Detroit’s oldest Holocaust Survivor, 101, Shares Story For Future generations

Photo Credit: Jerry Zdynsky

It really is eerie. 

As the unrest and violence continues in the Ukraine, once again, Jews are the scapegoats caught in the crossfire. 

Last week, though it was a “prank” by pro-Russian supporters in the Ukraine, Jews were handed out leaflets that they must register their names and property holdings with the government. 

Last week, just as this week, a synagogue in the Ukraine was firebombed. Not just vandalized. Firebombed. 

This is why “Never Forget” must not just be uttered or whispered in a prayer but be a call to action. 

I am sure that Henry Upfall would agree. Here is his story. 

In the weeks leading up to his 101st birthday on April 14, Henry Upfall was hoping to start a men’s poker night at Meer Apartments in West Bloomfield, where he lives. Just returning from spending the winter at his condominium in Florida, he missed his regular poker game at the clubhouse, and the ladies at Meer won’t deal the men into their game.

According to his devoted daughter, Dina Pinsky of Bloomfield Hills, Upfall believes in living in the present by making new friends and maintaining close family ties. Pinsky adorns his apartment with plenty of family photos of Upfall’s late wife, Dora, their children, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

His daughter said living in the present — loving life, surrounding themselves with family, friends and many social gatherings — was the way her parents coped with the very dark past of surviving the Holocaust.

At 101, Upfall is Metro Detroit‘s oldest living Holocaust survivor. Like many children and grandchildren of Holocaust 

Like many second and third generation survivors, Pinsky is in a race against time  to preserve her loved one’s stories for the  coming generations.

“As a kid, my brother Yale and I remember  lots of laughter and joking around,”  Pinsky said. “We heard stories of Europe  in bits and pieces. We knew there were  subjects that were off-limits; we just didn’t  go there because it caused my parents too  much pain.”

Stephen Goldman, executive director at  the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) in  Farmington Hills, said that in the immediate  years after the Holocaust, many  parents were afraid to tell and children  were afraid to ask about the horrors of the  Holocaust. As time passed, more survivors  began to tell their stories. They must be  told and recorded to preserve their memory,  he said.  “As survivors age, it becomes more  urgent for us to preserve their stories,”  Goldman said.

“If we don’t capture their  memories now, they will be lost to the  ages.”

Upfall’s story, retold here, was pieced  together from a recent interview at his  apartment and a 2006 video testimony he  gave at the HMC. There, Upfall’s account,  along with 500 additional area survivors,  are recorded with attention to the most  accurate detail.

Henry Upfall was born Gedalye  Augustowski on April 14, 1913. As a child,  he grew up in a comfortable and “cosmopolitan”  household in Warsaw with his  mother, sister and maternal grandparents.  His parents divorced and his father left to  settle in Detroit in the 1920s.

He was an athletic teenager and an avid  boxer. For a time, he traveled from town to  town competing in boxing tournaments,  where he eventually suffered an injury to  his right eye causing permanent blindness  in it. When retelling even a few sentences  of his story, that eye swells shut under the  weight of its tears.

“We had good lives,” Upfall said. “We  were well dressed. My sister never left the  apartment without a fine hat on her head.”

In 1938, Upfall met his future wife, Dora  Rajf, through one of her six brothers. After  a year of courting, the two set a wedding  date for Sept. 6, 1939. Through the help  of their families, they purchased a small  building where they would work as a barber  and a beautician and live in the apartment upstairs.

Coming Of War

Then, in September of 1939, the Nazis  invaded Poland.

Upfall, like all other able-bodied young  Polish men, was ordered at age 26 to the  border at Bialystok in an attempt to thwart  the Nazi invasion.  Two months later, Upfall returned to  Warsaw and reunited with Dora.

In just  those short months away, Upfall recalls the  shock of seeing a change in Dora’s physical  state and the destruction in the city.

“I didn’t recognize her,” Upfall said. “In  only two months, her face was so drawn,  so black from the soot of the bombings.”

