A Once-in-a-Lifetime Reunion
Several weeks ago I was put in touch with Eve M. Kahn, the Antiques columnist for the New York Times. Eve was in need of a Yiddish interpreter, somebody who could serve as a liaison in helping to track down a small pool of Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivors who today reside in Brooklyn, New York.
These women were all part of a larger group of 34 women whose lives were literally saved during the final days of and shortly after World War II by a United States Army pilot named Alan Golub who had helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp. Mr. Golub provided the starving and half-naked women with “appropriated” food and coal from the commissary at the local air base – and fabrics – acquired at gunpoint from a recalcitrant shopkeeper.
At the time, the women were all living in a schoolhouse in Eschwege, in central Germany. Mr. Golub, 91, who is also Jewish – the son of Eastern European immigrants – was able to communicate with and mollify the terrified women in their common mother tongue: Yiddish. Thanks to him, one of the women, Sari Gruenzweig, a trained seamstress, was able to make matching dresses for herself and several of the women.
All of these women were immortalized in a portrait taken of them on July 1, 1945. The matching dresses may be clearly viewed in this photograph. In the center of the women stands U.S. Army Chaplain, Rabbi Robert Marcus (1909-1951), who served with the rank of captain during the Second World War. He was among the first to enter liberated Buchenwald, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen. Alan Golub donated his own original copy of the photo in 1999 to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. That copy was inscribed on the verso with the women’s names and a note thanking Mr. Golub for all that he had done.
Eve’s original plan was that we meet with these Holocaust survivors individually in their homes and reunite them one by one with Alan Golub, whom the women had affectionately called “Gub Gub.” As such, it was my job to start making phone calls to the women whom Eve and Gary R. Sullivan, Alan’s son-in-law, had managed to trace with the help of researchers in Hungary, Germany, and in Israel, at Beit Hatfutsot (the Museum of the Jewish People).
Admittedly, this was not as easy a task as one might have anticipated, seeing as all of these women are now into their 90s, are hard of hearing, and in a generally frail state. One woman with whom I spoke said that she did not want to be interviewed about anything pertaining to World War II, because she had previously been interviewed and it had been such a trying experience, that it left her emotionally distraught for days. She could not bear undergoing another such similar experience. What’s more, she remarked that she had never spoken to her own children about her experiences, since she did not want to burden them with the hardships and horrors of her earlier life. In another instance, I spoke with the son of one of the women, who informed me that his mother was in the hospital and would most likely not be in any condition to meet with the former pilot. I also learned from the son that he knew of the other women who had been together with his mother following the war, but that many of them had already died or were most likely too sick or infirm to meet with Mr. Golub.
Inwardly, I was beginning to lose hope of our being able to find women from this dwindling group of Holocaust survivors who would be able to meet with us and Alan Golub. I reported back to Eve about what I had learned from my phone calls – some of them, made multiple times to the same unanswered number. It was only a few days before we were supposed to meet on Monday, October the 26th. The plan was to have Eve, Alan and his wife, Dorothy, Gary Sullivan, and his wife – Alan’s daughter, Abby Sullivan, a photographer – and me, present. We were going to drive around, stopping off in Williamsburg, Boro Park, and Midwood/Flatbush – all neighboring sections of Brooklyn, in which the women presently make their homes. Alan and his extended family would be driving all the way from the Boston area, so this was quite a “big deal,” as far as they were concerned.
About a week before the meet date, Eve wrote me to ask if I could recommend any venues that she might contact – any newspapers or institutions that particularly targeted Holocaust survivors and their offspring – as she was still eager to learn what had happened to all of the women in that postwar group portrait. I wrote up a list of different institutions and newspapers that I thought might be relevant, which included the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, which publishes a newsletter called “Together,” GSI (Generations of the Shoah International), which publishes a widely-circulated online newsletter, and the Pesach Tikvah Jewish social welfare organization, based in Williamsburg, which provides services to Holocaust survivors, among other members of the local Jewish community.
Since I work part-time for the latter institute running a translation workshop for female Holocaust survivors – all of them from what was formerly Hungary – I was already personally familiar with the types of individuals serviced by Pesach Tikvah. I figured that this would be a good contact for Eve, since the women she was interested in were all Hungarian and had been from religiously observant backgrounds. The Ultra-Orthodox and heavily Chasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg, I might add, is predominantly Hungarian in its makeup.
