Salvatore Distefano, Liberator
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Salvatore Distefano, Liberator

Museum of Jewish Heritage’s new Holocaust exhibit tells local stories

Sergeant Salvatore Distefano, in his dress uniform, during World War II. 
(Collection of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Gift of the Distefano Family, in Memory of Sergeant Salvatore Distefano.)
Sergeant Salvatore Distefano, in his dress uniform, during World War II. (Collection of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Gift of the Distefano Family, in Memory of Sergeant Salvatore Distefano.)

The thing about the victims of the Holocaust is that despite the unimaginably vast number of them — because who can really picture six million of anything, let alone of people — each one was an entirely individual person, unique and irreplaceable.

Jewish wisdom teaches us that each person is a world. Six million worlds were lost. No, that’s too passive. Six million worlds were demolished, on purpose.

It’s not possible to remember what you’ve never known. We can’t remember every one of the victims of the Holocaust; in fact, there are very few people still alive who genuinely can remember any of them.

But we can honor their memories, not only as a conglomeration of victims but also as individuals, by at least learning their names, finding out whatever we can of them, and making that information both public and accessible. (That’s not always the same thing. Sometimes such data can be public, but gaining access to it can be difficult and intimidating.)

There were also Holocaust survivors, millions of them as well; although some of them — at least anecdotally a surprising number of them — went on to have highly successful lives, each one of those survivors, each of those separate, unique worlds, was deeply scarred.

They lived through a literal hell, saw things that no one ever should have to see, lost, in many cases, everyone who gave them love and everything that gave them meaning, perpetrated by other human beings with free will. And then, once they were liberated, those survivors had to live life as if it were normal. As if normal were possible.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan has opened a new exhibition, “What Hate Can Do,” that tells individual stories by recombining items from its holdings, adding new ones, and arranging them in a way that forms a narrative. It’s about victims and survivors; it’s about them as flesh-and-blood human beings.

Some of them went on to live in New Jersey, or to have children who moved there. There are quite a few local families represented in the exhibit. Rita Gurko Lerner and Vivian Gurko Reisman are sisters; both live in Englewood Cliffs. Their uncle Wolf Durmashkin was a famously gifted young conductor and musician who was murdered just days before Auschwitz, where he was trying to stay alive, was liberated. Their mother, Henia Durmashkin Gurko, their aunt, Fania Durmashkin Beker, and their aunt’s husband, Max Beker, all survived. All of them were musicians; they were part of Displaced Persons Orchestra. Ms. Gurko was a singer; after a performance for Leonard Bernstein, in a DP camp, Mr. Bernstein “went into his room, and cried his eyes out,” Ms. Lerner said. “He said it was a turning point for him,” and it deepened his connection both to Judaism and to Israel.

Ms. Lerner is on the museum’s board, and the family donated many of the objects Ms. Gurko had saved to the museum long ago. Now, the new exhibit includes “a picture of my mother with Leonard Bernstein and the orchestra, and a poster that my mother donated,” she said.

The exhibit also includes a dress that Ary Freilich’s mother, Ella, wore in Auschwitz; Mr. Freilich, who lived in Englewood for decades and still is active in local organizations in Bergen County, and his sister, Hadassah Lieberman, donated that dress years ago. Ella Freilich was an intensely vital woman, who maintained that powerful personality through the terror of the war, and her story comes to life through that piece of clothing.

It also includes the teddy bear that Eva Holzer of Cresskill clutched as she left Germany on a Kindertransport. “Her younger sister wasn’t old enough to go, so 10-year-old Eva clutched her passport and ID papers, and had this teddy bear packed in her suitcase to remind her of home,” Rebecca Frank, a curatorial research assistant who helped put the exhibit together, said. The whole family miraculously survived and were reunited in Ecuador; the poignance of the teddy bear is crushing.

There is another local story in this exhibit that is entirely new. It’s not about a survivor but a liberator; it’s about an Italian American Roman Catholic, a young soldier who was not quite 23 when he entered the camp.

Sergeant Salvatore Distefano is with other members of the 120th Evacuation Hospital. (Collection of the Distefano Family)

Dan Distefano of Englewood is a musician; for decades he taught music in the Fort Lee public school system.

