CHICAGO — Listen to the many harrowing stories of war, suffering and survival, all under one roof:
On the third floor, there’s Margie. A prisoner of Nazi labor camps, she hauled backbreaking cement bags and was beaten with clubs. Sometimes, she had only a piece of bread to eat every other day. She weighed 56 pounds when she was freed.
Down the hall, there’s Edith. Though pregnant, she miraculously avoided the gas chamber at Auschwitz. She lost her mother, father and husband in the camps. After liberation, she faced even more heartbreak: Her son died days after his birth.
Up on the eighth floor, there’s Joe. As a boy of 10, he was herded onto a cattle car and transported to a concentration camp — the first of five he’d be shuttled to over five cruel years.
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These Holocaust survivors share a history and a home: a retirement community founded more than 60 years ago for Jews who’d been victims of Nazi persecution.
For decades, it was a refuge for those who’d endured the living hell of Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Mauthausen and other camps. And a haven, too, for those who’d fled before the dark night of German occupation fell over their homeland.
In its heyday, the Selfhelp Home, as it’s called, bustled with Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, the dining room a babel of central European tongues. Hundreds were on a waiting list. But that was long ago. As time passed, the need for a special sanctuary faded. Others who had not endured the genocide moved in.
Only 12 Holocaust survivors — the youngest in their mid-80s, the oldest 102 — remain. So do a few dozen other Jews who escaped Hitler’s reach, often leaving behind family as they started new lives in Kenya, China, Colombia and other distant lands.
They’re now the last generation to bear witness to one of the greatest horrors of all time, a resilient community of friends and neighbors sharing what once seemed impossible: long lives. When they’re gone, their stories will be preserved in history. But for now, their voices still echo in these halls.
Seventy-five years ago, Margie Oppenheimer awoke with a Nazi pointing a rifle in her 14-year-old face.
It was Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht — the night of broken glass — when the Nazis coordinated a wave of attacks in Germany and Austria, smashing windows, burning synagogues, ransacking homes, looting Jewish-owned stores. They trashed the family’s apartment and small department store in Oelde, Germany.
So began seven years of terror that took Oppenheimer from the Riga ghetto — escaping mass killings by German squads — to a series of labor and concentration camps. She broke concrete, shoveled sawdust, laid bricks, glued U-boats. She fought hunger and fear, lice and typhus, repeating to herself: “I WILL be strong. I want to live.”
One day at the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, Nazis marched Oppenheimer and others naked into an open field for inspection. Those strong enough to work were directed to the right. Oppenheimer, who was emaciated, was ordered to the left with hundreds of older women. She was placed into new barracks and had the Roman numeral II scrawled on her left forearm.
Death seemed inevitable.
“I’m thinking this is the last time I will see the sun,” she recalls.
That night at the camp two friends did the unimaginable: Without saying anything, they pulled Oppenheimer under an electrified fence to another side of the camp.
She scrubbed off one number on her arm so she was no longer marked for death. She stayed in those quarters and at the next day’s 6 a.m. roll call, she tried to hide her skeletal, barely 5-foot frame behind a tall woman.
“The commander said, ‘There is one person extra. Who IS that person? Come forward!’” Oppenheimer recalls, her high-pitched voice imitating his stern tone. “My face was hot. It was on fire. I thought if anybody sees me, they’ll know I am the one who isn’t supposed to be there.” An elderly woman was pulled from the line and dispatched to her death.
“She was killed because of me, because I wanted to be free,” Oppenheimer says, her eyes clouding with tears. “And I feel guilty about that until this living day.”
Oppenheimer eventually became a nurse but couldn’t bear to work with children. “Here you have happy, lovely kids,” she explains. “All I saw were kids being pulled from their mothers and killed. Those are the pictures that I still have in front of me.”
The past never totally disappears. One night at dinner someone asked if everyone had received plum cake. Oppenheimer pointed to two tablemates. Suddenly she was reminded of a Nazi commander dubbed “the death finger” because he’d point, then declare with a “you, you, you,” those to be exterminated. She trembles just thinking about it.
Oppenheimer now lives in a cozy, sun-lit apartment filled with four generations of family photos. She and her husband — an Auschwitz survivor — had decided long ago they’d eventually move to Selfhelp but he died before there was a need. Oppenheimer has found comfort there. “I’m happy to know that there are people here who went through the same thing,” she says.
Oppenheimer doesn’t share her story unless asked, but has written a memoir to record events her three children weren’t all that eager to hear. “My kids didn’t want us to talk about it,” she says. “They’d say, ‘You’re in a free country now. Enjoy the freedom. Forget the past.’”
“What happened yesterday — I can’t remember,” she says, “but what happened at that time ... it’s still with me. I can never forget it.”
Even when it’s unspoken, the past is the emotional glue for these survivors.
“I think it has been very important for them to live as a group, even though they don’t talk about it,” says Ethan Bensinger, who made a 2012 documentary, “Refuge,” about the place his 101-year-old mother, Rachel, calls home. “Whether it’s subliminally or unconsciously ... there’s a feeling of togetherness.”
Rachel Bensinger’s story is not uncommon. She left Germany as Hitler’s dictatorial grip tightened. She moved to what was then Palestine, but her life was unalterably shaped by the Holocaust — she lost 25 members of her family.
These traumas have been enormous, but they’ve not been all-consuming.
“They don’t want it to be the focus of who they are, they don’t want to be marked,” says Hedy Ciocci, the home’s administrator. “They want to be defined by who they became and what life they’ve had.”
