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Holocaust survivor to speak on tolerance at Aspen appearance

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Luna Kaufman
ALL |

ASPEN – Holocaust survivor Luna Kaufman, 84, will bring her messages of humanity and tolerance to the Aspen Meadows’ Doerr-Hosier Center at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Kaufman, a native of Poland who now lives in New Jersey, was a young girl when the Germans invaded Poland and embarked on their program of systemic genocide against the Jewish people and others. With the help of her mother, Maria Fuss, and an indomitable spirit, she survived years of turmoil and suffering in the Krakow Ghetto and a series of work assignments in various concentration camps.

Her autobiography, “Luna’s Life,” was released in 2009 by ComteQ Publishing. Since the early 1970s, she has spoken to countless school and church groups about her experiences and the lessons she learned from them. Much of her work has involved trying to strengthen bonds between Christians and Jews as a counter to anti-Semitism.

“I don’t talk only about the Holocaust,” she said in a brief interview following a Monday lunch at The Sundeck. “I feel that remembering the Holocaust is only a part of it. A very big part of the book is devoted to my work with the Christian world.

“I feel that teaching our children to combat prejudice and opening their eyes about where it leads to is a very important part of the lesson,” Kaufman continued. “This is my big purpose. I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. I don’t want anyone to sit and cry. I feel it’s very important that they learn a lesson about what happened.”

Students from across the Roaring Fork Valley have been invited to attend Kaufman’s talk, said Aspenite Leonard Lansburgh, who has helped to organize her visit.

Kaufman said while many youths today have little or no familiarity with the Holocaust, that’s not the case in New Jersey schools, where its study is mandatory.

She recalled a question-and-answer session – a scene that has undoubtedly been repeated – with inner-city students in Newark.

“The children asked, ‘Would you kill a German if you saw one on the street?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? Would I emulate them? That’s what they did. That’s what the courts are for, this is what justice is for, and this is how you deal with it when you feel an injustice has been done to you, but don’t take the law into your own hands. That’s a very destructive thing.’ “

The students also asked if she hated Germans. “I said, ‘I don’t hate the Germans. Because what would they do? They wouldn’t know I was hating them and it would only ruin my life. Why should I do it? I go on with my life and I see what I can do that would be right. I don’t worry that what they did to us was wrong. Let them account for it.”

Several passages in “Luna’s Life” describe her coping mechanisms. Small in stature and quite young – she was 16 when the war ended – she sometimes would direct sarcastic remarks toward the Jewish police and civilians who were tasked by the Germans with overseeing day-to-day labor-camp operations.

To make life more bearable amid the 12-hour work days, forced marches to different locales and the continual threat of extermination, she would sew clothing for herself and others. Maintaining her appearance gave her a sense of dignity.

Once, at the Plaszow work camp, she buried a prized necklace that was a gift from a favorite cousin and reveled in the fact that the Nazis weren’t able to confiscate it. It was a sterling silver dachshund on a chain.

“Declining to leave my treasure in the hands of the Nazis, I buried it next to my barracks and never saw it again,” she wrote in her book. Many years later, on her 65th birthday, her daughter had a jeweler replicate it with great precision.

In her book, at certain points during her years-long ordeal – such as beautiful spring days or times when it seemed liberation was imminent – she describes feelings of relative happiness.

“I was small,” she said. “I never was emaciated. I never felt hungry, no matter how little they gave us. It’s also a state of mind. You decide that this food will be enough for you and that’s all there is to it.

“I always refused to feel like an oppressed person,” Kaufman explained. “I always refused to be a victim.”

She also played pranks on her captors, and got away with them. At the Leipzig camp in Germany, near the end of 1944, she sometimes sabotaged the equipment in the metal shop where she worked as a way of slowing down production.

This was a serious offense, punishable by death. But Kaufman had a look of innocence – she was nicknamed “little one” by her co-workers and the Germans – and they believed her tales of malfunctioning machines.

“They never assumed that a little girl would know how a machine works,” Kaufman said. “And I happened to be very astute in mechanics. It never dawned on them that I might have known what I was doing. And, I think male chauvinism played a role in it too.”

Of course, death surrounded her on a daily basis. She had more than a few close calls. At Plaszow – the camp that was the setting for much of the movie “Schindler’s List” – a soldier nicknamed “Willie the Hand” stood behind her, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He was apparently out of ammunition, having killed several other people that day (it was the Jewish New Year’s holiday, Rosh Hashanah). At the time, she didn’t know exactly what had happened; her mother told her about it afterward.

She also summoned the courage to handle a few dicey situations with the camp’s infamous commandant, the Austrian SS captain Amon Goth (spelled Ghett in her book). He was especially sadistic, personally responsible for many deaths, and was later hanged for his war crimes.

“I was on guard duty inside the barracks one night,” she said. “Every night, somebody had to know the exact count of women in the barracks. There was a certain formula we had to recite in German. It had to be perfect.

“If you have seen ‘Schindler’s List,’ that was the same commandant, Amon Goth. He came into the barracks. He had a pistol at his side. If I had made a mistake of one word, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” Kaufman said.

Through it all, somehow, she found humanity among her captors. At Leipzig, a female guard she knew only as Anna Lisa sometimes went out of her way to help her.

“I was always wondering if she was kind because it was the end of the war, and she wanted to eradicate what she had done before, or if she was kind because she was a kind human being,” Kaufman said.

“I know for example the commandant of our last camp [Liepzig], the one Anna Lisa was in, was always good to us. After the war we learned that he had been the biggest henchman in another camp, but I think he wanted the last ones who saw him to testify that he was decent to us.”

Kaufman lost her father, older sister and many other relatives and friends to Nazi atrocities. A few years after the war, she moved to Israel, where she met her future husband, Alex. They moved to America and started a family. Her mother had a long life, dying in 1974 at the age of 82.

Tuesday’s speech will contain some of Kaufman’s memories of World War II, but its main focus will be the relationship between Christians and Jews, she said.

“To me it’s very important. And I hope we can reach other religions to develop a dialogue. I do feel very strongly that a lot of the problems in the world start because we don’t know our own religion or the religion of anybody else. And that ignorance is creating this friction between people.”

In her book, she said she is a strong believer of “Luna’s Law,” the opposite of “Murphy’s Law.” In other words, if something can go right, it will.

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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