HENRYK EHRLICH, 85
Holocaust survivor, former owner of Pumpernik’s delis
BY ELINOR J. BRECHER
ebrecher@MiamiHerald.com

Henryk Ehrlich’s life came full circle in the Austrian town of Steyr. months in hiding and 11 labor and death camps — he began anew there in 1945.

It’s also where Ehrlich, a Hallandale Beach great-grandfather and partner in two landmark South Florida delis — died on Sunday at 85.

Exactly seven years after the death of his wife, Hilda, he was buried beside her in Hollywood on Thursday.

They met in the Steyr Displaced Persons camp after World War II.

Ehrlich, part-owner of the Pumpernik’s restaurants in Suniland and North Miami, died at the home of friends in Steyr. He was visiting after a 14-day cruise with companion Ronnie Roberts.

Just hours before his death, Ehrlich called his daughter, Rositta Kenigsberg, executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Hollywood, and said: “ `I’m going to eat and take a nap.’

“Everything was fine. Two hours later, he took a nap and never woke up.”

A HORRIFYING PAST

Henryk Ehrlich — Hymie, to his friends — was born in the central Polish town of Miedzyrzec (pronounced Miz-RICH), where 12,000 Jews accounted for 75 percent of the population before WWII.

Shortly after the Nazis took control of the town in October 1939, they herded the Jews into a ghetto. Those who didn’t die of starvation or disease went to concentration camps.

For a time, Ehrlich was hidden by a non-Jewish neighbor. Finally captured, he managed to survive Auschwitz, Buna, Majdanek, Starachowice and Dora Mittelbau, death marches, and slave labor in coal mines, salt mines and German munitions factories.

Liberated by U.S. troops from Mauthausen on May 5, 1945, he weighed 88 pounds and was one of perhaps 120 remaining Miedzyrzec Jews.

Among the dead: his parents and three brothers.

At Auschwitz, where his father died, the Nazis tattooed A18894 on his left arm. He considered it ”a very important memory and part of a legacy,” especially significant because his father — a custom shoemaker — was A18893, Kenigsberg said.

A NEW BEGINNING

Ehrlich met his future wife, Hilda Egartner, at the displaced persons camp, where they married and had Rositta. They sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1951, and settled in Montreal, where Ehrlich opened the Miami Deli.

”Daddy knew smoked meat inside and out,” Kenigsberg said.

He later became involved with the famous Canadian deli chain, Ben Ash.

But with the rise of Quebec’s French-speaking separatists in the late 1970s, the family — which by then included a son, Jeff — relocated to North Miami Beach.

In 1978, Ehrlich and son-in-law Kolman Kenigsberg bought the North Miami Pumpernik’s. Kenigsberg bought out Ehrlich’s share in 1985.

In 1988, Ehrlich and two partners bought the Suniland Pumpernik’s, not connected to the North Miami restaurant — both defunct.

AN UNBROKEN PROMISE

If filling diners with corned beef and pastrami was Ehrlich’s livelihood, filling youngsters with his memories was his mission. He spoke about the Holocaust whenever anyone asked, honoring a promise he’d made to his father: that if he lived, he’d tell the story of what happened.

”He knew only too well that as long as there is somebody to tell the story, there is life, and as long as there is someone to listen, there is hope,” Kenigsberg said at his funeral.

Although many Holocaust survivors shielded their children from their own harrowing truths, Ehrlich was open. Kenigsberg recalls asking as a child why other kids had grandparents and cousins and she didn’t.

”That was the beginning of a very remarkable, warm and loving relationship for both of us,” she told mourners. “My father always spoke and I could always question, no matter now painful, no matter how difficult. My father always answered.”

A learned man who spoke seven languages, Ehrlich cherished his faith and was active in religious and community affairs at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center.

”Every Shabbat he came to pray,” the center’s executive vice president, Amir Baron said. “He was very proud of his heritage. . . . He never imagined that he would be in America and God would give him another life. He didn’t take life or Judaism for granted.”

Ehrlich returned to Poland in 1994 with The March of the Living, a youth mission to the concentration camps and Israel. He went again last year and visited Miedzyrzec.

Kenigsberg said her father was never bitter.

‘I grew up on him saying, `I want you to remember your entire life that there are good people and bad people in every race and religion.’ He did not believe in collective guilt.”