In less than a week before our scheduled meet date, Eve sent out a jubilant email to Gary and me, entitled, “Breaking News…,” in which she related the windfall she had had that very day by speaking with Ruchie Lichtenstadter, the Volunteer Coordinator at Pesach Tikvah. As it turns out, I know Mrs. Lichtenstadter from the translation workshops that I run; she assists me in helping the women to better transmit their translations in the written word. But what I did not realize was that she is also related to some of those women in the photograph from 1945. Indeed, she is a relative of the aforementioned seamstress, Mrs. Gruenzweig. In addition, she is knowledgeable about what happened to other women in that photograph, and is in contact with their offspring.
As such, Mrs. Lichtenstadter made a series of calls, spoke to the directors of Pesach Tikvah, and the decision was made that their organization would host the reunion for the Holocaust survivors and Mr. Golub. Furthermore, an all-out celebration of sorts was in the works. Neither Eve, Gary, nor I had any real conception of what this meant until we all ultimately met at Pesach Tikvah, less than a week later. Lo and behold, there were over 100 people in attendance at this once-in-a-lifetime reunion, held some 70 years after the fact.
Everyone was crowded into three smallish-to-medium-sized rooms, in which Mr. Golub was regaled with singing and blessings upon blessings in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English by the family members of the Holocaust survivors. The crowd wished him that God should reward him for all that he had done on behalf of these women, and that he should have good health and live until 120 – in Yiddish, “Biz a hundert un tsvontsik!” Another well-known Jewish adage that was uttered multiple times in conjunction with Mr. Golub, is: “He who saves one life saves an entire world.”
Informal speeches were made by Alan Golub’s son-in-law, Gary, and by grateful family members of the Holocaust survivors. More formal speeches were made by representatives of Pesach Tikvah. Indeed, one of the comments made was that had they had more time to plan, they would have seen about having a plaque of honor made for Mr. Golub. Cameras snapped from every which way, and the room in which Mr. Golub and the women he had aided sat, buzzed with excitement and emotional chatter. I, too, wanted to get some shots of this amazing event, but because the room was so jam-packed with people, it was difficult to get close enough to Mr. Golub or to the women, to get a decent picture. Finally, I just got up on a chair and table so as to get some aerial shots – keepsakes – of the reunion.
Also in attendance was Merry Firschein, Senior Writer for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, more commonly known as the “Claims Conference,” as well as a professional filmmaker, Joan Schimke, and her two assistants, who filmed live footage throughout the event for a documentary film that is presently in the works about the experiences of Mr. Golub and the Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivors. As I understand it, Joan is collaborating with another noted filmmaker, Pearl Gluck, on this forthcoming production. I look forward to learning more about the film as it unfolds from Eve, who is in touch with the filmmakers.
When the celebration began to break up a few hours after it had begun, I said my reluctant goodbyes to Eve, Gary, Abby, their family, Alan and Dorothy, and to various individuals I know from the Pesach Tikvah organization. I felt almost like somebody who was in a drunken stupor, so elated was I from this momentous event. The next evening, I emailed Eve, Gary, and Abby the photographs I had taken, and thanked them all for having helped make the previous day the memorable one that it had been. To which Abby and Gary respectively replied with the following touching messages:
Rivka and Eve,
Thank you for the pictures, the memories and for all your hard work and perseverance that made this one of the most special days in our families' lives!! We will be talking about this for a very long time.
Abby, Gary, Jessica and Dan Sullivan, Heather Fleishman, and Alan and Dorothy Golub
This little project was shifted into high gear by your involvement! Thank you for all your help. No one could have ever imagined the event that we experienced yesterday. We will remember it for the rest of our lives. Great job!
That day will also surely remain with me for the rest of my life. I consider myself privileged to have played a small role in this wonderful story – as a Yiddish interpreter and information conduit – and know that I was incredibly fortunate to have been able to witness this once-in-a-lifetime reunion, which was literally a lifetime in the making.
For further details about this remarkable event, check out the New York Times article to read Eve M. Kahn’s outstanding article on the subject.