Standing on the railroad tracks that had carried his grandparents to their deaths at Auschwitz, Norwood resident Ben Gutmann could not help comparing their situations. “I realized with a jolt that we both stood on the platform at the same age, but I walked out of there and they didn’t,” he said.
Five years later, he and a troupe of family and friends watched Israeli children playing in the park dedicated to Benno and Hedwig Gutmann, the grandparents he never knew.
The trip to Israel earlier this year, with the park dedication as its emotional centerpiece, celebrated Gutmann’s 60th birthday. Gutmann told The Jewish Standard that he felt the most fitting way to mark this milestone and honor his paternal grandparents – murdered by the Nazis when they were just 58 and 52 – was creating a symbol of Jewish vibrancy.
President of the Jewish National Fund’s Northern New Jersey Board, Gutmann and his wife, Susan, last year scouted out an appropriate project among several JNF proposals in Israel. “They showed us places in the Negev and then took us to Nofey Prat, where 3-year-olds greeted us singing ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and waving flags out in the cold,” recalled Gutmann.
The 140-family Judean Desert village was established in 1992 by a group of Hebrew University students for a mixed secular and religious population. Though it lies on the west bank side of the “Green Line,” Gutmann said he and JNF chose the location not to make a political statement but to help build Israel.
“We fell in love with the community,” said Gutmann. “A mother came over to us and said they needed a park. It’s really hard to say no to that.”
Over Presidents Week, a contingent of 49 friends and relatives came to Israel to fete Gutmann. The roster included his two sisters as well as his brother Harold from River Vale; his son Andrew and his wife, Julie, and daughter, Lauren, from Manhattan; his son Samuel and his wife, Jenna, from Boston; and the parents of both daughters-in-law. Jenna Gutmann’s parents, Robert and Joan Oppenheimer, and grandmother, Marianne Lawton, flew in from Cliffside Park. Another 70 well-wishers in Israel joined them at a birthday party in Jaffa.
Two busloads of Gutmann guests arrived at Nofey Prat, where JNF America CEO Russell Robinson presided as the couple unveiled the dedication plaque and planted a tree. “Our 18-month-old granddaughter ran off the bus right to the playground. That was very moving,” said Gutmann. “People treated me as if I were a major personality. Mothers wanted to take my picture with their babies. I felt like a rock star.”
Local children sang “Happy Birthday” in English and Hebrew, and shared a birthday cake with Gutmann. Community spokeswoman Esti Goldwasser presented the couple with two leather-bound Bibles embossed with the impression of a coin found near Jericho featuring the words “peace on Israel.”
“The local residents clearly appreciate the new park,” said Gutmann. “They’re hoping it will entice more people to come to Nofey Prat. There were so many children running around the playground and I hope they still are, because that’s what makes it a living memorial.”