PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Arizona has become known as a transplant state where people come from all over the place to relocate. With that comes different experiences including culture, food, backgrounds, and so forth. That includes a resource that is slowly disappearing – Holocaust survivors.
Arizona is the home to roughly about 80 survivors with 55 survivors in the metro Phoenix-area. who after the war came to the United States. Some ended up in the Phoenix area and around the state where they raised families and made a living. Many of which brought their experiences with them.
Most of them include dark stories of losing friends and family who were either murdered, perished, or died from disease, saw some of the cruelest unimaginable things, and the strength that guided them to push through the hardest things. Many of them have decided to pass on their stories to the younger generations in classrooms, at museums, and through the Phoenix Holocaust Association.
Phoenix Holocaust Association
The past year with the COVID-19 pandemic has tested the Phoenix Holocaust Association for just the very reason to be around – to be able to help survivors with food, resources, assisting with technology, guidance, and access to vaccines. This is what Sheryl Bronkesh, the President of PHA, has done with her career at PHA – helping the survivors out of the purest parts of her heart and without thinking twice. And because of her, 55 survivors living in Arizona have been vaccinated.
"My number one goal this past year was to do whatever I could to help ensure the safety and health - both mental health and physical health of our survivors," Bronkesh says. "We tried reaching out, we tried getting them connected on Zoom cause we all know how important electronic communication has been this year and many of our survivors are elderly and not all 90 something years olds are capable or willing to try technology."
She wanted to make sure during lockdown and quarantine that these survivors that are left and part of the most vulnerable group for COVID-19, are able to keep going, knowing what they went through in World War II and hopefully not bring back any PTSD.
Bronkesh’s parents were survivors as well and were active members in PHA years before she got involved. After a few meetings and getting more involved, she found that she belonged with PHA was there not only to shed light on the stories from Holocaust survivors or ones that have passed down, but there to also help the ones who are still around.
On April 11 at 1 p.m., PHA will be hosting a virtual Yom HaShoah Commemoration event which is open to the public. “We will honor the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust and recognize those who survived.” There will be a candle-lighting ceremony, music, and stories from survivors including Rise Stillman.
The keynote speaker will be Representative Alma Hernandez. Hernandez helped PHA to get survivors to register and receive the COVID-19 vaccine. She also created and sponsored the Holocaust and genocide education bill that will allow students to learn about them at least two times between seventh and twelfth grade. The final vote is still pending after last year’s vote was cancelled due to the pandemic.
If you would like to participate in their Yom HaShoah Commemoration event, visit www.phxha.com to RSVP. PHA will also be posting the whole event afterwards on their website.
“The architect of change”
Oskar is 95 years old and is ready to share his story with anyone who wants to listen. He at his age is very much so interested in being part of a conversation while inspiring others. In Oskar Knoblauch’s book, A Boy’s Story A Man’s Memory, he told his story from before the war until years after and what drove him to want to keep his story relevant to this very day and he keeps on going and wants to reach as many young people as he can.
“They are the builders of this country, not just this country but the world,” said Knoblauch when describing why he chose to speak with students over the last 15 years. “I tell them it is you; you can change the world to be a better place, but it isn’t going to happen by itself. We have to talk about the past in order to shape the future. “
Within the last year, students have migrated to virtual learning that cut out the in-person connection of having a conversation during a time that it was crucial. It took away that same element away from the survivor got were prepared to share their hardest days with students so they could learn, pass that on and be able to contribute to a different world. It was the first time that survivors had to focus on learning technology well enough to adapt to Zoom so they could jump on that way. Yet, it still wasn’t the same.
“I feel completely left out now for the past year because obviously I am cooped up here but I do Zoom into classrooms almost every day,” says Knoblauch.
Over the years, Knoblauch has received tons of letters who met him and heard him share his story including one student.
“After listening you, Mr. Knoblauch, I came home and told my parents and my father was very upset. He said to me that you are nothing but a liar, that you are telling stories which are not true. I have seen you and I’ve seen the way you looked and the way you spoke, and it came from your heart and I know you told the truth.” He didn’t hear from them again until six months later.
“Dear sir, it might interest you to know that I now can sit down with my dad and talk about everything you said and he’s very receptive. He’s changed his mind,” showing that people can change their minds and it takes time.
Oskar was born in Germany and lived there until 1936 when his family were forced to leave since his parents were Polish citizens. They moved to Krakow, Poland but soon after they got there, Germany occupied Poland and new laws were imposed against the Jewish population. In 1941, they were relocated to a one-bedroom apartment in a ghetto. Two years later in 1943, the family was separated. His mother went to a slave labor camp while he went with others to work at Pomorska. While there, Knoblauch’s father was murdered. Knoblauch was able to escape in 1945 and was later liberated by Soviet soldiers. They were able to relocated to Canada before moving to the United States where he became a citizen and lived in Arizona.
