|Marta Felberbaum, left, and Olga Jaeger at a recent meeting of Cafe Europa at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.|
Olga Jaeger and Marta Felberbaum both grew up under Nazi occupation, in the same region, now part of western Ukraine, an area that frequently changed hands between Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Both women were sent to Auschwitz as teenagers.
But it wasn’t until they ended up in a Displaced Persons Camp in Bamberg, Germany, each trying to make her way to the United States, that they met.
Separated by an ocean when Felberbaum left for America, they kept in touch through letters. They later worked in the same factory in New York, but over time they lost touch with one another.
That is, until CafÃ© Europa, a program of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, brought them back together about eight years ago.
“It’s an opportunity to get together,” Felberbaum said of the program. “We used to go to Teaneck at a restaurant with two other girls. But it’s getting harder and we’re getting older. So at least we get a ride. It’s simpler.”
The monthly program of Jewish Family Service of Northern New Jersey offers aging Holocaust survivors a chance to get together. The program, held at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center on the first Tuesday of each month, varies, with lunch, a ride, and a rotating program of lectures, musical performances, and films.
But it is a long way from Uzhorod, where Felberbaum was born, to Fair Lawn, where she now lives. Her father was a wholesaler of wine and whiskey, buying directly from vineyards and producing his own kosher wine.
“We were religious people,” she said.
She, her mother, and three sisters were deported to the Uzhorod ghetto, and later, when she was 16, all were sent to Auschwitz. When they arrived, and the cattle car door opened after a grueling trip, her father “disappeared right away.
“I was scared I would lose my mother right away, too.”
She did. As they passed through Josef Mengele’s infamous selection, she and her sisters were selected to live. But her mother was told to go to the right, and Felberbaum still rues the moment she left her mother’s side. Although no one was certain what fate lay in store for them, Felberbaum had an inkling when a Jewish capo pointed ominously to a chimney. “See that,” Felberbaum recounted him saying. “You came in through the door and you’ll go out through the chimney.”
In the waning days of the war, Felberbaum was liberated while on a train en route to another work camp. It took her three months to make her way home, which was under the control of the Soviet Union. Eventually, she was reunited with her sisters. They survived by selling cigarettes, loose tobacco, and white flour – goods that they could salvage from a store their father had owned befor the war – to the Red Army soldiers who occupied the town.
Felberbaum left home, realizing there was little future for her there. She found her way to the DP camp, and there, housed in a long building where the German cavalry had once kept its horses, she found others like her, hoping for a future, looking to leave Europe behind.
“I always say to Olga I had the nicest time in my life in the DP camp,” Felberbaum said. “I was young. I didn’t have to worry about food. I was working.”
“I wouldn’t call it a good time,” Jaeger said dryly. “When each holiday time came, I cried. I needed my parents. I had to fend for myself.”
Despite their different take on that time, Felberbaum and Jaeger have an easy camaraderie, born from shared language and similar history. They consult each other for the right English word when they cannot find the right Yiddish, German, or Hungarian one. They finish sentences for one another about their time together in the camps, and really, their views about that time are not so disparate.
“There is a Slovak expression, ‘I don’t have nothing and don’t care about anything,'” Jaeger said. “It was an easy life.”
Jaeger traveled a path similar to her friend’s. Born in Bilke – a small town now part of Ukraine, about an hour and a half from where Felberbaum lived – she and her family got through the war in relative quiet until Nazi ally Hungary invaded in April 1944. As they were finishing the Passover seder, there came a knock at the door. The Hungarian police ordered them to pack a suitcase and head to the town synagogue. From there, they were sent to the ghetto in Beregszasz, Hungary, then to a brick factory, and eventually to Auschwitz, where they separated Jaeger, her mother, and her sister from her father and two brothers.
One morning, the guards took her mother and some children away, telling Jaeger that her mother would be watching them. “It was a hoax,” Jaeger said. They were not caring for children. As her mother left, she told her elder daughter, “‘Take care of Olga, she’s still a kid.’
“I was crying,'” Jaeger said. “I miss my mother.”
Another selection process came, and this time, Jaeger, then 15, was pulled out with the children. She wanted to go with her sister, who pulled her in front of a barracks and yanked open the door. They both hid there.
“This is how I survived,” said Jaeger. “My sister saved my life.”
After that she worked in a munitions factory from July 1944 through the following April. The end of the war was approaching, although the inmates did not know that until the English bombs fell. A few days later, the British liberated the camp.
Jaeger never returned home. She and her sister were cared for by the British in Czechoslovakia, then crossed the borders illegally between Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Germany several times before ending up in the same DP camp as Felberbaum in 1946.
In the camp, they became part of a group of young women who shared similar experiences. The group of friends would attend films in town each week, buying the tickets on Friday before Shabbat. Watching soccer matches and attending concerts replaced hard labor. They attended weddings and celebrated holidays, as each waited for word that she could depart for America.
Jews liberated by the Americans and British had priority for immigrating to North America. Jaeger spent six weeks in the camp before getting the green light to go to Canada. She went to New York with the help of the United Jewish Appeal, which then sent her to Atlanta, where she attended school. Felberbaum sent letters urging her friend to stay in school. “You were lucky,” she noted wryly.
Felberbaum eventually came to New York to live with relatives. She worked in a garment factory aligning zippers, seams, and plaid patterns for 12 cents per item of clothing. She married in 1951. She attended Jaeger’s wedding four years later, but eventually they lost track of each other when Felberbaum moved to California. They met again when the JFS program put them in touch with one another.
JFS has run CafÃ© Europa for more than 11 years. It is funded by the Conference of Material Claims Against Germany, which provides some restitution and support for the survivors of the Shoah. Because the funding is limited, JFS helps subsidize the program, according to the organization’s executive director, Leah Kaufman.
The program attracts up to 80 people each session, although holiday programs like that for Chanukah will bring out nearly 100. “It’s a place they can come to where there’s an unspoken language,” Kaufman said. “These are people who understand [one another] without them having to talk about it.”
The group provides socialization, allowing elderly survivors – the youngest are in the 80s – to connect with one another, and it provides a social network after the loss of a spouse. The program also allows JFS to identify and form relationships with the survivors in order to better serve them, Kaufman said.
“They all look forward to this one day a month,” she said. “If it were up to many of them, they’d like to see it meet more often.”