A refugee from Hitler’s Europe who was denied entrance to the United States because of birth defects was the keynote speaker at the City of Newark Holocaust Remembrance luncheon on May 6.
Theodore Halpern told his life story at an event that included participation by Newark Mayor Luis Quintana, local developer Miles Berger, and Rabbi E. Samuel Klibanoff of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston.
Halpern, 84, said he hoped the audience — which included Shoa survivors, city officials, Jewish community leaders, and several hundred public and parochial school students — “would remember how hatred and bigotry affect ordinary people’s lives on many different levels.”
The Holocaust’s “undertones of hatred still exist today,” said the Whippany resident, offering as evidence “the events in Ukraine.” What’s more, he said, they are exacerbated in some ways because “we live in the age of the Internet.”
Speaking with a calm solemnity, Halpern told his audience he was born into a secular Jewish family in Vienna in 1930. As Nazism began threatening their lives, his family fled to Belgium, then France.
“The Nazis made life unbearable,” he said.
When the rest of his family was finally able to move to Brooklyn, Halpern — who has severely deformed hands and feet — was denied permission to enter the United States.
“My father and mother had to make a hard decision” he said.
Reluctantly, they left him behind in Belgium with a grandmother. But when the two were separated by a German bombing raid, young Theodore was discovered by an ambulance crew and taken to what he called “a local insane asylum. Although this seemed to be a terrible thing to happen, in reality this was a life-saving event,” he said.
After a few months he was transferred to a Catholic orphanage, where he stayed for two years, then fled when the nuns began to prepare him for his First Communion. He and another Jewish boy they were hiding ran away and joined a local underground cell; Halpern acted as a courier by carrying concealed messages in the heel of one of his specially-made shoes.
After the war, his parents were able to bring him to New York — where he learned English and finished high school but could not afford to complete his college degree. He worked as a clerk for the New York City Medical Examiner until he retired in 1986.
Halpern has a son and three grandchildren. His wife, Stella, died in 2007.
“Note that you have heard a part of history from a regular person who had a unique journey to freedom,” said Halpern. “Wherever you see or hear hatred and bigotry, it comes from small-minded people bent on perverting society’s good nature.”
Quintana, who visited concentration camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Germany, preceded Halpern.
“We should not allow this ever again and we should not allow it, ever, ever, anywhere,” said Quintana, whose term ends on June 30. “I am here today to tell young people, ‘Please, whether someone is bullying someone for the way they dress or the way they look or the way they talk with an accent, never discriminate or do an injustice to them. Lift them up. Help people. This can be a beautiful world if we learn how to live together.”
Klibanoff led a prayer at the start of the proceedings. “When we…witness the ugly acts and speeches of hate, when we hear remarks of hate and disgust, we have to stand up and protest,” he said.