It has been 67 years since another inmate, Stefan Heyman, saved Ernest Michel from what he considered certain death in Auschwitz.
As Michel recalls it, Heyman chose the young man to record in the Nazi’s logbook the names of all Jewish inmates who were murdered each day in the gas chambers there.
Michel, now 87, had studied calligraphy before the war, and the recording job ensured that he had extra food and would be protected.
“You won’t be sent up the chimney,” Michel said Heyman, who was not Jewish, told him.
Heyman’s help came at a time, Michel said this week, when he had “lost weight and I was ready” for the gas chambers. Michel, who said he saw Heyman only that one day, wrote in his autobiography, “Promises to Keep,” that “I never could have made it” without Heyman and a Jewish doctor, George Kovacz, who gave him a permanent job as an orderly at Auschwitz.
This week, Michel was to meet for the first time Heyman’s son, Dieter, 84, of Houston at a ceremony organized by UJA-Federation of New York, where Michel is executive vice president emeritus.
Peter Kurz, the mayor of Mannheim, Michel’s hometown in Germany, arranged the meeting after reading Michel’s book earlier this year and learning that Stefan Heyman — his grandfather’s brother — had played such an important role in Michel’s life. Stefan Heyman died in 1956.
Kurz first met Michel in 2007 shortly after becoming mayor and inviting him to Mannheim to help celebrate the 400th anniversary of this city of 325,000.
At a press conference Tuesday, Kurz said the two men had another thing in common — they were raised in apartment buildings that were located next door to each other.
“My mother still lives there,” Kurz said.
Michel said that during his visit in 2007 he was invited to return to his former school and speak with the students.
“I told them I was sitting in this school in 1936 when the teacher told me that tomorrow I can’t go to school — she said no Jews could go to school. The students couldn’t understand that this had happened in their town. I was making them aware so it won’t be forgotten.”
Kurz said Germany has a “strong tradition of remembrance during these last decades. Why is it so important to remember, to be aware that there is only a thin layer of civilization? Germany was a civilized nation before [World War II]. It broke, and we experienced the most terrible crime in human history.
“It’s necessary to have this awareness. You aren’t able to understand the present if you don’t know history — especially the young generation. If they go abroad they have to know their history because they are going to be confronted with it. So we have to examine this past, and this is what we are doing.”
Julia Zeuner, chair of the UJA-Federation of New York Caring Commission Task Force on Aging, pointed out that the “emotional meeting” of Michel and Heyman’s son was taking place “on the 72nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when countless synagogues, Jewish homes, businesses and institutions in Germany and Austria were destroyed through state-sanctioned riots against the Jews. Many Jews were killed, injured or deported to concentration camps.”
Zeuner pointed out that there are about 40,000 survivors in the New York area, most between the ages of 79 and 82, and that about 10,000 of them receive help from 15 agencies funded by the federation. She said the organization raised $10.5 million in 2004 to help survivors “who are among the poorest of low-income Jews in New York.”
Because money from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — the primary funding agency providing support to needy survivors — is expected to run out within five years, Zeuner said the federation is launching another campaign to raise $10 million to help survivors in New York and another $10 million to help those in Israel.
“Statistics show that services will be needed until 2025 or beyond,” she said. “The safety net these services depend on is fraying as budget cuts are being experienced on the federal, state and city levels, in combination with the overall economic downturn.”
The special fundraising campaign, Zeuner added, is to “ensure that every last survivor in our communities can live his or her final years in comfort and with dignity.”