Keeping the stories alive, high school students interview Holocaust survivors
This summer journalism students from the School of the New York Times interviewed Holocaust survivors to help preserve their stories and to learn about that fading period in history. With attacks on Jewish communities recently on the rise, and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the time seemed right for the high school seniors – some of whom had never studied the Holocaust – to meet with survivors.
“I realized that most of the survivors are in their 80s and 90s,” said instructor Helene Stapinski, “and when they die, their stories with die with them. I thought it was important for the students to hear their testimony first hand.” As part of the pre-college summer program, students normally visit New York City from around the globe to gather in midtown and study writing. Because of the pandemic, classes were online.
Through the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Nachas Health and Family Network in Brooklyn, ten guests did phone interviews or visited the virtual classroom via Zoom, telling not only about the horrors of the Holocaust but of their lives afterward.
Among them was Fran Malkin, who, as a child, hid above a pig sty for 20 months with 12 other Jews during World War II in Sokal, Poland. Each day was a challenge, Malkin told the class, but the families that were stowed away were motivated by the hope of survival.
“They thought survival was the only way to defeat the Germans,” Malkin said. “And they would have to do anything they could to survive and bear witness.” This determination led the group to some awful decisions. Malkin, four years old at the time, cried continuously and became a threat to the group’s safety. The group made the difficult decision to sacrifice Malkin to save the other 12 lives.
A doctor who was among them gave Malkin poison, and before long, she appeared unconscious. As she was picked up to be buried, the doctor realized she still had a faint pulse.
In July, 1944, Soviet troops liberated Sokal. Malkin, having whispered every word for the past 20 months, was unable to speak at a normal tone, she told the class.
After the war, Malkin and her family moved to Newark, New Jersey, living among other Holocaust survivors but never sharing details of their experiences. Malkin grew up, got a job, got married, and had a daughter of her own. But she describes having difficulty with one-on-one conversations and not having an outgoing personality. “I haven’t felt an openness with the world,” Malkin said.
Malkin has no trouble addressing large gatherings of people, however, and has started sharing her story with students and other groups through the museum.
“I’m a Jew,” she said. “I’m strong.”
Several survivors told their stories one on one with students in the program, who ranged as far and wide as China, Colombia and Puerto Rico. Lillian Feintuch talked about how she still remembers the first pair of shoes she wore after her own were incinerated in a school bombing in Vienna —grey, high-top, lace-up, given to her by an Austrian woman she’d never met before.
Feintuch, now in her 80s, was just six years old when her father was sent to a forced-labor camp. She, her mother, and three brothers were forced into a ghetto in Debrecen, Hungary and later into a concentration camp in Vienna, Austria.
As a child, she narrowly avoided Auschwitz when the train tracks en route were bombed. Everyone in Feintuch’s immediate family survived the Holocaust. Strangest of all, a Nazi provided their ultimate escape.
“I saw these beautiful bushes and flowers,” Feintuch remembered, describing what motivated her to wander away from her family while on a death march out of Vienna. When she looked up, a Nazi was running towards her. He stopped to look at her.
“‘How come he’s torturing me?’” Feintuch recalled thinking. “‘Let him take out the gun and get it over with.’”
But the Nazi never brandished his weapon. Instead, he started to cry. She reminded him of his daughter. He told Feintuch—tiny, bright blonde—that they’d been separated for two years.
“‘Take off your Jewish stars,’” the Nazi said after leading Feintuch back to her family. He instructed them to pretend they were Hungarian refugees fleeing the Russians and pointed to the mountains. “‘That’s where you will be safe.’”
“He was like an angel,” said Feintuch. “He saved our lives.”
Feintuch and her family sheltered in an Austrian family’s stable until news of liberation came. Then they returned to Hungary, where they reunited with Feintuch’s father. He had owned a soda factory before the war, but the business was now unprofitable. He was forced to sell the property for just $50.
The family left the last remnants of their pre-war life behind and settled in a displaced persons camp in Pocking, Germany and in 1949, immigrated to Bridgeport, Connecticut to live with family. Shortly after, they moved into a furnished apartment in Brooklyn.
Feintuch expresses gratitude for the kindness afforded her during and after the war but speaks of her parents’ own grace with even more admiration.
Their neighbor Mrs. Miller used to call them grin khayes—“foreign animals” in Yiddish, making them feel unwelcome and degraded. But when Mrs. Miller’s husband died, Feintuch’s mother prepared an elaborate supper on the day of the funeral. Mrs. Miller became a lifelong friend.
“If everyone would be like this,” Feintuch said, “there would be no war.”
