Home for Holocaust survivors sees last generation

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

He saw a schoolmate pick up a chair lodged in an already-shattered store window and hurl it into a magnificent chandelier. "I tell you, it broke something within me," Franks says. "I thought, 'What the heck am I doing in this country anymore?'" His family left soon after.

As a Selfhelp founder, Franks and others decided after about a decade to start a retirement community for their parents and other refugees, many attached to Old World ways. In 1951, a rambling, three-story brick house was dedicated in Hyde Park, on the South Side. The home later moved to a nine-story building on the North Side.

About 15 years ago, with increasing numbers of survivors dying, Selfhelp — which offers everything from independent living to around-the-clock care — began opening its doors to Jews who weren't European war refugees.

Soon, the reason this home was founded will cease to be.

"In a matter of years, this community will be gone, this sense of culture will be gone, these last links to what central Europe was before the war will be no longer be with us," Bensinger says. "There's a great sense of sadness for all of us."

That sorrow, though, has been tempered, by those still here to write the last chapter.


Edith Stern sometimes thinks her memory is too strong.

She remembers her improbable wedding ceremony in Theresienstadt. A concentration camp inmate with meningitis, she was too weak to stand, but strong enough to take her vows. Her head was bandaged and a pink silk gown peeked out from her blanket. Her groom stood at her side.

"All the people cried," she says with a wistful smile. "I laughed. I'd married the man of my dreams."

She remembers months later, she and her mother on a transport, thinking they were heading to a German labor camp where they'd be reunited with their husbands. Instead, they arrived at Auschwitz. Her mother was dispatched to the gas chambers, Stern to work. She was ushered into the camp by a female guard who pointed to the chimneys, and delivered a chilling taunt:

"'You see those flames? Those are your parents, your husbands, your children burning.'"

Stern also remembers the anguish when the pregnant young widow, newly freed, arrived at a Prague hospital. The staff, seeing a scrawny woman with a shaved head, thought she was a prostitute and the baby's father a Nazi. Stern says she was treated roughly at first. After three grueling days of labor, her son, Peter, was born. He had blood in his skull. He died three days later.

"He was," she says, "a beautiful baby."

Stern moved to Chicago in 1965 and joined the staff of Selfhelp, developing an instant rapport with the other refugees. "The reason I wanted to work there was I could never do anything for my parents because they were killed," she says. "These people could have been my parents ... I loved them and they loved me."

Now a stylish, lively 92-year-old grandmother, Stern says she always knew she'd return. Moving in 14 years ago, she says, was "like coming home." Her younger sister, Marietta, who spent the war with a foster family in England as part of Kindertransport, a rescue mission for Jewish children, lives across the hall.

Stern says she and other survivors are forever bound by experiences few can comprehend.

"We had these terrible mutual memories," she says. "When I tell you about my life, you cannot imagine it. But these people can. For you, my story is like a novel. For them, it's real life."

Every one of their stories has been recorded on DVDs.

Bensinger, the documentary maker, conducted 30 interviews five years ago. Since then, more than two-thirds have died.

But on any evening, there are silver-haired, slightly stooped survivors, profiles of sheer will, determination and fate, who gather for dinner and end another day.

There's Paula, 102, an artist and sculptor, who was on the run in France during the war with her husband and young son.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere