A ground-breaking project to allow Holocaust survivors to share their stories, one-on-one, with students at UCLA.


Anna and Allen at Bearing Witness

Walking into the small room on the 2nd floor of the Hillel building on UCLA’s campus,

I was not sure what kind of ambiance to expect.  This was the first meeting of the Holocaust survivors with us, the volunteer students. We were to be served lunch while engaging in discussion about one of the greatest terrors in world history. How to prepare oneself?


Well, by stepping into the room and saying Shalom.  The seniors were mostly seated at different tables, amicably speaking amongst themselves or with students that had already arrived. If an observer had been walking by, he/she would have thought that this was a light-hearted lunch crowd, with a slightly wider age range than most of Hillel’s regulars. But, upon closer inspection, one would see that many of the seniors had brought binders, notes, and pictures. And to my great surprise, the first words on many of their lips were – ‘My name is — , I lived through the Holocaust. Let me tell you my story’. This was in great contrast to my personal experiences with my relatives. My family emigrated from Minsk, Belarus to the US in the early 1990’s. My grandparents, on both sides, had survived concentration camps, ghettos, displacement; namely the terror that was both Stalin’s purges and the Holocaust. Yet, for them, this was such a private, painful matter to touch. I knew stories only from my parents, which were full of holes that I knew were too tender to fill in. I quickly realized that what these brave volunteers could teach me was not only the details of their experiences, but also the wide variety of mechanisms that people use to not only survive, but to thrive under any circumstances.


I found myself sitting next to an extremely amiable young man, aged 83, named Allen Greenstein. He first made it clear to me that he was just here to transport his wife and her friend, both survivors, both volunteers in sharing their stories. ‘But what about you?’, I asked. ‘Well, yes, of-course I was in it’. ‘Will you tell me your story?’. And he did. While we did not speak in a completely chronological manner, I will present it here as such, for clarity. I will also present many of Allen’s wise sayings along the way, as I couldn’t help but ask questions that bore towards character and reflection. I only hope that these additions will make for a richer story.


Allen was born in the town of Opatow, Poland in 1926. His family owned a shoe business, as well as working as farmers. The town had a well integrated Jewish population, where they were involved in business and cultural life[1]. The Jewish population there was very religious, according to Mr. Greenstein, over 90% were taught Hebrew and attended religious services. Mr. Greenstein’s knowledge of Hebrew would serve him well shortly after the war, as we will see.


He was 14 when the war broke out in 1939, and his city of Opatow fell to the Germans. The Jewish residents were immediately segregated to a ‘Jewish quarter’ and forced to wear white armbands with the Star of David. In 1941, a ghetto was established in the town, which soon led to outbreaks of typhus and other diseases due to poor sanitary conditions. During this time, Allen and his older brother Benjamin worked under the Germans in stone quarries.  When asked if he ever truly feared for his life during the war, he replied that he did, but only on one occasion.  It was Christmas Eve, 1941.  After work in the quarries, he faced a long and cold walk back to his barracks.  That night, the wind was very strong and he was having a difficult time getting back.  About a quarter of a mile from his barrack, a streak of lightning hit an electric lamp that plummeted toward him.  It narrowly missed him.  During all this time, it was the hand of nature that Allan feared, not the Germans.


In November 1942, the ghetto was liquidated. Some 6,000 Jews, among them Allen’s parents and younger sister, were taken to Treblinka, where they were murdered en masse upon arrival. A small number of Jewish citizens, including Allen and his brother, were selected to remain in the ghetto and ‘clean it up’. One such duty was to bury the bodies that littered the now defunct ghetto. Six weeks later, he and his brother, as well as the other workers, were sent to the ghetto Sandomierz, in South-Eastern Poland. There, Allen faced another ‘selection’, where most residents were rounded up and sent to the death camps. He and his brother managed to be selected with a group of men that were taken from the ghetto to work in the munitions factory in the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp. There, he worked alongside the Polish citizens in the factory, the difference lay in that the Poles returned home after work, and he returned to his barrack. Yet, there were times where he was able to get help with money and food from supportive co-workers.


In 1944, with the Russians approaching, he and his brother were sent on trains to Częstochowa, a city in southern Poland famous for its Black Madonna painting. On Jan 10, 1945, with the Russians approaching that city, he was sent on a train to Buchenweld, arriving there Jan 16, 1945. This was a transition camp where people were sorted to be sent to death marches. Three times he was sent to a line destined for the march, three times he escaped. On April 11, 1945, American tanks arrived in Buchenweld, signaling the liberation.    Allen reminded me that death was present not just during the Holocaust, but after the war.  After the liberation, a large number of people died due to illness and inability to recover from their entrapment in the camps.  He spoke to me about how Buchenweld SS officer Koch and his wife engaged in torturous murders and medical experimentation[2].  Death and murder was everywhere.  But Allen had only feared the hand of G-d, and he survived.


