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Home for Holocaust survivors sees last generation

Monday - 11/4/2013, 7:09am  ET

In this Sept. 18, 2013 photo, Holocaust survivors Joe Chaba, 85, and his wife, Helen, 89, return to their room at the retirement community called Selfhelp Home, on the North Side of Chicago. For decades, the home was a refuge for central European Jews who'd been victims of Nazi persecution. But as time has passed, the need for this kind of special sanctuary has faded. Only 12 Holocaust survivors _ the youngest in their mid-80s, the oldest 103 _ now remain, along with dozens of others who fled their homeland, escaping Hitler’s reach. They’re now part of the last generation to survive one of the greatest horrors of all time. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
  • Gallery: (16 images)

SHARON COHEN
AP National Writer

CHICAGO (AP) -- Listen to the many harrowing stories of war, suffering and survival, all under one roof:

On the third floor, there's Margie. A prisoner of Nazi labor camps, she hauled backbreaking cement bags and was beaten with clubs. Sometimes, she had only a piece of bread to eat every other day. She weighed 56 pounds when she was freed.

Down the hall, there's Edith. Though pregnant, she miraculously avoided the gas chamber at Auschwitz. She lost her mother, father and husband in the camps. After liberation, she faced even more heartbreak: Her son died days after his birth.

Up on the eighth floor, there's Joe. As a boy of 10, he was herded onto a cattle car and transported to a concentration camp -- the first of five he'd be shuttled to over five cruel years.

These Holocaust survivors share a history and a home: a retirement community founded more than 60 years ago for Jews who'd been victims of Nazi persecution. For decades, it was a refuge for those who'd endured the living hell of Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Mauthausen and other camps. And a haven, too, for those who'd fled before the dark night of German occupation fell over their homeland.

In its heyday, the Selfhelp Home, as it's called, bustled with Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, the dining room a babel of central European tongues. Hundreds were on a waiting list. But that was long ago. As time passed, the need for a special sanctuary faded. Others who had not endured the genocide moved in.

Only 12 Holocaust survivors -- the youngest in their mid-80s, the oldest 102 -- remain. So do a few dozen other Jews who escaped Hitler's reach, often leaving behind family as they started new lives in Kenya, China, Colombia and other distant lands.

They're now the last generation to bear witness to one of the greatest horrors of all time, a resilient community of friends and neighbors sharing what once seemed impossible: long lives. When they're gone, their stories will be preserved in history. But for now, their voices still echo in these halls.

___

Seventy-five years ago, Margie Oppenheimer awoke with a Nazi pointing a rifle in her 14-year-old face.

It was Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht -- the night of broken glass -- when the Nazis coordinated a wave of attacks in Germany and Austria, smashing windows, burning synagogues, ransacking homes, looting Jewish-owned stores. They trashed the family's apartment and small department store in Oelde, Germany.

So began seven years of terror that took Oppenheimer from the Riga ghetto -- escaping mass killings by German squads -- to a series of labor and concentration camps. She broke concrete, shoveled sawdust, laid bricks, glued U-boats. She fought hunger and fear, lice and typhus, repeating to herself: "I WILL be strong. I want to live."

One day at the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, Nazis marched Oppenheimer and others naked into an open field for inspection. Those strong enough to work were directed to the right. Oppenheimer, who was emaciated, was ordered to the left with hundreds of older women. She was placed into new barracks and had the Roman numeral II scrawled on her left forearm.

Death seemed inevitable.

"I'm thinking this is the last time I will see the sun," she recalls.

That night at the camp two friends did the unimaginable: Without saying anything, they pulled Oppenheimer under an electrified fence to another side of the camp. She scrubbed off one number on her arm so she was no longer marked for death. She stayed in those quarters and at the next day's 6 a.m. roll call, she tried to hide her skeletal, barely 5-foot frame behind a tall woman.

"The commander said, 'There is one person extra. Who IS that person? Come forward!'" Oppenheimer recalls, her high-pitched voice imitating his stern tone. "My face was hot. It was on fire. I thought if anybody sees me, they'll know I am the one who isn't supposed to be there." An elderly woman was pulled from the line and dispatched to her death.

"She was killed because of me, because I wanted to be free," Oppenheimer says, her eyes clouding with tears. "And I feel guilty about that until this living day."

Oppenheimer eventually became a nurse but couldn't bear to work with children. "Here you have happy, lovely kids," she explains. "All I saw were kids being pulled from their mothers and killed. Those are the pictures that I still have in front of me."

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