Learning from their stories

Holocaust survivors asked to be educators

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Surrounded by two of her four grandchildren, her two sons and a daughter-in-law, Laura Greenbaum celebrated being 99 with about 90 fellow Holocaust survivors at the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC’s 16th annual Thanksgiving Day luncheon a week before the holiday.

Born on Nov. 4, 1921, Greenbaum (née Herkovits) grew up in Czechoslovakia, near its border with Hungary. She survived the Ravensbruck and Bergen Belsen concentration camps, both in northern Germany, and came to the U.S. in 1946. Through a matchmaker she met her husband, Harry, who died in 1997.

After becoming a naturalized citizen in 1951, Greenbaum has voted in every presidential election since 1952 (when she cast a ballot for Harry Truman), and this year supported Hillary Clinton. A seamstress for the majority of her life, she still made clothes for her family until last year. She also worked for the long-running soap opera “The Guiding Light.”

Greenbaum lived in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and has resided in the Plaza Apartments in Lawrence for the past 16 years. “She’s my favorite tenant,” said son Steven Greenbaum, who manages the property on Central Avenue and lives in Woodmere. Greenbaum’s other son, Mark, lives in New Rochelle. She also has one great-grandchild, Avery.

She keeps her mind sharp by exercising, reading, following the stock market and attending synagogue, Beth Sholom in Lawrence. She’s there every shabbos, and is a member of the JCC’s Café Europa and Chaverim programs as well.

“I made it to 99,” Greenbaum said as she was feted by Hempstead Town Councilman Bruce Blakeman and State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, who presented her with a certificate and a proclamation. “It means a lot; this was a big surprise,” she said, pointing to her family, which also included grandchildren Dena and Harrison Greenbaum.

The need to educate

The number of Holocaust survivors, like World War II military veterans, is shrinking. According to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, there are an estimated 100,000 Jewish people who were in camps, ghettos and in hiding under Nazi occupation who remain alive today — about 400,000 less than in 2014. The Conference is among the few international organizations that maintain such information.

Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, spiritual leader of the Chabad of the Five Towns, spoke about the need for survivors to recount their stories in video recordings and in writing. “You have a very powerful message, and you should share that message,” Wolowik said. “It is important to be a teacher and an educator. We can learn from your life story.”

Maurice Vegh, 86, who was also at the luncheon, took that mission to heart many years ago. The Long Beach resident took it upon himself to visit public and private schools and museums, and tell his story, which is part of “The Boys: The Story of 732 Young Concentration Camp Survivors,” written by Sir Martin Gilbert and published in 1997.

Born in Rachov, Czechoslovakia in 1930, Vegh was 13 when he and his family were deported to Auschwitz I in Poland. He also was in Buchenwald in Germany, Jawischowitz in Poland, and then Auschwitz II. Vegh came to the U.S. in 1950, and two years later was drafted by the Army and sent to Korea. Instead, he said, he ended up as a translator in Austria since he speaks English, German and Czechoslovakian.

After working in New York City’s Garment District, Vegh said, he went to school and became a beautician. He owned two beauty shops in Long Beach: one in the King David Hotel (now the Allegria Hotel) and another on Park Avenue. He retired 11 years ago. His wife, Phyllis, died last year. They were married for 59years and had three sons.

“Being a survivor means a lot …,” Vegh said. “I have no hate. There is a new generation [of Germans] and I can’t blame them.”

He made an impression on a sixth-grader in Long Beach more than two decades ago. “This man talked about the Holocaust,” Kaminsky, 38, recalled as he pointed to Vegh. “I learned a long time ago it’s up to my generation to preserve the message that Maurice brought to us that day.”

Have your own Holocaust story that you want to share? Please send to the editor to jbessen@liherald.com.