I grew up in a survivor household on a survivor block in the survivor neighborhood of Pelham Parkway during the 1960s. My acculturation to American society included the realization that Jews were a minority in America, and that Jews who spoke with an Eastern European accent were a minority within a minority.
For the latter, leaving Europe was not easy. Survivors languished in displaced persons camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy for years as most sought refuge in Palestine and the United States. When Israel achieved independence in 1948, close to a third of the population were survivors. The War of Independence claimed the lives of 1 percent of its population, approximately 6,500 souls. Among the casualties were hundreds of survivors who fought to achieve Jewish sovereignty after experiencing Jewish powerlessness. Some parents of my Israeli friends even recited Kaddish for these fallen survivors, martyrs who didn’t have descendants or living family members to perform this mitzvah.
As the late historian Leonard Dinnerstein has written in “America and the Survivors of the Holocaust,” opening up the gates for the survivors in the U.S., who faced anti-Semitism and fear of competition for jobs by labor unions, was a three-year struggle in the late 1940s. Meanwhile, rhetoric about an influx of Communists in the form of hordes of Eastern European Jews echoed in the halls of Congress. It took President Harry Truman to break the logjam in Congress to pass legislation in 1948 allowing hundreds of thousands of survivors and their families to enter the U.S.
Having experienced the greatest disaster inflicted on humanity, survivors followed the biblical dictum of “choosing life” and not wallowing in self-pity for their losses. As sociologist William Helmreich of The City College of New York noted in a study of survivors, the per-capita birth rate in the DP camps was among the greatest in the world, and the survivors wanted their last horrible chapter closed to allow them to move on and rebuild their lives and families; to rebuild the Jewish people and drive a final nail into Hitler’s coffin.
So they went to Israel, the United States, Canada, and other countries willing to accept them. Virtually penniless and not knowing the local language, survivors initially took menial jobs, and most of the immigrants fulfilled the American dream by opening businesses, becoming professionals, and using their street smarts to meet their families’ needs.
They were a force in the Jewish community and stalwart supporters of Israel, providing philanthropic leadership for Israel Bonds, United Jewish Appeal, and many other Jewish causes. The mainstays of Yad Vashem, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Jewish Museum Berlin were led by survivors and their families, as were our local day schools Golda Och Academy and Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School.
And they were leaders in their shuls. My father was president of the Young Israel of Pelham Parkway for 19 years — I guess they didn’t believe in rotation of office. When I asked why he maintained his faith in God after witnessing the loss of his entire family, he responded that “he lost his faith in humanity, not God.”
And then there was Nat Taubenfeld, the patriarch of Congregation Agudath Israel (CAI) in Caldwell, who died last week on erev Rosh HaShanah. He made me feel at home with his thick Polish accent, like my father’s. At his funeral, attended by about a thousand mourners, he was remembered for the indelible mark he made on the congregation, in Israel, and for the Jewish people through his philanthropy and acts of lovingkindness.
Short in stature, Nat was a giant in his community.
On weekdays he worked through the nights at his produce business in Hunts Point, N.Y., but always made it to the morning minyan before returning home to sleep. As gabbai, he helped choreograph the service and intermittently gave his editorial comments on the sermon or other matters, while dispensing lollipops to the youngsters. During the High Holidays, he called out the notes for the shofar blower and led numerous services, including the recitation of the Yizkor prayers for the martyrs, many of whose deaths he witnessed during the Holocaust.
He was always among the first to lend philanthropic support for new congregational initiatives, and whenever Rabbi Alan Silverstein, religious leader of CAI, asked me to speak to the congregation, I knew I had done well if I saw a glint in Nat’s eyes. During the years I served as CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and there was a war or emergency in Israel, Nat always asked me what federation was planning to do and how he could help.
With his wife Bea, the Taubenfeld clan included five children, a dozen grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. This was Nat’s revenge on Hitler.
There are thousands of stories like Nat’s, but all too often we refer to such individuals only as survivors. We must remember that surviving was just the first, albeit hideous, chapter of their respective lives. Their survival was the springboard for developing new identities in their adopted countries, raising families, and enriching their Jewish communities, Israel, and the Jewish people. It’s as if the new lease on their lives was the impetus to leave an imprint on the world.
In recent years the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest NJ has hosted “From Memory to History” at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. The exhibit admirably portrays the lives survivors led before the war, how they survived, and most importantly, the contributions they made to their communities while enlarging the Jewish people.
In other words, they’re more than just survivors.
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.