Psalms, A Memoir by Hirsch Grunstein; Create Space; 403 pages; no price listed.
By Norman Manson
SAN DIEGO–This is, in a number of ways, a very unusual memoir of Holocaust survival. It is not a story of survival in death camps, nor of life on the run deep in the fields and woods of eastern Europe.
Rather, it portrays the recollections of a boy’s life under four years of Nazi occupation in Belgium – a life fraught with stress and anxiety, yet almost devoid of physical harm, at least for young Hirsch (or Henri as he was know in those years) Grunstein.
In some ways the most amazing part of this story is Grunstein’s phenomenal memory, his vivid descriptions of his growing-up years, 65 to 70 years ago. And a section that highlights this phenomenon is his recall of reading the entire biblical book of Psalms, which made a sufficient impression on him that he made it his book’s title.
While Belgium’s Jews certainly suffered under Nazi rule – 25,000 of the 60,00 who lived there were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps and few if any returned – the impression left by this book is that they underwent fewer of the horrors than their East European counterparts did and that, with the help of a few compassionate gentiles, a larger percentage were able to survive.
Grunstein suffered only one really excruciating moment in the course of his wartime odyssey, and what seemed to be a portent of utter foreboding quickly turned into a time of renewed hope. And, in the end, the immediate Grunstein family all survived and were reunited.
Originally from Poland, the Grunsteins immigrated to Belgium in 1930, and were quite well established in Antwerp’s flourishing diamond industry by the time the Wehrmacht invaded in May 1940. They first fled to France, but there was no haven there and they soon returned home, oddly enough with the encouragement of the conquering Nazis. At first, all seemed almost normal, but the Nazis gradually tightened their stranglehold, barring Jews from businesses, schools and much of the city.
In 1942, raids on the Jewish neighborhood were followed by deportations, ostensibly for work.
Finally, in September 1942, it was decided to place young Henri (he was 14) and his younger brother Sylvain with a gentile family in a small village between Antwerp and Brussels. Their hosts, Adrienne and Gaston, put Henri in a small upsteairs bedroom. And, for the next year and a half, Grunstein spent most of his days in hiding, peering out the window or reading from the small book of Psalms that his father had made him take along.
This segment is the most fascinating and provocative of the story – one can see why he titled the book “Psalms.” Amazingly, he recalls, in minute, precise detail, the impact the psalms had on him, bring back memories of his childhood in synagogue and school, and inspiring visions of various aspects of Judaism. The family was Orthodox, quite observant, and Henri tries to retain at least some semblance of Orthodoxy in this totally gentile environment. He even managed to fast on one Yom Kippur. And, when not reading the Psalms, he spends much of his time fanstsizing, gazing out the window and describing the scenes, and his fantasies.
This relatively placid existence came to a sudden, jolting end in the spring of 1944, when he (and others) were apprehended by the SS -his description of his capture is also very detailed and suspense-filled. And, for no more than a day, he appears to be doomed. However, he is rescued by the Belgian Judenrat (Jewish council) and spends the last months of the war in a home for children.
Not to minimize the fate of the 25,000 Belgian Jews sent to Auschwitz and other death camps, but this book seems to indicate that at least a significant number of Belgian gentiles hid and otherwise helped their country’s Jews. Relatively little has been written about the Holocaust in Belgium, and his story spotlights the Belgians’ role during that horrendous era. And Grunstein’s recollections of his wartime experiences are truly amazing in their precise, minute detail after almost 70 years.
For someone whose first language is not English, this memoir is quite well written, and the editing also is first-rate. For a somewhat unusual take on the Holocaust, this is a book well worth reading.
Manson is a freelance writer based in San Diego
WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (Press Release)— George Salton is a Holocaust survivor who was born in the small town of Tyczyn, Poland. He was about to enter the 6th grade in September 1939 when the Nazis occupied Poland. His name was Lucjan Salzman(n). His family was forced into the Rzeszow Ghetto, and his parents, Anna and Herman Salzmann, deported to, and gassed at the Belzec Extermination Camp. George and his older brother Manek remained in the ghetto and worked as forced labor in a factory camp in Rzeszow. After George was imprisoned at the camp, Manek escaped from the ghetto. Over the next few months he somehow managed to pass several notes to George in the factory.
The last note stated that dangerous activities would make it impossible for Manek to contact him again and that they should meet after the war by contacting relatives who had managed to emigrate to New York before the war.
