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A family’s unlikely survival

Matt Zalaznick
Daily City Editor
Bret Hartman/Vail DailyEdwards resident Barbara Feldman holds a German magazine cover which showed her mother on her wedding day. The magazine did the story because her mother's immediate family survived Auschwitz, a rare occurrence.
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EAGLE COUNTY ” Henia Zelinger, who Dr. Josef Mengele told was so pretty she couldn’t be Jewish, appeared on the cover of a German magazine on her wedding day.

What attracted the press was not simply the marriage of a Jewish woman to another survivor three years after being liberated from the Nazis. It was the infinitesimally rare occurrence of the bride’s entire family ” both parents and a sister ” having survived two years in the Auschwitz death camp. Many relatives, including her husband’s parents, died in the camps.

“The survivors always talk about how you can never forget the smell of the fumes coming out of the chimneys, you remember it the rest of your life,” said Zelinger’s daughter, Barbara Feldman, who lives in Singletree. “The Nazis tried their hardest to dehumanize. They treated animals better than the humans.”

This week is known as the Days of Remembrance, and today is Holocaust Remembrance Day ” memorials during which Jews and others recount Nazi genocide. Since moving to the area six years ago with husband Jeffrey and her two sons, Feldman has brought survivors and University of Colorado professors to local schools to tell their stories and teach students about the Holocaust.

“It’s the importance of never forgetting and how it should never be repeated and how we have to educate our youth in the valley,” said Feldman, whose mother died in 1999 at age 74. Her father died when he was 73. “There are very few survivors left,” she said.

Wildridge resident C.J. Tenner’s parents, both of whom have passed away, also have a remarkable story. Tenner said his father, who was from Vienna, escaped Nazi work camps and joined the French resistance.

His father raided a train on its way to Auschwitz and rescued 40 Jews, among whom were Tenner’s mother and aunt.

“From me you just get a lot of sadness ” my mother didn’t talk much about it,” Tenner said. “But I don’t mind people knowing that my grandparents and many aunts and uncles perished.”

Rising anti-Semitism

Josh Lautenberg, who lives in Edwards, said Jews work hard to keep the survivors’ stories of the Holocaust alive to prevent another genocide.

“As a younger person, and not a survivor’s child, the critical thing about keeping the Holocaust memory alive is to educate and inform people that it’s still possible something like this could happen in the future.

“It’s still something that takes place today ” look at Darfur, look at Sudan,” Lautenberg said.

Lautenberg doesn’t know if genocide could happen to the Jews again, but he said he senses rising anti-Semitism ” racism against Jews ” in both the United States and the rest of the world. For example, Lautenberg’s father, Democratic U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, sponsored a bill several years ago to speed immigration and citizenship of Russian Jews still facing racial harassment in their home country.

“Anti-Semitism is increasing in Europe, and it seems to be fairly rampant again in the U.S,” Lautenberg said. “There was always some discomfort, an acknowledgment we share with African-Americans of being a minority. The war in Iraq has convinced people … we’re in this war to protect Israel, and people feel a resentment toward the Jews.”

But Lautenberg says he feels comfortable in Eagle County. There is greater tolerance here because many residents are well-traveled or from racially mixed cities, he said, adding that locals are more accepting of differences because people here have come from many parts of the country,

“I think it’s more multi-cultural than people might assume,” Lautenberg said.

Tenner, co-president of the valley’s B’Nai Vail congregation, which holds services at Vail’s interfaith chapel, said he feels very comfortable being Jewish in Eagle County. Tenner is part of a group raising funds for an interfaith chapel in Edwards.

“We have a wonderful situation with the interfaith chapel,” Tenner said. “What we have here is a unique and wonderful model of cooperation and toleration.”

Cooperation and tolerance are legacies of the Holocaust, Feldman said.

“I was raised with zero prejudice and a respect for all people; that was a lesson from my parents,” she said. “We have to keep this message alive for younger generations.”

A murderous admirer

The stories of survivors are a mix of horror, luck, compassion and endurance. Barbara Feldman’s father, Wolf Laitner, was sent to study medicine in Italy because racial quotas in his native Poland kept him out of medical school there.

After he was captured by Nazis, he was shipped through a series of camps, finally winding up in one where “everybody was dying of starvation,” Feldman said.

Her father was a physician in the camp hospitals, where an uncertain fate awaited prisoners who became patients. Conditions could sometimes be slightly less appaling, but the Nazis did inspections of the hospitals and took many prisoners out of their beds and into the gas chambers.

Feldman said her father saved patients by hiding them in parts of the hospital not inspected by the Nazis. Her father also received soup and bread from the Nazis he treated.

“He almost died many times himself. He lost his parents, brothers and sisters in the camps. One sister survived. Everybody was killed,” Feldman said.

Her father thought he had about two days left to live when his camp was liberated by the U.S. Army, she said.

Feldman’s mother was 13 when World War II started. She entered Auschwitz with her sister and parents. In her job as a messenger for SS guards, she often met Mengele, the doctor known as the “Angel of Death” who did murderous medical experiments on Jewish prisoners ” including children.

“She said Dr. Mengele was a very handsome man, and he would see her and tell her she was beautiful, that she wasn’t Jewish,” Feldman said.

Her mother also had to remove bodies from the gas chambers. But two years after entering, though she, her sister and her mother had not seen their father the entire time, the whole family made it out of Auschwitz.

‘Insult’ to survivors

Feldman’s parents came to the United States in 1950. Her father was a doctor in a small town in New York’s Catskill Mountains.

“They were so appreciative to be in America. They were true survivors, they came here and started a whole new life,” Feldman said.

In a speech Feldman’s brother made to their mother, he said she had learned the value of freedom from looking at ” and wishing to be inside of ” the “shack on the other side of the barbed-wire.” Her brother said their mother also learned the value of food in the camps from picking discarded potato skins out of the garbage.

“Life was so important because they lost everything,” Feldman said.

But the horror of the Holocaust has not prevented more recent genocide in Sudan and Rwanda, or inspired more powerful nations to stop persecution, Tenner said.

“I think poverty is the answer. That’s what fuels thing like the Holocaust, where people were poor and blamed the Jews. It’s the same thing in Darfur,” Tenner said. “I think the developed world could end that struggle.”

An even greater indictment against the modern world is that ” unlike during the Holocaust when Americans had less extensive knowledge of the death camps ” the massacres in 1990s’ Rwanda and today’s Sudan are shown on television and widely reported in newspapers, Lautenberg said.

“It’s an insult to people who survived the Holocaust and who lost loved ones,” he said. “If we’re going to save Iraqis from their leader, why not save people from Rwanda or Darfur?

“There’s no justification for not doing anything,” he said, “there’s no excuse.”

On the Web

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: http://www.ushmm.org

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com

Vail Colorado


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