Detroit’s oldest Holocaust Survivor, 101, Shares Story For Future generations
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.
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?)”
No Joke: Our campus visit to Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University
I don’t understand why Cleveland is the butt of so many jokes.
In our sports-obsessed culture, perhaps it is the lackluster record of their teams as to why the rest of the nation picks on Cleveland.
Even the Case Western Reserve University admissions representative, a native New Yorker who spotted my husband’s Mets cap, worked in a jab about Cleveland as he touched upon Cleveland’s cultural and sports offerings at our information session.
“Another big plus about attending Case Western – when your hometown team comes to town to play against a Cleveland team, there is a good chance you’ll get to see them win!”
There we were, the five of us, at my daughter’s first campus visit.
Most prospective students came with one parent. My daughter had her whole entourage. For the most part, her little brothers were good sports. Lesson learned: Next campus trip, we just bring the kid closest to college age.
At the information session, about 20 prospective students awkwardly sat among their parents. Most of the students were from Michigan. All were asked to introduce themselves, what they were interested in studying, where they lived, and one interesting thing that makes them unique.
My daughter, the lone student who declared an interest in studying science AND art, declared that her talent for drawing made her unique.
My freshman son, mistaken for a prospective student, joked that his one interesting quality was that people frequently thought he was older than his actual age.
Jokes aside, Case Western Reserve is a highly competitive university known for its science, engineering, social work, and medical schools. The Huffington Post calls it the “Geek-centric” up and coming school to watch because it encourages students to be interdisciplinary researchers and creative thinkers and problem solvers.
Before releasing us to our student tour guides, the admissions counselor gave us a thorough presentation on Case Western’s place in college rankings.
- In their rankings, U.S. News & World report ranks it No. 37 among 280 national universities.
- Case Western Reserve University was also ranked No. 27 on U.S. News and World Report’s Best Values charts.
- Its medical school is ranked 12 in the nation
- The school encourages interdisciplinary coursework across 200 academic programs
- There is a 9:1 student/faculty ratio, meaning that students get many opportunities for individual attention from professors.
- Undergraduate acceptance rates for the 2011- 2012 stand at 51 percent.
You can get all these stats on a website. But what you won’t get unless you visit a campus is the feel of the campus, the buzz of the students as they walk, bike or skateboard by as they switch classes. You won’t get a chance to peek into a class in session.
Case Western Reserve is located in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood, putting it within walking distance to about five museums, parks, art galleries, restaurants, and lots of commercial and retail development that will only add to the university’s offerings in years to come. During our visit, our family became enchanted with the area’s parks and charming neighborhoods. We stopped into a small art gallery where the owner, upon learning my daughter was interested in studying art, asked if she might be available for a summer internship.
Wandering around the campus and its surroundings is an important part of the campus visit. Outside of the academic rigors, the student has to ask themselves: can I picture myself living here day after day, for at least four years?
An “online visit” to a campus website is a poor substitute for a walk through the campus, eating a meal at a student union or peeking into a lecture hall when a class is in session.
One can even get a feel, or have what they learned at a campus information session, reaffirmed over a bowl of linguine.
That evening after the tour,we went out to eat at an unpretentious but very popular Italian restaurant. Seated near us was a large group of students with an older, bearded gentleman at the head of the table, presumably their professor. I hushed my family so I could overhear the conversation at the table. Indeed, the gentleman was their professor, and the group was enjoying a meal before taking in the Cleveland Orchestra, which plays at a hall right on the campus. Student tickets to the Cleveland Orchestra are only $12, and if you are a Case Western student, going to the symphony tops the lists of things to do before graduation.
There was a steady light drizzle as our student tour guide walked us through some academic buildings, dorm quads with washing machines that TEXTED you when your load was done (!!!) and the student union.
This is pretty typical on a college tour: visitors will first sign in at the admissions office, usually housed in a stately old building with gleaming hardwood floors. An admissions representative will give a talk and present a polished video of current students and alumni before releasing you to a student tour guide, most likely on a work-study program.
For my middle child, a ninth grader, tagging along on a campus tour with big sister hopefully got him thinking of what campus he could see himself on after high school.
I watched them walk ahead with the student tour guide as I hung back with the rest of the parents. I watched my daughter tell my son I wish I had started visiting colleges when I was YOUR age.
One final word of advice from our tour guide as he made his obligatory plug for us to give him a good score on the feedback card back at admissions: Never overlook the colleges closest to your hometown. Our guide was a native of Cleveland, and he never imagined himself winding up at Case Western Reserve. But he did, and is happy about his decision.
Next up: Our visit to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.
Rite of Passage: The college tour blog posts
Yes, it’s been ages since I have written a post. But this blog post will be merely a placeholder to say, come back, I promise, I will have something to say of what my life has been like over the past few weeks.
Most of what has been occupying my family’s time is the college search for our oldest child.
This spring “break,” the family took a most unusual road trip. It did not involve going back to our hometowns. It did not involve sleeping in our childhood bedrooms and seeing extended families.
It was all about visiting colleges.
In the next few blog posts, I will be sharing our experiences of our visits to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and in Pittsburgh, the contrasts between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. And, because we live in southeast Michigan, this series would not be complete without our visit to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In the next few blog posts, I will be discussing my impressions of the presentations given by each schools’ admission departments, what you can learn on an official college tour, and what you can further learn from taking a real-live student to lunch. I will also write about the “vibe” of each campus and the surrounding cultural aspects of each town.
I will also be writing about the issue of early admission, and how the Ivies and other prestigious universities continue to become even more selective in their admission process.
At that post, I would like hear from you, dear readers on the worth of a college education received at an Ivy League or other prestigious schools. Is it worth the high cost of tuition if it will open up doors for the student at the onset of graduation? Is it better to get an undergraduate education at a good public state college and then gain the prestige of attending an Ivy League for graduate school? These questions are in hot contention right now and I would love for you to chime off on that post.
So, stay tuned right here, and I promise I’ll be cranking these posts out in the days to come. And, if you are also in this stage of life with your children, feel free to comment on each post on your college searches.