It would be easy to look into sea of old people who filled the auditorium of a suburban Boynton Beach temple on Thursday afternoon and see frailty.
But you would be wrong. Don’t be fooled by the walkers, the trembling hands and the stooped postures.
What we had here for a few hours at the Alpert Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s annual “Café Europa” event at Temple Torat Emet was a gathering of the toughest people among us. It’s where many of the area’s nearly 300 Holocaust survivors had come to mingle with others who shared a piece of their nightmarish history.
“They’re not here for entertainment, speeches or food,” said Eva Weiss, who coordinates Holocaust survivor services at the center. “They’re just looking for others like them.”
With a median age of 87, these were the Jewish children of Europe who spent their youths in Nazi concentration camps or hiding out from camps by living in basements, attics, convents, or in the woods. Many of them watched their own family members die or disappear. And they’ve all managed to survive experiences that required an uncommon level of toughness.
“The Nazis made me dig the graves,” said Jerry Feldman, 89, of Lake Worth.
Feldman was one of a small number of Jews from a town in Czechoslovakia when World War II broke out. It scattered him and his eight brothers and sisters, and when the war was over, he went home to find strangers in his home and none of his family anywhere to be found.
“At night, I can’t stop seeing all the things again,” Feldman said. “I see my brothers and sisters in my sleep.”
The annual event is called Café Europa to commemorate the post-war practice of displaced Holocaust survivors to congregate in coffee shops in the hopes of finding a familiar face.
Thursday afternoon, some of that played out at the luncheon when Rose Stein of Boynton Beach ended up hearing another French-speaking woman at the next table, Marie Steinway, of Greenacres. Both women, they quickly learned, had been children in Belgium during the war.
And now they’re new friends.
Two other women in the room, Yevgeniya Eyven, 86, and Maria Katz, 84, didn’t need an introduction. The Ukrainian sisters, who are neighbors now in Century Village in West Palm Beach, took care of each other as they hid in the woods during the war as pre-teen girls. They were experiences that continue to be vivid memories.
“In the years later when you are young and have kids, you don’t think about those years because you are busy,” Katz said. “But as you get older, the memories get stronger. You can’t forget.”
Jacob Hahn, 82, was a boy on the run in Romania during the war.
“I don’t want to remember it, but when you see things like people being buried alive, you can’t forget,” Hahn said.
“We were starving,” he said. “Potato peels. That was our food.”
Hahn said he still can’t watch World War II movies, but he forced himself to tell his grandchildren about his experience, because he didn’t want anybody to tell them it never happened.
On the outside, these people look just any other bubbe and zayde, but on the inside they’re extraordinary people.
Take Theodore Reichman, 91, of West Palm Beach, who showed up for the luncheon with a jaunty hat and suspenders. When he was 20, he said, he fled his home in Hungary and went to France where he joined the resistance.
“I had blonde hair and blue eyes, so I could pass for a German,” he said. “So I joined the German SS and then reported to the underground what was going on.”
Every story different. But in another way, all the same: They got dealt a lousy hand, but refused to throw in the cards.
They did what it took to survive, and then they prospered, started families of their own and lived to see a better world.
“The war made us strong,” Eyven said.
At one point in the afternoon, the survivors were invited to come up and perform.
Jack Becker, 91, who hid out in Poland during the war, walked up to the microphone with a piece of paper in his hand to remind him of the words.
Then he belted out an a cappella version of the Frank Sinatra hit, “My Way.”
The audience of fellow survivors listened to him until he got to the end of each verse, then they joined him by singing along, “And did it my way!”