ive women sat in a sunny dining room at Lions Gate, a continuing care community for seniors in Voorhees. Their connection showed in their body language, their conversation, even in their minor squabbles.
Charlotte Weiss, Itka Bloch, Mala Geldner, Dora Langsam, and Tillie Hershenberg are sisters by choice, not by birth. As survivors of the Holocaust, they are bound by that inescapable shared history. Now, in their twilight years, that bond is marrow-deep.
In this Jewish New Year season, a time for reflection and prayer, they looked ahead – and also looked back to a shared past. “I go to sleep with the memories and I wake up with them,” says Geldner, 84. “The pain doesn’t subside – it’s there, full-time, full strength.”
The only survivor of her Polish Jewish family, Geldner was only 12 when her parents, brothers, and sisters were forced into the ghetto in Chrzanow, Poland. By the time she was 14, all the others were gone. “How can you ever forget that?”
Geldner has had other sorrows over the years, and admittedly has lost her capacity for unqualified trust. “That was taken away,” she says simply.
But today, there are grandchildren, six of them. One, a 23-year-old granddaughter, wears the little ring that was the sole possession Geldner had left after everything else was gone.
“I hid that ring under straw and checked on it every single day,” Geldner says. “I needed to have something, one thing, that I could own. And now it’s on the hand of somebody I love.”
In her passion for teaching the lessons of the havoc wrought by hate, Geldner lectured to children in the Philadelphia schools when she lived in the city before her move to Lions Gate several years ago. “You must do something,” she says. “It took a lot to relive it all, go through it again, but the children listened. And I pray that they learned.”
For Weiss, 86, a survivor of Mateszalka Ghetto in Hungary and then Auschwitz concentration camp, her 16th year was anything but sweet.
One of five sisters who all survived the Holocaust, Weiss can painstakingly recount most of her story almost without flinching – until she gets to the part about her 1944 encounter with Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician/torturer known as “the Angel of Death.”
Just as she and three of her sisters were about to be loaded onto a cattle car bound for Auschwitz, Mengele, who examined each girl to be sure she was healthy enough to provide slave labor, determined that the fifth sister, 11-year-old, Rosalie, was too thin and too weak for labor. That meant immediate death.
Weiss isn’t sure what gave her the courage, but she approached Mengele and begged him to change his mind.
“To even approach this monster could have been a death sentence,” she says. “But I begged him, saying that we five belonged together.”
Mengele didn’t budge, but offered all five immediate extermination. A sympathetic woman guard saw the despair of the sisters, and let Rosalie escape from where she was being held. Once Rosalie joined the others, Weiss remembers leaning over and pinching her little sister’s cheeks so she would look healthy.
It worked. Mengele bypassed her, and the sisters stayed, and survived, together. Today, Weiss is the most religiously observant of the women. “I still have faith, and I still have hope,” she says.