Story with a Holocaust Background

            December 2013    
Search the Jewish Magazine Site:     

Browse our




The Docent

By Berl Falbaum

He was already running late when the phone rang. Just what I need, thought Sam Horowitz. He walked over to answer it, and looked at the caller ID. It was Abe Saperstein.

"Saperstein," he said. "I don't have time for your mishagas now. Gotta go."

After listening for a few seconds, he interrupted his friend, "We can talk later. It ain't an emergency," and hung up abruptly.

Sitting at the kitchen table, he finished reading the paper, aware that he only had a few minutes before he needed to leave for his assignment as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial Center.

He scanned the paper. Obama was fighting with Congress. Michigan's governor was calling for more cuts in the budget, and there was another murder in Detroit.

This ain't news, he thought. Happens every day. It could have been last week's paper. Nothing really new. All bad. The only good news: The Detroit Lions were finally winning some football games. Not that he really cared; he was not a sports fan. But it was somehow a little uplifting. Better than losing.

After tossing the paper in the garbage, he put on his coat, locked the door of his apartment and headed for his car in the parking lot. It was only a 10 to 15 minute six-mile drive from his apartment in West Bloomfield, a suburb north of Detroit, to neighboring Farmington Hills where the Holocaust Center was located, assuming the three-inch snowfall overnight had been plowed and that traffic would be light.

This would be his second lecture since the Center's executive director, Melvin Lieberman, recruited him some four months earlier. Horowitz was reluctant to become a docent, and for more than a year, had rejected the idea, but Lieberman kept after him.

"Sam, this is an obligation," Lieberman argued over coffee and bagels at a local delicatessen. "We can't let the world forget."

"Why not?" Sam asked. "Tell you the truth, I wish I could forget."

Horowitz, now 91, was arrested at 19 in Berlin, and 24 when liberated in April 1945 from the Ohrdruf forced labor camp near Weimar by U.S. troops led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. While he cared little for politics---he never voted for either Democrats or Republicans---he respected Eisenhower immensely, primarily because Eisenhower forced the residents of nearby German towns to help bury the dead and clean up the camp. He wanted them to see first-hand what they had ignored, allowed to happen, and what they always maintained they knew nothing about.

Eisenhower also asked the media, particularly the photographers, to document the atrocities at the camp as thoroughly and comprehensively as possible because, he said, someday there will be those who will say this never happened. That, Horowitz did not understand. Ridiculous. Who would make such an asinine charge?

"Would anyone say the sun doesn't shine?" he said to a fellow inmate when he heard of Eisenhower's request to photographers. Thus, he was reluctant to be photographed although he did not refuse outright, because he did not want to be rude to his liberators.

He was among the "privileged" inmates in each camp because of his skills as a tailor. At 19, when he was arrested, he already was excellent at his trade, showing exceptional talent during his three-year apprenticeship. And he was also an accomplished violinist. Nazi commanders, in each camp, used him to spruce up their uniforms, and play for them in the evenings.

As a reward, at times they would give him a loaf of bread and offer him a swig of liquor as he left to return to his barracks. The bread he accepted and shared with inmates, but the liquor, which he was afraid to refuse, he held in his mouth and spit it out on the camp's grounds.

After his liberation, he was hospitalized for about two months and visited frequently by military officials gathering evidence for their planned prosecution of the Nazis' war crimes. Horowitz was not a very cooperative witness.

"Mr. Horowitz, we need your help to hold them accountable."

"Accountable? Not possible to do that," he replied repeatedly.

"They will go to prison for life."

"What do I care? Whatever you do, it is not enough. Leave me alone."

After being nursed back to health, he made his way to the U.S. with the help of Jewish agencies, ending up in Detroit which was booming economically after the war. He married a few years after his immigration and he and his wife, Goldie were married for 54 years before she died of cancer in 2005.

They had three children who, through the years, tried numerous times to have their father tell them "the story" but their attempts were in vain. At one point, they wanted to interview him and record his responses so they would have a record to pass on to future generations.

