Holocaust groups provide comfort, catharsis as survivors dwindle

miami beach, fla. | In a banquet room a few blocks from the beach, Helen Greenspun points to people in a mingling crowd and names the Nazi labor camps she survived with them as casually as though she was talking about their old neighborhoods.

They are the children she played with as a little girl, the older kids she turned to when the Nazis invaded their Polish town and the people who helped her survive the horrors of the Holocaust.

Six decades after those events, the group of Holocaust survivors from Chmielnik, Poland, reunites here every year.

“We remind ourselves of the past,’ said Sarah Goldlist, who helps organize the event. “We lost most of us.’

Chmielnikers are just one of many reunion groups that meet across the country on a regular basis — there are more than 15 in South Florida alone, said Rositta Kenigsberg, executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in North Miami Beach. But the groups are getting smaller as the population ages and passes away.

There’s no count on how many survivors live in North America. Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, said a national registry lists about 180,000 names. But, he said, many on that list have likely died, and others are “second generations’ — the children of those who went through the Holocaust, not survivors themselves.

Still, the need to gather doesn’t diminish as the population shrinks.

“Coming together for survivors is extremely important,’ Kenigsberg said. “They know the horror, the pain, the experience, and what each other has gone through. … It’s an anchor, it’s a tie, it’s everything to them.’

After they arrived from Poland, Chmielnikers came together whenever they could, to celebrate life events — funerals, weddings, bar mitzvahs. But in the late 1980s, the group began meeting annually in South Florida as their lives slowed down, their children moved away from home and they started spending more time in vacation homes.

Though they live as far apart as Toronto, New York and Detroit for much of the year, many are now Florida snowbirds, and meeting here is convenient.

Chmielnik was a small city in south central Poland with about 18,000 people, about 15,000 of them Jewish, said Suzan E. Hagstrom, who chronicled one family’s story in the book “Sara’s Children.’ A quiet place with no electricity or running water in most of the homes, it was a close-knit community, said the 76-year-old Greenspun, one member of that family.

Only several hundred Chmielnik residents survived World War II; most have stories of torture, labor camps and the pain of watching friends and family members carted away to unknown destinations. Hagstrom said most of Chmielnik’s Jews were gassed at the Treblinka death camp.

Greenspun, who now volunteers at the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Orlando, said she survived seven camps and a five-week death march before being freed.

Many of the people at the Chmielnik reunion have similar stories. But here, there’s no need for explanation.

Exclamations float across the room: “I was in her class in school, and she had long braids,’ or “Your dad was an emcee in our wedding.’ They are the stories that live, and fade, quietly with the people who carry them.

“As the years go by, we dwindle,’ said Louise Steinfeld, whose late husband was a resident of Chmielnik.

On average, Holocaust survivors are now in their 80s, dying at a rate of about 1 percent a month, said Martin Goldman, director of Survivor Affairs at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. But as the number of survivors shrinks, a greater percentage of them are joining reunion groups, like the one from Chmielnik, driven by the need to reconnect with people who understand their histories.

“More people are coming out of their shells as they get older,’ Goldman said. “They’re now finding a need to get together and share what those experiences were.’

Many of the children of Holocaust survivors are continuing the searches their parents started, and groups for second- and third-generation survivors are sprouting up across the country.

“Having a parent who was in hiding in a potato hole in Poland … I suspect it has an effect on the way the parent relates to a child, and therefore has an effect on the child,’ Goldman said.

Honey Mandel, a member of that second generation, said she has tried to continue the search for family members lost in the Holocaust. “We look for people, but it’s getting harder and harder, so we’re starting to look for the second generation,’ she said.