As a teenager in Warsaw, Poland, Nessa Ben-Asher helped save her father and dozens of other people from the Nazis.
But when she heard herself described as a heroine at an event in Whippany March 16, the Holocaust survivor, now 90 years old, waved it aside.
“I’m embarrassed. I was very young and it didn’t seem special,” she insisted. “Now it might seem that way, but anyone would have done the same thing.”
Ben-Asher, a star of Polish theater who immigrated to the United States in 1968, was a special guest at a Lego building project hosted by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, a department of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
About 100 people — children working with parents and grandparents — used Lego bricks to recreate a multi-colored model of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was complete with the Mila 18 building made famous by novelist Leon Uris, two of the city’s synagogues, the orphanage where the educator Janusz Korczak tried in vain to shelter his young charges — and then was deported with them to Auschwitz — and the apartment house where Ben-Asher lived as a child.
Architect Stephen Schwartz has directed such projects at dozens of synagogues, schools, and community centers.
Council director Barbara Wind, who described Ben-Asher’s heroism, pointed out that the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto paralleled the Purim story being celebrated that day. The holiday, she said, marks “the first intended genocide of Jews in the world” and the Jews’ rescue by Queen Esther.
Known in her youth as Sylvia Tylbor, Ben-Asher, who was a child performing star in the Polish capital, posed as a Christian in her teens, and in that guise managed to smuggle hordes of children out of the ghetto and place them with gentile families. After the war, she married Yitchok Mandelkern-Laszczower, another famous theater personality who — disguised as an SS officer — rescued dozens of Jews from the Lvov Ghetto. He became an official with the Polish cultural ministry; when he died of cancer in his 60s, he was given a state funeral.
Ben-Asher came to the United States in 1968 with her son, Alex, assisted by celebrated friends like Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, and Artur Rubenstein. She later married Jerry Ben-Asher, a fellow lover of the arts, who served as music critic for NJ Jewish News for many years. It was he who nicknamed her Nessa, for the Hebrew word for miracle. Jerry died in 2008.
On display in the Aidekman center’s atrium are big collages of photos and stories of Holocaust victims and survivors, part of the council’s “From Memory to History” exhibition, which Schwartz designed. On March 16, inside the project room was an array of photos and quotes from people trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, most with the ominous dates of death showing they were killed there or soon after its destruction. But some had dates from decades later, showing they made it out alive and were able to live long lives in peace.
One woman watching the event, non-Jewish and new to this kind of program, was close to tears. “I can’t get over how moving this is,” said Ashley Case. “The people in those photos look like us — happy, ordinary people living normal lives. And to know that [Ben-Asher] “lived through it, and still insists she wasn’t heroic….”
Susan Rosenthal of Randolph, chair emerita of the council, got down on the floor with her grandchildren, Charlie and Leah, to build their section of Warsaw, as their father watched from the sidelines. “I’ve been at many of these events,” she said. “I think they’re just wonderful.”
Ben-Asher, who lives in Short Hills, had one emphatic point she wanted to make: “In every country there is a monument to Janusz Korczak, except in the United States,” she said. “He taught us how not to be selfish. He was the model for everything I did afterward.”
She said to the community members present, “I’m here to beg you to see Korczak, the movie about the Warsaw Ghetto and Janusz Korczak. It is the best movie ever made about the ghetto. It will show you exactly what it was like.”