His answer always was, "It's not good to look back.what's the's better you don't know. You should not know. No need."

Finally, they gave up, not wanting to cause their father any unnecessary pain. They would pass on whatever information gleaned inadvertently over the years. One day, they would search official records, and if successful in discovering what happened to their father, they would write it down for future generations.

In Detroit, Horowitz worked in several of the city's prestigious clothing companies, and enjoyed a reputation as an exemplary employee and skilled craftsman. He played his violin with small community-organized orchestras, but never became part of the Jewish organizational community, not even joining a synagogue. If he was in the mood, he would go to shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, not so much to pray as to do something "different" with his time. It also gave him a chance to schmooze with congregants.

Often he was asked if he still believed in God, given his experiences, that six million died, and given all the suffering of those who survived.

"I don't know if I believe," he would say. "If He exists, I don't understand where He was. How could God let this happen? They tell me it's all part of God's plan. Excuse me God, but that was some plan."

His work for the Holocaust Center would, for the first time, engage him in communal work. Lieberman just would not give up.

"Sam, the world needs to remember," Lieberman argued, "so it does not happen again."

"You telling me if they remember, it won't happen again. They remembered World War I and we had World War II."

Lieberman ignored Horowitz's rejoinder, and pushed on.

"They need to hear the story from survivors," he said, "and there aren't many left. Sam, you are among the last ones. You're no spring chicken."

"I didn't know I was so lucky. Lieberman, you got it all wrong. I lived, but I did not survive. Then he added, "Thanks for reminding me my time is almost up."

After several meetings at the deli, Horowitz relented, primarily because it would give him something to do. He was lonely, had no hobbies, and, besides Saperstein, had few friends. His days were consumed primarily with reading the paper, and strolling around his apartment complex. Occasionally, we would drive to a nearby park and sit on a bench, usually the same one.

Before accepting his assignment, he had not visited the Center. Why did he have to? He had first-hand experience. He did not even like driving past it because the Center's exterior architecture featured barbed wire and guard towers. He did not need that kind of reminder. Couldn't they have been a little more nuanced? It frightened him to think about what he would find if he entered a building with such an exterior. What else did they do inside that would replicate the actual camps?

After Horowitz agreed to become a docent, Lieberman himself gave Horowitz the Center's orientation and an outline of his proposed presentation. All he had to do, Lieberman said, is lead a tour through the Center, explain the exhibits, and then take his group to a small auditorium where he would tell his story and answer a few questions. It would be over in an hour.

"Sam, that's it," said Lieberman. "No big deal. You'll be making a major contribution."

Horowitz remained skeptical. He was not comfortable revealing his inner-most feelings and telling stories that he wished would not dominate his thinking almost daily. Every day something comes to mind no matter how hard he tried to repress the thoughts. Nothing works to help him forget. And now, Lieberman wants him to talk about "it".

"Okay Lieberman, but I won't explain the exhibits. I don't even want to look at them. They can read the explanations on the wall. If they have questions, you or your people can answer them."

Lieberman did not argue. He did not want to lose Horowitz after all the efforts to recruit him. It was a minor detail.

So, at his first assignment, he had a group of about 50 high school students from a Catholic school in a neighboring suburb. Awkwardly, he welcomed them, as he had been instructed, and led the group through the darkened halls lined with photographs on the walls. He did not say a word as the students examined the photos and other exhibits. He purposely walked several feet in front of the students, hoping the distance would help assure he would not be asked any questions.

In the auditorium, he told his story giving the students the barest outline. He was 19 in 1940 when arrested one night along with his family which included his parents, two brothers and a sister. He was separated from them, and transported to the first of several concentration camps in which he would be imprisoned for just short of five years.

The conditions were deplorable in all the camps. The work was hard, food was scarce and the winters were the most difficult. They were beaten often and many died of starvation, disease or were executed. He told them that he did some tailoring for the Nazi authorities and the work helped him avoid difficult labor and, at times, earned him extra bread rations.

He described the day of his liberation, his recovery period in the hospital, and, ultimately, his immigration to the U.S. His presentation lasted only about 15 minutes.

