Many girls plan a special project to commemorate the celebration of their bat mitzvah, often involving an act of chesed. They might collect toys or clothing for needy children, volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter, or hold a bake sale and donate the funds to a worthy cause. Sixth grader Arielle Pfefer of Teaneck, New Jersey chose a most unusual project: collecting the stories of Holocaust survivors and publishing them as a book. I was pleased to interview this thoughtful, articulate young lady about her important project.
Hi, Arielle, what made you choose this unusual project for your bat mitzvah?
First, I brainstormed ideas with my family. I wanted to do something meaningful and was interested in the Holocaust, as my great-grandparents were survivors from Poland. I wanted to collect first-person stories since I am a member of the last generation to have met survivors.
Where did you get these first-person stories?
First, I sent an email to my whole school, Yeshivat He’Atid, and asked in my neighborhood, but didn’t get much response. Then I sent personal emails and asked my family and friends who were interested and eager to participate.
How many stories did you finally collect?
Fifteen. “Our Testimonies” was distributed at my bat mitzvah and is available for purchase on Amazon.
What was the most difficult part of the project?
Getting people to write and send in their stories.
How long did it take to put all the stories together?
I made a schedule and it took about four or five months.
What advice would you give to other girls who might want to do a similar project?
I’d tell them to approach people personally rather than sending a general email. Many people appreciated the opportunity to write down their family stories for the first time.
Which story affected you the most?
That of Benny and Sally Levine, my own great-grandparents.
Arielle shared with us her preface:
I am fortunate to be celebrating my becoming a bat mitzvah on Purim, March 21, 2019. In honor of this milestone, I decided to collect stories of Holocaust survivors, to serve as testimony to future generations. As the number of survivors diminishes, and the number of Holocaust deniers increase, the perpetuation of the calamities endured during this period remains uncertain. This booklet should serve as proof of the atrocities that European Jewry suffered during World War II.
Humanity lost millions of men, women, and children during the Nazi era. Their innocent souls were systematically exterminated. The majority of these millions of innocent souls were annihilated because of their Jewishness. My great-grandparents from my mother’s side fortunately escaped Europe before the war. However, my father’s family was not as lucky. I had the opportunity to learn their stories of bravery, resilience, and, above all, faith.
In order to collect these accounts, I asked my own contemporaries to share with me their families’ stories. My friends had the opportunity to converse and hear about their families’ experiences. I then compiled these accounts into this booklet. My hope is that this period in Jewish history lives on. This work has become of utmost importance to me since I am a member of the last generation to have met survivors.
During my research, I came across a sentence from the book of Esther that points to a connection between Purim and the Holocaust. It states in chapter 9, verse 28, that “Purim should be remembered and kept by every single generation to come. The days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed.” Therefore, the Holocaust should be taught and learned by children of all future generations. It is an event that should become part of our identity, as it transcends through history. It is up to me to pass on these horrific but true events that occurred to our families.
The Story of Benny and Sally Levine
Benny, my great-grandfather, was born on March 26, 1922, to Isaac and Rosa Lewin. He had a younger sister named Rivka. Benny grew up in the town of Swislocz (also called Svislach and Sislevich), Poland. He went to a Jewish day school, called Yavneh, and his favorite teacher was Emanuel Goldberg.
He and his family ran a successful business of raising cattle to sell for slaughter. Benny and his father often traveled to Warsaw, Poland, to sell the hides from the slaughtered animals.
At the age of nineteen, life as Benny knew it suddenly ended. The Germans invaded his hometown in 1941. He remembers one incident in particular, when the rabbi of his synagogue went to the street with a prayer shawl over his head carrying a Torah scroll. A German soldier went over to the rabbi and began cutting his beard, at which point Benny ran over and begged the soldier to cut Benny’s ear or tongue instead. The German soldier then hit the rabbi’s face with his pistol.
