History at hand: Local teens get surivors stories &mdash and write them

Henry Libicki remembers the sound of snow crunching underfoot as he passed through the prison gates.

It was liberation day — Jan. 16, 1945 — at the Czestochowa Aktiengesellschaft, a Nazi work camp in the Polish countryside. The Russians had just routed Hitler’s army. But a few Germans straggled, including one soldier who had beaten the teenage Libicki some months before.

Other freed Jewish prisoners took revenge on the now-helpless Nazis. Instead, Libicki walked away.

Sixty-three years later, in the San Francisco offices of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Libicki looks into the eyes of teenager Nataly Man. Why, she asks, didn’t you take revenge?

“Because,” he tells her, “I’m not a murderer.”

Man, an 18-year-old high school senior from South San Francisco, met Libicki through Next Chapter, a joint project of Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the Taube Foundation in cooperation with Congregation Emanu-El and the Holocaust Center of Northern California, Next Chapter pairs Bay Area teens with Holocaust survivors, who recount their stories as part of an oral history project.

Survivors hailed from a few Polish towns: Lodz, Warsaw, Lvov, Bendzin and Czestochowa.

As a culminating assignment, each of the 13 participating teens must turn the interview into a comprehensive essay. Their final folios will be sent to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Poland, where they become part of the historical record.

In return, Polish researchers will delve into the Jewish history of those towns and send back updates on their discoveries.

“What we’re trying to do is have this international, cross-generational, research-based program,” says Taylor Epstein, JFCS YouthFirst Program coordinator and point person for Next Chapter. “The goal is to help with the revival of Jewish history and culture in Poland.”

The 13 participating teens come from varied backgrounds. Several non-Jews signed up as well. All attended weekly classes at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco to learn about Jewish life in prewar Poland, the Holocaust, how to conduct an interview and how to do research.

For Nataly Man, whose ancestors are Sephardic Jews, the European Jewish experience had never resonated.

Until she met Libicki.

The courtly Petaluma resident thinks of himself an amazingly lucky. Throughout the years he was interned in ghettos and work camps, Libicki dodged one death-camp deportation after another. With the exception of a brother, his entire family survived the war intact.

“She asked me if it still haunts me in a traumatic way,” Libicki says of his interview with Man. “The answer is no, but I do have nightmares. Sometimes my wife will wake me up when I moan and groan. Having said that, my experience is in the 99 percentile of good survival.”

Next Chapter has partnered with the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture to bring in Polish historians. Says the foundation’s acting executive director Shana Penn, “I was so impressed with how sensitive the [teens] were as interviewers. How to ask the questions, how to listen. Out of this we’re starting to learn more about where these people came from.”

On May 9, JFCS will host a Shabbat dinner for participating teens and survivors. The teens will introduce the survivors they worked with, and present their final folio.

Participant Aaron Tartovsky says Next Chapter changed his life.

“Learning about the Holocaust, we always learn about the bad, the tragedy, the 6 million,” he says. “This project opened my eyes that this is not all the Holocaust is. It’s easy to look through the lens of Poland as a bad and evil place. Poland is not so bad. There’s hope for rebuilding a new future.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.