Friendships replace lost families at annual seder for survivors

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There was still a week to go before Passover, but in Freedman Hall at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom they were having a seder.

Retired Rabbi Jack Frankel presided, peppering his explanations, commentary and jokes with a little Yiddish, German, Italian and, of course, Hebrew.

When it came time to ask the Four Questions, Bernard Broclawski stood up. At 83, Broclawski may not have been the youngest person in the crowd, but he wasn't the oldest either.

"I'm saying these in honor of my father who was killed by the Nazis," Broclawski said as his wife hastily set a yarmulke on his head. "It shows that what you learn as a child stays with you your whole life."

And with that Broclawski began: "Mah nishtanah halailah ha zeh."

Like almost everyone else present, Broclawski, who lives in San Francisco, is a Holocaust survivor.

"On holidays, you should be with family, but we don't have any family," said Linda Breder, a 76-year-old Auschwitz survivor attending theApril 13 event.

For the past three years Breder has been coming to the Holocaust survivors' seder. "Seeing everyone doing well, it's a pleasure to see. 'You look so good. You look 20 years younger,' we tell each other."

In spite of the laughter and joyful greetings, the atmosphere was heavy with painful memories of those who weren't there.

"Holidays are very lonely and difficult times for Holocaust survivors," said Sheryl Groden, clinical supervisor for Holocaust survivor and volunteer services at the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services.

Groden, who organized the seder, is the director of Café by the Bay, a weekly program for Holocaust survivors. "Even if people were not religious, [Passover] was a family time," she said.

"It's a miracle that I'm sitting here at Passover," said the Polish-born Broclawski, who estimates he lost 100 members of his family in the Holocaust. "I don't know what happened to my father and brother. They were probably killed in 1941 when the German forces attacked against the Soviet Union."

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Broclawski was in the Polish army. He was injured in that battle and later was allowed to go to Bialystok, where his father and bother were living. But it was a short-lived reunion. Broclawski was sent to Siberia, sentenced to seven years in the gulag.

Broclawski opens his wallet and pulls out several photos. They're small and professionally taken, with the sepia tones that connote age. Each has the face of a young, handsome man.

"This is me at 18," he said, holding out one of the photos. Another is of his younger brother, Yitzhak, and another of his father, Barish. He flips the picture of his brother over. On the back there's writing, florid script in a foreign language. "This is my brother's writing. I got these [from a neighbor] when I returned from the gulag. That's the only memory I have."

His wife, born Irma Ferber, survived the war in Germany with false papers. "She was Bronislava Jalowiecka, a Catholic girl," said Broclawski. "She worked as a slave laborer."

Julius Drabkin, 82, remembered a man in the Riga Ghetto in Latvia who tried to keep kosher and observe all the holidays, including those for which fasting was required.

"It was a terrible, terrible time," said Drabkin, who lives in San Francisco. Almost 30,000 people were forced to live in an area that, before the war, housed 4,000. When the ghetto was evacuated, many Jews were shot including Drabkin's wife and mother. He was sent to the Kaiserwald concentration camp and recalled how people were told to go to the left or right as they entered. "But I can't hate the Germans. There were some good ones. But as a nation, it was very evil."

Drabkin, like many others in attendance, has spent hours recording his memories for Holocaust archives.

"We have to tell the next generation," said Drabkin. "We will die. You have to speak it, do not forget."

Breder was sent to Auschwitz when she was 18. Although raised as an Orthodox Jew, she said there was no celebration of Passover in the camp. They didn't even know what date it was. Her mother died when she was a child, and in the Holocaust she lost her father, three brothers, a twin sister, a stepsister and most of her extended family.

"She was only 2 years old," said Breder of her stepsister, her voice catching. When the war ended, Breder returned to her family home. "The house and property was confiscated. They slammed the door in my face. 'Go back where you came from,' they said."

After the war, she was reunited with a sister she didn't know had survived. Breder and her sister, Edeth Welisch of Daly City, came to the seder together.

Breder, who lives in San Francisco, is a frequent speaker at schools and Yom HaShoah ceremonies. Talking about the Holocaust is difficult, she admitted. "I talk and I cry and I cry and I talk."

After the meal was finished and the ceremony concluded, Bill Rooz asked if he could sing a Yiddish song.

"It's a song my mother and father sang when they were alive," said Rooz, who lives in Burlingame. Rooz's parents died in Auschwitz.

The song, "A Yidele Tsu Zayn," Rooz explained, is about how great it is to be Jewish. "But that was at a time when we had no idea of the Holocaust or the threat. I wanted to sing it because it captures the mood before the Holocaust."