Detroit’s oldest Holocaust Survivor, 101, Shares Story For Future generations
It really is eerie.
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.
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?)”