Celebrating Survivors? Miracles

Posted: May 21, 2005 12:00 AM

JERUSALEM?The man telling me his life story in the back of a banquet hall was wiping tears from his eyes as a congo line of Holocaust survivors danced right behind us.

With over 1,000 survivors and family members gathered at Yadvashem, Israel?s Holocaust museum, for the 60th anniversary of the Liberation, the weeklong event featured every possible emotion, from sadness to devastation to elation.

The opening night event, at the Crown Plaza Hotel, was an obviously emotional experience for most of the survivors, many of whom had not been to Israel in over two decades. 

While tinged with the pain of remembering loved ones lost to the Holocaust, the entire week was a testament to the strength of a people who could not be wiped out by Hitler or his willing accomplices.  It was for this reason that dozens of them got up and danced around the banquet hall at the end of the first night.

Howard Kleinberg?s tale is the perfect embodiment of perseverance in the face of the greatest odds.  Every family member he knew was murdered by the Nazis, and he nearly perished as well. 

Then 18, Howard?s body had been so thoroughly ravaged that he was ready to die.  Even after Bergenbelsen had been liberated by the British, he says he no longer had the strength to live.  All that pulled him through was a 15-year-old girl who helped nurse him back to health.

As he talks about this girl, his hand is trembling as he wipes away a tear from his left eye, and then from his right.  He swallows, smiles, and says, ?You should have seen how beautiful she was.?

A few minutes later, Nancy walks up and places her hand on Howard?s shoulder.  He beams, and then shoots me a look of ?I told you so.?  Indeed he had; just before Nancy approached us, Howard had told me, ?She is still so beautiful.?

Like Howard, Nancy?s life as she knew it was destroyed.  Save for one uncle who had lived in Israel, her entire family died in the Holocaust.  A relentless optimist?with an inner spirit as ebullient as her husband?s?Nancy believes her life to be one of miracles.  Considering that Howard and Nancy celebrated 55 years of marriage this March, it?s hard to argue with her.

?Miracle? was the word on the lips of many survivors.  Whether the miracle was outlasting Hitler or living a full life and making it to a ripe old age, the passion exhibited by septuagenarians and octogenarians was inspiring.

Everyone in a small group touring Yadvashem?s new, $100 million exhibit was hushed by the story of Lotte Weiss.  The 81-year-old native of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia was one of the first arrivals at Auschwitz, the most notorious death camp.  The number tattooed in her arm: 2065.

Her parents, three sisters, and two brothers all died at Auschwitz.  But because she befriended a German woman who later became the secretary to the camp?s number-two official, Lotte managed to become a bookkeeper for the camp.

Shortly after liberation, she met her husband, a fellow survivor who passed away in 1982.  They moved to New Zealand and started what she calls her ?second life.?  Her ?greatest miracle? was giving birth to two healthy children.

Though she must have told her life story hundreds, if not thousands, of times, Lotte displays an enthusiasm that even most 20-years-old could not muster.  After leaving Israel, she was bound for Vienna, then London, and then finally back home to Sydney, Australia.

Every week, she can be found giving tours at the Sydney Jewish Museum, something she has done since it opened in 1992.  She jokes that since her 13th anniversary of volunteering is coming up, ?I will be bat mitzvahed in November.?

Lotte, who decided to stick with bookkeeping after the Holocaust, worked until November 2003?one month shy of her 80th birthday?but she only retired so that she could focus on preparing for the launch of her book, ?My Two Lives.?

Reading through her engrossing and ultimately uplifting autobiography, it is clear that she believes her story has the same basic foundation as that of many survivors: that their lives are not just touched by miracles, but defined by them.