S.F. survivors to recall the happy days before Shoah

The Amsterdam neighborhood Jerry Rosenstein grew up in more than six decades ago looks just as he remembers it — on the outside.

On the inside, it's quite different.

"A mixture of Dutch people and German Jews lived there in my time," said the 74-year-old San Franciscan. "The Jews are gone."

Rosenstein and two fellow Auschwitz survivors from San Francisco will share their experiences during Yom HaShoah ceremonies on Monday, April 8, but they won't be the experiences survivors usually discuss in the public realm. Instead, during their talks at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, the trio will recall their lives before the Nazis; the time Rosenstein refers to as "the happiest years of my childhood."

"It is important to remember and to tell about these happy times, so young people will know that our stories are not only about survival," wrote Czech-born Linda Breder in her speech. "They are about everyday life. A life that no longer exists but is worthy of recollection and remembrance…The people and places were destroyed, but my memories were not."

For Rosenstein, who travels back to Europe at least once a year to visit friends, trips through his old neighborhood are bittersweet. The unchanged houses conjure up memories of the family and friends who used to dwell within — and never returned. Roughly 80 percent of all Jews living in Holland before 1940 died in the Holocaust.

A Jewish community does exist in Amsterdam, however, much to Rosenstein's delight. But it is a "more visible, more Orthodox" Jewish community than the one he grew up in.

"It was like you see in Brooklyn, more or less Chassidic with the men wearing yarmulkes and the women with shaitels and lots of children around them," he said, recalling a recent trip. "I spoke to them and they're all immigrants, certainly not Nederlanders. Some are returnees; some are from England or other countries. There are quite a few secular Jews — but how would you know? They look like every other Dutchman!"

The vibrant Jewish Sunday market Rosenstein remembers at Waterlooplein, the plaza surrounded by the rundown Jewish section of town, is still vibrant but not Jewish. The neighborhood's low-income Jewish denizens have been replaced with a new generation of immigrants hailing from Turkey, the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere.

The traces of Jewish life still extant in Rosenstein's Amsterdam are a far cry from what Tauba Weiss found in Lask. After making her way back to the small Polish shtetl, she discovered virtually everyone else in the 3,500-strong community had perished.

Understandably, Weiss admits it is difficult for her to remember the "happy times." Yet, she chose to share her memories because "it is important to remember the vibrant Jewish life that the Nazis destroyed."

In her prepared speech, Weiss recalls the activities of her tomboyish youth such as tipping over the kayaks of unsuspecting boaters or tossing thistles at girls walking to shul.

One Pesach, she remembers, she opened the door for Elijah, yet discovered a goat.

"Recalling these happy stories is a testament to those who died," she wrote in her speech. "But more important, it is a reminder to our children of a rich, Jewish heritage. It is a reminder of 6 million Jews, each with a story he or she cannot tell, on whose shoulders we stand."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.