American soldiers of the 82nd Airborne liberated George on May 2, 1945 after 3 years in 10 concentration camps. He spent another 2 years in German Displaced Person Camps and eventually immigrated to New York. He never heard from Manek. Rumor was that Manek was killed in the forests with other young partisans fighting the Nazis.
Last week during an Internet search of newly digitized post war records, his daughter Anna Salton Eisen came across a list of Tyczyn Jewish Survivors. Manek Salzmann was on the list. On Monday, she contacted a researcher at the US Memorial Holocaust Museum who found a second document stating Manek Salzmann of Tyczyn Poland, son of Herman, was alive in Poland as of December 17, 1946.
George Salton has filed formal papers with the “The Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center” of the American Red Cross who will coordinate a search for documents or information across the globe. The US Memorial Holocaust Museum continues to search their records as Anna and George begin to contact agencies, archives and Holocaust related organizations to help track Manek’s path after December 1946. Emails regarding the “Search for Manek” are being copied and forwarded around the world. George is 83 years old and has new hope that his brother or any family he might have had may still be found.
Preceding provided by Anna Salton Eisen, who may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org
SAN DIEGO (Press Release)–Nearly 100 elected officials, preservationists and business leaders from both sides of the U.S./Mexico border gathered Wednesday morning on the site of a historic preservation project at the corner of Third and Laurel streets in Park West.
The attendees came from nearby businesses as well those in Baja California to support the final fundraising campaign to complete the renovation of what is now known as Ohr Shalom Synagogue, an iconic landmark of San Diego built as Temple Beth Israel in 1926 and designed by notable architect William H. Wheeler.
“Make it Your Business to Make History” fundraising campaign, spearheaded by Luis Maizel, president of LM Advisors, was created as a way to involve the greater San Diego community in contributing to the expensive restoration endeavor. Only $600,000 remains to be raised for the $4 million construction project.
Maizel applauded the congregation in raising more than $3.6 million to date almost exclusively from the 350 Ohr Shalom members, adding, “It is now the turn of businesses and neighbors to aid in this effort.”
Maizel used the analogy of a marathon to explain how far they have come.
“When this project was first proposed, we knew it would be like running a marathon. But 26 miles in a long way,” he said to the audience of who gathered in the courtyard outside of the building that is currently under construction.
As a crane carried building materials over the outdoor patio, Maizel said they are now at mile 22. “We are tired and we are sore. But we will finish this race with the help of our friends and neighbors.”
County Supervisor Ron Roberts, San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria, and Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation, along with Luis Maizel, president of LM Advisors, Raulf Polichar and Jose Galicot took turns addressing the guests, stating the importance of supporting the efforts to complete renovation of the architectural jewel.
Supervisor Roberts, a former architect, began by remarking at the brave efforts of Ohr Shalom to tackle the renovation project once it became known that the building was scheduled for demolition.
“I applaud those who favor saving, and renovating, important parts of San Diego’s history,” said Supervisor Roberts. “I especially cheer those like the Ohr Shalom congregation who actually go out and raise the dollars to turn a vision into reality. The entire San Diego community will be enriched by supporting the completion of this important renovation.”
Coons paid tribute to various community members who helped to preserve the temple building after Beth Israel sold it to developers Peter Janopaul and Anthony Block, including Polichar who led efforts to obtain the building for Ohr Shalom Synagogue and Jewish Historical Society of San Diego leaders Stan and Laurel Schwartz, who mobilized a successful campaign to have the structure declared an historic monument by the State of California and placed on the national register.
“For the last eight years, Ohr Shalom has proved to be an excellent guardian of Wheeler´s work, and their efforts should be commended by the community at large,” Coons said.
Councilman Gloria thanked the Ohr Shalom congregation for its care of less fortunate people in his district through a variety of social service projects, and for making its meeting facilities available to the general community.
“As a third generation San Diegan, I’ve seen many buildings in our community lost because of the lack of appreciation for their historic significance,” said Gloria. “This isn’t just restoring a building; we’re preserving an important part of our neighborhood’s history for the greater good of the community.”
Reflecting the community spirit of the project, Rabbi Scott Meltzer reiterated that the Ohr Shalom building will continue servicing the entire community as a meeting center and as a resource for the entire community once the renovation is complete.
