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March 27, 2012

Holocaust survivor tells students about escaping Nazi Germany, witnessing mass torture, destruction

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 — Irving Bienstock returned to Albemarle Middle School this week to share his story of persecution as a young boy in Nazi Germany and of his narrow escapes from Germany and Holland to the United States.

The eighth graders eagerly gathered in the library and warmly welcomed the man who was only 12 when he boarded one of the last ships out of Rotterdam to the U.S. as the Germans were invading Holland.

While so many were denied entry into the U.S. because of strict quota restrictions, his immediate family was able to find a sponsor, his mother’s  brother who lived in New York, which allowed them to emigrate. Most of his extended family perished, while a few managed to survive in hiding. One uncle lived in a closet throughout the war; an aunt arranged to hide his cousins in a convent with fake identification. Although the circumcised Jewish boys were embarrassed among all the uncircumcised Christians, that would be a small price to pay for survival.     

He recalled how good a life his family had enjoyed in Dortmund, Germany, until Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 when Bienstock was 6. The Bienstocks were among the many Jews who had fled persecution in Poland a generation earlier for a better life in Germany. Most of the extended family were forcibly returned to Poland by the Nazis, who gradually drove all the Jews out, at first by deportation and later by mass extermination, known as the “Final Solution.” The death camps in Poland re-captured those who had been forced out of Germany earlier.   

Bienstock vividly de-scribed the marauding gangs of Brownshirts routinely ransacking the homes of Jews, mocking and beating them mercilessly. Merely playing a game of soccer with his friends became dangerous as they had to be constantly watchful for gangs of Nazis looking to beat them up. Even walking home from school became a serious matter of outwitting or outrunning the gangs to avoid beatings. He remembers being called a “dirty Jew” as a child and having his family told they should get out of Germany.

In 1935, the Nuremburg Laws were imposed on Jews, and the Bienstock family experienced increasing harassment and hardship. Jews were being systematically squeezed out of society as they had everything taken from them: jobs, education, property, eventually their very freedom, and ultimately, for more than six million, their lives. He could no longer attend school as the Nazi Youth organization took over the building, and all normal social activity came to an end.

The most frightening experience occurred in November 1938 when the terror of Krystalnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” came to his neighborhood. Ninety-one Jews were killed and many more were beaten as he watched from his bedroom window as their synagogue, among 30 that night, was burned down.

Opera houses, concerts, movies, parks and recreation facilities were off limits to Jews, and eventually his father was forced to leave the country for fear of his life as a successful accountant. He was smuggled into Belgium and on to Holland when Irving was 12. His sister was smuggled into Holland next, but his mother was turned back at the border, entrusting the little girl to strangers who got her safely to an orphanage. Similarly, his mother’s attempt to smuggle Irving into Holland met with the same outcome: he made it out of Germany to safety thanks to the goodness of strangers, while the SS confiscated his mother’s passport and she was again sent back. Amazingly, he was reunited with his sister at the orphanage, and his mother was able to pay a smuggler to get her out of Germany, too, on a second try.    

Escaping the Nazis’ expanding sphere of influence became the only option but proved most difficult because few countries would take Jews in. In June 1939, his father finally was approved to bring the family to the U.S. after waiting six years, and they left Rotterdam together in April 1940, barely escaping the Nazi occupation of the country that came in early May.   

Albemarle Middle School language arts teachers Penny Morton and Ashley Bullock and the library media specialist Trudy Saunders had prepared their 8th grade English students well. The students listened attentively, asked pointed questions and were familiar with the vocabulary: anti-semitism, Krystallnacht and the Gestapo.

One student boldly asked if he had ever wished that he wasn’t Jewish, and Bienstock said he has always been proud of his Jewish heritage, and that “there was never a time when I wished otherwise.”

Bienstock spoke a little German at the request of another student, and Emory Cagle asked where he stayed when he came to the U.S. He explained how he first lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., came to work in the textile industry for the Singer Company, and eventually relocated to Monroe, near Charlotte, when they built a plant there.

When asked by Jadda Emery why Jews were not allowed to come to the U.S. or other countries, Bienstock remarked succinctly, “Anti-Semitism.”

One student dared to broach the subject of the Holocaust-deniers, which she acknowledged she had heard from her grandfather, who believes the Holocaust did not happen.     Another wondered how long he had been speaking about his experiences. At 85, Bienstock explained that he has been speaking on the subject publicly for only the past three years.   

The students displayed a sincere interest in the subject, and a few were exceptionally avid.

Tyler Russell, whose English project for the Holocaust unit will be on the death camps, explained how he has been interested in the subject since he was very young, based on his own family’s experiences in World War II.

C.J. Russell expressed his keen interest in the history, too, particularly in Adolf Hitler, and he is determined to join the U.S. Army upon graduation.

Their English classes were reading Holocaust literature, including the novels, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” by John Boyne, and “Night,” by Elie Wiesel.

On the wall in the main corridor, an impressive map of Europe students had made highlighted the vast network of Nazi concentration camps.  

Afterwards, Bienstock commented, “I am glad to see it’s being taught and that the students are interested. It is something they need to learn, to be a lesson.”

When asked about discrimination in America today, he retorted, “Our country has moved in the right direction to stop discrimination. There is growing tolerance.”

The overall lesson for the students that one must never forget was clear: don’t stand by if you witness discrimination and persecution. The theme of anti-Semitism was made immediately relevant as news broke on this same Monday morning when a rabbi and three Jewish children were gunned down outside their school in Toulouse, France, by a killer described by President Sarcozy as an “anti-Semitic monster.”   

For many Holocaust survivors, talking about their experiences is difficult. Moreover, the teachers pointed out how the passage of time can make the horror of the Holocaust seem less real and less poignant. With the number of survivors dwindling rapidly, there will be none left in a very few years.

The 8th graders in Albemarle had the rare opportunity to hear firsthand about one of the darkest moments in human history. They have both Bienstock and their enthusiastic teachers to thank for this unique learning experience.

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