Fryda Fleish was only 12 years old when the Germans invaded Chrzanow, Poland in 1939.
For three years, Fleish was separated from her family and placed in a concentration camp. When she was finally freed, she was one of few surviving members of her nearly 60-person extended family.
Fleish was one of 50 Holocaust survivors who shared their experiences with students and visitors at the University of Michigan Hillel yesterday. The 5th annual Conference on the Holocaust was held in commemoration of the anniversary week of Kristallnacht — “the night of broken glass” — which occurred on Nov. 9, 1938, when Hitler ordered the Nazis to persecute Jewish people and destroy all their property.
LSA junior Shana Sternberg, chair of the event, said more students may have attended the event than in the past because it occurred in the fall semester rather than the winter semester when many students are studying abroad.
“We had a lot of non-Jewish students that came, which was one of our goals because we don’t want to just target the Jewish community, but expand to everyone since a lot of people who died during the Holocaust were not Jewish,” Sternberg said. “We want to spread the message never to forget this awful event and to educate people through their stories.”
Sternberg said the luncheon was especially powerful because the participants could interact directly with the survivors, who sat with small groups at roundtables to better facilitate discussion.
“It is an entirely different experience hearing their personal stories and to see the way they tell them,” Sternberg said. “Some of the people we bring in are teachers, authors — people who really want to share their stories.”
While Fleish said it is difficult to share stories of the atrocities she endured, she believes it is important to move forward.
“The dreams are there, and you can’t make them go away,” Fleish said. “It lives inside of me. You never get over it. It is a part of you, always in the back of your head.”
At another table sat 83-year-old Anton Opengeym, who spoke of his troubled life running from the war. Because his family was wealthy, the Nazis targeted his father and brother, who were among the first in the town to be killed.
“They like to take everything you have — your weaknesses,” Opengeym said.
After the war, Opengeym fled communist Latvia with his wife and children — hoping to give them a better life. He came to Michigan and worked as the custodian for The Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills for 26 years until he retired.
“God Bless America,” Opengeym said with a smile on his face. “I started with nothing, and now I have Social Security.”
Opengeym said even though his life was not as prosperous as when he was a child, survival is the only thing that is important to him.
“Sometimes you just need to have a bad life to know what a good life is, and I have a really good life now,” Opengeym said.
Holocaust survivor Henia Ciesla Lewin lived in the ghettos of Kielce, Poland and then fled to the woods for nine months with her sister and aunt, where she witnessed the murders of fellow hiding refugees. After returning to the ghettos, she was sent to five different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, before being freed by the U.S. Army.
“I remember when Hitler came into the town, and I felt the hostility all around him,” Lewin said. “It still rings in my ears.”
Lewin said that now her life goal is to share her stories so people can understand and stop the hatred that caused the Holocaust. She wrote a poem in remembrance of her mother for her grandchildren that she likes to share.
“My mother begged me, before we separated, that her only wish was for me to survive,” Lewin said. “I think her wish kept me alive. Someone had to be there to tell the stories.”
When asked how she could continue to be optimistic after living through such horrific events, Lewin explained that she had to rise above her oppressive past to foster a future that transcends the hatred of the Holocaust.
“I hope and I pray that a time like that will never come again,” Lewin said. “I am full of so much pain, but I don’t hate anybody.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the year when the Germans invaded Poland. It was 1939.