Even though it's been 60 years, survivors are still most comfortable with other survivors — people who can understand the depth and impact of their experiences.
MIAMI — Sally Tuchklaper was crying so hard, she couldn't catch her breath.
"I saved her," she said, pointing at Sarah Schwiezen. "I saved her and her four children." She was talking about Auschwitz, where she had hid Schwiezen and her family at various times, and shared food with them.
It had been 25 years since the two women had seen each other. Tuchklaper hugged Schwiezen and the two wept on each other's shoulders.
Tuchklaper, 92, of Aventura, is the eldest of three sisters who survived the Holocaust. The three were among the 500 who attended Wednesday's Cafe Europa, an annual event that brings survivors together under one roof. This year's luncheon, hosted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, was held at Beth Torah Synagogue in North Miami Beach.
The gathering is intended to remind Holocaust survivors that they aren't alone. It also gives the Claims Conference an opportunity to update their data on survivors. Most of the attendees came from South Florida, at least three buses were parked outside the synagogue, waiting for the crowd to board after the luncheon.
"As survivors age, they become more isolated," said Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference. "Even though it's been 60 years, survivors are still most comfortable with other survivors — people who can understand the depth and impact of their experiences."
The Claims Conference uses restitution money it has negotiated with Germany to help survivors financially, whether it's helping with medical expenses or keeping a roof over their heads. In 2011, it allocated $9.7 million to help Jews in Florida; Schneider expects even more in the coming year.
While the main event was a music-accompanied luncheon, it all kicked off with a series of speeches from community leaders and politicians, including U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both of Florida.
But the most important segment was the chance for survivors to share their stories.
Jacob Breitstein, 88, of Sunny Isles Beach, lost his two brothers, two sisters and mother in Auschwitz. He said his father, who survived the camps, told him how the family perished:
"He said they were put on a truck — a bus — to go to a camp," Breitstein recalled. "But instead, the Nazis reversed the fumes from the muffler into the cabin with all the people inside."
Breitstein was 16 in 1940, when he was seized in Lodz, Poland. He spent time in 12 camps before being liberated in 1945.
Despite the solemnity of his story, he laughed on occasion as he recalled his confusion during his forced travels. And as the band played traditional Jewish music, Breitstein danced.
But others could not bring themselves to laugh or dance.
Avraham Zelmanovitch, 86, of Miami Beach, was in the camps for one year. He was hauled away from Czechoslovakia in 1944, shortly after Passover. After enduring hardships at several camps, Zelmanovitch ended up in Auschwitz. He was 18.Comment on this story
While Zelmanovitch and his three sisters survived, his parents perished.
"They killed (my parents)," he said. "They burned them up."
Zelmanovitch said that he'll never forget a scene from a ghetto he'd lived in for a little more than a month before shipping off for the camps: A young couple and their baby were separated from a group of Jews waiting for food. Soldiers escorted them to a nearby massive hole — one that was filled with the bodies of those who died of sickness or at the hands of Nazis. There, the soldiers snatched the baby from his parents and swung the child against a telephone poll. The baby's lifeless body was thrown into the hole. Then the soldiers shot the parents and dragged their corpses into the hole.
"It was a mountain of death," he mused. "It was horrible."