They lost everything: family, homes, possessions. But miraculously, inexplicably, they survived. Central Ohio survivors and an American liberator shared their stories leading to Monday’s dedication of the Statehouse Holocaust and Liberators Memorial.
Moniek (Murray) Ebner never thought he was going to die, even when he was sent to Auschwitz, the infamous camp where tens of thousands of Jews were gassed to death.
“I don’t know why God saved me,” he said. “I always had hope. I was always optimistic. I felt every day I would be able to be free and to see my family.”
Freedom eventually came, but Ebner, now 85, never saw his family again after being snatched off the street near Krakow, Poland, when he was 13. The “happy, comfortable life” he enjoyed with his parents and three brothers was shattered when the Nazis invaded Poland.
“We were told we had to leave our home. We had no idea where we were going to go, what we we’re doing to do,” he said.
The frightened Jewish boy was taken to the Plaszów concentration camp, built on the site of two Jewish cemeteries and run by Amon Goth, a brutal SS commandant featured in the movie Schindler’s List.
One of Ebner’s jobs was digging up graves and removing gold teeth from corpses.
Eventually, he was placed in three other camps, including Aushwitz, where Ebner inexplicably avoided the gas chamber.
He was marched out of the death camp as the war ended, escaping when he hid in a barn, burrowing deep into a pile of hay. He was free for the first time in four years.
Ebner came to America searching for family and found a distant cousin living in Springfield, Ohio. He moved to Columbus in 1948, married, had three children and began Ebner Properties, a property-management company.
During an interview at a Holocaust exhibit honoring him at Jewish Family Services, 1070 College Ave. in Bexley, Ebner pulled up his left sleeve to show where his concentration camp tattoo had been before he had it removed.
But the number is burned in Ebner’s memory: “B2992,” he said quickly.
A hidden child
She was not yet 5 years old when the Nazis came in the middle of the night to Fran Silberstein Greenberg’s home in occupied Paris and took her father away in his pajamas.
“It was so frightening. We were all crying. ...We never saw our father again.” She learned later that he died at Auschwitz on July 8, 1942.
It was the beginning of years of persecution, fear and hiding for the daughter of a Russian shoemaker and Polish dressmaker.
Now the sole breadwinner for the family, Jeanne Silberstein first put her girls in day care and later reluctantly sent them away to safer foster homes.
“If you were a Jew,” Greenberg recalled, “you had to wear a Star of David if you were over 6. We were the enemies. Everybody blamed us for starting the war. They would spit on us.”
Greenberg and her sister were called back to Paris to see their mother, who was gravely ill in the hospital. She died when Greenberg was 9 years old and is buried in a mass grave in Paris.
She recalled one of the last things her mother told her: “Someday you will be able to be a Jew again.”
Greenberg, who now lives in Grandview, said she remembers going to a bomb shelter when her city was under siege by the Allies.
“We could see the bombs dropping from the skies. We went to the bomb shelter and it was wall-to-wall people. My sister held me as the bombs fell.”
Greenberg made several stops in other homes before being sent to the United States to live with her sister’s family in Cannonsburg, Pa.
“I always felt like I was second class. Nobody wanted us. The war was over, but it wasn’t over for me.”
Eventually she met Dan Greenberg, married, and had three sons.
“It’s a miracle I survived,” the 82-year-old said. “I can’t say that God protected me. Why would he protect me and not everyone else? I have a hard time with God.”
Seconds from death
She stood with her mother on the edge of a freshly dug pit.
Sofiya Karpovich was a child but knew that with Nazi soldiers pointing guns at her head, she was about to die.
Her father had been taken from the family home in Khmelnik, Ukraine, and killed. On two consecutive Fridays in Jan. 1942, known afterward as “Bloody Fridays,” the Nazis murdered 8,000 residents, the majority of them Jews.
“I remember what I thought,” Karpovich, 75, said at her Bexley home. “‘In a minute, I will not exist.’ I thought about my mother and how she would weep.”
Suddenly, a Nazi officer came out, shouting in German. The execution was off.
Karpovich later learned the killings were stopped because there weren’t enough Jews to fill the pit. The soldiers were ordered to round up more Jews and return the next day.
“It was a miracle. My mother took me in her arms and she ran.” That night, she, her mother and older brother fled. A former housekeeper in a nearby village sheltered them for the remainder of the war.
She later moved to Kiev, where she went to engineering school and met her future husband, Edgar. The couple have been married 50 years and moved to Columbus in 1992.
Sofiya Karpovich said she believes she was spared so she could recount her Holocaust story for future generations.
