Local Holocaust survivor reflects on fate, fortune for Memorial Day

gmartin@islandpacket.comMay 27, 2012 

  • "Liberation" is the fourth episode of ETV's series, "South Carolinians in WWII," and airs at 8 p.m. tonight on the public-television channel. It includes Holocaust survivor Allen Kupfer, who now lives in Sun City Hilton Head, and Fred Weiss, who was deported to a Siberian work camp with his family during the war and now lives in Okatie.

When the sun rises this Memorial Day, its rays will fall upon a patio decorated with hanging flower pots and a conspicuous number of miniature American flags.

An 88-year-old man will be sitting beneath them in the soft light, as he does every morning. He calls the patio his favorite part of his home.

"For me, it's serenity," he says.

But as familiar as Sun City Hilton Head resident Allen Kupfer has become with peace, he's still haunted by memories of a violent and tragic past.

Kupfer will share some of those memories during an ETV special airing this eveningand featuring Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans living in South Carolina.

Asked to explain his affection for his adopted home country, the Polish native pauses for a long moment, looking down at his gnarled, interlaced hands.

Then he takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and begins.

'THE WILL TO SURVIVE'

To appreciate what America means to him, Kupfer says it's necessary to understand what he endured before arriving here.

He came after the war ended, aboard a military transport ship entering New York Harbor with hundreds of others similarly displaced and desperate, haunted and hopeful.

By then, he'd experienced human nature at its senseless worst.

"To put it in simplest terms, I'd seen the brutality of human beings," he says.

He remembers huddling with his relatives in a Warsaw basement in 1939 with other Jewish families, bracing as German bombs shook the walls.

Shrapnel tore through the man next to him, killing him instantly. It was the first death Kupfer, then 15, ever witnessed.

It would not be the last.

He soon was living with his family and more than 300,000 other Jews in a walled-off section of the city. Disease ravaged the overcrowded community, and bodies began to fill the fetid streets.

Kupfer watched as German soldiers humiliated his family and friends, ripping off their beards and forcing them to walk across hot coals.

He cleaned horse stables for a German who would practice his pistol aim on bottles, until the day he rounded up 21 Jews and shot them in front of Kupfer, leaving him to strip them of their clothes to sell.

One day in 1942, his own grandmother was shot and killed because she couldn't keep up in a forced march.

Despite the atrocities he saw each day, he found himself learning about the strength of his resolve.

"What people can endure is almost beyond imagination," he says. "The will to survive is so great, beyond the bounds of realism."

'THE PEAK OF HUMANITY'

In December 1942, Kupfer escaped with two friends into the bitter cold, eventually seeking refuge and warmth in a haystack on a small nearby farm.

The farm's owner, a Catholic named Jozef Macugowski, saw them and took them in, although he had already acquiesced to the demands of the German military to use part of the barn as a strategic headquarters.

"We could hear every conversation and every telephone call," Kupfer remembers. "The risk was there on a hourly and daily basis."

The risk was even greater for Macugowski, his wife and their three young children, Kupfer said.

"If at any time (the Germans) had an inkling we were down there, none of us would have survived, including (the Macugowskis) and their children."

Kupfer says he spent months at the Macugowskis', lying in near blackness in a shallow ditch beneath the basement floorboards and reflecting on what he calls his good fortune.

More than 60 years later, Kupfer still grows emotional when describing the farmer's generous spirit, crediting it for reaffirming his faith in mankind.

"I didn't know those people, and they were willing to save another human being," he says. "That's probably the greatest calling a person can have. That's the peak of humanity."

'STILL THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD'

Since moving to South Carolina 15 years ago, Kupfer has been a regular presence at area schools, where he tries to impart the same generosity of spirit once demonstrated to him in the basement of a barn.

"Hate and prejudice are a terrible disease," he says, citing the school shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. "Young people today are the future of the country, and maybe they can say enough is enough."

He also frequently repays the indebtedness he still feels to the Allied forces that helped liberate him.

"I think the greatest sacrifice the armed forces did was end World War II. I know the price the people paid for the freedom we achieved. It's something I honor and cherish."

He demonstrates his gratitude today through a long-standing involvement in a veterans' club at Sun City that prepares packages to be sent to American troops overseas.

"It takes a lot of work, you know," he says. "But we are a very charitable nation. Still the best country in the world."

It's an opinion he first heard from his father, who lived in Chicago briefly during World War I. Americans, Kupfer remembers being told, were more welcoming and accepting of immigrants than any other nation.

By the time he reached New York Harbor, his parents had both been killed in the Holocaust, along with about 140 other members of his family.

But his father's impression of America remained at the forefront of his mind as he glimpsed his new country for the first time.

"I saw the Statue of Liberty, and I went down on my knees and prayed that I was privileged to reach those shores," he said, as tears again welled in his eyes.

"In my life, this country never disappointed me."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

Related content:

Religion news: Holocaust survivor spreads message of peace, April 9, 2011

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