May 24, 2024
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May 24, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

On Purim, I had a call from Fred, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor. “I’m on cloud nine,” he said, his voice even more exuberant than usual. He explained that he had just gotten off the phone with his rabbi and would become a bar mitzvah on May 10. And, in what he took as God’s seal of approval, his doorbell rang as soon as he got off the phone with the rabbi. It was the local Chabad rabbi, his wife and children. They introduced themselves, telling him they had come to wish him a Happy Purim and bring him mishloach manot.

In our conversation, Fred added, “I would be honored if you would attend my bar mitzvah.” I assured him I would be honored to do so.

Nonetheless, I had to wonder why he, who always felt somewhat uncomfortable in synagogues, would want a bar mitzvah. This is a man who had attended 64 b’nai mitzvahs of students he “twinned” with through the “Twin-With-a Survivor” program I created for the Holocaust Council. (Students meet with a Holocaust survivor several times to learn about their experiences before, during and after the war, and then relate it to their parsha when they are called to the Torah. It’s an all-around win that has enriched countless lives immeasurably, none more than Fred’s.)

Born Manfred Heyman in Berlin on April 29, 1929, Fred had never become a bar mitzvah. In fact, his school days ended when he was 9, with the attack on the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue. When he arrived at the school the next morning, a policeman chased him away: “Go home, Schweinhundt! There will be no more school for you!” Fred, a doted-on only child, was happy to be excused from school, too immature to realize the implications of that moment.

The synagogue school was not where Fred’s education began. He was originally expelled from the local public school simply because he was Jewish.The Nazis considered him a “Mischling,” although his mother was a convert. Her German family shunned her and the Gestapo taunted her, warning her to divorce “the dirty Jew,” yet she remained steadfast as the biblical Ruth. Fred and his parents became “U-Boats,” the Nazi term for Jews who hid in plain sight, helped by a German couple, the Matheys. Fred remains close with their descendants, who still reside in Berlin.

Fred’s formal education resumed only after the Heymans immigrated to the United States, settling in Milwaukee. After taking a course that would allow his entry to high school at 19, he was soon drafted. He continued his studies in tanks and foxholes in Korea and earned a GED. Having survived yet another war and aided by the GI Bill, he attended the University of Wisconsin, became an engineer and had a successful career with AT&T. His work prompted his relocation to New Jersey, where he, his wife Eloise (nee Lowe) and their two children lived in Morristown. She passed away in 2004 after a lengthy illness.

Being introduced to the Holocaust Council led to the beginning of his new life. The man who never considered himself a Shoah survivor found his calling and purpose as a speaker. He fell in love with his new life as well as with a widow who remains in his life today.

He overcame physical ailments, including cardiac surgery, and became one of the Council’s most active volunteers. Ever eager to educate about the Holocaust, he continues to speak, locally, nationally and internationally.

Fred is now working with his 65th “twin” as well as preparing for his own bar mitzvah this Shabbat. It will be an evening bar mitzvah, and he is almost too excited to be nervous. Reciting prayers in Hebrew has always been a challenge for him, possibly because of the psychological trauma of growing up among people intent on destroying Jews and Judaism. That said, I’m sure he’ll do well and glory in that special coming-of-age event.

As for Fred’s first synagogue? It too has emerged from the ashes to keep the flame of Judaism alive. Completed in 1912 as a gorgeous Romanesque structure built by and for liberal Jews, it held more than 1,700 congregants and also contained a religious school. Kaiser Wilhelm II visited it and donated a special “marriage room.” One of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue’s religious leaders was Leo Baeck. Like many rabbis throughout Europe, he declined the opportunity to flee the Nazis, choosing to remain with his congregants. He and many of them were eventually deported to Theresienstadt, a transit camp for Auschwitz. Unlike most of them, he survived. Liberated at the age of 71, he moved to London where he continued as a leader and scholar.

The Fasanenstrasse Synagogue was burned and vandalized on Kristallnacht. However, it was not completely destroyed. Firemen were stationed to contain the flames lest they spread to German properties. The synagogue then became the Reichspost (German Postal Service) until 1945 when it, like most of Berlin, was demolished by Allied bombers. It was rebuilt as a large Jewish community center. No longer the beautiful Romanesque structure, it is still one that brings together Jews from every nation and all sides of the ethnic, cultural, political and religious spectrum.

As Chabad teaches, “Labels are for shirts. Jews are just Jews.” Let that be our motto as we navigate this most challenging period since the Holocaust. Those who have been infected with antisemitism are spreading it far and wide, including to Jews who are either ignorant or simply choose to ignore historical facts. As demoralizing as all this is, the Jewish people and Israel remain strong and determined.

As long as Jews continue to obey God’s command to remember and tell their history, as well as to remain a light unto the nations, we will see and recognize the signs, wonders, blessings and miracles that abound each day. After all, who would have believed that Fred, growing up in a virulently antisemitic world, would come to fully appreciate and embrace his Judaism and teach and inspire so many others to do the same.


Barbara Wind is a writer, speaker and Holocaust-related independent scholar, curator and consultant.

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