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Letters inspire church’s first Shoa commemoration
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Letters inspire church’s first Shoa commemoration

When they were written in the 1940s and early 1950s, the postcards and letters that landed in Jutta Sturdevant’s care a few years back told of a kind of helplessness, of people forced from their homes by the Nazi terror.

On Sunday, Oct. 14, at a small white Episcopal church in West Orange, their struggle was remembered, and honored with a commitment to oppose such evil wherever it arises.

Sturdevant brought the letters to the attention of her minister, the Rev. Martie Metzler, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in West Orange. Metzler, who was profoundly moved by a visit to Yad Vashem while in Israel a few years back, took them as inspiration to make Holocaust remembrance the theme of her service on Sunday. “We have been planning since last spring, as a parish, to focus on interfaith understanding and cooperation,” she said.

Sturdevant, an East German native who lives in West Orange, was given the material by an auctioneer a few years ago. “He thought I might be able to translate them,” she said, “but it was very difficult. Some were written in old German, and some were in not so good German, as if it was someone who was forced to use the language but didn’t know it very well.”

She has no idea what became of the writers or the recipient, one Tilli Landberg — or Zilli Zandberg, depending on how you decipher the handwriting — who had immigrated to what was then Palestine, and later — apparently — settled in New Jersey, in the town of Hawthorne.

Metzler exercises at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, and she asked people there for advice on dealing with the letters. They referred her to Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest NJ. Wind suggested that the minister invite retired scientist Dr. Norbert Bikales of Livingston, a member of the council board, to speak to her congregation.

Now a dapper, white-haired 74-year-old, Bikales told his audience on Sunday how — as a nine-year-old in Berlin — he heard that his father and 17-year-old brother had been arrested. In the horror that followed, he lost parents, grandparents, and much of his extended family, murdered, he told the church congregants, “for the crime of being Jewish.”

He survived the war due to his mother’s courage in deciding to send him away. He was taken out of Berlin in 1939 by a Jewish organization, the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, which found safe haven for him in France, at a school in Chabannes run by Freemason Felix Chevrier. Until the Nazis forbade it, he attended classes taught by two dedicated French sisters, Irene and Renee Paillassou, who risked their own lives to shield the Jewish children in their care. Only four of the 400 children with him were eventually caught by the Nazis. The story is told in the documentary The Children of Chabannes, which, Bikales said, he recommends — “and not just because I’m in it.”

In 1945, Bikales received a letter from his older brother, who had been in a ghetto in Poland with other family members. He related how, as they were facing the prospect of almost inevitable death, they got a letter from the Red Cross telling them that Norbert was safe. The news had been forwarded by Chevrier. Bikales said his brother wrote, “You cannot imagine what this meant to those condemned to die. It gave us so much strength.”

Bikales, who serves as president of Friends and Alumni of OSE-USA, Inc., and many of his fellow Chabannes survivors stayed in touch with the Paillassou sisters to the end of their lives. “We sent flowers to Irene on her 96th birthday,” he recalled. “I think she was very touched to hear from ‘her children in America.’”

He said, “A few courageous people stood up at the risk of their own lives to the monstrous evil that was the Holocaust.”

And that was the message Metzler asked her congregants to take with them. At the end of Sunday’s service, she urged them not just to feel “sadness and sympathy, but also strength and determination” — to spot where that kind of evil might be rising again and to do all they can to combat it.

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