A recent article in NJJN informed readers about a project by Wreaths Across America, the tribute “tree” inaugurated by Holocaust survivor Luna Kaufman of Watchung to recognize soldiers who helped free concentration camp survivors at the end of World War II (“Survivor inaugurates ‘Liberator Tree,’” Aug. 24).
But the piece came to play another unexpected and extraordinary role — it helped connect Kaufman to Naftali Laks, an Elizabeth resident who shares an unhappy past with her.
In a letter to NJJN, Laks’s son David wrote that his father, while reading the article, realized that Kaufman was interned in the same concentration camp, Plaszow, and slave labor camps, Hasag-Skarzysko, where he and his sisters were held. David wrote that his father wanted to talk to Kaufman to see if she “remembers the Laks (or Laksovna) sisters.”
On Sept. 4, NJJN organized a meeting between Kaufman, 89, and Naftali Laks, 94, at Laks’s home to exchange memories of their shared experience. Kaufman’s longtime friend Mala Hoffnung Sperling of Clark, 90, who was also in the camps with Laks and Kaufman, was in attendance as well. Joining them was Debbie Rosenwein, a social worker at Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, which offers a variety of services to Holocaust survivors.
Kaufman, a native of Cracow, was interned in the city’s ghetto with her family before being deported in 1943 to the camps; her sister, Blanka, and father, Marek, ultimately perished at Stutthof and Auschwitz, respectively.
Laks, a native of Zmigrod, a town near Jaslo, Poland, was 17 when the war broke out. While his mother and one sister were separated from the family and perished at the death camp at Belzec, Laks and three of his sisters were confined together and survived the horrors of Plaszow and Hasag-Skarzysko.
Hoffnung Sperling, Kaufman’s classmate, was deported to the same camps with Kaufman following the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto. The youngest of three siblings, Hoffnung Sperling’s parents and sister all perished at Belzec; although she and her brother both went to Plaszow, they were separated and he later perished at Auschwitz.
Following the war, Kaufman completed her studies in Cracow, immigrated to Israel, and then in the 1950s moved to the United States, where she married and had three children. She has dedicated her life to educating others about the Holocaust and helping to eradicate anti-Semitism and religious intolerance. The former president of Temple Sholom in Plainfield, she is chair emerita of the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University and author of her memoir, Luna’s Life.
Laks also went to Israel, where he worked on a kibbutz, then came to Brooklyn in 1959 and later moved to Elizabeth, where he worked as a clothing cutter. Hoffnung Sperling came to the United States in 1949, and she and her husband, Henry — a survivor of six concentration camps — will soon celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. She continues to lecture extensively to school and interfaith groups about the Holocaust.
Following are excerpts from the meeting of the three survivors:
NJJN: Tell us what you recall about your experience at the Plaszow camp.
Laks: Plaszow was built on a Jewish cemetery and there were thousands of people there, separated into different areas by gender. I was put to work laying railroad tracks for the German company Siemens; we were located near the road and could see other people coming into the camp. You tried to stick together with people you knew. My sisters snuck me food; otherwise, I wouldn’t have survived.
Hoffnung Sperling: It’s hard to put the emotions into words — the fear, pain, and longing from being left alone and separated from your family. Luna’s mother was with us in the camps and she became a mother to me; we became a family.
Kaufman: Mala and I worked in a barracks where brushes were manufactured out of horses’ and pigs’ hair. It’s true — we became a unit; our friendship is so strong.
Laks: The workday was so long, 12 hours, and you looked forward to going back to the barracks at the end of the day. My skin was cut open from carrying iron on my shoulders. Some of the German guards were beast-like and would hit us; one Ukrainian guard liked to pull people out of their beds at night at random, take them to the fence, and kill them. You weren’t a person in these camps; you just did what they told you to do.
Kaufman: Amon Göth was the commandant of the [Plaszow] camp and had a house on the property. He inspected the barracks every night and made you give a count of all the occupants in perfect German or he’d kill you. He was very frightening; he always walked with a big whip and two Great Danes. I wanted to survive the camps so that I could take revenge on our captors. Ironically, after the war, I had a black and white Great Dane, exactly like Göth’s.
Hoffnung Sperling: I never liked that dog and didn’t even want to go to your house while you had him! To this day, I have a fear of dogs because they used to chase us with German Shepherds.
NJJN: In late 1943, Plaszow was liquidated and you were all deported to Hasag-Skarzysko. Tell us what you recall about your experience there.
Hoffnung Sperling: I was always hungry; there were huge wooden barrels from which we received a portion of “soup” and one slice of bread every 24 hours.
Laks: The bread was so soggy you could use it to plaster the walls.
Kaufman: Everything was horrible there.
Laks: I worked unloading empty bombs from wagons and then reloading full ones.
Hoffnung Sperling: The chemicals they filled the bombs with caused our skin to become greenish-yellow and our hair to turn red.
NJJN: Tell us your thoughts as you look back on your shared experience.
Hoffnung Sperling: This country’s been very good to us and we’re very grateful. At one time we had a large group of survivors in this area and we used to meet, but a lot of them are gone now. It’s scary to think that soon there will be no survivors left to give first-hand testimonies.
Laks: It’s true; I think I’m one of the only survivors left from my town.
Kaufman: Sometimes the whole experience doesn’t seem real. I took my prison dress with me to remind me that it was real — that it really happened and that I wasn’t daydreaming. But I don’t live in the past.
Hoffnung Sperling: Every survivor reacts differently. I threw my dress away the first minute I could because I couldn’t look at it. Even today, I can’t watch movies that show cruelty at all. The whole experience never leaves me.
Laks: I live with it every day too and still get so emotional. Meetings like this bring back a lot of memories and take me back to something that’s hard to believe we went through.
Kaufman: I feel that I was left to be alive to prevent this from happening again. The past is there but it’s in the past; today is the future and we need to eliminate animosities and hatred. In my opinion, simply “remembering” the Holocaust doesn’t do a damn thing — you have to do something about it. Despite the difficult memories from those years, I remember the kindness of some people.
Hoffnung Sperling: To be with other survivors is a feeling I can’t explain. Meeting another survivor is like a bond. There’s always something between us, a shared suffering.