Benny and his family, along with everyone from Swislocz, were forced onto crowded trains, destination unknown. They arrived at Auschwitz, where Benny was immediately separated from his family. He later learned that his parents and little sister were killed in the gas chambers on the tenth of Shevat, in the year 1942.
Benny was immediately put to work. He was assigned work building roads and other menial jobs. He was also a maverick, doing whatever he could to stir up trouble for the Nazis. For instance, he once tried to escape, but he touched the barbed-wire fence and injured his hand, permanently losing feeling in one of his fingers. Benny’s experience in Warsaw, trading goods, was critical for his survival in the concentration camp. He would trade a cigarette for a piece of bread and a pair of shoes for a warm blanket.
On January 25, 1945, Allied troops liberated the camp, and Benny went back to Swislocz hoping to find remnants of his family’s business. Instead, he found his town destroyed. He then set out to find a girl he met in Auschwitz. He went to Bialystok, Poland, looking for Sala Lifszyc. Later, Sala and Benny reunited and were married at a displaced persons (DP) camp in Schwandorf, Germany, on February 6, 1947.
Sala, my great-grandmother, was born on December 3, 1927, in Slonim, Poland, to Israel and Raiza Lifszyc. She also had an older brother named Louva. Sala was well educated at the Jewish school, called the gymnasium.
The Nazis took over Slonin in 1941 and forced everyone onto trains, destination unknown to them. Sala was separated from her family upon arrival at Auschwitz. She later found out that her family had been murdered in the gas chambers. All alone, in line waiting, in alphabetical order, to have her arm tattooed, Sala skipped the line to where two sisters were standing and befriended them. Rachel Gendler and her sister were also from the town of Slonim.
The three girls received almost identical numbers on their arms; my great-grandmother’s number was 31970, while the two sisters were 31969 and 31971. Rachel Gendler and her sister took Sala under their wing. Unfortunately, Rachel’s sister was murdered in the gas chambers. Sala was used as slave labor and put to work at the BMW factory, building vehicles for the German war effort. At fourteen, Sala was assigned to collect any valuables left in the clothing from the people who perished in the gas chambers. She would often find small pieces of food in the pockets and hide them to bring back to the barracks so that she could share with her friends. Working near the gas chambers, she was exposed to harsh chemicals, causing her brain damage that became noticeable later in life.
Sala was liberated on January 25, 1945. She went to Bialystok to look for a distant relative who had also survived the war. She stayed with him for a while until Benny found her. They both went to a DP camp in Schwandorf, Germany, and got married two years later.
After my great-grandparents wed, they contacted a distant cousin who had been living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, since before the war. Sala (who became Sally Levine when she entered America) and Benny left Germany on the SS Ernie Pyle on April 5, 1947. They arrived at Pier 90 in New York City with only three dollars to their name. It was there that Benny’s cousin met them and brought them to Connecticut settling them in a small apartment above a grocery store.
Eager to start working again, Benny walked to a local supermarket and met a Polish butcher, Stanley. Stanley gave my great-grandfather his first job in America. As soon as Benny earned enough money to start his own business, he left the supermarket and opened a successful kosher butcher shop in Bridgeport. Benny worked very hard to provide a comfortable life for Sally and their three children.
He passed away on November 2, 1998, from heart disease. On February 26, 2004, fifty-six years after she was liberated from Auschwitz, Sally passed away. At seventy-seven years of age, she succumbed to the effects of the poisonous chemicals at Auschwitz and repeated beatings on the head by Nazis’ batons. My great-grandparents left a legacy: three children, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Through my research, I not only discovered my history, but also what it means to be a Jew. My great-grandparents were an example of good Jews because even in their time of hardship, they looked out for their friends and peers, they always had faith, and they continued to pass it on to their children and grandchildren, and it inspired me to do the same. We must never forget where we come from, who we are, and what it means to be a good Jew. Because our future generations will not have the privilege to meet heroes like all the survivors, we need to be their testimony and teach them to never forget.