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May 25th, 2007

The burden and
responsibility of retelling
Local survivors relive memories
for the sake of young students

By Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff

Howard Melton of Glendale said that he recently received a letter from an Oak Creek Middle School girl who wrote that she now “looks at people differently” than she did before. “I’m more tolerant,” she wrote.

Responding to the story that Melton recounted in a talk he gave at her school about his experiences during the Holocaust, the girl squarely expressed one of Melton’s main goals in speaking to middle and high school students.

Melton and 10 or 11 other Holocaust survivors, who serve on the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center’s speakers bureau gathered with HERC staff and guests at Pandl’s in Bayside for the center’s annual appreciation luncheon last week.

HERC is a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Coalition for Jewish Learning.

There was nothing in the appearance of this group of men and women in their 70s and 80s that hinted at the misery they endured as children, teens and young adults in Europe during the 1930s and ‘40s.

But each of them has a unique set of memories of being torn away from home, family and friends, existing in an abyss of terror, pain, deprivation and worse, while the world of European Jewry disintegrated around them.

Melton, now 76, was liberated from the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany on May 10, 1945, but it would be more than three decades before he would tell his story publicly.

He first spoke to high school students after a trip to the then Soviet Union, when it began accepting American tourists in the 1970s. Melton had traveled there to visit his father, the only other member of his family who had survived. He always considered himself a shy person, he said, but he granted a teacher’s request to speak about his trip and about Russian Jews.

Later Melton was motivated to action in the early 1980s, he said, when he read about the activities of the Holocaust denier, Christine Miller, a German living in Marshfield, Wis., who said the Holocaust never happened.

He joined HERC’s speakers bureau and has since told thousands of Milwaukee area students about how his childhood, family and culture in his native Kovno, Lithuania were destroyed when, at age 10, he and his family were forced into a ghetto. A year later, he was shipped to Riga, Latvia, then to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland and finally to Dachau.

By telling American middle and high school students about what he experienced first hand, Melton believes he is in a unique position to convince them that “hate is the most horrible disease. If I can change one person’s mind to treat others the way [they] want to be treated, in my little way, I’m counteracting, maybe a little bit [what I experienced in the Holocaust],” he said.

Remembering is reliving

Despite speaking to students on a regular basis, the survivors that The Chronicle interviewed, all said it was excruciating for them to stir up the memories of that time because to do so is to relive the horror.
Glendale resident Nate Taffel, 79, raised in Radomysl Wielki, near Tarnow, Poland, said that the emotional toll of telling his story requires that he take a little time to recover between each speech.

Taffel said “for many years I did not speak about my life experiences. I was afraid that somehow I wasn’t going to be able to bring out all of the atrocities. I didn’t trust myself mentally, if I could relive the atrocities.”

Taffel said, “I came from a family full of love and being the youngest I was very spoiled.” His parents got warning one day, when he was 12, that the occupying Germans planned to destroy their town the next day. That night they fled to the nearby city of Tarnow in a horse-drawn wagon and moved in with Taffel’s oldest sister and her husband in the ghetto.

After spending time in three successive work camps in Poland, Taffel ended up in Dachau. His parents and seven sisters perished in Europe but his two brothers survived. After 10 years in Australia, Taffel came to Milwaukee to help his ill brother and then married and stayed on here.

Taffel began “to open up a little bit” to his wife and children after they visited his hometown in Poland together, he said.

Later, when Sandy Hoffman, an activist in the local survivor community, called Taffel and asked him to consider joining the HERC speakers bureau, he said, “I decided spontaneously, for my family, for their memory, even though it is tremendously difficult for me,” to join the dwindling number of speakers.

As one of the youngest survivors, Hoffman said he saw that he was needed. He never declines a request to speak, he said. “I came to the conclusion that I have to do this and I will continue doing it as long as I can.”

Having spoken to thousands of students around the state, Taffel said “The rewards are the letters and the expressions [on the faces] of the kids and the way they hug and kiss me.”

And he tells them what he really feels, he said. “I don’t hide anything. I say that the people that killed us were Christians.

After many months of wishing for revenge, following his liberation, Taffel said, “I decided I will never hate because hate destroys the person that hates. I don’t hate anybody but I don’t forgive and forget.”

Many Jews from Poland

Tauba Biterman, 86, also never refuses a request to talk about her personal Holocaust experience. Though it is difficult to relive the horror, Biterman said, “you cannot erase what you went through and you have to be strong and tell your story.”

And Biterman does so because it’s important for young people to know about the Holocaust so “it shouldn’t happen again,” she said.

Biterman said she spoke to some 400 non-Jewish students at Congregation Beth Israel recently and received two standing ovations.

“This was a very good group of young people. I saw wiping eyes and shaking heads,” she said.

Biterman was born and raised in Zamosc, Poland, the oldest daughter of a cap maker. When she was 18, she, her parents and six younger siblings fled their home for the Ukraine, thinking life under the Russians would be better for the Jews.

Biterman’s family left her in the Ukraine because she had a job, and moved on to the former Soviet Union, thinking they would be able to continue to see her.

“But it didn’t work out this way because in [19]41 Germany started the war and then I was on my own,” Biterman said. “I was very naïve, but God gave me so much strength and so much courage,” she said.

For the next four years Biterman was first hidden, then passed as a German from the Black Forest. She survived by staying on the move, working when she could get work, and staying alert to the suspicions and accusations of Poles and Ukranians who “always looked for Jews and hunted us out.”

Her many harrowing experiences included having guns held to her head to coerce her into confessing that she was a Jew.

“I was very strong and life was precious. I didn’t want to die from a bullet,” she said.

Biterman believes the Holocaust would never have happened if we [the Jewish people] had had our own space. “A people without a home is not respected and [other nations] do with you what they want.”

The day of the HERC luncheon, she was feeling bereft because of dwindling numbers of survivors. “There were [once] so many of us Jews from Poland — but on Monday at the luncheon the only people I knew were [the HERC staff] and Arlene Peltz,” she said the next day.

“All of my people died. I was very sad.”