“My parents were typically wonderful parents, and we grew up in Ridgefield Park,” he said; he was born in 1957 and described an idyllic postwar suburban childhood. To set the scene for the rest of the story — Mr. Distefano is a marvelous storyteller. He digresses in a way that makes a listener long for more.

He is a twin, he said; although his sister is called Nina — Nina Distefano Piccone, who retired from a 40-plus-year career at Holy Name Medical Center, eventually becoming head of nursing in the hematology department there, and “now happy knitting,” her brother said — her first name actually is Danielle. Yes, the twins are Daniel and Danielle. Mr. Distefano grew up thinking that his parents had assumed they were having only a girl — obstetrics hadn’t developed to the point where a pregnant woman necessarily would know that she was carrying twins — and came up with only the girl’s name. “They said that my dad turned green when he was told that there were two of us,” he said. So he thought that his name was an afterthought. After all, they were named after Danielle’s, a hat shop in North Bergen.

That’s what life was like at the Distefanos’ house.

There were four children. “It was a lovely tine to grow up in North Jersey,” Mr. Distefano said. They rode their bikes all over town; everybody knew everybody and looked out for everybody.

His parents, Salvatore and Frances Roberto Distefano, both were born in New Jersey — he in West New York, she in Union City — to parents who came here from northern Italy and Sicily in the 1920s. Sal wanted to be a doctor before the war, and was in a premed program when he was drafted. “That’s why he wound up in the medical corps,” his son said. After the war, he became an engineer, and his career had him overseeing in installation of HVAC systems in major institutions around the country. “He traveled a lot, and he brought things back,” Mr. Distefano said. “He brought us a stuffed alligator — a real one — from New Mexico. It was about a foot long, and my mother wasn’t crazy about it, but really every child needs to have a stuffed alligator.”

Frances “worked on a small school bus for special needs kids,” her son said. “She was a blessing for them. She was a mom. She was a caregiver.” Sal handled all the finances — “Mom had no idea where the money was,” Mr. Distefano said — Frances ran the house, they were married for 62 years, and everything was good.

But there was a secret.

The kids knew that their father had been in the war, but that’s all they knew. “He wouldn’t talk about it,” Mr. Distefano said.

“There were some artifacts around the house. He came home with a duffel bag and a canteen and a flashlight, and we used them around the house.”

The kids knew that there was a book that his unit assembled about “their tour of duty, called ‘Buchenwald and Beyond — 120th Evac,’” Mr. Distefano said. (The 120th Evacuation Hospital, Salvatore Distefano’s unit, was an “evacuation hospital which served during World War II in an unusual capacity, i.e. rendering medical and, surgical aid to Political Prisoners and Displaced Personnel at Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany, and Cham, Bavaria,” according to the book’s foreword, written by its commanding officer, Colonel William E. Williams. Salvatore Distefano was a surgical assistant; perhaps that is why he changed his career plans when he was demobilized.)

During his childhood and adolescent, “The book would make an appearance here and there,” Mr. Distefano continued. “My parents would open it up and show up the horrible pictures from Auschwitz that they were familiar with, and then they shut it up because they didn’t want to be traumatized.”

This is the map that Dan Distafano found hidden in his parents’ dresser.
(Collection of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Gift of the Distefano Family, in Memory of Sergeant Salvatore Distefano.)

And that was it.

“Once, I said to him, ‘We never have sat down and talked about it,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘We really have to sit down and talk about it.’

“And my father, this really sweet man, just looked at me, and he said, ‘No. No, we don’t.’

“And that was that.’”

Salvatore Distefano died in 2014, and Frances began to show signs of dementia; she died of covid in 2020. Soon after his father died, “I was looking for Mom’s living will,” Dan Distefano said. It wasn’t where it was supposed to be, “so I call her and say, ‘Mom, what did you do with your living will? And your will? They’re not where they are supposed to be. And she goes, ‘Go check the hidden section in the dresser.’ And I say, ‘What hidden section?’ And she says, ‘You know. The hidden compartment, underneath the second section of drawers. That’s where we hide things.’”

