The round tables were draped with linen. A cantor sang Hebrew melodies at the dais. It was all just a bit of something, a gesture. No amount of honor could possibly be enough.
Interviewing at her round dinner table, Faina Balterova remembered when she was a girl in Ukraine, shocked to have just learned that war had come. Then 11, she stood dumbfounded at the side of a road.
Another Jew, a random man, approached and told her to go: “Why are you standing here? A lot Jews already had their heads cut out.”
No one can unmake World War II and the Holocaust, but agencies of Jewish Milwaukee came together to give survivors at least this — a lovely night at dinner. Held nine days before the attacks of Oct. 7 in Israel, there were plenty of smiles.
The Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federaition, and Jewish Family Services, held this Appreciation Dinner for Holocaust Survivors on Sept. 28, at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, Whitefish Bay. About 60 Holocaust survivors attended, plus descendants.
Hannah’s Kitchen sponsored and catered for the event. Additional funding came from the Volunteer Generation Fund, a project of Serve Wisconsin and AmeriCorps.
The cantor on the dais was Hazan Jeremy Stein, Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid. Samantha Abramson, executive director of the HERC, took to the stage to speak briefly to survivors and families. She mentioned the collaboration with Jewish Family Services.
“Our two organizations have both been working with Holocaust survivors and their families for decades in the Milwaukee area. But we’ve never done this before,” she said.
She talked about HERC’s work in schools and its Holocaust Speakers Bureau and invited attendees to consider volunteering to help tell their stories.
Friends at dinner
Survivor Eleonora Novak fled with her mother from Kiev, Ukraine, when World War II came there, and they settled in Siberia. Her father was drafted to fight for Russia and was killed. They had little food and wolves chattered their teeth outside the windows of their shabby home at night. At one point, a woman with no children offered to take in Novak, a child, in trade for some milk. Novak’s mother refused.
Novak spoke to the Chronicle without a translator: “We need to remember. We need to tell about this — young people, our children, our grandchildren. They need know, what was, this cannot be.”
Faina Balterova, the survivor who remembered standing dumbstruck at the side of the road at age 11, sat at dinner beside her friend Sofya Farber, also a survivor. The women shared stories that are difficult to hear, but they actually smiled their way through dinner and friendship for much of the night.
The pair met in America after the war. Many at the event were native Russian speakers, like them. Yelena Somovh, a Jewish Family Services case manager, translated for Farber and Balterova to interview briefly with the Chronicle.
Balterova remembered, in Odessa, Ukraine, a moment when planes were dropping bombs. Her mother told her to “lay on the ground.” Bomb fragments, or something, landed on or close to her toe, she said.
“There was a lot of noise in the air,” she said. At one point, they left their cart for safety, but when they came back, the cart had been broken apart, the horse killed, and their clothes scattered.
Seven hundred miles to the north of Odessa, Farber’s father worked at a theater in what is now called Moscow. The family fled with a theater group as war and Nazis approached.
Farber smiled and, through translation, said she now has a “big, big family.”
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The enduring Jewish people
Held nine days before the attacks of Oct. 7 in Israel, there were plenty of smiles at the Appreciation Dinner for Holocaust Survivors.