by Hurley Winkler // photos by Agnes Lopez
When he was just four months old, Morris Bendit’s family was forcibly taken to a Chernovitz ghetto. From there, they were herded into cattle cars, shoved onto boats that crossed a river into the province of Transnistria. Bullets rained down on them the whole way. Some of the largest mass killings of the Holocaust occurred in the Ukraine, where winter temperatures often reached -40°F. Prisoners were rarely, if ever, given food. Most died from starvation or disease. Bendit’s family marched alongside fellow Jews through the dead of winter. “My mother carried me,” Bendit says. “My grandmother took over when she was tired. Between them, I survived.”
Now 77 years old, Bendit is one of the youngest of the 89 Holocaust survivors living in Northeast Florida. It wasn’t until his mother’s death in 1995 that sharing his story felt urgent to him. Since then, he’s worked tirelessly to honor fellow survivors. When he speaks about his experiences today, he’s often asked how he made it out alive. “It’s probably a miracle,” he responds. “What else could it be?”
Years before he created the memorial wall at the Frisch Family Holocaust Memorial Gallery on Baycenter Road, Bendit felt something permanent had to be built for future generations to see. Today, the granite wall lists major extermination camps and ghettos established by the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s. This way, the Holocaust’s truth “is written in stone,” Bendit says. “It’s a reminder of this atrocity, and cannot be erased.” The wall also features six eternal candles, perpetually lit to honor the six million Jews who were killed.
Dana Rogozinski also strives to sustain the legacies of survivors and those who perished. She sports a pendant necklace cast with “A5674,” the prison camp number tattooed on the forearm of her grandmother, Ella, to mark her as a prisoner during the Holocaust. From ages 12 to 18, Ella endured the brutality of Auschwitz and other death camps alongside her two older sisters. For fear of being taken from her family, Ella didn’t let other people know they were sisters, says Rogozinski. “They watched out for each other and took care of each other.”
Miraculously, they survived and Ella’s sisters eventually settled in Jacksonville, one of the few cities in the United States that readily accepted Jewish immigrants at the conclusion of World War II. A few years later, Ella to decide to call Jacksonville home, too. She relocated with her husband (a fellow survivor) and two young sons from Israel in 1959. At first, her life in Jacksonville wasn’t easy. When she arrived in the U.S., Ella spoke seven languages. English was not one of them. And anti-semitism followed her across the ocean.
Growing up in Jacksonville, Rogozinski and her cousins would regularly visit Underwood’s Jewelers, where hergrandmother was employed for almost 50 years. “Family has always been important to her,” says Rogozinski, “because she lost so much of her family when she was young.” Despite the pain and loss experienced at an early age, Rogozinski says her grandmother has maintained a generous spirit well into her old age. “She’s always wanted to give and give and give.”
When it comes to remembering her grandmother’s story and the tragedy of the Holocaust, Rogozinski feels a strong sense of responsibility. Last year, she established a jewelry line, Jakob Ella, in honor of 91-year-old Ella’s legacy. Rogozinski works hard to avoid beautifying or embellishing the pain of the Holocaust. She maintains simplistic, raw designs throughout her collection. “We are focusing on what it meant, and what came after it,” she says. She strives to teach others the Holocaust’s effects, understanding that education has the potential to prevent these crimes from occurring again. In this way, she feels that her designs are teaching tools.
Though most are taught about the Holocaust in history class, deniers still abound, attempting to revise historic narratives with their own anti-Semitic points of view. Even Bendit, who experienced the Holocaust firsthand, says he’s been confronted with those who deny it happened at all. “We cannot let the deniers win,” he says. “I believe that Holocaust deniers know what happened. They hate the Jews so much, and even though they know what happened, they’re denying others to believe it.”
In Northeast Florida, survivors face challenges beyond the weight of their memories. The majority of Holocaust survivors are living below the poverty line. Because most of these individuals have lost extended family members, many are living without familial support as they age. Jewish Family and Community Services provides assistance to area survivors, including regular meal programs and complimentary rides to medical appointments. They also offer various programs that encourage socialization with fellow survivors and their families. Such programming includes Café Europa, where participants are invited to dance to nostalgic klezmer music. “When survivors get together,” says JFCS Executive Director Colleen Rodriguez, “they start to fill in the gaps of their stories.”
JFCS offers a fresh food box to area survivors twice a month, a partnership the organization has established with local food supplier Front Porch Pickings. Hillary Rotenberg, a geriatric case manager for JFCS who works directly with survivors, recognizes the value of these services. “We have a responsibility to help our survivors live in dignity,” she says, adding that many survivors do not identify themselves to their community until they notice the services JFCS has to offer them. “Until then,” Rotenberg says, “there’s often a hesitation to discuss.”
This common hesitation makes opportunities for survivors and their families to tell their stories a sacred occurrence. “They need opportunities to tell their stories in safe spaces,” says Rodriguez. JFCS hosts Searching For Identity, a writers’ workshop for second generation survivors led by Stacey Goldring. She’s noticed that the children of survivors enter her workshop emotionally stunted, comparing their own experiences to those of their parents. “They’re accustomed to being advocates for their parents’ experiences,” she says, not taking the time to process their own. Of the secondary trauma, Goldring notes that “the Holocaust does not recognize generational boundaries.”
Molly Kushner, a second generation survivor, has participated in Goldring’s workshop since it was established four years ago. While her father was very open about the Holocaust’s events and effects when she was growing up, Kushner waited 35 years before asking her mother about her experiences as a survivor. These conflicting approaches to a shared trauma impacted Kushner heavily. “You feel like you’re in charge of your parents’ happiness,” she says. During the writing process, Kushner notes that “you have to delve very deeply into your emotions.”
Goldring strives to maintain confidentiality among her workshop participants’ shared material. Each month, second generation survivors spend their time together journaling, working through writing prompts, and reading their work to the group. Goldring has noticed participants are better able to process their emotions and make connections with one another based on their written stories. “Somehow,” she says, “when you put pen to paper, you begin to organize your thoughts. When you can look at your words, you’re able to recalibrate. You’re able to have a different perspective.”
The services presented by JFCS are largely funded by the Jewish Federation. According to executive director Alan Margolies, the Federation needs more funding to better assist area Holocaust survivors and their families. “In the years that are left for the survivors, more money is required to allow them to live a dignified life. It’s a responsibility that we’re all trying to address.”
Survivors, their families, and the organizations that assist them strongly believe that the voices and stories of our area survivors must be heard. By honoring and engaging with those who’ve endured the Holocaust’s effects, a message of human tolerance spreads across communities. Still, Bendit notes that his generation of fellow survivors “is disappearing very fast.” Before that day comes, Stacey Goldring says, “We need to seize this.” It’s our last chance to learn about the Holocaust experience from those who’ve lived it.