Bat mitzva, survivor form enduring bond
In 1941, when Jeannie Parnes Wechsler was just three years old, her family survived a rain of Nazi bombs that killed or maimed dozens of their townspeople.
“I saw babies without heads, limbs flying through the air. Even now, more than 70 years later, I remember it vividly. It’s not possible to forget such a horrible scene,” said the Lakewood resident.
Coming out of the bomb attack unscathed was the first “miracle after miracle” that enabled 10 Parnes family members — her mother, father, and seven children, plus a young man who would later marry one of the daughters — to emerge from the war unharmed and intact.
The family’s story has been told in a book, One Step Ahead: A Mother of Seven Escaping Hitler’s Claws, by Avraham Azrieli, and in a play, By Wheel and by Wing, which was written by high school students and staged by Act 3 Productions of Sandy Springs, Ga.
Wechsler also speaks on behalf of Brookdale Community College’s Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education, in Lincroft.
She will tell her story on Monday, April 11, at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro.
Her upcoming visit to Rodeph Torah was prompted by Hope Hershman, 13, a TRT member who interviewed her for a pre-bat mitzva project last fall. Hope’s mother, Suzie Beizer, heads up the temple’s Women’s Spirituality Group.
“I fell in love with Hope. She is very bright and very sincere,” said Wechsler.
The two first met when Hope was on a Hebrew school field trip at Chhange. During the event, “small groups of students were put together in classrooms with survivors who would tell their stories and answer questions,” said Hope. “I was lucky to be in the same group as Jeannie.”
Not long after, Wechsler invited Hope and her mother for dinner at her home. Since then, Hope and Wechsler have formed a friendship despite the 64-year difference in their ages. “I’ve been back to visit her again, and we speak on the phone about twice a month,” said Hope, who became a bat mitzva last October.
Wechsler said she plans to tell the TRT congregants about her family’s experiences in staying “one step ahead” of Hitler’s forces. “I was born in Skalat, Poland, in 1938, and although Russian troops came to our town in 1939, we were relatively safe until 1941, when the Germans were on their way.”
Given a last-minute warning by some Russian soldiers, the Parnes family and about 200 others fled the town one day before the Nazis arrived. “The next morning, some people were undecided about whether to go on or return. That’s when the bombing started,” she said.
“We had a horse and buggy that we lived in for almost four months,” Wechsler recalled. Ultimately, the family worked its way deep into Russia. When life in the freezing Ural Mountains proved unendurable, the ill-equipped group, including Azriel Bauer, who was later to become Wechsler’s brother-in-law, moved to Uzbekistan.
“Throughout our ordeals, my mother Esther provided the brains, and Azriel, who was young, gave us the strength we needed,” said Wechsler.