A YOM HASHOAH TO REMEMBER

by Melvin Federbush

September 11 became an important and somber date for me long before the infamous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For on that same date, in 1939, I lost my parents and younger sisters when German warplanes strafed a field near our hometown of Deblin, Poland. I survived only because my mother sent me home to retrieve a precious sewing machine.

You see, the Germans had invaded Poland on September 1. They bombed our town immediately because it had the largest military airfield in Poland. My family had just returned from synagogue when the bombs started falling. That night, many of us left Deblin for a village called Ryki, where we thought we would be safer. But the bombers came. They burned the houses in the village and we took refuge in a field, to no avail.

I was 16, the eldest of five children. Soon after our family was killed, I and my two younger brothers, Sidney and Henry, were incarcerated and put to work in a slave labor camp that had been set up at the airfield in Deblin. Had we attempted to escape, we could have been shot by our German guards or killed by nearby Polish villagers, who stood to benefit from our deaths by claiming our property. When the Russian army advanced into Poland five years later, we were moved to a forced labor camp in Czestochova, nearer to the German border. There were two trains in the transport to Czestochova, and we heard that children on the first train were killed upon arrival at the camp. My brothers and I got lucky — we were on the second train. In January 1945, as the Russians continued their offensive, we were deported to Buchenwald. (Ironically, after we left the first two camps, both were liberated by the Russians.)

Without warning, at the end of January 1945, I was separated from my brothers and placed in a terrible camp in Trigletz. In April, the Americans liberated Buchenwald. A month earlier, I leapt to freedom from a cattle car that was transporting me, along with other prisoners, from Triglitz to Theresienstadt concentration camp, the way-station for Auschwitz. I managed to find work on a farm in the German countryside by telling the farmer that I was Polish. (I learned later that the farmer suspected that I was a Jew but, being a decent human being, he went along with my ruse.)

I returned to Buchenwald in June 1945 to search for my little brothers. My brother Henry, who had worked for the resistance even while in the camp, died two days after liberation, from a severe beating that he had sustained the week before when he was discovered breaking into an ammunition depot. But 15-year-old Sidney was alive! When I arrived at Buchenwald, I learned that the Swiss Red Cross was there making plans to transport all the surviving children under 16 years of age to Switzerland for rehabilitation. At 22, I was too old to be included. My brother and I had been separated only once since our captivity, and I was determined not to let that happen again. So I prevailed upon a young American army chaplain for help.

His name was Rabbi Herschel Schacter, and he was 26 years old at the time. I had heard about how, when he entered Buchenwald with the liberating Third U.S. Army battalion on April 11, the young New Yorker raced through the camp yelling in Yiddish, “Ihr zent frei! You are free! The war is over!â€? At that moment, he restored the former inmates’ souls, and their humanity. Then, two days after liberation, he held a Passover seder in the camp. (That seder was immortalized by a photograph now preserved in the archive of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.)

Living up to his motto, “No Jewish family will be separated,â€? Rabbi Schacter made sure that Sidney and I remained together. We went to Switzerland and after the immigration laws were liberalized for children, Sidney immigrated to New York. I followed three years later, in 1950.

In New York, I started my own business importing 18th and 19th Century European oil paintings and manufacturing frames. Through friends, I met my wife Elsa, a survivor of Auschwitz. Elsa and I were married in 1956 and moved to Scarsdale with our two children, Tina and Greg, in 1978. Today we are the proud grandparents of four beautiful grandchildren: Sammy, Noah, Ryan and baby Alanna.

Fast forward to May 7, 2006. On that day, I had the experience of a lifetime…

Before Elsa and I left for our annual winter vacation in Florida, I decided to contact Rabbi Schacter for the first time since he launched Sidney and me into the world after liberation. For years, I had followed the career of this eminent rabbi, who became nationally renowned for his successful efforts to bring Soviet Jews to the United States in the 1970s. But I made no attempt to contact him. Why? Well, knowing that I was only one of thousands of Holocaust survivors whose lives he had touched as a young man, I did not want to put him in the awkward position of having to pretend that he remembered me. Besides, most of us survivors were uncomfortable talking openly about our wartime experiences in those days, even to our own families. The public wasn’t interested in hearing about our past, and we wanted to go on with our lives and not look back.

But times have changed and today, I, like many of my fellow survivors, have become a public speaker. As a Board member of the Westchester Holocaust Education Center (WHEC) and a volunteer with its Speakers Bureau, I tell my story to middle and high school children throughout the Westchester area. I feel it is my duty as a survivor to share my experiences with anyone who will listen. I speak to honor the memory of those whose voices were silenced, and to ensure that the next generation will feel compelled to work toward preventing future genocides.

Rabbi Schacter and I became reacquainted over the phone, speaking in Yiddish, and when I returned from Florida, I invited him to join me as my special guest at a Yom Hashoah commemoration co-hosted by WHEC and the Westchester Jewish Conference at the Garden of Remembrance in White Plains. To my joy, the rabbi accepted my invitation, and he and his lovely wife Pnina traveled with me from their home in Riverdale to the Garden in White Plains.

The rabbi stood beside me as I shared our story with the audience of about 300 dignitaries, survivors, liberators, rescuers and ordinary citizens of diverse ages and backgrounds. Then he and I, ages 88 and 82 respectively, accompanied by Westchester County District Attorney Janet Di Fiore, opened the Garden’s beautiful Gate of Remembrance (created by the late Rita Rapaport of Scarsdale) and invited all the survivors, rescuers, liberators and their families in the audience to walk through and receive yellow flowers, a symbol of hope.

A young television reporter from News 12, Tara Rosenblum, interviewed us and her cameraman captured our every word and gesture on film. Our reunion aired as the lead story on their station’s broadcast that night. A reporter from the Journal News was also there, and the paper featured us in a cover story the next day. All the publicity set off a wave of letters and phone calls to me from strangers who were touched by our story. I even heard from a 15-year-old boy in Ohio who saw the Journal News article on the Internet.

Like many great spiritual leaders, Rabbi Herschel Schacter is a modest man. “It’s nice for him to be remembered,â€? said his wife Pnina, when we spoke a few days after the ceremony.

It’s not often that a person has the opportunity to reunite, after 61 years, with the hero who changed his life. To hug that extraordinary individual and introduce him to the children and grandchildren whose very existence he made possible. I am a lucky man, indeed, to have been given this gift. What’s more, all the good souls who came together at the Garden of Remembrance that fine spring day for a gathering of remembrance and hope got the chance to meet an angel who walks among us.