Holocaust survivors react to antisemitic uptick
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Antisemitism'This is how it started'

Holocaust survivors react to antisemitic uptick

After Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7, antisemitism surged across America, including through anti-Israel rallies on college campuses.

Steffi and Willie Berg at their wedding in Israel. (Photo provided by Cindy Vayonis)
Steffi and Willie Berg at their wedding in Israel. (Photo provided by Cindy Vayonis)

Steffi Berg knows the terror of antisemitism.

The 95-year-old Holocaust survivor was living in her home near Berlin with her mother 85 years ago when Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, began the German pogrom that would eventually murder more than 6 million Jews.

The 9-year-old and her mother didn’t need a public action though. Her father had already been arrested by the Nazis for being a Jew.

Berg’s mother made the difficult decision to move her family to the Shanghai Ghetto nearly 11,000 miles from her home, where they spent the remaining years of Adolf Hitler’s reign in power with almost 20,000 other Jews.

“It was no picnic,” she said. “It was horrible conditions, but we were safe.”

Berg thought she had left behind the anxiety and horror of antisemitism. And for nearly 78 years, she did.

“This is how it started,” Berg told her daughter Cindy after the terrorist group Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7 triggering antisemitic actions in America, purportedly in support of Gaza citizens, and rallies on college campuses with students chanting anti-Israel and anti-Zionistic phrases.

“It’s escalating now,” Berg said. “And it feels like it will never stop unless someone can put a lid on it.”

“I’m disgusted”
Kurt Leuchter was born in Vienna. He was turned over to a Jewish aid agency in the south of France when his parents were sent to Auschwitz. His wife, Edith, was born in Bruchsal, Germany and was also turned over to an aid agency. Like Berg, she experienced the terror of Kristallnacht, when she witnessed Germans burn her synagogue to the ground.

Holocaust survivors Kurt and Edith Leuchter are both anxious about the current state of the world. (Photo provided by Debbie Leuchter Stueber)

“The situation is very bad,” Leuchter said. “Because of the war between Hamas and Israel it seems like, it’s going to be a long time before things settle.”

Unlike Berg, Leuchter believed antisemitism would again rear its ugly head.

“I predicted this was going to happen, sooner or later,” he said. “These things don’t change. Maybe 80 years have gone by, and it was all quiet, but now it starts over again — the hate. The war in Israel didn’t help.”

The anxiety has pushed the survivor, who served in the French resistance during World War II and the Korean War, to the brink.

“I’m disgusted,” he said. “I don’t even want to be around anymore. I’ve had it. My wife, too. Most of our friends are gone. I don’t want to go through this.”

“No one wanted us”
After a dozen years in Shanghai, Berg immigrated to the new country of Israel. The reason, she said, was simple.

“No one wanted us.”

Her parents, Cindy Vayonis said, went to Israel when her father joined the new country’s army and for a feeling of safety.

“That’s why this is affecting her so badly,” she said.

Berg said that in the early days of the country, there was a sense of freedom and security, even living among those who weren’t Jewish.

“Palestinians lived with us,” she said. “We were among the Arabs, and we all got along, that’s how it was. There was no fear.”

Berg, who worked as a beautician in Israel, eventually moved to the United States with her husband, Willie, believing there were opportunities in America for a better life.

Settling first in Pittsburgh but moving to Florida for the weather, Berg believed she had escaped the antisemitism of old. And then came Oct. 7.

“It’s bringing back so many memories,” she told her daughter. “I’m having a hard time coping with what I’m reading and hearing on TV. It’s very hard. I’m devastated to see how Jews are being attacked today, and not feeling safe.”

Debbie Leuchter Stueber understands that sense of devastation and tried to get her parents to stop watching the news after Oct. 7.

“My mother said, ‘No, we have to watch.’ I’m pretty sure I know why. They can know now because from moment to moment, during the Holocaust, they didn’t know what was going to happen to them, so they feel like they have to watch, so they’re aware of what’s going on,” she said.

Stueber presents her parents’ story to organizations like schools, libraries and churches.

“I have never been concerned about security, but I am now,” she said. “I’ve never had to walk in my parents’ shoes. For the last six weeks, I feel as if I’ve been tiptoeing in them.”

Hate Enacted
Stueber’s sister, Julie Thum, said that she wasn’t surprised by the antisemitism and anti-Zionist rhetoric. In fact, she thinks it’s been on the rise for some time.

“It was probably always there and just dormant,” she said. “It’s been enabled, that’s the problem. It’s crazy because there’s a lot of other hate out there, as well, for the Palestinians and Muslims, which is concurrent with the antisemitism. Hate, in general, seems to have been enabled since the Trump administration, which was festering and under the surface. Now it’s more out in the open and accepted.”

Thum said it’s important for people to find organizations and social media groups that encourage minorities to work together. Her father, she said, has always encouraged people to think for themselves and not be brainwashed. Something her mother said happened in Germany.

“It’s not that they weren’t intelligent, educated people,” she said.

The matriarch said America has a history of scapegoating people, pointing to the country’s treatment of its Black citizens.
“They were discriminated against, and they were killed.”

People use scapegoats, Stueber pointed out, because they don’t want to look at the root cause of problems. That is why the family believes it is important that people educate themselves so that they know the history of Israel.

In the end, Berg, perhaps, best sums up the feelings of Holocaust survivors reacting to what is happening in Israel and the United States today.

“I wasn’t expecting this for the final chapter of my life,” she said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org

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