Were it not for the courage and kindness of others — parents, friends, and strangers — six Holocaust survivors would not have been seated around conference tables March 28 at the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
As featured guests in a program “Those Who Saved Us,” the six spoke of the people they remembered from childhood who enabled them to escape the Nazi genocide. In a panel discussion moderated by Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest, they shared personal reminiscences of survival.
Ed Bindel of Mountain Lakes said he was protected throughout the war by his nanny, a Catholic woman named Jozia Remus, in Lvov, Poland. They passed as mother and son between 1941 and 1944. “We were in constant danger of discovery,” he said.
Remus knew she was putting her own life at risk, said Bindel. “She was a very religious person. She said, ‘How could I not do this?’”
In the years that followed, Bindel reconnected with his protector, aiding her son with his computer company in Poland. “I was able to repay in a small way, but what she did for me I can never repay,” he said.
“She gave me my life.”
Gina Lanceter of Montclair said her survival began when her parents pushed her out of the window of a cattle car headed for the extermination camp of Majdanek. Beyond her mother and father, she owes her life to a series of strangers. There was a railroad worker who helped her after she was forced from the train, a priest who gave her the false identification papers of a Christian, and other non-Jews “who gave me shelter and really put their lives on the line.”
After the war, Lanceter tracked down the priest to thank him. “All I could give him was a hug,” she said. She also managed to find money to buy him a postwar rarity, a gold fountain pen. “He started to cry. He was so happy I had survived,” she said.
In years since, Lanceter said she has occasionally sent packages to Polish people she did not know. “I knew they had saved Jews, and doing that made me feel better,” she said.
Recalling the day her parents threw her from the moving train, Lanceter said, “All through my many journeys, I kept telling myself, ‘I had to survive. I had to tell people what happened.’
“I would like to be back on that train for two seconds,” she said. “I would like to know what my parents felt after I left them. I will never know.”
Norbert Bikales of Livingston credited his mother — “She decided to give me up because she knew her survival was very uncertain” — with saving his life. In 1939 she turned her son over to a Kindertransport, which took him from their home in Berlin to greater safety in France. There he was protected by a Jewish organization called Ose, which watched over some 1,300 children in southern France during the war.
He also met “some righteous gentiles who did extraordinary things,” including a retired French police officer who alerted them to possible capture. “There were acts of decency and humanity” amid the dangers, he said.
“Imagine how difficult it was for a mother to pack a child’s suitcase, knowing she might not ever see that child again,” Wind interjected.
Fred Heyman of Morristown saluted “a Catholic family my parents bonded with in Berlin in the early 1930s.” They defied the Nuremberg Laws, which banned contact with Jews, and “put their lives on the line” to help his family with food and friendship. “They will be forever engraved in our minds. They were wonderful human beings,” he told the gathering.
But, he added, “the angel in my life was my mother. She saved my life and my father’s life on many occasions,” he said.
Hana Keselman of Springfield said she “had to credit her parents” for sending her on a Kindertransport from France to Switzerland in 1939.
“I was well-protected and sheltered by my parents,” she said. “The only thing they told me was that I would have to go on a train. I didn’t want to do it,” she said.
In Switzerland, she was housed by foster families. “They were wonderful people and I was really treated well,” she recalled.
After returning to France and shielded by the Jewish organization Ose, Keselman was sent to Italy with other rescued children. There she was protected by a Catholic monk who “was wonderful and helped us in every way he could. He made sure we were safe.”
Sylvia “Nessa” Ben-Asher, who now lives in Short Hills, played a double role as a Holocaust survivor and a rescuer. After the Nazis captured her mother and sister, a Christian friend helped her escape from the Warsaw ghetto. She rented an apartment outside its confines and constructed double walls where 17 Jewish men, including her father, hid during daylight hours. She would go from store to store, buying small amounts of food to feed the people in hiding. Ben-Asher also smuggled Jewish children through sewer tunnels to the safety of a Catholic nuns’ home, and she thanked “one priest who gave me the identification card” that allowed her to move through Warsaw without being detected as Jewish.