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Stories of Survival Surround Pre-Passover Table

By: Rachel Kurland | JE Staff

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Katalin Willner, JFCS board chair Michael WIlner, Talia WIlner, Jennifer Wilner and Elizabeth Bleiman at the JFCS pre-Passover seder.

Joseph Kahn was 17 when the war broke out.

Born and raised in Poland, he remembers how everything escalated so quickly.

A week after the Germans marched through his town, which was home to about 39,000 Jews, the local synagogue — a huge, beautiful edifice — was incinerated on Shabbat while packed with congregants.

“We knew something was happening, but we didn’t know what was happening,” he recalled after seeing charred bodies among the ruins.

That was just the beginning.

Now, Kahn is able to share his story with more than 70 other Holocaust survivors and their guests who attended the fifth annual Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia pre-Passover seder.

Many of them live in Northeast Philadelphia, so JFCS provided a bus and vans to bring them to Adath Israel in Merion Station for the April 3 event.

Jane Wexler, JFCS director of development, said this event is impactful for both the attendees and the volunteers.

“It really is one of the most rewarding days of the year for all of us at JFCS,” she said.

Wexler said there’s always a lot of food left over, too, so they packed everyone a meal along with a gift bag of grape juice and macaroons.

“For some of them, it’s the only opportunity they get to join together with friends that they meet at these events,” she said.

“The fact that the Holocaust survivors get to share their stories with the bridge members and the bridge members’ children, it’s so important to have these stories continued through the generations,” she added. “Every year, you think you’d get used to hearing the stories because really the stories are very similar, but every year the takeaways are different.”

Stories like Kahn’s or Manya Frydman Perel, who survived eight different concentration camps and escaped a death march by hiding in the woods; or Marius Gherovici, who escaped the Kishivev ghetto and fled back to his hometown of Bucharest, Romania, later traveling and living in cities across the world; or Clara Meles, who found refuge in Switzerland and later opened the first Orthodox synagogue in Philadelphia with her husband, Young Israel of Oxford Circle.

Back in the ghetto, Kahn recalled the Germans took over all the big businesses, but they needed a shoe factory. Fortunately, his father was a shoemaker.

A family of five, Kahn, his father and his brother got jobs in the factory, and that saved their lives.

“By working in the factory, we got an ID, and this ID saved us from raids,” he said. “I was home in the ghetto from 1939 to the end of ’42 because of our IDs that we had.”

Passover is a time to reflect on the liberation from slavery, and these survivors had the opportunity to reflect on their own liberation.

This is just one of many events and services JFCS provides to local Holocaust survivors. The organization also offers in-home health care or daily living assistance, claim applications from German or other governments, transportation to grocery stores, financial aid and other social engagements.

For Passover, Kahn is going to Winnipeg, Canada to spend the holiday with his daughter, which he called his annual weeklong “pilgrimage.”

Back home in Philadelphia, he has never missed a pre-Passover seder, and it has become a tradition for him.

“It’s a meaningful thing. I wouldn’t think of missing a seder,” he said.

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