One of the movements Knoblauch has created and been an active part of, is about being an upstander. An upstander is someone who goes against the norm or what everyone else is doing to help when all odds are against them without thinking twice. He dedicates the movement to three Nazis who helped him multiple times during the war.
“My life was spared multiple times during the war by upstanders who secretively gave me food for my family, had me flee areas where later prisoners would be taken to death camps as well as help me and my family hide from the Nazi soldiers days before our liberation,” Knoblauch said on his website. "The most surprising upstanders during the war were three Nazi Gestapo officers, one of which pulled me out of a line-up that was headed to a death camp. My biggest advice to all youth is you give respect to get it back."
The upstander movement has made Knoblauch a big advocate against bullying and encourages students to see what bullying can do to someone – breaks you down, tears you apart, and destroys you – but instead you can turn things around, make that person feel accepted and stop it in its track before it is too late.
If you are interested in reading further details from Knoblauch’s book, you can find it here.
It takes time but needs to be talked about
Rise Stillman is a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belson concentration camps. Her story started in Czechoslovakia where she grew up with her family including four siblings in a lower, middle-class household. During the war, Czechoslovakia was taken over by Hungary. It didn’t get too bad during the war until their Hungarian government collaborated with the Germans starting in 1940-1942. They were then cut off from the world – no radio or ways to hear about what was going outside the home and around the world. When 1943 rolled around, things got increasingly worse. There was no food and if there was any, it was rationed off to the German soldiers.
As Stillman got older about 13-years-old, she moved into her cousin’s home to assist one of them who was healing from a hip injury. After some time, Rise, and her cousins, were taken by SS officers to a ghetto which became a small, enclosed city for the Jews. After two weeks, they were ordered to march to a railroad station by the Nazis. They were gathered onto a stuffed cattle car with no light, food, and amenities for three days. The cattle car eventually stopped at Auschwitz.
She was separated from most of her family besides her one cousin named Emma. Both of them were given a shower, had their heads shaved, were tattooed, and given a striped dress. Stillman noticed a strong smell coming from the chimney which she learned was above the gas chambers. One woman told Stillman, “that’s where they are burning your family.”
Each day they would line up outside their assigned barrack for food which was usually a bowl of broth and a small piece of bread. One of the days, Stillman and Emma encountered Josef Mengele also known as the Angel of Death. Mengele was a SS officer and doctor at Auschwitz who performed horrible experiments on prisoners and selected some to be killed in the gas chambers.
Stillman spent her time at Auschwitz digging ditches nonstop. Conditions and abuse continued to escalate. She was later moved to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Bergen-Belsen was the concentration camp where Anne Frank died from typhus. While there, Stillman worked in some potato fields then moved to clean a local town up after it had been bombed. They were housed in horse stables with no blankets during the coldest time of year.
They were moved again via cattle car for three days. They were ordered out to line up in a field for hours. Eventually, they got back into the cattle car, marched at the station and suddenly the SS guards were gone. New guards brought them to a new place that Stillman described as, “fit for humans.” She got the guts to eventually ask the guard where they were going and they replied, “wherever you want to. The war is over.” It took her some time to process that the Holocaust and World II had finally ended.
Stillman said the hope that someday things would change is what kept her going and what helped her push through. She lost a lot of family during the Holocaust including her cousin, Emma, who she arrived with at Auschwitz and never knew what happened to her.
Today, Stillman has decided after decades of silence to share her story because she is upset that so many people to this day have denied it ever happening but believes that they don’t really think it didn’t happen. It’s a time in history that is unfathomable, scary, and today it’s hard to relate that horrendous feeling but believes that it’s important to try change someone’s views if only one person.
Holocaust Remembrance Day
76 years ago, six million Jewish women, men, and children were killed during the Holocaust by the Nazis. They died in gas chambers, being shot, starvation, and disease
“From another perspective, the Arizona State University football stadium seats a sellout crowd of 72,000 people on a game night. Fill that stadium 83 times and you have about six million people. That is the number of people murdered by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945,” Knoblauch says in his book.
Holocaust Remembrance Day has become a day to remember six million Jewish people and other victim's of the Holocaust and to have a tough conversation. It is also about sharing survivors’ stories whether still living or from those who have passed away along with talking about history – how did the world get to that place and how can we make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
“It is my sincere hope that nobody anywhere in the world should have to go through what so many millions of innocent people and I had to go through during the World War II Holocaust.”
President Joe Biden on Sunday declared April 4 through 11 as Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust in honor of Yom HaShoah.
"While hate may never be permanently defeated, it must always be confronted and condemned. When we recognize the fundamental human dignity of all people, we help to build a more just and peaceful world. In the memory of all those who were lost, and in honor of all those who survived, we must continue to work toward a better, freer, and more just future for all humankind."