Holocaust survivor in Fort Mill recalls the Gestapo, escape to Holland

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comApril 7, 2013 

— By the time he was a preteen, Irving Bienstock’s apartment had been ransacked by the Gestapo, members of his extended family had been murdered and his father, who he was separated from for two years, had been smuggled to Belgium.

Men in brown suits patched with swastika insignias shouted, “out with the Jews” and “exterminate them” as they grabbed Jewish men, beat them and took them to concentration camps. Jewish school children were tormented by their Nazi counterparts. The synagogues burned. And, the police offered average Jewish citizens what they called “protective custody.”

“People put in protective custody never came back,” Bienstock said.

Bienstock, now 86 and an American citizen for the past seven decades, told a crowd of 40 at Fort Mill’s Unity Presbyterian Church about his experiences living in Nazi-occupied Germany at the onset of Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power. Bienstock told of his own escape to Holland and then to the United States.

On Sunday, members of Fort Mill’s Temple Kol Ami recited poems and psalms penned by survivors of the Holocaust, sang both the American and Israeli national anthems and lit candles as they prayed for and remembered the 6 million Jewish men, women and children who lost their lives in concentration camps. Those lives were commemorated as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which started Sunday evening and will continue through Monday.

Bienstock will never forget.

Until 1933, life was good for the Bienstocks, a middle-class family living in Dortmund, Germany. Bienstock’s father worked as an accountant and his mother was a homemaker. Then, Adolf Hitler won the national elections and became the chancellor of Germany.

“He made no bones about the fact that he hated Jews,” recalled Bienstock, who was 6 at the time.

As the years passed and anti-Semitism ran rampant, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws and other race codes that banned Jews from going to movies and parks, and owning businesses.

Bienstock’s father and cousin got into trouble with the Gestapo when a Nazi soldier took ownership of their store and, in response, Bienstock’s cousin began selling the store’s inventory. Bienstock’s father and cousin both left Germany and hid in Belgium.

“Our mother told us that papa had to leave, and we had to be brave,” Bienstock said.

The Gestapo harassed the Bienstocks as conditions for Jews grew worse. When Hitler ordered that all Polish Jews be deported back to Poland, Bienstock said goodbye to many members of his family, who were dropped off in an open field at the Polish border.

“I never saw my aunts, uncles or cousins again,” he said. “They were all murdered by the Nazis.”

In 1939, Bienstock’s mother put his sister, Sylvia, on a train to Holland without a visa. He remembered his mother walking through the train’s aisles, asking strangers if they would help get Sylvia into Holland.

A kind Dutch woman with a visa meant for a child who didn’t get on the train agreed to take Sylvia to Amsterdam.

Two weeks later, Bienstock himself was on a train headed to Holland until a Dutch police officer realized he didn’t have a visa and kicked him off. That same officer gave him hot cocoa, a cheese sandwich and took him to a hotel, where Bienstock met a man who helped smuggle him to a children’s home in Holland.

“When I got to the home, I found my sister there,” he said.

The two were sent to an orphanage in Amsterdam, where Sylvia was hospitalized while battling diabetes. Meanwhile, their mother had also been smuggled to Belgium, reuniting with their father, who registered for a chance to go to the U.S. The family stayed in touch with each other by writing letters, Bienstock said.

In 1940, all four Bienstock’s received visas to America, reunited in the Netherlands and arrived in New York on April 17.

“We were probably on the last ship to leave Europe” before the Nazis invaded Belgium and Holland that May.

“It’s very important to know what can happen to people,” Bienstock said before his presentation. “It’s important for people to know what prejudice can do.”

Bienstock, now living in Charlotte and a member of Temple Israel, often tells his story to school children.

“They’re the future,” he said. “There are few of us who are left to tell the story.”

It’s a story Flo Weiss, of Fort Mill, has been hearing all her life. Her mother’s family fled from Czechoslovakia when the Nazis moved in.

“That’s why I’m here,” she said. “It’s important...I remember everybody.”

In front of the sanctuary, six lit candles – one for every one millionth Jew slaughtered – stood behind a glass bowl of small stones. Each pebble had the name of one of hundreds of concentration camps. If any member knew a family, friend or loved one in those camps, they would pick up the pebble and place it in the bowl, “to remember,” said Helaine Yancey, also of Fort Mill.

Last year, Yancey found a stone without a name and wrote the “Harodner family” on it. On Sunday, by chance, she found it again.

The Harodners were her grandmother’s family from Austria. As they became targets of anti-Semitism, their Catholic neighbors hid them in their homes. But, the word got out, and Nazis shot the family to death, including the neighbors who tried to protect them.

“There were good people that were helping,” she said. “People did what they could to save” others.

As a little girl growing up in Miami, Fla., who watched documentaries about the atrocities of the Holocaust, Yancey asked her father why the Jews in the camps didn’t fight back. He told her they couldn’t; he told her they were lied to and deceived.

“People still hate,” Bienstock added, stressing that he takes seriously threats of genocidal nuclear attack Iran’s leader has issued against Israel. “Hitler said it, and he did it.”

“If people don’t learn what happened, we’re doomed to do it again,” Yancey agreed. Still, she hopes it never comes to that.

But, “God forbid” if it did, the Fort Mill woman said, “there would be a lot of fighting against it.”

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