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Holocaust survivors: What do they see in Ukraine?


The reality in Ukraine: Seeing enemy soldiers in the streets, and buildings in your city in flames. Losing family members to a genocidal enemy. Escaping as a child from one’s homeland. Joining the military effort against the troops occupying the country. Dodging bombs falling from the sky.

For Hannah Deutch, what’s happening in Ukraine brings back memories of WW II. (Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center)

That is what many — but not all — members of the current generation of people in (and now, out of) Ukraine have experienced.

But how many people, in other countries, from an earlier generation, have experienced all of the above?

Hannah Deutch has.

A native of Germany (born Hannelore Kronheim) who lives in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, she watches the news from Ukraine on CNN these days and thinks of what she went through, and witnessed, in Germany, and later, in England.

War in Europe — that was her life.

Imminent threat of death — that was her life.

The Kristallnacht destruction of the synagogue across the street from her home — that was her life.

Widespread immigration of people fleeing for their lives — that was her life.

Family members killed — that was her life.

Men and women volunteering to support the armed services that are fighting the soldiers in the country of her birth — that was her life.

People trying to maintain a semblance of normal life as enemy missiles fall in one’s midst — that was her life.

Eighty years ago.

Like many Holocaust survivors who have been the subject of media interviews since the war in Ukraine began, focusing on their memories and their reactions to the latest atrocities, Deutch finds a commonality in her own story with those of today’s Ukrainians.

Unlike some of her fellow survivors, her story — a lesson in perseverance — parallels, in some respects, those of nearly all of the displaced Ukrainians.

A Jew born in Düsseldorf, and raised in Bochum, a town 30 miles away in western Germany, for six decades a resident of New York City, Deutch, who turns 100 in two months, revisits her own past as she watches the news.

“Another Kristallnacht” was her first thought, she says one recent morning.

What she thought would never happen again, is happening again. People displaced, killed.

“I thought, he [Vladimir Putin] must have read Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s outline of his genocidal intentions.

“I felt angry,” she says.

Deutch’s memory is still clear; her voice, strong.

Though she sees parallels between the WW II era and today, she also sees a difference: NATO. Whose members are supporting Ukraine.

“In WW II there was no NATO,” no powerful organization that defended the interests of the European Jews whom Nazi Germany meant to eliminate. “Thank G-d for NATO.”

During the era of the Holocaust, Deutch says, “nobody” — no national army — “did anything” to defend the Jews. Today, “the whole world is doing something” to assist Ukraine.

A Holocaust refugee, widowed since 1949, a retired accountant, Deutch lives in an apartment crowded with books, and spends her days reading, and preparing the frequent public speeches she gives about her life — at schools, synagogues and Hillel chapters, and sometimes at the German Consulate.

She began her public speaking 38 years ago, when she retired, “to do something that it [the Holocaust] is not forgotten.”

Her health? “I feel fine,” she says, speaking with a slight German accent.

Her resume and record of travels are as interesting as her wartime life. Before she settled in the US, her path took her to Holland, Canada, Chile, the Isle of Man and England. She’s worked as a translator, Israel Bonds saleswoman, nurse and, in the US, as an accountant.

Deutch is part of the ebbing generation of Holocaust survivors who sees the declaration of “Never again!” being mocked by the country that helped defeat the perpetrators of the Final Solution.

Across the US, and in other countries where the aging survivors and refugees have settled, they report that they are upset by, sometimes traumatized by, the news reports of events that remind them of the family time that robbed them of their childhood — and, in many cases, large numbers of their and friends.

“Holocaust survivor . . . haunted by images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” a headline in Rochester states.

That Rochester survivor, Lea Malek, from Hungary, says, “The further we get [from the Shoah], it becomes like a distant history, and what happens when we forget it? It’s going to repeat itself.

“I don’t want to watch it [coverage of the war in Ukraine], but I have to watch it,” Malek says. “I don’t want to think about it, but I can’t think of anything else because horrible memories come back . . horrible memories.”

In Berlin, Polish-born Isle Thiele says, “Of course all the memories come flooding back. I feel so sorry for all those people, especially the children.”

In Los Angeles, Sofiya Fikhman, a native of the Odessa region, says “Those of us who grew up during WW II can’t see what is happening in Ukraine without tears. The ‘war’ is a very scary word. People of my generation have very vivid memories of it.”

In Philadelphia, Esther Kaidanow, from Yugoslavia, says, “I deeply feel for those people” fleeing Ukraine. “It’s not easy to be a refugee, to leave your home and possessions and family behind.”

In West Palm Beach, Mary Eckstein, born in Budapest, says, “I am very, very sympathetic for all of the Ukrainian refugees, because I know myself and I know what they’re going through. It’s a terrible thing when you leave your home with only the clothes you wear and you don’t know where you’re going to.”

In Israel and Australia and South Africa and . . .

And in Jackson Heights, Deutch watches the news reports about Russia’s war in Ukraine, and is reminded of her early years — over a decade, she experienced her community’s threat under the Third Reich, traveled to England as part of the Kindertransport, volunteered as a nurse with the British Army, and survived several months as a resident of London during the German Air Force’s “buzz bomb” blitz of the British capital.

She joined the army, she says, because “England saved my life,” taking her in as a 16-year-old refugee. “I had to repay that.”

“I was lucky,” she says; she found a new home in a foreign country, and emerged unscathed from the threats she faced. “G-d was with me.”

Deutch lives in a modest apartment decorated with the artistic needlepoints she has created (including one of a famous Chagall window), her family tree (eight generations, dating back to 1790), and the many plaques and certificates she has received (among the presenters: New York City’s Jewish federation, and Jewish War Veterans.)

She’s a long-time member of Hadassah and B’nai Brith, an active member of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History and JWV.

Three generations of her family have done military service, she points out: her father, in the German Army, in WW I; she in the British Army and her husband in the Canadian Army; and one son in the Israeli Army, during the Six Day War.

“What can I do?” she asks, clenching her fists. How can she help? Beyond speaking to young people, Jews and non-Jews, to tell them about the hate that fueled the Holocaust? To play her part in ensuring that “Never Again!” comes true?

She donates to several charities that benefit the Ukrainian refugees, she says. “Of course.”

Her only regret: at her age, she cannot donate blood to the Ukrainian relief effort.

Deutch manages to keep up her spirits, she says, because of her positive attitude. “I don’t think negative.”

Raised in a “typical” German-Jewish home that did not keep kosher but observed the Jewish holidays and attended Shabbat services (when she left on the Kindertransport, she packed little more in her small suitcase than her prayerbook, which is exhibited in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum), she attributes her survival to her faith in G-d.

“I speak a lot to G-d,” she says.

How would she tell the current generation of Ukrainians — who are going through what she endured eight decades ago — to maintain hope?

“Look at me,” she answers. “I went through the same things as you, and here I am.”

Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News

IJN Contributing Writer

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