By Lisa Schiffman
Watching the devastation of the unfolding war in Ukraine depicted on the news, Doris Schechter, 84, a longtime Great Neck resident now living in Manhattan, is haunted by the footage of civilian families crowding onto packed trains and waiting at border crossings, fleeing their homes and homeland to escape Russian missile attacks. These heart-rending images transport her back to her own harrowing experiences as a child refugee during World War II.
A photograph of Doris — then Dorrit Blumenkranz — as a curly-haired 6-year-old, enjoying her first American hot dog in upstate New York taken by a newspaper photographer after she and her family (parents Ephraim and Berta Blumenkranz, and baby sister, Ruth) arrived as refugees in 1944, is among the artifacts and stories of Long Island Holocaust survivors showcased in “The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do,” a new permanent exhibit at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City in Manhattan.
The item is among hundreds on view that include the mementos, artifacts and heirlooms of other Long Islanders, Herbert Mendel’s Iron Cross and a Torah scroll saved by members of the Bornplatz Synagogue in Hamburg during Kristallnacht among them.
These cherished objects, and the stories behind them, are at the exhibition’s core. The 12,000-square-foot exhibit, with 750 objects, survivor testimonies, photos and film, gives a panoramic view of Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust, and examines the economic, political and social conditions that led to the rise of Hitler, National Socialism and the mass murder of 6 million European Jews, as well as millions of Sinti, Roma, LGBTQ and disabled people, dissidents and others whom the Nazis deemed undesirable during World War II.
Rebecca Frank, one of the curators of the exhibit “The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, stands in a portrait gallery that includes images of those who survived and those who perished. Credit: Linda Rosier
There were 40,000 Holocaust survivors who settled in the metropolitan area, and their stories are highlighted in the exhibition.
Said curator Judy Tydor Baumel-Schwartz, Holocaust historian and professor at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, “You can read statistics on victims of the Holocaust, but numbers, while impressive, do not have the same impact of personal stories. We tell the story of what happened through objects, pictures, graphics, movies and text.”
Baumel-Schwartz cites as examples a 19th century beer stein with antisemitic caricatures, an enamel bowl used by a Libyan Jewish family at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a doll belonging to a girl who with her family trekked the Alps to safe haven in Switzerland.
“These objects belonged to real people,” said Baumel-Schwartz. The exhibit “closes the circle, makes it real. There is so much Holocaust denial going on, we say we have documents — we have proof.”
With global antisemitism and racism on the rise, the exhibition is especially relevant today. (In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League counted 2,717 antisemitic incidents across the United States, a 34% increase from the 2,026 incidents recorded in 2020 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.)
“We do not believe the Holocaust was inevitable — it occurred because of human choice. We live in a world of hatred, and we have to learn how to combat hatred,” said Holocaust historian and adviser Michael Berenbaum, a consulting curator. Two artifacts hold special meaning for him: the first, a 1920s Sukkah wall covering made by cantor Aryeh Steinberger, a Czech known for his Jewish ritual artwork who died in 1942 before most of his family was killed during the Holocaust. Illustrated with scenes from the Bible and Budapest life, Berenbaum explained, “It is a symbol of celebration, of majesty.” He contrasts the wall covering with a 1551 German edict requiring Jews in Austria and Hungary to wear yellow circles on their clothes. Nearly 400 years later, the exhibit explains, the edict was presented to Field Marshal Hermann Göring in January 1940 as a birthday gift by German SS Officer Reinhard Heydrich and the Security Police. Said Berenbaum, “It reveals how deeply antisemitism resonated in their souls.”
Doris Schechter, a former Great Neck resident, holds a photograph of herself taken in 1944 when she arrived New York. Items Schechter donated to the Museum of Jewish Heritage include a Haggadah used at the Fort Ontario refugee camp and her mother’s ID for the camp. Schechter keeps family photos, including one of her father, Ephraim, in her meditation room at home.
‘We were running’
Reflecting on her own wartime experiences, Schechter said she understands what being uprooted means: “You see what goes on when a despot has the power to change people’s lives — these parents and children are so traumatized.”
Schechter was an infant when the Germans marched into Vienna in 1938. Realizing the city was no longer safe for Jews, her father secured a visa from the Italian government. The family sheltered in the small town of Guardiagrele, in the Abruzzo region of the Chieti province, for two years.