"That's it. You got questions?"

"To what do you attribute your survival?"

"I was one of the unlucky---I mean---lucky ones."

"What happened to your family?"

"I don't know. I think they were killed."

"You never saw them again?"


"Are you bitter?"

Horowitz did not answer immediately. Bitter? Hell yes, he was bitter. He was angry, sad, depressed, tired, desperate, lonely, exhausted.

"I don't know."

"So how do you feel?"

"I don't know. That question is not possible to answer now. We only have a few minutes."

So it went for another 15 minutes before Horowitz ended the session, indicating that time had run out. He thanked the group for coming.

Suddenly, the group applauded, surprising Horowitz. What in the world were they applauding, he wondered. It wasn't his choice, or the choice of millions of other Jews to suffer and die in concentration camps as part of a plan to exterminate them. What was wrong with these people?

He ignored the acknowledgment. But as he was leaving, a man about 40 who had listened from behind the students, approached him, extended his hand and said, "Thank you, Mr. Horowitz, for doing this. It's important that these students learn from eye witnesses. I know this must be very hard for you."

Horowitz looked at the man, then the extended hand but said nothing. He waited a few seconds before he decided---it was a conscious decision---to shake the hand, but he did so very quickly.

"Okay," is all he said.

As he prepared to leave, another student, holding a copy of Elie Wiesel's Night, approached him.

"Mr. Horowitz, would you mind signing this book?"

"Why? I didn't write it."

"It would be cool to have the signature of a real survivor."

He stared at the student. Cool, huh? he thought. Abruptly, he said, "No," and walked away.

The next day, Horowitz had lunch with Abe Saperstein. Saperstein, a few years younger than Horowitz, was a retired dentist. He was a refugee from Nazi Germany and one of about 20,000 Jews who escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to Shanghai. The Jews were forced to live in what was called the Hongkew Ghetto, administered by the occupying Japanese. While their existence in Shanghai from 1939-48 was horrid, Saperstein knew it was "paradise" compared to what his friend, Horowitz, had suffered through. He also spoke frequently in the Detroit area to a variety of groups, detailing the lives of the Shanghailanders as they called themselves. He always made a point of stressing that the Shanghailanders were lucky compared to those who, like his friend, suffered in the camps.

"So how did it go?" asked Saperstein.

"Nu, how should it go? They were all goyim."

"Probably more important to talk to them than Jews. Wasn't so bad, was it?"

"Other than someone asking me to sign Wiesel's book because it would be 'cool' to have the signature of a real survivor, no."

"Someone really asked that? What did you do?"

"Cool or not, I said no which was a nice way of saying 'go fuck yourself.' Pardon my French."

"Look, Sam, sometimes these things happen.I know how you feel."

Horowitz cut him off. "You don't know how I feel, Saperstein. I don't even know how I feel. I wish people would stop telling me that. I got enough problems without being on display. They want to learn about what happened, let them read books. They will never understand. No one who wasn't there can understand. Who can? I was there and I don't even understand."

Saperstein listened but said nothing. He wasn't going to repeat what he had told his friend so many times about keeping the message alive, about the importance of educating the young, of not remaining silent. He felt he was making a difference telling the story of the Shanghailanders. They ate their lunch in silence before Horowitz suddenly broke the silence.

"You know, Saperstein, what haunts me the most? It's not just the memories. But after the first few weeks in the camp, I no longer cried. I didn't cry watching the shootings, the beatings, the hangings, or even watching the children suffer. The children.the children.

"I didn't cry which meant I got used to it. This life became 'normal'. How can that be? I could not react? Saperstein, what does that say about me?"

Saperstein did not answer. He looked at Horowitz and saw the pain, the anguish, the turmoil in his friend's face. He started to say, "I'm sorry." but thought better of it.

Then, suddenly, Horowitz got up before finishing his food, and left. "Nothing personal, Saperstein. See you next time."

