As many of you may already be aware, Danielle’s father is a Holocaust survivor.
Henry was born in Vienna, Austria in December 1933. He was at least 4th generation Viennese. Henry’s family was secular and very much assimilated into Austrian society and culture. He remembers that most of their family friends were not Jewish. Henry and his family identified as Austrian.
When Henry was 5 years old, the Germans annexed Austria. Henry and his family suddenly found themselves under the control of the Nazis. He can remember how excited he was, as a young naïve boy, for the big parade being promoted around the city. As proud and patriotic Austrians, he and his family were expected to be there to cheer on the arrival of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. His parents and grandparents didn’t want him to be frightened so they initially protected him from their mounting fear.
Henry can still remember vividly standing on the main street, close to his grandfather’s store, watching with fascination as the soldiers, military trucks and tanks all paraded by. He joined with his friends and neighbors offering an enthusiastic “Heil Hitler” salute as Adolph Hitler drove right past him, standing tall in his impressive convertible. He was confused when his mother pushed his arm down so that he couldn’t continue the salute that his friends and neighbors emphatically maintained.
Things got very bad for them, very quickly.
Within a matter of weeks, his grandfather’s store was smashed, their bank accounts wiped out and they were forced into highly concentrated living conditions. With borders now closed, Henry’s mother desperately bribed a train engineer to smuggle Henry out of the country, hidden under the engineer’s seat. While only six years old at the time, he can still remember “as if it were yesterday” how frightened and confused he was. His crying was met with orders from the engineer to be silent or be killed.
Most of his family would be murdered in the weeks that followed. His father escaped to Switzerland and his mother, Lucie Weidler, ended up in Auschwitz. Her strength, courage, wit, and will to live enabled her to survive the utterly unthinkable. Six year later, when Henry was twelve years old, he was miraculously reunited with his parents. Shortly thereafter, they boarded a ship together in England and sailed to New York City where he still lives today.
Last Wednesday, Danielle’s parents landed in Israel. Neither had ever been. We had a wonderful time with them and enjoyed many amazing and joyous experiences. We will post details of their visit separately. This post is focused specifically on Henry’s Israel experience, relative to his childhood.
On Monday, a team from the Yad Vashem Archives came to our home in Ra’anana to record Henry’s testimony. Henry agreed to this before arriving. In fact, he said he wanted to do it. The interview/testimony lasted nearly two hours.
Yad Vashem’s research team spent more than a month prior to his visit uncovering documents detailing exactly what happened to his immediate family members. It included copies of arrest records, deportation orders, train routes, and even the locations and methods of demise. We learned the exact location where his grandparents were led off the train, marched into a field, stripped, shot and buried in a mass grave.
It was very emotional for Henry and incredible to see how raw the memories still are. Perhaps time can’t heal all wounds.
The next day we drove to Yad Vashem. We were greeted by an expert specifically trained to guide “survivors” through the museum.
Henry walked through the exhibits that detailed the exact events he lived through and still remembers all too clearly.
The museum had a video loop of the very parade Henry attended with his mother when Hitler and the Nazis rolled into Vienna.
The guide focused much of our tour on Henry’s personal experiences.
The museum is designed in a way that walk-throughs conclude with a beautiful, peaceful view of the Jerusalem hills. It’s a powerful and effective way to connect the past with the present. It’s also a place where, by design, a visitor literally puts the dark past behind them and provides for a moment of peace and serenity. It was in this spot that Henry wept.
Reflecting back on his twelve day visit, Henry recalls that moment as the most memorable and impactful.
On the grounds of Yad Vashem is an area called Memorial Cave. It’s an appropriately designed place for families to commemorate loves ones that were impacted by the Holocaust. We surprised Henry that day with a plaque dedicated to his mother, his aunt and his grandparents. The plaque was inscribed in stone a few weeks before his arrival and was ceremoniously unveiled during his visit.
The next day we went back to Jerusalem for Henry’s first visit to the Western Wall. He was once again overwhelmed.
Henry proudly displaying his new yarmulke purchased on Ben Yahuda Street:
The impact this visit had on Henry far exceeded our expectations. Until this week, Henry had virtually no emotional connection to his Jewish heritage, no connection at all to Israel, and no real opportunities for a meaningful healing experience.
This week, that all changed.
While walking down the street in Jerusalem, Henry turned to us and explained that this was the first time in his life he has ever felt at home. He added that this is the first time in his 85 years that he felt like he’s where he belongs.