Students were surprised by the optimism and hope of each of their subjects. Zahava Ungar, for instance, told one student that she considers herself lucky. As a girl in 1939, she moved to Ukraine from the Czech Republic and narrowly missed the kinder transport to England. At 13 she watched her family taken away and gassed at Auschwitz. As an adult, she lived through her husband’s murder. But still, she is not bitter and remains grateful to be alive. “It was pure luck,” she said.
Born in 1930, Ungar grew up happily in Nachod, Czech Republic. In December 1939 her family was expelled to Ungvar, a city in Ukraine, missing their kinder transport to England by two weeks. In 1941, Ungar’s father was taken to labor camps for weeks at a time, until December 1942, when he never returned.
Ungar and her family spent a month in the ghetto until they were placed in a cattle car headed for Auschwitz. On the long journey, her two-year-old brother begged for bread with butter.
When Ungar, 13, arrived with her family at Birkenau, her mother pulled her aside.
“She told me to lie about my age, and tell them I was 16, and don’t you forget it,” said Ungar. They were the last words her mother would ever speak to her. Her mother and brothers were separated from Ungar and her sister and were sent to the gas chambers.
Ungar remained in Auschwitz for six months. “When I think of Auschwitz, I hear the screaming, the dogs, and I see the beatings,” she said. For four months she and her sister stayed together but were finally separated. “I never saw her again.”
Ungar was sent to Theresienstadt, where she worked at a nearby bomb factory. After liberation, she boarded a train to Ungvar, Ukraine, but had no identification. “I was sitting on the train and all of a sudden comes border patrol,” she remembers. A Russian officer came and sat next to her, grabbed her hand, and said, “She’s my girlfriend, leave her alone.”
Ungar made it to Israel in 1946 where she reunited with one brother and lived on a kibbutz, and later joined the Israeli Army. She immigrated in 1978 with her husband Joel, also a survivor, and raised six children in Brooklyn. But tragedy returned. In the summer of 1984, Joel was murdered during a robbery at his fabric company in Flatbush.
For years, Ungar found it too difficult to speak about what she had witnessed, but because of her children and grandchildren’s curiosity, she began to talk about her experiences.
“I relive everything, but I’m doing it just because I feel everybody needs to listen and hear,” said Ungar, now 89. “We have to be so careful not to build hatred.” George Klein told the class that he, too, felt fortunate to be alive. “I don’t see myself as a survivor,” Klein said. “I don’t like that word. I was just lucky, that’s all.”
Klein believes his good fortune and caring mother got him through the war. “My relationship with my mother was special,” he said. Klein grew up in Slovakia in the 1940s, while the Holocaust was raging through Europe. In 1944, he was pulled out of school for being Jewish, while his parents were told their pharmaceutical business was no longer legal.
He and his family went into hiding in a small village near the mountains of Slovakia. While wandering off one day, he spotted some German soldiers, and ran back to tell his parents. His father, Oscar, left to see what was happening in the village, but never returned. Hours later, the Germans came looking for Klein and his mother, who tried to hide in the house.
“I was sticking my head out from behind the sofa, and the German soldier wanted to shoot me,” said George.
His mother stood in front of his small body and pleaded with the officer to take her instead. The officer promised they would be safe and let them pack some belongings. They were taken to Bergen Belsen.
“A German didn’t like your face, they shot you. No big deal,” remembered Klein. “There were mountains of dead bodies when I was a kid.”
When Klein was finally liberated, he had typhoid fever. He remembers waking up in the care of nurses, after the British army saved them. Soon, he was able to walk again and was transferred to the Tatra mountains where his mother, Hilda, opened a pharmacy to be near him.
Klein recovered after two years and learned English by the age of 10. In 1962, he graduated from medical school at the top of his class.
He met his wife and had a baby boy and in 1965, they moved to America, where they had two more girls. Today, he lives in Manhattan with his wife, watching movies and reading books all day due to the pandemic.
The past few months have not been difficult for him, nor do they remind him of the war in any way. He said he speaks to his children every morning, and misses his daughter’s visits from Los Angeles, but does not feel unfortunate. He has faith in democracy, and, although he knows it will take years to rebound, he believes in his adopted home country.
“America,” he said, “will come back.”
A few of the student interviewers shared about their experience writing this article.
“The interview process was emotional and heart-wrenching, but I tried to ask questions from a professional perspective so that I could properly convey the story to the public, without losing certain anecdotes that embellish the piece. The story of George Klein is so inspiring, especially thinking about where he is now, and how far he’s come, and it’s such a beautiful thing to witness such growth,” said Moira Weinstein.
“Interviewing Ms. Feintuch was personally a very impactful experience for me, beyond being educational – it allowed me to see past my momentary struggles and offered me a unique connection with a complete stranger,” added Corinne Leong.
All authors of this piece were students in the Summer 2020 term of the School of the New York Times.