The cherrywood double dresser was a well-made, sturdy piece of furniture, and turns out that “there was a four-inch well that runs about six feet wide. And there were things in it.

“Not the things I was looking for, but a packet of artifacts that I had never seen before.

“I sit on the bed and open it up. There is a map, not a printed version, updated, with things pasted on to it. All the writing is beautiful, hand written, with the guard positions around the camp.

“And in the upper righthand corner he had written ‘Technical Sergeant Fourth Grade Salvatore Distefano,’ and then he wrote ‘Liberator.’

“I knew that’s what he wanted people to know. That this was his proof that he was there. That he participated in history.”

The cache also included an issue of Time magazine, a special smaller version that went only to the military. “There was an article in it about all the world leaders of Parliament and Congress who had toured the camps. He had told us that General MacArthur made the people of Weimar come down and tour the camps so they couldn’t deny that they were real or that they knew about them, and there also was a picture of that in Time magazine.”

The hidden compartment also had a copy of “Buchenwald and Beyond,” and a collection of pictures. Salvatore Distefano had been on the book’s photography committee, so he had many of the original images from the book, including images of the other men in his unknit.

This is the teddy bear that Eva Holzer held on the Kindertransport. (Collection of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Gift of the HOLZER Family.)

“I don’t know if he looked at it when he was alone, but I do know that at least one point he thought about it,” his son said. “It was in a Ziploc bag. Those bags hadn’t been invented in the 1950s.”

What did it feel like? “It was horrifying,” Mr. Distefano said. “I was sitting alone in the house. It was a wonderment. I didn’t know he had all those pictures.”

The rest of the cache was family pictures that “my parents would never get out. We would say, ‘Why don’t you show us old pictures? The pictures of you from when you were young? And they wouldn’t.’”

They did have “huge wedding albums,” so it wasn’t that they didn’t want anyone to see what they looked like, young and radiant and full of joy. But they didn’t seem to want to get anything from the hidden compartment. Once something was there, it was gone.

“I don’t know why their own pictures were hidden,” Mr. Distefano said. “There were a lot of glamor shots of my mom when she was 19. They were absolutely beautiful. There were a lot of family pictures from the ’60s, and a lot of immigrant family pictures that went back to the ’20s.

“There was nothing embarrassing or strange, but he would never get them out. He just treasured them.”

And then there were the wartime pictures.

“So I tell my family about what I found, and I put them back. My mom, who had been in assisted living and then was coming home, walks into the house, and the first thing she said was, ‘I want to see the map.’” Dan had told her of his discovery. “She seems to have had no idea that it existed, which I found hard to believe, but I since have realized that in the six years between my father’s death and hers, she had a form of dementia that came on very slowly. So she had no memory of it.

“So I took it out, and opened it up on the kitchen table, and we all took pictures of it, and put it away.”

Just a few months later, Ms. Distefano had to go back to assisted living. “In 2018, four days before Thanksgiving, I went by the house. I was going to see my mother, who was living in Paramus, and I had to pick something up.

“I stopped and looked in the kitchen window, and I saw that it was raining. Inside the house.”

The leak he discovered “cost us $70,000, both bathrooms, and was a horror show, so now I had to clean out the house, and I have to go through things like a seven-foot-high freezer filled with food, because they were Depression babies.

his tricorn-folded burial flag presented to the Distefano family after Salvatore Distefano died. (Collection of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Gift of the Distefano Family, in Memory of Sergeant Salvatore Distefano.)

“And the artifacts were missing. They weren’t where they had been.

“And I asked her, ‘What did you do with them?’ She said, ‘I don’t remember.’”

So as he frantically worked to get the house ready to be cleaned and fixed — you know the way you have to clean for the cleaners — “I don’t know where that stuff is. I am searching. We had a neighbor two doors down who collected military memorabilia, and my dad apparently had spoken to him about the map.” (Not to his own family, mind you, because people are complicated.) “He contacted me and mentioned that he might be interested in buying it, if we would sell it to him. I told him that we don’t know where it is.

“Three months go by, and I am readying the house and searching the whole time, and nothing nothing nothing.

