June 16, 2000
The Jews of St. Ottilien
Traditionally, this is the time of year for reunions, however there was nothing traditional about the gathering I attended in West Palm Beach, Florida recently. People who had never met, of different ages and backgrounds, reunited because they shared one common bond, St. Ottilien, a Benedictine Monastery nestled in the idyllic countryside of Upper Bavaria in Germany.
Named for a pious and charitable nun, known as the “saint of vision” because of her remarkable healing powers, the monastery had been converted to a Displaced Persons Camp after the war. It was here that I was born in 1947 when my parents, Polish Jews, were waiting to emigrate to America.
In 1997, I traveled back to Germany to confront my past and to make peace with it. And although I toured the grounds of the monastery and interviewed the monks, it was not until three years later that many of my questions, both personal and historical, would finally be answered by Dr. Robert L. Hilliard. Fate brought us together at a conference on Displaced Persons, sponsored by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. During a panel discussion on the role of the military in the DP camp experience, I learned of his book “Surviving The Americans: The Continued Struggle of the Jews After Liberation” and the miraculous story of the role he played in the lives of the Jews of St. Ottilien.
The Power Of The Pen
In 1945, 19 year-old Robert Hilliard and 25 year-old Edward Herman, two GIs stationed on an army base in Germany after WW II, were so distressed by the conditions they observed at nearby St. Ottilien they started a massive letter writing campaign to the American people. Ultimately, the contents of the letter came to the attention of President Truman and played a key role in reversing US policy towards the Jews. An excerpt from their lengthy letter, which appears in Dr. Hilliard’s book and details the plight of the survivors, reads:
At the hospital of St. Ottilien there are today 750 people including a staff of doctors...attempting to preserve the life they find it hard to believe they still have. Four months ago this same hospital was being used to care for German soldiers. At the same time there were thousands of Jews roaming Germany, sick, tortured, wounded, without food, clothing or help of any kind. One particular group was led by Dr. Zalman Grinberg. For months he has tried to obtain aid for these people. The Germans refused him. The local governments refused him...For these people the Red Cross, UNRRA, the various Hebrew organizations were, although present, nonexistent. If they are to survive the coming winter they need shoes...they need sheets and blankets...medical supplies...the necessities of life and they are depending on you to get it for them. The intolerable situation of the Jews having to beg the Germans for food exists...We are writing to you for you are the only ones that can help...These surviving Jews of Europe want to live. The fact that five children have already been born at St. Ottilien is proof enough.”
Olga Salitan was one of those first babies to be born in St. Ottilien. I met her recently during the gathering organized and sponsored by E. Edward Herman, now a retired financier in Palm Beach and Robert Hilliard, presently a Professor of Mass Communication at Emerson College in Boston. By the time I was born in 1947, conditions at St. Ottilien had greatly improved due to the crusading efforts of these two remarkable men.
“Most of us have no family so when we get together with surviviors we consider them family. That’s what our meeting is all about...the living,” said Jean Einstein, Olga’s mother. This same sentiment was echoed by the participants who came from California, Ohio, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Chicago and New York to join those now residing in Florida. When I traveled to St. Ottilien three years earlier I had never met anyone connected with that DP camp. Now, suddenly, I was surrounded by an entirely new “family.” The reunion brought together eight St. Ottilien “babies” who were thrilled to have the opportunity to meet each other and Dr. Isaac Vidor, the obstetrician who delivered many of those born in the monastery. The group also consisted of former patients and orphans who brought along family members to share the experience.
My daughter Sara accompanied me to Florida and spent the next four days learning first-hand about the DP era as she listened to survivor’s stories, looked at the precious photograph albums we each brought along and participated in activities which included a special Yom Hashoah program at the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach; a visit to Florida Atlantic University where we listened to a performance of their klezmer band and viewed the Jewish Library and exceptional work of the Jewish book bindery; a meeting with a member of the Jewish Claims Commission who focused on the status of current negotiations; and discussions about how to locate missing relatives with representatives of the American Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center.
Connecting Past And Present
But it was the conversations with the other survivors, over meals and during the lengthy bus rides, that proved to be the most significant part of our reunion. As we got to know each other and caught up on the last 50 plus years, each of us made new connections and discovered old ones. Philip Sal, who met and married his wife Esther in St. Ottilien, had been the ambulance driver who brought patients from Munich to the hospital between 1945-50. More than likely he was the one who had transported my ailing mother from the Gabarze DP camp to the monastery where she gave birth to me. Yetta Marchuck, who came with her father, Max Goldsammler, was born the same year as I was. Today she lives in a house right next door to my uncle Moshe Berger, my mother’s only surviving family member.
Like a pebble thrown into the water that creates ripples far beyond what the eye can see, the two young GIs had poured out their hearts in a letter to the American people which continues to make waves fifty-five years later. As we gathered together on the last evening of our reunion, we presented Bob and Ed with a momento, a photo-poster of the St. Ottilien hospital expressing our gratitude and appreciation for their efforts, then and now and signed by the survivors, their children and their children’s children.