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June24 Bulletin Ref1

My Jewish Journey: “I Wish I Knew” by Howard Domfort

I grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s. Our neighborhood was almost 10% Jewish. I attended Hebrew school from 1965 until my bar mitzvah in 1968.

A few parents of my fellow students were survivors of the Holocaust. How do I know this? I saw the numbers on their arms. Frieda was a year or two older than me. She would never really talk about her mom but did say she was in the concentration camps. Her mom was always quiet and kept to herself. My classmate Benjamin talked some about his mom who was also in the camps. She was friendly but very protective of her son.

Looking back, either while in high school or college, I wish I had talked to these people to ask, learn, hear about their experiences. I never did and I am somewhat sorry about it.

There were other people from the neighborhood who were Survivors: one owned a candy store; another owned the ice cream parlor. My parents referred to them as the “Refugees.” They too had numbers tattooed on their arms. Again, I wish I could’ve known something more about them besides being behind a counter.

In the mid-1970s my dad told me that his dad (my grandfather) had an older brother, Samuel. He and family were all killed by the Nazis. Dad on occasion would blurt out “They’re all gone.” I tried to get some more detail about this, but dad would only say, “They were all murdered. Nobody’s left.” I never pushed my father more on this because I saw how upset he was. Dad even walked out on “Schindler’s List.” He said he just couldn’t watch it. No other relative ever talked about this.

My Domfort cousins started a “cousins club” and would hold an annual family get-together in the mid1990s. I was in my early 40s at the time. One year they honored their dad (my great uncle) after his passing and stated that he was a survivor of the Holocaust. I had known the man for my whole life and never knew this. Again, I wish I knew. Not as a kid, but at least as an adult.

My in-laws were both survivors of the Holocaust. Ida’s dad with his mom, dad and sister escaped Germany to Shanghai. He would tell us about his times under Japanese rule. Every documentary or TV interview about the Jews in Shanghai during WWII is exactly how Walter described it. It was not an easy life, but they survived. I’m glad I knew this.

As for my mother-in-law, the story is very different. She was from Hungary. In 1944, she was captured and was in several concentration camps. While she survived, most of her family was murdered. After the war, she went to Sweden to recover, then to the US. Here she stayed with family until she got married. She told us that she wanted to talk about her experiences in the camps, but her relatives said “You are in America now. What happened is in the past. We don’t want to talk or hear about it.” She had her Nazi number removed. She would talk about the concentration camps a little with us, but not in too much detail. Just that it was horrible.

When I say I wish I knew, I guess more people than not kept it to themselves or to a very select few. At least I know a little. Thanks to people like Steven Spielberg, who did many interviews with Survivors, I do know some. My mother-in-law was asked to do an interview, but she declined.

Finally, Rabbi Herschel Schacter was the rabbi of Mosholu Jewish Center in the Bronx where I was bar mitzvah. Upon his death in 2013, a friend sent a Facebook post about him. I read that he was an Army chaplain during WWII. After the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, he helped survivors and led religious services. Once again, something I wish I had known. Probably not as a 13-year-old, but it would have been good to know this as a high school student and definitely when I went to college. I asked a couple of friends who went to the same temple – they didn’t know this either. Again, not saying much or just keeping it to a select few. I will be buying his book “The Rabbi of Buchenwald.”

I feel I missed out on or was deprived of some knowledge. I do thank all these people for being in my life, especially my in-laws Walter and Shari. I will tell you: let the next generation know about things that have happened or are happening now because history does have a tendency to repeat itself. With knowledge and discussion, we can try to make the world a better place.

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