Holocaust survivors find joy in spite of heartbreak

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On Monday afternoon, nine Holocaust survivors entered a room at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, many of them leaning on canes, walkers or the arms of relatives.

They exchanged hugs and handshakes, poured themselves cups of coffee and sat around a table, chatting in English or in the languages of their youth.

Considering the horrible event that binds them together, their conversations were surprisingly lighthearted. Their monthly meetings aren't meant to be solemn memorials of the World War II genocide that killed 6 million Jews, as well as millions of others. The survivors are there to have a good time.

At the meetings, they ask each other about their families and reminisce about the beautiful European cities they grew up in. They hear lectures from local artists and have parties on Jewish holidays.

"It's not a time for them to stand up and share their experiences," said Samantha Chilton, senior associate at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. "We want them to have fun."

The painful memories sometimes bubble up, though.

On Monday, local poet Judith Robinson read from "The Blue Heart," her book of poetry about the Holocaust. The powerful verses, about the brutality of the Nazis and the pain and loneliness of their victims, left the survivors in a somber mood. One of their sons, a middle-aged man, closed his eyes and covered his face with his hands.

Herman Snyder, who escaped from a ghetto outside Vilnius, Lithuania, and hid in the woods for two years to escape the Nazis, responded to one of the poems with verses of his own.

"I survived -- where do I go? Nobody home, everybody dead," said Mr. Snyder, 94. "I'm looking for somebody. There's nobody there anymore."

Later, Mr. Snyder held up a photograph of a ditch full of dead bodies in what is now Ukraine.

"Maybe this is my father and my sister," he said, pointing at the bodies.

The survivors aren't all as eager to talk about their experiences as Mr. Snyder is. Some of them want to share their stories, and others don't, Ms. Chilton warned. But they all have them.

Fritz Ottenheimer counts himself lucky. His family escaped Germany for the United States in May 1939, months before war erupted. The boycott of Jewish stores that Hitler ordered after coming to power ruined their business. Mr. Ottenheimer's uncle, aunt and cousins died after failing to leave France in time.

The loss and injustice were painful enough, Mr. Ottenheimer said, but on top of that was the confusion. Why didn't his friends and neighbors try to help him? Why didn't the German people stop Hitler?

"I kept wondering when the German people would stand up and say this is all nonsense," he said. "But of course, they never said that."

Shulamit Bastacky is a "hidden child survivor." Born in 1941, her life was saved by a Catholic nun who hid her in a basement for three years. Ms. Bastacky doesn't remember anything about the Holocaust -- "It's probably blocked out," she said -- but it cast a pall over her childhood after taking the lives of her grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Ms. Bastacky, who is in her early 70s, is young for a survivor. Most are in their 80s and 90s, and every year there are fewer. On Sunday, the world's oldest known survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, died in London at age 110.

When Mr. Ottenheimer began attending survivor meetings about 20 years ago, twice as many attended, he said. The dwindling numbers are a concern to him and other survivors. They worry that if there aren't any people around who remember the Holocaust, humanity could repeat its mistake.

Mr. Ottenheimer, Ms. Bastacky and a handful of others give speeches about their experiences in the hopes of promoting tolerance and preventing another genocide. Mr. Ottenheimer was late to Monday's meeting because he was telling his story to students in Monroeville.

"I have a sense of obligation to the people who weren't able to get out, especially those were killed over there," he said.

The specter of anti-Semitism loomed over the meeting. Some of the survivors were alarmed about an incident in Tokyo earlier this month in which dozens of copies of the "Diary of Anne Frank" were burned.

More than anything else, though, the survivors seemed eager to enjoy each other's company. After Ms. Robinson finished reading her poems, they resumed their lively conversations. Ms. Chilton had to make several attempts to get their attention for a set of announcements, like a middle school teacher in front of an excited class.

In her 15 years of working with the survivors, Ms. Chilton has found inspiration from the way they have persevered in spite of their heartbreaks.

"It's a reminder of how precious life is, and how great the human spirit is," she said.

Richard Webner: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.

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