His story and history
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His story and history

School Shoah observance offered personal story and an overview

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According to Prof. Stephen Berk, Bob Bennett was among those to “spit in the face of history.” Bennett stands outside of Birkenau with members of his extended family. Courtesy Bob Bennett

After debarking the train, he chose to stand in line with his father, rather than his mother. He would not, for many years to come, comprehend the eternalness of the decision. He was told there would be showers ahead and, because he was 11 now, he figured he would find more comfort among men. Birkenau, however, had only discomfort in store – violent guards, the smell of burning hair, electrified barbed wire, meager food, dysentery, urinals that reeked from blocks away, days and frigid nights in a coat without lining, not a bird in sight, the constant fear of extermination.

When Bob Bennett (born Benno Benczkowski) stood to recount the horrors of the Shoah for the Gerrard Berman Day School’s (GBDS) George and Arline Haar Middle School, he gripped the desk in front of him until his knuckles went white, and wept for the mother and sister he could not keep safe. He saw them afterward only through barbed wire, until he saw them no more.

This was Bennett’s third visit to GBDS, offering students and faculty a first-person perspective of the worst holocaust in human history. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am director of development at the school, as well as an occasional contributor to this newspper.)

Bennett’s father kept him alive. “The only way to survive Birkenau was to be selected for labor. If they needed a mechanic, my father was a mechanic. If they needed a carpenter, suddenly he was a carpenter. But he would lose out on every job because I was a small boy there with him.”

Eventually, however, father and son were selected together for labor in the BMW factory in Görlitz. “My father told the chief mechanic, ‘my son has golden hands,’ which of course wasn’t true,” Bob Bennett told the students. “There was everywhere betrayal and cruelty, murder and indifference, but the mechanic in charge of that selection took pity on us, and that is how we escaped Birkenau with our lives.”

He spent a year affixing protective linings onto airplane wheels. Then, the labor camp was liberated. “Unlike the American soldiers, the Russians would put a bullet through anyone wearing a German uniform,” Bennett said. Father and son returned to Poland. “Of our hundreds of relatives, only one cousin survived.” Bennett went back to school. It was 1945. The trauma was fresh and yet schoolmates continued to terrorize him, calling him a Jewish pig, and a God-hater. “We knew we had to leave,” he said. The Bennetts made their way to Cuba and, five years later, to America where Bob would meet his wife, Gerdi, and begin a successful business.

Although Bennett, an Englewood resident, recorded his experiences for The Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, he almost never speaks to audiences.

“I have nightmares days before and for days after,” he confided. However, he feels a special tie to GBDS in Oakland. His daughter, Eve Levi, teaches kindergarten at the school, three of his grandchildren graduated its program, and a grandson, Itai, is in the eighth grade. Bennett told the middle school students, “If I can survive such a hell, nothing is impossible. You must not allow anything to stand in your way.”

Bennett was the first of two GBDS programs focusing on the Shoah. The following week, the school sponsored LEARN, a one-night course in Holocaust history. The event, held at Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey headquarters in Paramus, featured Stephen M. Berk, professor of history at Union College and consultant to The Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

“Why does something happen when it happens, where it happens?” Berk asked his audience. Over the next two hours, he dissected the events leading up to the Holocaust: Two thousand years of scorn following the killing of Jesus Christ (“when a people is held in contempt for a long time, a folklore continues to exist”), the loss of World War I, the onerous terms of the Treaty of Versailles, super-inflation (which at its peak witnessed one billion marks to the dollar), anti-socialism (a high percentage of Jews leaned left), and, above all, personality. “Many things cause history to change,” Berk said, “but never underestimate the effect of personality. What doomed us most of all was Hitler’s vituperative and ferocious hatred for the Jews.”

Berk’s lecture described The Rampa in Birkenau, where trains came in and prisoners were sorted.

“There were fake signs along the tracks, as if it were a tourist destination, rather than a final one. An SS officer would point to the right or the left, determining one’s fate: labor or death. Twenty thousand were gassed and cremated at Birkenau each day. In most cases it took less than 90 minutes from deboarding until death.”

Hitler’s top priority in the war was cleansing Europe of its Jews, Berk said. “Survivors will spit in the face of history. They will marry, have children, and become contributing citizens.”

Bennett, who visited Poland with his family in 2011, took a photograph at The Rampa. In the photo, he, his wife, two of his children and seven of his grandchildren are smiling. “Everything was green and peaceful. There were birds singing.” He labeled the photo, “The Bennetts at Camp.”

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