“The day before construction starts, I am in my sister’s room. There is a paper bag for garbage there, and there seems to be nothing in it. But it seemed a little heavy.”

Of course, it was the missing cache of wartime documents.

“I am guessing that my mom put it in the bag to bring upstairs but she forgot.

“My neighbor had asked her about it, and she said, ‘All of this is going in the trash.’” When the neighbor recounted that conversation, he mimicked Mr. Distanfano’s mother’s inflection perfectly; “that’s what made me think she had thrown it away,” he said. But it’s a mystery. “She brought it upstairs, and there’s no reason to bring something upstairs to throw it away.

“And now construction starts, I’m in the kitchen with the contractors, and the neighbor comes over to talk to me about the map. To see if I found it and to make an offer on it.

“And I said, ‘We found it yesterday, but we are not selling it.’”

So the Distefanos have the memorabilia, they do not want to profit from it, but none of them wants to keep it. “Nobody is going to put it up on a wall,” Mr. Distefano said. So he scanned the map — it took 30 scans that he cobbled together — so that he and his sibling each have a large-sized copy.

Now what to do?

This program, signed by Leonard Bernstein, is for a performance of the Displaced Persons Orchestra in St. Ottilien, Germany, in 1948.

“I had promised a good friend of mine, who is Jewish, that this wouldn’t be sold,” Mr. Distefano said. “You don’t know who you might be selling it to. It could be some crazy skinhead person.

“I collect antiques. I live in a house of antiques. I know that this material has to be kept in proper conditions, and that a museum could do that.”

“I had written to the Holocaust Museum in Washington three times, and they never bothered to get back to me,” Mr. Distefano said. “I went to their website — nothing. I know they have a copy of the book, but you can only see it by appointment.

“In 2018, I realized that the people in DC weren’t going to give me the time of day, and I knew that there is a big Jewish population in this area,” he continued. “It turns out that the City Councilman where I live in Englewood is Michael Cohen. I talked to him about it.” Mr. Cohen is the eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Simon Wiesenthal was a Nazi hunter. Mr. Distefano was fascinated, and started googling. “I looked up Jewish museums, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage came up.

“I started to look on line, and I saw that their collections — they have a lot of things on paper, drawings and artworks, and it wasn’t as if I had a German helmet or a Luger, so I thought that it sounded perfect. So I contacted them, and Maggie wrote back” – that’s Maggie Radd, its vice president of collections and exhibitions — “and she was interested immediately.” He emailed his scans to her, “and that’s how it happened.”

The cache of wartime memorabilia is on display; so, too, is the cherrywood dresser.

Mr. Distefano looks back at his father with awe. “He just buried it,” he said. “I’m sure he relived it. He had his own form of PTSD. He was very good with us. He just buried it.

“I’m sure that when he put that stuff in the dresser, he thought that he’d never have to take it out again. That at some point we’d find it, but that he’d be dead. He didn’t have to deal with it any more. He didn’t have to think about it any more.

“He died at the age of 90 with grown children and grandchildren and big Christmas and birthday get togethers. He was a wonderful marriage and a nice retired life. It was as good as could be.”

Dan Distefano retired early; one of the things he does now is to volunteer at Bergen Volunteers. Some of the people he meets through that work are World War II veterans. “The Jersey hills are chock full of these people, although they’re dying off now,” he said.

“One guy told me that he was at a very famous battle,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s amazing. And he looked at me, very unhappy, and he said, ‘What’s so amazing about it?’ So I did the prudent thing, which was to shut up.

“And he said, ‘Do you want to hear how amazing it was? Because it wasn’t. It wasn’t cool. It was blood and guts.’”

Similarly, his father didn’t want to talk about what he saw. But he did want other people to see it.

“He would get very angry when he heard about Holocaust deniers,” Mr. Distefano said of his father. “That made his blood boil. He’d say, ‘I’ll tell them what I saw, and they will know.’”

And his father’s cache? “It’s a time capsule,” he said.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage is at 36 Battery Place in Manhattan. Its website, with details about visiting both the core exhibit, “The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do” and the rest of it, including performance, is mjhnyc.org.

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