Tireless survivor, 93, tells his story in shuls new program

Henry Ramek, 93, never tires of telling his story.

A native of Poland, Ramek survived two concentration camps but lost his entire extended family — 63 people in total — to the Holocaust, all before he was 30. It would be understandable if he didn’t like to talk about those years, or about the atrocities he witnessed.

But Ramek, a fixture in Oakland’s Jewish community for over 60 years, is anything but reticent with his recollections. He has spoken at some 90 schools, congregations and community centers around the Bay Area over the past decade. That’s one reason he was a natural selection for Congregation Beth Jacob’s “Survivors Speak” series, a new monthly program that Rabbi Judah Dardik started this year.

Once each month, a different Holocaust survivor from the congregation is given the stage in an evening presentation open to the public; a recording of the talk is later posted online.

Henry Ramek photo/emma silvers

“Our community at Beth Jacob is blessed with some amazing human beings. They’re jewels,” Dardik said. “Some of our survivors had told me their stories privately, some had talked at schools. And since I’ve gotten here some have passed. We realized we need to honor these people while we can.”

Seated at the kitchen table of his Oakland home on a recent Monday morning, Ramek had already been “at work” for a few hours. A rabbi since the age of 16, Ramek teaches Torah to anyone willing to come to his home; a boy studying for his bar mitzvah had already come and gone this morning.

All of which makes it difficult to believe that, “For 20 years after the war, I didn’t go to shul,” Ramek said. “I was almost ashamed to be a Jew. I thought, ‘What did we do that we would deserve this?’ ”

Born Oct. 2, 1918, Ramek was one of 12 children; the family was poor but mostly happy, he said. He was 20 when Nazis took control of his village in Poland, Malawa; he remembers vividly the humiliation of being forced to wear a yellow Star of David, of having his shoes and watch taken away. “They dismantled you slowly, to make sure you didn’t feel like a human being,” he said.

In 1942, he had just set out on his bicycle for a nearby town where his brother lived — and Henry had heard it might be safer — when he was picked up by Gestapo officers and thrown into a transport already filled with people. “You couldn’t move, couldn’t see, for three days and three nights,” he recalled. “There was no food, no water.”

The trip ended at Treblinka, the infamous extermination camp where 800,000 Jews were killed in just over a year. Ramek spent less than week there, as he and a small group of other young men managed to escape their barracks in the middle of the night. Less than a year later, Ramek found himself at Auschwitz, where he became part of an underground network helping to get information about the atrocities of the concentration camp out to what was left of the free press.

Ever since his first escape, Ramek has believed that he is protected and watched over at all times by the angels Michael and Gabriel. It’s part of what helped him find his faith again after the war.

After liberation, Ramek reconnected with an old girlfriend from his town who had been imprisoned there. He also learned that not a single member of his family was still living. “I thought, HaShem has a plan for me,” he says. “That’s why I’m alive.”

Ramek spoke five languages, including Polish and German, so the U.S. government gave him a job with the Criminal Investigation Department, where his duties included, amazingly, tracking down and arresting some of the very SS officers who had tortured him in the previous years.

In 1950, Ramek and his wife, Hanna (his childhood girlfriend from Malawa), were given free passage to America by the U.S. government. They settled in Oakland, and within a few years Ramek took over a kosher butcher shop in the Lakeshore neighborhood. He expanded it into what is now Oakland Kosher Foods, and ran it for the next 38 years.

In the 1970s, he began attending shul again. “I didn’t have peace in my mind without it,” he said.

Ramek, who has two children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, currently belongs to three congregations — Beth Jacob, Beth Abraham and Chabad of the East Bay — and rotates between them each Shabbat. Hanna died in 1995, and he married his friend Eve.

Dardik said stories like Ramek’s are the exact reason he created the Survivors Speak series.

“I’ve been here 11 years,” Dardik said. “My only regret is that we didn’t start years ago.”

“I tell these stories because I’m not going to be around forever,” Ramek said. “And because it’s vital to our history, and vital to the future of the Jewish people to pass this knowledge on.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.