Remembering Izzy Arbeiter, the Holocaust survivor honored by Germany
If ever there was someone who had cause to be embittered, it would be Izzy Arbeiter, who died Friday at the age of 96.
He was 14 when the German occupied his town in Plock, Poland in 1939. Soon came the ghettos, then the torturous goodbye to his parents and little brother who would be murdered at Treblinka. Arbeiter and his other brothers were marched to a slave labor camp. He contracted typhus, was brutally beaten by the Gestapo, watched other Jews murdered for sport, then ordered to clean up their blood. He was shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau, then Stutthof concentration camp, then two more slave labor camps, and a death march towards Austria.
The day he was liberated by the French army was his 20th birthday. He had no place to go.
But somehow, almost impossibly, Arbeiter built an extraordinary life for himself. He married Anna, whom he’d first met in a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, and they sailed to Boston in 1949 aboard a repurposed Army transport ship.
He worked as a tailor, and they started a family. He later bought a dry cleaning business, and a beautiful home on a river in Newton. He had a multitude of friends, was a snappy dresser, and had an impeccable sense of comic timing. He was fond of saying that he was a CPA by profession: “Cleaning, Pressing and Alterations.”
Like countless other survivors, he rebuilt and regenerated. But for Izzy Arbeiter, this was never enough. He always remembered his father’s last words to him: “Save yourself, and if you survive, remember to keep on with Jewish life and Jewish traditions.”
He spent his life honoring this request, interpreting it in a way that was unique, generous and open-hearted.
“I know people who are embittered because they were cut off on Route 128,” said his son Jack Arbeiter. “I never saw my father embittered about the Holocaust and what happened to him.”
Within months of arriving in Boston he founded the New Americans Association of Greater Boston, an advocacy organization for Holocaust survivors who needed help creating a new life. He testified four times in Germany at trials of Nazi criminals. He helped to establish the New England Holocaust Memorial in downtown Boston.
“Our number one responsibility was to defend Jewish honor and the Jewish people,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2019, “and work with the next generation to teach them what happened.”
Remarkably, he never lost his sense of optimism that young people are willing to learn the ugly truth about the Holocaust and keep it from happening again — even after the mass shooting in 2018 at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. It was “tragic,” he allowed. “It took me back to times in Poland.” But it was not Poland. And he refused to despair, he said.
He visited countless schools and colleges to tell his Holocaust story, sometimes giving three or four talks a week.
But he also took this message — many, many times — to young people in Germany and Poland. “Because you, with all your beautiful faces, are going to be the future leaders,” he told German high school students on a trip he made back to Tailfingen in southern Germany where in 1944 he’d been consigned to work in a stone quarry.
The visit was videoed and was part of a virtual tribute to Arbeiter less than a month before he died, sponsored by the New England Friends of March of the Living which raises scholarship funds to send young people to Poland and Israel.
In 2008 the German government awarded Arbeiter the coveted Order of Merit, honoring his work as a witness in postwar trials of the Nazis, and his efforts to promote understanding between Jews in the United States and German officials. On his 94th birthday, the German Consulate in Boston threw him a spectacular birthday party.
“Germany has lost a friend,” Nicole Menzenbach, the Consul General of Germany to New England, said in a eulogy at his funeral. “Someone who had the courage to speak the truth.”