“The intention is to bring the building back to its original glory. That meant erasing the footprints of time, but to also add seismic protection and water intrusion prevention,” the rabbi explained.
Continuity between the Reform Congregation Beth Israel, which is now located in the University Towne Center area, and the Conservative Ohr Shalom Synagogue was represented by the presence of Jerry Goldberg, an attorney who previously served as president of Beth Israel and who is the uncle of Rabbi Meltzer.
“The painstaking combination of the old and the new was a challenge for Zagrodnik & Thomas Architects and Swinerton Builders,” Meltzer said, referring to the architects and builders in charge of the restoration project, “and it is evident now that it will be beautifully accomplished.”
Polichar said that refurbishing the building meant undoing some of the “modernization of 1950 to reveal the original beauty.” Additionally, the structure was reinforced for earthquake safety and to bring it in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The stage inside the old Temple Center, or social hall, was removed, and a small meeting room and new kosher kitchen constructed in its place.
Galicot told of visiting a museum in Israel where Jewish communities were represented by lights on a map. Many lights went out in the 15th century because of the Expulsion from Spain and Portugal and in the 20th century because of the Holocaust.
But, now in San Diego in the 21st century, “here we are turning on lights,” Galicot declared.
Attention to detail and historic accuracy were of essence. All renovation work was approved by the Historical Resources Board at the City Planning Department and is in compliance with The Secretary of the Interiors’ Standards for Rehabilitation.
Guests were able to tour the restored areas and marveled at the dazzling stained glass windows and domed sanctuary.
Wheeler delivered a synagogue with a classic Moorish style dome, high ceilings above a majestic sanctuary, and stained glass windows with medieval, Islamic and Jewish motifs.
Ohr Shalom Congregation took possession of the building in 2002, committed to preserving the historic landmark.
The renovation project began in January and entailed complete repair and repainting of the façade, a structural seismic upgrade to comply with current building codes, and removal of wood panels lining the halls, in order to reveal the original stucco.
The stained-glass windows were shipped to Iowa for specialized restoration, and a replica of the original raised- paneled doors is being custom made by hand in California.
Preceding based on material provided by J Simms Agency, which is coordinating the “Make It Your Business to Make History” campaign for Ohr Shalom Synagogue, and augmented by event coverage by San Diego Jewish Press editor Donald H. Harrison
SOFIA (WJC)– Israel’s President Shimon Peres has paid tribute to Bulgaria’s record with respect to the plight of its Jewish population during World War II. Peres said that the country had “suffered much from many directions, including from the Nazis, but the country managed not only to save itself, but also to save the Bulgarian Jews”.
“I am sincerely grateful for this,” Peres said in a speech, after he was bestowed by Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov with an order in recognition of his “great contribution towards strengthening and developing Bulgarian-Israeli bilateral relations”.
Peres was in Bulgaria to discuss cooperation between Israel and Bulgaria in technology, industry and tourism. His visit follows Purvanov’s trip to Israel in 2008, and “is the result of the high level of bilateral cooperation in all spheres”, an official statement of the Bulgarian government said.
Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress
MARMANDE, France (WJC)–A monument to the victims of World War II in south-western France has been spray-painted with anti-Semitic graffiti. French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux expressed “horror and sadness” after the discovery of anti-Jewish slogans and symbols at a memorial to the deportation and resistance in Marmande, in the Lot-et-Garonne department.
The words ‘lies’, ‘Zionism’, ‘interests’ and the dollar sign were inscribed in red paint on the monument which bears the names of Nazi concentration camps. Gerard Gouzes, the mayor of Marmande, said: “It is undoubtedly the act of a Holocaust denier, someone who knows very well what he did.”
According to the interior minister, the authors of the tags “clearly targeted the memory of the deportees and the Jewish community of France.” Hortefeux said: “I am more than ever determined to fight against all the obscurantisms, all racisms and all the forms extremism.”
Wednesday’s incident came after several other anti-Semitic acts in the country. Three weeks ago, dozens of Jewish graves were vandalized in eastern France. Vandals smashed or overturned 27 gravestones at the Jewish cemetery of Wolfisheim, near Strasbourg. More recently, anti-Semitic slogans and Nazi swastikas were discovered on the walls of the Etz Haim synagogue in Melun, in central France, and on the windows and walls of a dozen kosher stores in Paris.
Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress