Jewish center celebrates threefold with centennial, new headquarters, Holocaust gallery
By BETH REESE CRAVEY | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville | Published: October 21, 2017
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — The Holocaust survivor does not remember his family being forced from their home in the Ukraine in 1941 and transported on cattle cars to Transnistria, a 16,000-square-mile Romanian territory designated by the Nazis as a "killing field" for Jews.
Bendit does not remember being carried by his mother and grandmother as they, other grandparents, uncles and an aunt were marched from village to village during the day and slept wherever they could at night in bitter cold. Some of the 150,000 Jews deported to Transnistria were shot along the way. Others died from cold or starvation after they arrived.
He has his family's memories of the first few years of his life, not his own.
"The brain shuts down," said Bendit, one of the Northeast Florida Holocaust survivors whose portraits will be exhibited in a Holocaust Memorial Gallery at the new Jewish Family & Community Services headquarters in Jacksonville that opens Sunday, Oct. 29.
When Transnistria was liberated by the Russians, he was 4 1/2 . He remembers that liberation day, seeing the Russians in their uniforms.
"Happy," said Bendit, now 76. "Everyone was so happy."
In 1917 the agency now known as Jewish Family & Community Services was founded in Jacksonville to help immigrating Russian Jews resettle in North Florida.
The agency has since evolved into a nonprofit for the entire community that provides direct client services, emergency assistance, counseling, adoption assistance for birth mothers and families, child safety and prevention support, senior services, education and outreach and dropout prevention for middle school students. About 17,000 people a year receive services, according to Executive Director Colleen Rodriguez.
"Eighty percent of our clients are not Jewish," she said. "That can't be said enough."
This year the agency celebrates its centennial by opening a new 30,000-square-foot headquarters, the Alan J. Taffet Building, named after a longtime volunteer who died in 2016. The facility will house social services programs, a majority of its staff and have space to expand. The new building, off Baymeadows Way near Philips Highway, was funded by a $6 million capital campaign, which to date has raised $5.3 million.
"No one walks through our doors with just one challenge and our new headquarters is designed so that we can assist people more comprehensively, offering them the tools they need to help themselves," Rodriguez said.
But the building also honors the agency's heritage, with the new Frisch Family Holocaust Memorial Gallery, which will host rotating educational exhibits. The gallery will be the only Holocaust memorial of its kind between Miami and Atlanta, she said.
Harry Frisch, a community leader who lost much of his family in the Holocaust, said his family donation for the gallery was primarily in honor of his late wife, Lilo Frisch, who died in 2016.
"It is also a tribute to those family members who escaped the Holocaust, which were very few, and as a memorial to those who did not escape, but perished," he said. "May we never forget."
Rodriquez said, "The Holocaust survivors that we work with ... really wanted to make sure that the story is being told. There are high school students [in the community] who have never heard about it. Some of their parents say it didn't happen."
The gallery can be the impetus for family and community discussions.
"A whole lot of conservations need to be happening," Rodriguez said.
COMPELLED TO SPEAK
After World War II, Bendit and his surviving family – his mother, maternal grandmother and an aunt – returned to the Ukraine. His father had died even before they were deported to Transnistria. Forced to enlist in the Russian army, he was killed when his transport was attacked by German bombers.
The family eventually moved to Israel where Bendit served in the Navy. They later went to Canada for more work opportunities, then to the United States. Bendit's brother married a woman from Jacksonville, prompting his mother and Bendit to relocate as well.
"It was her wish to be together. That was very important," he said.
As a young man, Bendit spent all his time on his family – he and wife Hanna now have three children and six grandchildren – and his precision metal fabricating business. But after his children were grown and his mother died, he decided to tell his family's Holocaust story.
"It occurred to me that I am one of the youngest left. I felt very strongly," he said. "I had never thought about it – I was part of it – but then I felt I've got to do something for the next generation. To remind them and teach them and tell them not only what happened, but what can happen. History repeats itself. We know that."
He said he never says no to any school, organization or church that asks him to speak.
"I feel obligated to spread it to young people," he said, most of whom know very little about it.
Bendit said he feels compelled to speak not only for the Ukrainian Jews who died at Transnistria, but for all 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
The Nazis, he said, "were purposely trying to eliminate every Jew in the world."
That same hatred for Jews is held by modern-day neo-Nazis and people who deny the Holocaust. That's another reason Bendit talks about it to anyone and everyone who asks.
"They know what happened. The Germans kept records of what they did," he said. "There is no question."
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