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January 16, 2015  RSS feed

Text: T T T

Email from stranger revives memories for Holocaust survivor

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press

A 1943 photo of the orphanage in Vac, Hungary, shows children and staff members of the facility, including Edward Herman at age 11 and Dr. Mojzesz Osterweil. The orphanage housed about 100 Jewish children refuges from Poland. They were passed off as Christians in order to spare their lives. Herman found the photo on the Yad Vashem website. A 1943 photo of the orphanage in Vac, Hungary, shows children and staff members of the facility, including Edward Herman at age 11 and Dr. Mojzesz Osterweil. The orphanage housed about 100 Jewish children refuges from Poland. They were passed off as Christians in order to spare their lives. Herman found the photo on the Yad Vashem website. Late last month, more than 70 years after finding refuge at an orphanage in Hungary when he was 11 years old, Edward Herman, who now lives in St. Petersburg, received an email out of the blue that brought back sharp memories of that time.

The email came from a man in California who wondered if Herman had memories of the man’s father, a Jewish doctor at the orphanage.

About 100 Jewish children from Poland, including Herman, were housed at the orphanage until Germans entered Hungary in 1944. Then most of the children were hidden in private homes or a convent to protect them from the Nazis.

In Herman’s case, he learned an aunt and uncle – Jewish refugees from Poland who had false identification papers as Christians – had moved to the area. They made contact and he sneaked out of the orphanage and lived out the rest of the war with them, but always in fear because he had no identity papers. “They told me to hide under a nearby haystack if the Germans came,” he said.

“In the mystery of life, important and totally unexpected things happen to all of us,” Herman said, explaining that he received an email on Dec. 26 from a Dr. Dan Osterweil that conjured up those old emotions and memories.

Osterweil, a professor of medicine at UCLA, had seen the documentary Never Forget to Lie, a PBS Frontline film that chronicled the experiences of Herman and his wife, Halina, as well as several others who lived in Poland when World War II began. Herman and Halina did not know each other as children, but both were among Jewish children passed off as Christians to keep them safe.

Herman, 83, said the title of the documentary – which had a special one-night showing in St. Petersburg in February 2013 – is a reminder of what he and many other survivors had to do – lie about who they were. His wife was a baby when the war started and her mother persuaded a Catholic family to care for Halina. Halina wound up being passed from one family to another. She was reunited with her mom after the war, but her father died in transit to Auschwitz. Halina grew up thinking she was Roman Catholic and did not learn she was Jewish until she was 10 years old.

Herman’s mother was blonde and could pass as a non-Jew. She obtained false identifications for herself, her son and daughter. Mom and daughter were together through the war, but because Herman did not look “Aryan,” his mother sent him away for his protection. During the war, Herman thought his dad had been killed in battle, but learned after the war he survived. So did his mom and sister.

Herman wound up in Hungary, separated from adults who were supposed to care for him, and lived on the streets, alone, hungry and afraid. Eventually he was taken in at the orphanage in Vac, a town near Budapest. The documentary included information on the orphanage, and that prompted Osterweil to email Herman, asking if he was the man who was in the documentary and if so, Osterweil said he had questions about the orphanage.

Osterweil’s email arrived in the evening after Herman and his wife had spent a happy day celebrating the sixth birthday of their twin grandchildren, Eli and Gabriel. Once Herman read it, he could not sleep.

“This evoked many painful memories from that period of my life. For some time I lived as a homeless and a very lonely child on the streets of Budapest, without any family, having been abandoned by the person to whose care my mother in Poland had entrusted me. I knew that if apprehended by police I could be deported back to Poland, a certain death sentence,” Herman recalled.

“Fortunately, in 1943 I was one of the first children placed in the newly established orphanage in Vac,” he said, adding, “One prominent Vac memory: Initially we did not have enough beds and I had to share my bed with a younger boy, whose parents had been murdered by the Nazis. He experienced nightmares every night and as a result, would wet our communal bed.”

Herman searched the internet for information on Osterweil and learned that he is a prominent physician and professor who has published more than 60 articles.

The next day the two men connected by phone and Herman learned that Osterweil’s father was Mojzesz Osterweil, a Jewish physician who cared for children at the orphanage during the war and later wound up living in Israel.

An educational website, Wikispace, lists Mojzesz Osterweil, his wife and a daughter as caregivers at the orphanage, but provided no additional information on him. Efforts by the Jewish Press to contact Dan Osterweil in California were unsuccessful.

“I remember his father clearly,” Herman said. “At one point while living in the orphanage I was very sick with high fevers and was treated by Dr. Osterweil’s father.”

Herman had a 1943 picture of all the children and staff at Vac, including the late Dr. Osterweil, and sent a copy to his son, along with some memories of the orphanage.

Two of the Christian members of the staff, the principal and a Catholic priest, were recognized as the Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem as they helped save the lives of the Vac Jewish children. Herman said the priest was there to provide cover for the orphanage, so people would think it was home to Christians. He said the kids attended church to keep up the ruse.

Following the war Herman moved to Canada. He met and married Halina and they eventually moved to the United States. After teaching economics at the University of Cincinnati for 40 years, and his wife having a career as a dentist, the couple retired seven years ago to St. Petersburg.

Herman has told of his childhood refugee experiences to various groups. On Sunday, Feb. 8 at 10 a.m. he will speak at Temple Beth-El in a presentation that is open to the public. H also will speak to students at Eckerd Collage next month.

“I was born on Hanukkah, the holiday of miracles. This new link to my past is another small miracle in my life,” Herman said.

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