“It is not easy, but it is my mission, my obligation to do this. Never, never again must this happen.”
Bill Ruth, a native of Johnstown, Pa., and a radio operator with the U.S. Army 3rd Armored Division, had no idea of the hell he was about to enter as his unit approached the Nordhausen concentration camp in central Germany on April 15, 1945.
“After a bitter battle with these fanatic Germans,” Ruth wrote in his diary at the time, “ Nordhausen has fallen and what we encountered is sickening, atrocious and mind boggling.
“What we saw is hard to describe. ... Bodies heaped on piles with barely enough flesh to hold the skeleton together. What looked like hundreds of dead bodies on a pile, you would see a hand move, or leg or a muted groan. These poor souls were literally starved to death and left to die on this pile.”
Ruth, now 92, said he went to war when “President Roosevelt sent me a real nice invitation.” It was 1942 and he was 20 years old.
Ruth said he survived “five near misses” before arriving at Nordhausen.
While he has vivid memories of other wartime experiences, Ruth said he doesn’t want to remember but cannot forget the horror of liberating a death camp.
“So much happens during the war and you don’t think about it until years later,” he said at his Worthington home. “I felt like a lot of guys did. It was our duty.”
Nordhausen was an extermination camp where prisoners were left to die of illness and starvation.
Ruth, a Roman Catholic, remembers praying the Rosary after witnessing the horror there. “I wondered if the Germans were praying for the same thing as I was — that the war ends soon.”
The orphan train
There are blank spaces in Trudy Blumenstein’s memory.
“I have this vacuum in my life. I don’t really understand what happened or why,” she said. “A lot of my memory is blocked out.”
Blumenstein knows that her parents, Salomon and Klara Hochmann, died in Auschwitz because their names are in Gedenkbuch: Memorial Book for the German Victims of the Holocaust, an official publication by the German government listing all known Holocaust victims.
She bookmarked the page so she can find her parents among the millions of others.
Born in Wiesbaden, Germany, Blumenstein, her brother and parents fled the country for France after the Nazis came to power. Eventually, she was put on a train headed for a Roman Catholic convent in Chimay, France.
“All I remember is, one day I was sitting on a train holding a ball and I was going somewhere,” she said. “I was totally numb. Nothing mattered anymore. I knew I would never see my parents again."
At the convent, Blumenstein was one of 125 children, 25 of them Jews.
She received a different name, Therese Hogge, a Catholic education and upbringing. She was solemnly forbidden from telling anyone she was Jewish, lest she or the nuns be killed by the Nazis.
One of her few clear memories is the war in the skies: U.S. warplanes flying overhead to bomb Germany, and German V2 bombs she thought looked like stovepipes heading across the channel to Great Britain.
Her brother, sent elsewhere, also survived the war.
Blumenstein moved to New Jersey after the war and married and had two children. She recently moved to Columbus after her husband died, to be near her daughter.
“How I made it this far, I have no clue,” she said. “I don’t remember love. I remember hunger, cold and incredible fear.”
Like many other Holocaust survivors, Blumenstein asks herself, “Why me? I don’t believe in God anymore, so I can’t say God saved me.”
Set on survival
“I was 6 years old when I killed the first guy.”
Irv Szames, who owned the now-closed Bexley Kosher Market, suffered a stroke in 2005 but still remembers how he and his family were forced to flee their home in Poland when the Nazis invaded and began systemically killing Jews.
Hiding in the dense forest, the family foraged for food, stealing eggs, cabbage and potatoes from farms, taking scraps from pig troughs and eating roasted rats when there was nothing else.
One day, Szames and his mother were hiding in a house when a Nazi soldier discovered them.
“My mom begged with him and pleaded. She offered him jewelry and gold. He said, ‘If I kill you, I get a medal and a bottle of vodka each month. What are the odds of letting you go?’”
Szames had just one thought: “If I don’t kill him, he will kill me.”
When the soldier lowered his gun, Szames grabbed a pitchfork. “I held it real tight and I stabbed him in the chest. He was bleeding like a hog.”
The boy had been forced to become a man quickly after the Germans forced his father into duty as a soldier, fighting in the rear guard against the Russians. He was killed in 1940 when Szames was 5.
Later on, Szames said, he and his uncle were recruited to join Polish partisans who undertook guerrilla missions against the Nazis, blowing up trains, bridges and creating chaos for the occupiers.
Szames later immigrated to the United States and was soon drafted into the military. In an odd twist of events, he was stationed in Germany, guarding the border against the Russians who had once been an ally against the Nazis.