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Bay area Holocaust survivors celebrate Hanukkah early

Anita Waiberman was only 2 when the Germans invaded Poland, but she remembers the assault on Warsaw with a raw clarity.

There was smoke and fire and chaos. The neighbors told her to run. The frantic dash was so painful on her tiny bare feet that her 7-year-old sister carried her part of the way.

Their father ran inside their burning home to gather some things. He carried out a neighbor, an elderly Jewish man who was very religious.

"He wished (for) us that God is going to watch over us," recalled Waiberman, now 71, of Land O'Lakes. "And I think that is what happened."

That man's blessing is the only way Waiberman can explain her family's survival in the years that followed: the flight to Siberia, a couple of years of starvation in a Russian work camp, bouts of malaria and yellow fever, and escape from Siberia on a train that was bombed.

Until the Germans were defeated, her life was hunger and hiding. There was no Hanukkah.

"I didn't know anything about holidays, or a birthday, or anything," she said.

Waiberman was among the nearly 60 Holocaust survivors from throughout Tampa Bay who gathered Thursday in Temple Ahavat Shalom synagogue in Palm Harbor to celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday many of them missed as children or teens.

"I consider them the last of the survivors," said Joe Lallanilla, program director of Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, the event organizer. "They were in the ghettos. They were in the death camps."

Some, like Waiberman, were evacuated to Siberia jammed in cold cattle cars for months without facilities. They watched as the doors opened and the dead were pushed out. Others escaped by other routes.

Michael Bensonoff, 81, of Clearwater was 14 and living in Belarus with his family when his father came home one day and said, "Leave everything and let's go."

They walked all day to a railroad station, where they boarded a cattle car on an evacuation train.

"We didn't know where we were going," he said. "We were happy" to get away from the Germans.

Kitty Zuchovicki, 78, and Saverio Zuchovicki, 74, of St. Petersburg fled from Vienna, Austria, as children.

"She's my sweetheart for 48 years," he said, and they both smiled.

She was 8 years old when the Nazis threw her out of school.

"The Gestapo threw the books at my head — I was bleeding," said Kitty Zuchovicki. "The teacher did nothing and the children made fun of me."

The Gestapo did the same thing a year later in France, she said.

"The difference there was, the teacher was crying and the children were silent," she said. "So I've always loved France."

She now talks with children about her experiences. Many take on the guilt of their ancestors, she said, and she tells them they are not responsible for what others did.

"There was a girl who hugged me after my speech and said, 'I feel so good (now) because my grandfather was a Nazi.' "

Maya Lazarus, a facilitator for Holocaust survivor support groups, said as survivors age, long-term memories gain prominence and many seek help for the first time for post traumatic stress disorder.

Some survivors remember trying to hide before holidays in the death camps. Lazarus said Hitler killed more Jewish people on certain holidays just to terrorize them.

But Thursday, the children who were entertaining the survivors sang of dreidels and challah bread.

Hanukkah, the Jewish feast of lights, is an eight-day celebration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after Maccabees overthrew the Syrians. This year, it starts at sundown Dec. 21.

"The miracle that we're still here is the most important miracle that we celebrate at Hanukkah," said Rabbi Gary Klein. "We have attempted to maintain our Jewish identity but not isolate ourselves from the people around us."

In many times and places, that strategy has been effective, with one big exception.

Someone lit the first candle on the menorah, and dedicated the first candlelight to the survivors' immigration to this country.

"A country where we know there will never be another Holocaust," Klein said. "It will never happen."

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Fast facts

Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services

Most of the Clearwater nonprofit's services are open to the public. Geriatric care management and "caring companions" who help the elderly stay in their homes are available for a fee, as is counseling on a sliding scale. Staff will also help connect people with other community-based resources. Support groups, Holocaust survivor services and many more services are offered. Call (727) 479-1800 or visit www.gcjfs.org.

Bay area Holocaust survivors celebrate Hanukkah early 12/11/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 13, 2008 11:29am]
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