Said Schechter: “Before I was a year old, my family became free prisoners of Mussolini.” After the Nazis marched into town, the family was forced to flee across front lines to the Allied sector in Bari, Italy. “I remember vividly, we were running and it was mountainous. My mother had just given birth,” Schechter recalled. They lived in a displaced persons camp while Ephraim worked as a translator for the U.S. Army. After President Franklin Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board in 1944, the Blumenkranzes were among the 986 refugees invited to the United States to live at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in upstate Oswego.
The journey across the Atlantic was perilous: The ship they sailed on, Henry Gibbons, was part of a convoy of 29 ships; Nazi warplanes flew overhead and the refugees were continually in danger of attack by Nazi U-boats.
“You realize children do absorb the fears and anxieties that parents go through, and you inherently hold onto that inside you,” Schechter added. “I realized it so much more as I got older.”
Arriving at Fort Ontario, the family was hopeful about the future until tragedy struck — Ephraim died of spinal meningitis in 1945 at the refugee center. “My whole world collapsed,” Schechter said.
Mourning for Ephraim and panic-stricken they would be made to return to their countries of origin after the war ended, the Blumenkranzes were relieved to learn that a group of prominent people, including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Ruth Gruber, the journalist who accompanied refugees on the Henry Gibbons, had convinced President Harry S. Truman to allow the refugees to become U.S. citizens.
In the 1980s, Schechter reconnected with Gruber. The two women bonded, with Gruber becoming a surrogate mother to Schechter before her death in 2015. “You lost your country, your language and your father,” Schechter said Gruber told her. “She put it all together.”
Items in the exhibit donated by Dr. Julius Mendel include his father’s World War I Iron Cross Medal and the Affidavit of Support that allowed the family to enter the United States. Another artifact is a dress issued at Auschwitz that was worn by Rose Safro.
Looking for a sponsor
For Jews and others, the exhibit shows, surviving the Holocaust often hinged on circumstance and luck.
Growing up in Berlin in the 1930s, Dr. Julius Mendel, 91, who lives in Great Neck, recalls watching colorful Nazi military parades, though he was too young to understand the growing menace to his family, which was Jewish. By 1935, Mendel’s father, Herbert, a physician and World War I veteran, was forced to give up his practice to an Aryan doctor. Yet, European Jews attempting to immigrate to the United States faced restrictive policy and bureaucratic hurdles to get U.S. visas; the process could take years.
“It was a horrible time — you had to find someone to sponsor you. People sent blind letters to strangers asking, ‘Could you sponsor me?’ Some did, many didn’t,” Mendel said. “My father remembered an uncle who had visited the family around 1910 and had brought his son. He remembered playing with that boy, so he went through the Manhattan phone books in the Berlin public library until he happened to see the last name Hahn, with what looked like the name ‘Atty.’
“He wrote to this guy, asking, ‘If you’re the person who visited me, could you sponsor me?’ His name was not Atty, he was an attorney whose office was in Manhattan.”
Remembering Herbert Mendel, Jacob Hahn agreed to sponsor the family. With the Affidavit of Support necessary for immigration to the United States, Herbert, his wife, Ilse, and Julius spent two years in Cuba waiting for their quota numbers to come up; they arrived in Manhattan in December 1940, when Julius was 9.
Of the 20 items Julius Mendel has donated to the museum, including his father’s World War I Iron Cross, what Mendel sees as particularly chilling are his parents’ German passports. Stamped with a “J,” their names are crossed out and “Israel” and “Sarah” written in.
“It was the first step before the concentration camps, when you lose your name and become a number,” Mendel explained. “Few people realize how incremental these things are.”
A video image of Joseph Bamberger is reflected in the case surrounding the Bornplatz Synagogue scroll rescued on Kristallnacht by his father, Seligmann Baer Bamberger. Joseph’s son, David, says the story of the scrolls’ rescue has resonated in his life. A 1921 Bamberger family wedding photo is also part of the exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Saved by Torah
Raised as a Conservative Jew, David Bamberger, 65, of Manhattan, describes the story of his grandfather Seligmann Baer Bamberger’s saving of the Bornplatz Torah scrolls on Kristallnacht — or “The Night of Broken Glass,” a state-sponsored pogrom during which the Nazis destroyed Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses — as the most formative of his Jewish identity alongside his bar mitzvah and attending Brandeis University.
