'You can’t give up': Maryland Holocaust survivors share their stories so others won't forget

Jacob Apelberg was just boy when the Nazis invaded Poland.

“Ein, zwei, drei!” they shouted, marching into the village where he lived. The soldiers spoke German, but Apelberg thought it was Yiddish. In his innocence, he ran to tell his mother that a Jewish army had come to the town.

“This is not Yiddish,” she told him.

Within a few years, his mother, along with millions of other Jewish people living in Europe at the time, would be dead. Apelberg was an orphan, fleeing to Kazakhstan and then Israel before eventually coming to the United States.

“The pain is too much when you begin to talk about it,” he said, dabbing his face with a cocktail napkin as the tears poured down.

But he speaks anyway, for fear that others will forget.

On Sunday, Apelberg, 86, attended a reception for the area’s Holocaust survivors at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville. Along with several others, he lit a candle to honor his family members who died during a time Jews call Shoah. An orchestra performed Verdi’s Requiem, once played by Jewish prisoners of a concentration camp. It was all part of an event sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council to mark Yom HaShoah, the annual day of Holocaust remembrance.

But as Apelberg remembers, others forget. A recent study made headlines when it showed that many Americans lack knowledge of basic facts about the Holocaust. Up to 41 percent surveyed didn’t know what Auschwitz is, according the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, who conducted the survey.

For Veronica Kestenberg, 82, studies like that provide motivation to visit classrooms around the Baltimore area, telling school children her story. She talks about how her parents sent her to live on a farm so that she could escape the Nazis after they invaded Budapest, Hungary, where she grew up. She adopted the name of a gentile girl and studied Christian prayers to conceal her identity. Her mother hugged her goodbye, tearing the yellow star of David off her coat as she did so.

Today, Kestenberg, who now lives in Mount Washington, fears a return of the same ideologies that killed so many millions of Jews during the Holocaust. “I see the rising of antisemitism, and I feel very scared for my children and grandchildren,” she said.

Bertha Schwartz, 85, who now lives in Towson, was born in Belgium, and sent to the Brens internment camp as a child. Her father managed to smuggle her out, but he and around 100 of her family members perished in Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp. She later moved to Palestine, working on early computers for the Israeli army.

“Eventually, it will be only in the history books,” she said of her experiences.

Not everyone mourned relatives killed in camps. As a child, Howard Kaidanow, now 88, hid in a pile of hay, along with his younger brother, while his mother was beaten and then shot to death by Nazi soldiers. His father was killed the same day. There are other things he doesn’t talk about, he said. “I couldn’t bring myself to speak about it. If you speak, it sounds like a dream. Who could believe it?”

After the death of his parents, Kaidanow, then just 13, joined an army of Jewish guerrillas who battled the Nazis. He later moved to the United States, eventually opening a series of clothing stores, including some on Eastern Avenue and in Glen Burnie. Today, he lives in Lutherville. He finds strength in his family, he has a wife who gives him a lot of “naches,” he said, a Yiddish word meaning “good stuff.” His children are very successful; one’s a lawyer, the other works in politics.

Though he still struggles to carry the heavy burden of a past too terrible to even talk about at times, “You can’t give up,” he said. “That’s why we’re called survivors.”

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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