On Nov. 6, 1939, Upfall and Dora broke  the 7 p.m. curfew imposed on all Warsaw  Jews to sneak away to the rabbi’s study at  Nozyk Synagogue. There, with no guests  or witnesses, a rabbi married them in a  secret ceremony. An engagement photo  and a ketubah bearing the date and their  names, survives to this day, lovingly preserved  in a frame in Upfall’s apartment.

“There were just the rabbi, Dora and I,”  Upfall tearfully recalled.  The two fled that evening from Warsaw  and headed back to Bialystok, walking the  whole way at night, hiding by day in the  woods and in barns. Upfall still has painful  regrets about leaving his sister, grandparents  and mother. That next year, in the  fall of 1940, the Nazis ordered all Jews into  the Warsaw Ghetto.

“He just had no idea how bad things  were going to get,” Pinsky said.

After making it back to Bialystok,  he and Dora were arrested and sent to  Posolek, a Russian labor camp near the  town of Vologda in White Russia to work  harvesting trees in the forest.  Conditions were harsh. There was little  food and only straw to sleep on in the barracks.

Upfall, raised in an Orthodox home,  recalls feigning illness and fever with some  other men in the camp so they would not  have to work on Yom Kippur.  Though they were under the watchful  eye of Russian guards, somehow Henry  and Dora escaped through a passage in the  forest. After traveling, they were reunited  with Dora’s parents in Vitebsk in Belarus.

For a while, they lived in relative peace.  Henry worked as a barber and the couple  had a child, Yale, born in 1941.  Shortly after Yale was born, Upfall’s family  again uprooted as Soviet forces evacuated  civilians to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.  Here Soviet authorities demanded that  civilians acquire Russian passports.  Refusing to get a passport because he knew  it meant he would be forced into the army,  Upfall was imprisoned.  Dora begged for his release under the  condition that he would  take a passport.

Sure  enough, within days of  accepting a Russian passport,  Upfall was drafted  into the army and put  onto a train headed for  the frontline of the war.

“I remember sitting  next to another Jewish  guy named Moskowitz,”  Upfall said. “In Yiddish,  he joked with me, ‘They  are sending us to the  slaughterhouse.’ So,  when the train stopped  at a station, I said I  was getting off to get a  hot drink. At the station,  there was stopped  another train going west.  I got on it and deserted  the Russian army. I never  saw Moskowitz again.”

Somehow, he made  his way to Jambul,  Kazakhstan, where he  was reunited with his  family. They remained there until the end  of the war.

Post-War Life

When the war ended, Upfall, his wife and  son went back to Poland, first to Kracow,  then Warsaw, where they were spirited out  of Poland by Betar, the Revisionist Zionist  youth movement, and taken to Vienna,  Austria. Dina was born in Vienna in 1947.  From there they went to a displaced persons  camp, Munchenberg, in Germany.

In 1949, the family immigrated to the  United States, joining his father in Detroit.  After receiving his license, he operated a  barber shop. He became a U.S. citizen and  changed his name to Henry in 1954.  Upfall said it is important to tell stories  like his for the future because “people  who are free do not understand how we  endured what we went through during the  Holocaust.”

“The Jewish nation is strong,” Upfall  said. “We have to stick together no matter  what. As long as we have places like  America and Israel, a Jew will never have  to ask again ‘vu ahin zol ikh geyn’ (Where  can I go?)”

 

 

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About stacylynngittleman

I have been a public relations professional and reporter -- and always thought I would live in the New York Metro area - before my husband took a job in Rochester, New York. Most in Metro New York can't find Rochester on a map,and neither could I before we moved. I am now a columnist and a freelance writer for Rochester's only daily newspaper, the Democrat & Chronicle. I also am passionate about gardening, fitness and most of all, Jewish education and Israel Advocacy. Here's my perspective on Western New York living - the good, the bad, and the snowy.

3 responses to “Detroit’s oldest Holocaust Survivor, 101, Shares Story For Future generations”

  1. letstalkaboutfamily says :

    Thank you for posting this. Their stories must continue to be told. Our grandchildren must understand that this was real — not just a story in a book!

  2. sarah says :

    such a special story and memories about the ketubah

  3. Jessie says :

    What a survivor. What bravery and resilience! I wish I could meet Mr. Upfall.

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