Growing up in Patchogue, David and his brother, Michael, learned from their grandfather Seligmann and their father, Joseph, how on Nov. 9, 1938, two Gestapo men banged on the family’s apartment door in Hamburg, demanding that Joseph and his mother, Elsa, tell them where Seligmann was. Luckily, he was not home that night, thus avoiding arrest. Seligmann had gone with other community leaders to save the Bornplatz Torah scrolls — the sacred texts containing Jewish law central to Judaism. The largest synagogue in Northern Germany, Bornplatz — the soul of Jewish religious and cultural life in Hamburg — was demolished that night.
“My grandfather’s courageous act made Kristallnacht very real to me,” David said.
Joseph Bamberger’s early childhood in Germany had been carefree, though he recalled later being chased by gangs of Hitler youth, thrown off his bicycle and called a “dirty Jew.” Attendance at his school began dwindling as more Jewish families left Hamburg. Kristallnacht was a turning point, a signal of Hitler’s goal to exterminate European Jewry. Seligmann had tried to apply for U.S. visas, but the immigration quotas were filled. Fortunately, a close friend named Edgar Frank, who had immigrated to the United States, helped the family obtain the necessary documents.
“My grandfather got a non-quota visa,” David explained. “The U.S. had closed its borders by 1939. . . . Edgar Frank arranged for a position for him at Yeshiva College. Edgar Frank got Rep. Sol Bloom [D-Manhattan] to lobby the State Department in late 1939. Only 40 non-quota visas had been issued.” The family departed from Germany in March 1940, leaving behind relatives and friends — many of whom perished, including Bornplatz’s Chief Rabbi Joseph Carlebach and his family.
When the family left Germany to settle on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, the Torah scroll was the most precious item in their suitcases. Said David, “Before leaving, the Nazis made a list of items in their suitcases and ascribed monetary values to each. The list ascribed a value to sweaters and socks. The Torah scrolls were a zero.”
After getting a degree in mechanical engineering in 1949 from City College of New York and a master’s degree in engineering in 1955 from New York University, Joseph moved with his wife, Dorothy (Edgar Frank’s youngest daughter), to Patchogue. The family became active in Jewish community life, and Joseph worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton. From 1982 to 1992, Joseph taught civil and mechanical engineering at Suffolk County Community College.
After his father died, Joseph donated the Torah scroll, covered by a white mantle embroidered with the names of family members who perished, to Temple Beth El of Patchogue. Years later, Joseph returned to Hamburg, where he spoke to students visiting the Jewish girls’ school where his father, a physics and chemistry professor, had taught half a century before.
“He was a deeply emotional man, and he left many relatives behind,” David said of his father. Until his death in January 2022, Joseph would go to The Museum of Jewish Heritage every year on Yom Hashoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — to share his father’s story.
‘Never lose your identity’
Keeping alive family history and identity while putting down new roots remains at the heart of the stories shared in the new exhibit.
“I’m very grateful for this country,” said Julius Mendel, who served in the U.S. Air Force and attended SUNY Downstate Medical School to become a psychiatrist and then moved to Great Neck, where he and his wife raised their daughter. He cherishes his friendship with the Hahn family and has kept the Affidavit of Support, dated Nov. 22, 1940 — a copy of which is in the museum. “I’ve had a perfect life,” said Mendel, who feels he has lived the American dream.
While proud to be an American, Schechter said, “I tell people to never lose your identity.”
Schechter also moved to Great Neck, where she and her husband, Marvin, raised five children.
Her love of cooking and baking, inspired by her time in Italy and memories of watching her Viennese oma (“grandmother” in German) Leah Goldstein cook the family meals when Berta Blumenkranz moved with her daughters, Doris and Ruth, to Rego Park, Queens, after they were granted citizenship in 1946, led Schechter to open a Great Neck bakery in 1982.
My Most Favorite Dessert Co. was followed by restaurants in Manhattan. My Most Favorite Food is now an online baking and catering company run by Schechter’s daughter Dena Schechter Magram and her husband, Scott Magram.