A few days later, he was on his way to his second assignment. As he drove to the Center, he fought a strong impulse to turn around and go home. But he didn't. When he arrived, he hung up his coat and hat in a room reserved for docents and went to meet his visitors. This time the group consisted of middle-aged adults from southern suburbs of Detroit, blue collar areas comprised primarily of gentiles. He greeted them politely, if not enthusiastically.

The tour through the Center went off without incident, as it did during his first assignment. In the auditorium, he again covered his experiences with as little detail as possible and, as before, when he finished, he invited questions.

The questions were similar to the ones posed after his previous presentation, and he was as curt as he had been previously. This was just not easy for him.

"How many died in your camps?"

"I don't know. Thousands. Too many."

"What was the worst part?"

"All of it."

"How did it feel to be liberated?"

"How should it feel?"

"Did you work in the gas chambers?"


"You got a tattoo on your arm?"


"Why not?"

"I don't know.maybe they ran out of in.." he stopped, concluding that maybe, just maybe, sarcasm was not quite appropriate in this setting. The guy is just a potz, he thought.

He was in the midst of answering another question, when a visitor interrupted, asking: "Some people say the Holocaust never happened. What do you say to that?"

For a fleeting moment, Horowitz was a little stunned. He had heard the question but asked nevertheless, "What do you want to know?"

"I asked what would you say to people who say this never happened? They claim this is all Jewish propaganda."

He felt a hot flash and Horowitz sensed unease among the other visitors. They shuffled their feet and a few exchanged whispers with each other. A couple repressed giggles. He was silent for several seconds. He stared at the floor. He pondered what he should say. He had heard people talk about "Holocaust deniers" but he did not pay much attention. He didn't even know what the two words---Holocaust deniers---meant.

Suddenly, he remembered Eisenhower's warning in the camp in 1945. The general had predicted that someday there will be those who will say this never happened. That's why he strongly urged them to take photos, interview the inmates, and keep extensive records. How did the man know?

The silence, while only 10 seconds or so, seemed interminable, and when Horowitz said nothing, the man who posed the questions started again.

"I asked."

Horowitz ignored him. He scanned the crowd, and then Horowitz, who generally shuffled when he walked, strode strongly and erect out of the room. And he walked at a faster pace than he had walked in years. He put on his coat and hat, left the building, and headed for his car. He drove to the park he frequently visited, and cleaned the snow off the bench on which he usually sat. He remained on the bench in 30-degree temperatures for about two hours, staring at nothing in particular.

When he was unable to control his shivering any longer, he drove home. He unlocked the front door, hung up his coat and hat, and walked into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee when the blinking message light on the telephone caught his eye.

He pressed "play"; it was Lieberman.

"Sam, I heard you walked out of a group. I don't know what happened. Call me to discuss this. This is not good for the Center. Not good PR. Call me at 248-7."

Before the message played in full, Horowitz punched "erase." He walked to the couch, sat down, bent over and held his head in his hands. He remained in that position for several minutes when his breathing grew heavier. Then he felt them. Yes, there was no mistaking it. He rubbed a thumb over his eyes and it was wet. Yes, he had tears in his eyes.

He walked to the bathroom and stared into the mirror. His eyes were brimming with tears. Real tears. He looked carefully and gratefully into the mirror. A slight smile formed on his face. How many years has it been?

Then he returned to the couch, sat down and sobbed uncontrollably.

Berl Falbaum is the author of seven books, and a play, No Comment, a drama which deals with the ethics of the media. The play was produced by theTheatre Guild of Livonia-Redford in Livonia, Michigan in 2002. His sixth book, Shanghai Remembered: Stories of Jewish Refugees Who Escaped from Nazi Europe, was published by Momentum Books in March 2005. In May 2006, the book won an "IPPY" award from the Independent Book Publishers Association when it was named one of three finalists in the history category.


from the December 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Material and Opinions in all Jewish Magazine articles are the sole responsibility of the author; the Jewish Magazine accepts no liability for material used.



All opinions expressed in all Jewish Magazine articles are those of the authors. The author accepts responsible for all copyright infrigments.