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Combating denial: Holocaust survivors share their stories of life after tragedy

About 245,000 Holocaust survivors are alive globally, with 16% living in the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center
Posted at 6:46 PM, May 03, 2024

The images on the walls at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Nassau County, New York are like something from a film or a history book.

For Leo Ullman, it was childhood, one he didn't realize was different from others.

"I was born in 1939 and I was a hidden child," he told Scripps News. "I basically stayed in most of the time, in a third-floor apartment. My hair was dyed blonde. I didn't know a war was going on. I just thought people lived the way I was living."

At 3 years old, his parents sent him to hide with a family of strangers in Amsterdam, a place he'd call home for the next few years.

"They were religious and took the view that it was the right thing to do," he said of his temporary family.

"They never wavered from that. Every time that I might have asked them about that, that was their answer: It was the right thing to do," he continued.

He says his entire family, though apart, went into hiding, It wasn't until years later that he heard the full story of his parents' fight for survival.

"They went into hiding in an attic on a main street In Amsterdam,with no light, no electricity, one window," he explained. "When my real parents came to pick me up, somehow I didn't know them."

"We are among the last generation of Holocaust survivors, but we are also the last generation to hear these firsthand accounts," said museum storyteller Dana Arschin.

Arschin spends her days documenting stories like Ullman's, for two reasons: first, to combat holocaust denial, something that's existed since the war ended.

"Right after the war, a lot of the Holocaust deniers would say that reports of the Holocaust were really propaganda reports to try to make the Western world feel bad for Jews and give them special treatment," Arschin began.

"You just have to tell one lie long enough and often enough. And it's easy for people to think that that's the truth, that's the reality," she said.

She also does it because the stories often mirror her own family's quest for survival.

"My grandfather, who anyone who knows me knows I called my Poppy, passed away just shy of his 102nd birthday in December of 2023. He was an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor. Both of his parents and five of his siblings were murdered. My Poppy was left an orphan after the war," she explained.

"I am very aware of the fact that I would not be here today if not for my Poppy, if not for his perseverance," she continued.

It's that same perseverance that drives Ullman, whose family survived the ordeal, eventually immigrating to the U.S.

Here he became a Harvard graduate, a triathlete, a proud father, and a marine — which he says saved his life for the second time.

"I think between the Marine Corps and getting married, I got straightened out," he said with a smile.

Today, he does his part to combat antisemitism through his book, "796 Days," marking the number of days he was in hiding. He also visits schools to share stories of his family's survival and the people who helped them along the way — like a Muslim rug dealer who helped his father make money before going into hiding, gifting him a prayer rug for the journey.

"He said, 'Take this with you. I know that you worship a different God', but he said 'Take this with you and Allah will save you,'" he said.

He brings the rug along with him to schools as he works to teach the next generation lessons in tolerance and history's hard truths.

"It's very, very important to tell the Holocaust story and let it not be diminished over time because it's unique," he said.

While many Holocaust victims like Anne Frank and Ullman spent their time in hiding, others, like Jack Wurfl, hid in plain sight.

Born to a Catholic father and Jewish mother, Wurfl and his brother were baptized in the Catholic church early in the war.

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"This was one of the things that saved us during this entire time, during the entire Third Reich, because every time we had to fill out paper or someone would ask us who are you, we would say we were Catholic," Wurfl said.

The boys joined the Hitler Youth and were eventually sent away to live with strangers, all part of his family's attempt at survival.

"We noticed that people were disappearing. Neighbors, one morning they were gone. Friends of mine were gone." Wurfl says that led to the family's difficult decision.

He and his brother were taken in by a German woman affectionately called Tante Irma, who he says concealed their Jewish identity.

"When Gestapo came and they would ask her, 'Who are these two boys?' And she would simply said, 'I adopted them, they are my boys.' And she would always somehow talk her way out of it and people would leave," he said.

He and his brother, though showered with love by Tante Irma, had to be careful, always working to hide the truth.

"When we were in school and we would go to the bathroom, my brother and I being circumcised — and the German children weren't — so we always had to be very careful. So we usually would wait until everybody had gone," he said.

His parents were eventually put in concentration camps, his father as a political prisoner, his mother for her identity, neither would survive the experience.

"My entire family, my grandparents, eventually my uncles, my aunts, everybody we knew, they were all killed during that period of time," he said.

Before his mother's death and sentence to Auschwitz, he sneaked into prison to see her, getting one final piece of advice. "Learn, learn as much as you can and be good boys. And you know I love you and I know that you love me and go now before someone catches you here," he recalled.

He was never forced to fight for Germany, but says he learned a lot about the sea and maritime operations. When the war ended, he and his brother came to the U.S., through a special program and were eventually taken in by a group of nuns. He earned English, and was drafted into the Army, becoming an interpreter and a member of the color guard. Eventually he married the love of his life, Zonia, the former Miss El Salvador, raising a family in Baltimore and starting an insurance company, where he's still coming in nearly every day.

"When I think back of the two lives, this life here went so quick and it was so easy. And we built a business and we worked every day and we loved it and we had a passion for it, you know, it was wonderful here, whereas in Germany it was so difficult," he said.

At 91 years old, he's written a book, "My Two Lives," sharing the story of his life before and after the Holocaust — a journey he says has rekindled difficult memories but hopes has a lasting impact.

"Some nights I can't sleep, I think all of a sudden of my parents again and my friends and all the things that happened over there, the good things and the bad things," he started. "If I just accomplish that 10 people learn a little bit more about what happened, then this will be worth it, you know?"