand better what she went through.
Listening to Mrs. Martin, talking in a lounge at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara on Chapala Street, was Mrs. Pringle, another survivor. "My story is very different from Josie's. I was 9 years old when the war started. I came from Nancy, France. We were taken into a concentration camp in Poitiers from 1941-42. I just started talking about it lately."
When the Nazis allowed French children to leave the camp, her parents sent her and her sisters away to save them. Mrs. Pringle stayed with a Jewish family, the Pragers, before leaving with Mrs. Prager, Mrs. Prager's children and two guides. They traveled through France to stay ahead of the Nazis.
Mrs. Pringle said she coped during that time by singing and looking up at the night sky, thinking of her parents. "As a child, I decided they were watching me. I would pick a star, and that was them. I would say good night to them."
She was reunited with relatives in France, and during the war, she went to Spain, Portugal and finally the U.S. She learned that her parents were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. "I did not want to believe it," she said. "I think it was 1948 or '49 that I accepted they were not coming back."
At Sobibor, Mr. Blatt went in one direction and his parents and 10-year-old brother to the gas chamber.
"Within a matter of minutes, my whole family was gone," he said. "It was a terrible shock to a boy who suddenly found himself in a cage."
Preventing another Holocaust tomorrow requires reaching out to people today, Mr. Blatt said. "It's educating people from childhood that human beings are valuable and that we can live in peace."
Rabbi Stephen Cohen closed his eyes and thought for a moment about the world today.
"I think what we need to remind ourselves, over and over again, is the terrible price of indifference," he said calmly but deliberately, emphasizing each word as he discussed the Holocaust.
"It's so easy for the good people of the world to screen out information about terrible things that are happening. That's what happened during World War II. That's what happened in 1994 (in Rwanda)," said Rabbi Cohen, 52, in his study at Congregation B'nai B'rith on San Antonio Creek Road. "It felt like something that was happening half way around the world. It was easier to turn away."
Because of the Holocaust, Jews today empathize with victims of such atrocities, he said.
That's why, he said, Holocaust Remembrance Day will kick off a new fundraising effort at the synagogue for the Ubumwe Community Center in Gisenyi, Rwanda., where those who suffer disabilities because of the Hutu-dominated government's slaughter of minority Tutsis.
According to news reports, 800,000 people died,
John Seigel Boettner, a Santa Barbara Middle School teacher who has taken students to Rwanda, is scheduled to address Rabbi Cohen's congregation at 11 a.m. today.
Other killings of ethnic groups have happened during the last 20 years in countries such as Bosnia and Somalia, Holocaust survivors note.
The Holocaust shows that immoral behavior and hate can happen even in a nation known for its intelligent culture, said Rabbi Yosef Loschak of Chabad of S. Barbara.
"My parents (Aron and Kreindel Loschak) were Holocaust survivors," said Rabbi Loschak, who emigrated with his family to Australia in 1950. He said he lost all of the relatives in his parents' generation — except for his parents, an uncle and an aunt — in the Holocaust.
But thinking about today, he smiled and said he and his wife, Devorah Loschak, are parents of a dozen children, ages 16 to 33.
— Dave Mason
REMEMBERING THE HOLOCAUST
• Santa Barbara Middle School teacher John Seigel Boettner, who has taken students to Rwanda, will address the congregation at 11 a.m. today at Congregation B'nai B'rith, 1000 San Antonio Creek Road. The Holocaust Remembrance Day speech will kick-off the congregation's efforts to raise funds for the Ubumwe Community Center in Gisenyi, Rwanda. The center helps those who suffer disabilities because of the Hutu-dominated government's 1994 genocide of the Tutsi ethnic minority.
• Rabbi Yosef Loschak will teach "Beyond Never Again: How the Holocaust Speaks to Us Today," a six-week course on tolerance in the modern world, at Chabad of S. Barbara, 6047 Stow Canyon Road. It will take place from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, beginning April 27. For more information call the chabad at 683-1544 or go to www.beyondneveragain.com. Cost is $100.
• "Portraits of Survival: Life Journeys During the Holocaust and Beyond" is on display at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara, 524 Chapala St. The exhibit features photography and narratives about Santa Barbara survivors of the Holocaust and refugees. There's also a Holocaust Resource Center with books, journals, tapes films, teaching materials and DVDs of interviews and documentaries featuring local survivors.
The center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each Friday or by appointment. Admission is free. For a $750 docent tour, call 957-1115.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara also offers low-cost therapeutic services for survivors, and youths and their families. For more information call the center at 957-1115 or go to www.jewishsantabarbara.org.
• "The Diary of Anne Frank," a new Masterpiece Classic film based on the book of the same name, will air at 9 p.m. today on PBS — KCET-TV, Channel 10 in Santa Barbara and Channel 8 in North County. The Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara is part of the sponsorship of the program.
• Maria Segal, a Santa Barbara Holocaust survivor, and Dr. Elizabeth Wolfson of the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara will discuss "Holocaust Survivors and Gang Members: An Unlikely Pair" today during the national conference of the Association of Jewish Family Service Agencies. The conference is taking place through Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. For more information go to www.jewishsantabarbara.org.