Many became doctors, lawyers, artists, businessmen, teachers, nurses. With roots in Berlin, Prague and Vienna, many also had developed a love for the arts that the home sustains today with lectures, Sunday concerts and visits from a movie critic.
“It represents this world that they remember, that they had to leave,” Bensinger says. He describes it with the German word: gemutlichkeit — comfort or coziness.
The home actually started as an association in the mid-1930s when a branch of a New York organization called Selfhelp formed in Chicago. Selfhelp was more than a name; it was a philosophy for refugees who didn’t want to depend on public aid. Instead, they started a support group, collecting meager dues to help each other find jobs or apartments, learn English and navigate daily life.
“The mission was to create a safe oasis where they could start again,” says Ciocci, whose husband’s grandmother was an early member.
Gerry Franks, one of the home’s founders, had come from Berlin. Now 92, he still remembers being 17 years old, watching from his bicycle the hateful frenzy of Kristallnacht as Nazi storm troopers painted small crosses in the corner of windows of Jewish-owned businesses so mobs would know where to attack.
He saw a schoolmate pick up a chair lodged in an already-shattered store window and hurl it into a magnificent chandelier. “I tell you, it broke something within me,” Franks says. “I thought, ‘What the heck am I doing in this country anymore?’” His family left soon after.
As a Selfhelp founder, Franks and others decided after about a decade to start a retirement community for their parents and other refugees, many attached to Old World ways. In 1951, a rambling, three-story brick house was dedicated in Hyde Park, on the South Side. The home later moved to a nine-story building on the North Side.
About 15 years ago, with increasing numbers of survivors dying, Selfhelp — which offers everything from independent living to around-the-clock care — began opening its doors to Jews who weren’t European war refugees.
Soon, the reason this home was founded will cease to be.
“In a matter of years, this community will be gone, this sense of culture will be gone, these last links to what central Europe was before the war will be no longer be with us,” Bensinger says. “There’s a great sense of sadness for all of us.”
That sorrow, though, has been tempered, by those still here to write the last chapter.
Edith Stern sometimes thinks her memory is too strong.
She remembers her improbable wedding ceremony in Theresienstadt. A concentration camp inmate with meningitis, she was too weak to stand, but strong enough to take her vows. Her head was bandaged and a pink silk gown peeked out from her blanket. Her groom stood at her side.
“All the people cried,” she says with a wistful smile. “I laughed. I’d married the man of my dreams.”
She remembers months later, she and her mother on a transport, thinking they were heading to a German labor camp where they’d be reunited with their husbands.
Instead, they arrived at Auschwitz. Her mother was dispatched to the gas chambers, Stern to work. She was ushered into the camp by a female guard who pointed to the chimneys, and delivered a chilling taunt:
“’You see those flames? Those are your parents, your husbands, your children burning.’”
Stern also remembers the anguish when the pregnant young widow, newly freed, arrived at a Prague hospital. The staff, seeing a scrawny woman with a shaved head, thought she was a prostitute and the baby’s father a Nazi. Stern says she was treated roughly at first. After three grueling days of labor, her son, Peter, was born. He had blood in his skull. He died three days later.
“He was,” she says, “a beautiful baby.”
Stern moved to Chicago in 1965 and joined the staff of Selfhelp, developing an instant rapport with the other refugees. “The reason I wanted to work there was I could never do anything for my parents because they were killed,” she says. “These people could have been my parents ... I loved them and they loved me.”
Now a stylish, lively 92-year-old grandmother, Stern says she always knew she’d return. Moving in 14 years ago, she says, was “like coming home.” Her younger sister, Marietta, who spent the war with a foster family in England as part of Kindertransport, a rescue mission for Jewish children, lives across the hall.
Stern says she and other survivors are forever bound by experiences few can comprehend.
“We had these terrible mutual memories,” she says. “When I tell you about my life, you cannot imagine it. But these people can. For you, my story is like a novel. For them, it’s real life.”
Every one of their stories has been recorded on DVDs.
Bensinger, the documentary maker, conducted 30 interviews five years ago. Since then, more than two-thirds have died.
But on any evening, there are silver-haired, slightly stooped survivors, profiles of sheer will, determination and fate, who gather for dinner and end another day.There’s Paula, 102, an artist and sculptor, who was on the run in France during the war with her husband and young son.
There’s Trudy, 100, who settled in Kenya with her husband, leaving her parents in Germany. She never saw them again.
There’s Hannah, 93, the sole survivor among her family, who’s never forgotten her sister’s parting words: “Hannah, you were my best friend.”
And there’s Joe Chaba, 85, and his wife, Helen. Married 55 years, they’re inseparable, holding hands on the rooftop garden, whispering to one another, sharing meals. Helen, 89, has dementia; they have 24-hour nursing care.
Now in his twilight years, Chaba thinks more about his days in a camp at age 10, constantly staring death in the face — sometimes unloading piles of bodies from trucks — but never contemplating it for himself. Life was a day-to-day proposition.
He quietly pulls two snapshots from his wallet, handsome young men with thick crowns of wavy hair. One is him, the other, his older brother, David, his protector in five camps, now dead. They were the only survivors among their family of seven.
“By God’s sake I’m still alive,” he says, his voice quavering. “God helped me. I believe in God.”
On the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, everyone will gather in the social hall for prayers, readings and a candle-lighting ceremony.
The Selfhelp home has plaques and art — some created by the residents — that recognize the terrible events of long ago. But there is no single memorial to the Holocaust that has brought them together.
It’s part of the home’s philosophy, says Efrat Stein, an outreach worker.
There’s no need for constant reminders of the past, she says: “This is a place to LIVE.”