 Two weeks later, given the choice between repatriation in Poland or moving to the displaced person’s (DP) camp set up by the English, Allen and his brother chose to go to the DP camp set up near the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  Shortly after his arrival at the DP camp, he met a husband and wife team from his hometown, and decided to leave the DP camp with them to the city ‘Vorth on the Duna’, using the same trains that had been used to transport people to concentration camps. It was there, in December of 1945 that a friend who was visiting convinced him to move to Zelschin. He left for Zelschin in Jan 1946, and after living in a kibbutz for a few months, he moved to the city and joined the police force. And this is where his Hebrew skills truly came to the fore.  His future wife, Dorothy, was studying Hebrew at her sister’s home, and needed a tutor.  Allen met her through her father, with whom he had worked together at a labor camp.  Dorothy had spent the war living as a gentile and working as a domestic servant.  Her sister, who had lived abroad during the war, brought her to Frankfurt after the liberation.  Of-course, neither Allen nor his future wife knew at the time what the future held for each, as they would be separated during their respective attempts to leave Europe. Both hoped to resettle in North America.


One month before being cleared to leave for Canada, Allen and his brother had arranged to buy goods through certain traders.  At that time, there was a huge black market for food, clothes, and foreign currency.  At the meeting with the traders, Allen’s brother was shot repeatedly as the men attempted to leave with their goods.  He died three days later at a nearby hospital.  At the age of 23, Allen was ready for a new home. 


In November 1948, Allen arrived in Toronto, Canada where he had cousins who had settled there before the war.  After living for one week with one cousin, he found his own apartment and found a job as a clothes cutter in a factory, where he worked for seven years.  One month after Allen’s arrival in Toronto, Dorothy arrived there as well.   Remarkably, she had sailed on the same boat as Allen to Canada, and was with one of the last groups of children that traveled from Germany, through Italy, and to North America.  They quickly resumed their relationship and were married in March of 1949.  She worked in a factory initially, but harbored the dream of attending college one day, which she did several years later in order to become a school teacher.


  Not long after, they had one daughter, followed by a son. Of-course, everything was difficult. When their daughter was in 2nd grade, she had to take three buses to get home due to safety reasons. In 1962, with the crime rate surging in Toronto, Allen applied to move to the US. As today, back then getting a visa was no easy task. After waiting for months, he still remembers the day when, at a Bar Mitzvah that he was attending, he ran into his travel agent who informed him that his visa was ready! On the last day that he was allowed to use the visa, Dec 15 1962, he and his wife took the Greyhound to Buffalo. She later returned to Toronto to finish the school year while Allen traveled from Buffalo to Chicago, and then to Los Angeles. By July, the rest of the family came to join him. He found work with famed fashion designer Rudy Gernreich, himself a German Jew who had escaped the Nazis by emigrating to the US in 1938.


Today, Allen remains active in the Jewish and Holocaust survivors community. He was interviewed for Steven Spielberg’s 1996 documentary, ‘Survivors of the Holocaust’. He also recently traveled to Poland to participate in the ‘March of the Living’, a two week journey for teenagers and survivors that follows the death march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest concentration camp complex built during World War II, on Holocaust Remembrance day. This was his second trip back, his first trip back to Poland was three years ago. At that time, they traveled to his wife’s hometown, where she was honored by the mayor. In the town, there was but a small Jewish cemetery, and the house that her family had lived in was still standing, now occupied by Poles. His hometown was even more difficult to enter, which he only mustered up the courage to visit on his second trip to Poland. Opatow had five token gravestones, a synagogue now converted into an apartment complex, and no Jewish residents. Opatow, a town of great Jewish prominence and a terrible massacre, had chosen not to remember.


Allan had other stories to share as well.  Stories of miracles.  For example, when recently traveling in Israel, he attended a Café Europa meeting.  Café Europa is a Holocaust survivors support group that hosts events around the world[3].  There, he ran into an old school friend who had lived a few blocks away from him in Opatow, and who now resided in Israel.  They shared stories of survival and growth. 


And what about the questions of hope and hate?  How did Allen deal with such a great force intended on destroying his nationality?  Allen spoke about his reverence for the Jewish people.  According to him, the Jewish people have a long history of survival in the face of persecution.  They do it through their steadfast belief in G-d, charity, and education.  For him, the study of the Torah represents an unbreakable link between the generations of survivors.  The observance of written law guides in him in his belief that the Jewish people can not only survive, but thrive even through such circumstances as the Holocaust.  He believes that the Jewish insistence on education provides the nationality with the knowledge necessary to thrive one thousand years in the past and in the future.  This is why he has maintained his belief in Jewish practices and religion after the war, he does not want to break the chain.  He is a strong supporter of Israel, the Jewish allegiance, and personal religious observance.      



He is very proud of his children, grandchildren, and soon-to-come great grandchildren. They are in law, business, and psychology. Has he spoken to them about his experiences? Not too much, although they have seen the Spielberg DVD. Of-course, this may also be a survival skill. The skill to move on, to live on one day at a time, as one can never predict what the next hour will bring. 







[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opatow

[2] http://www.jewishgen.org/Forgottencamps/Camps/BuchenwaldEng.html

[3] http://www.jewishla.org/Cafe_Europa.cfm