Fred Jacobs Worked To Keep Memories Of Holocaust From Fading
By ANNE M. HAMILTON
August 17, 2012
Living amid unspeakable horror silences many people who find talking about evil too wrenching. Others find the courage to revisit painful memories, and to speak up to let the world know about cruelty that should never have taken place and should never be repeated.
Fred Jacobs was one of those singular men who told his story — his experience of the evil — to others.
"He made it a mission to make sure the Holocaust is kept alive," said Robert Fishman, executive director of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut
Jacobs, 91, of West Hartford, died of cancer on May 15 after suffering fromAlzheimer's disease for several years.
He was born on April 5, 1921, the son of Eli and Rachel Jacobs, and he grew up in Lodz, Poland, along with an older brother and a younger sister. The family made shirts, and he learned how to cut and sew material. He had several adventures during his youth, including the time he was kidnapped by Gypsies and his parents had to pay a ransom to get him back. Another time he was run over by a horse and carriage and his parents were told he had died — but he had merely been injured.
In September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and the Nazis established a ghetto in Lodz, to which all the Jews were forced to move. Life was precarious; food was extremely scarce, and there was no medical assistance and no heat. A misstep could prompt a German officer to shoot a Jew for no reason.
Young and strong, Jacobs worked in menial, challenging jobs, wearing a halter to pull wagons that contained dead bodies or human waste. His sister escaped the ghetto and went to Warsaw, and Jacobs risked his life by going after her and bringing her back. A cousin was about to be deported to near-certain death, and Jacobs intervened, persuading authorities that the man was his brother. He suffered a blow to his hip from a guard that left him with life-long limp, tuberculosis of the hip and constant pain.
In 1944, Jacobs' family was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp; his father later was transferred to another camp and killed.
As a young, healthy male, Jacobs was needed for the Nazi war effort and was made to do manual labor: hauling bricks, taking bodies out of the gas chamber, building barracks. Many people died as a result of a guard's sudden hostile impulse, but Jacobs had an outgoing friendly personality that may have helped him survive.
"If they liked you, it was less likely [that you would be killed]," said his son, Henry Jacobs. "My father was a likable guy and a hard worker, and I think that kept him alive."
His mother worked for a time in a munitions factory. "The conditions were terrible," said their daughter, Adele Jacobs.
The last time Fred Jacobs saw his mother she was being marched, naked under her coat, into a gas chamber, "holding her arms up to God."
"He was very optimistic," said Henry Jacobs, "and it kept him from being broken. After 18 months in the camp, the war ended. He always embraced life, but he didn't escape scot-free."
Nightmares and the never-ending pain in his hip "was his penance. The guilt he suffered for surviving when others didn't," Henry said. "He was tortured by this for the rest of his life."
Jacobs was sent to Bergen Belsen in Germany, which had become a camp for displaced persons, as Jews and others who had been in concentration camps frantically tried to reconnect with relatives and find a country that would take them — Jews were being killed in many places if they returned home.
At a train station, he helped boost a young woman through the train window, then climbed in after her. The woman was Regina Oksenhendler, who had spent three years in other concentration camps, and they married in 1946, after Jacobs spent the night helping a friend sew Oksenhendler's wedding dress. He managed to have a truckload of flowers brought into the camp to make the occasion more festive.
It wasn't until two years after the war ended that Jacobs and his wife were resettled. In 1947, they moved to Hartford to join his older brother, and he quickly began to learn English, get a high school equivalency diploma and obtain a license to sell insurance. He worked three jobs, including one in a dress shop cutting dresses, to support the family. Their son, Henry, was born two months after their arrival.
Friendly, outgoing and smart, Jacobs was a natural at business, and he opened Dan-Dee Cleaners and Budget Cleaners in the West End of Hartford in the 1960s. In 1998, a feature story in The Courant described the sorrow among West Enders when Dan-Dee store closed, depriving them of their neighborhood meeting place.
Jacobs and his wife were not the only concentration camp survivors to come to the Hartford area, and he solicited support from 300 others in 1951 to support the Jewish Federation. He also began going to schools, colleges and churches to talk about his experiences, and show the faint blue numbers tattooed on his forearm by the Germans. If there was a school with few Jewish children, Jacobs thought it was even more important to tell the Holocaust story.
"He was driven to talk about it," said his daughter, Adele Jacobs. "He never wanted people to forget."
Jacobs gave talks on the Holocaust until he was well into his 80s.
"The mission to pass on the story of the Holocaust was not without cost", said Fishman, who used to drive Jacobs to schools as Jacobs grew older. The talks brought on nightmares.
Jacobs was particularly sensitive to genocides in other parts of the world, including the massacres in Cambodia and Rwanda and the killings in Darfur, Sudan. "He wanted to show the connection of what he went through and the tragedy of genocides that should never have happened," Fishman said.
Perhaps because of his experiences during the war, Jacobs abhorred conflict. He advocated discussion, not dissension, his daughter said. "He tried to see the softer side of things."
Jacobs proposed having a community ceremony to commemorate the Holocaust — something that is now widely adopted but was a tough sell only a few years after the war. (Even a rabbi had told them not to talk about what had happened to them.).
"It was hard to convince people it's over. It's too painful,'" said Fishman, but the idea of the commemoration eventually was adopted more widely.
Jacobs supported erecting a sculpture that would be a constant reminder of the Holocaust and formed a committee to raise money for it, often going door to door. The result was an abstract piece by sculptor Elbert Weinberg depicting two arms holding a shofar, the ram's horn that is blown on the high holidays.
While many Jews visit the cemetery where their parents are buried before holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, people whose parents died in concentration camps had no place to mourn. Together with other survivors, Jacobs urged the community to hold a candle-lighting service that would honor those parents.
He quietly contacted the German consul in Boston to obtain reparations payments for members of the Jewish community who were down on their luck, Fishman said. And he was a chief planner for a ceremony observing the Holocaust at the State Capitol, now in its 34th year.
In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Jacobs is survived by five grandsons and two great grandchildren.
"He wanted people to know what happened, and what can happen, when you forget … that others are human beings," his daughter said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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