For nearly seven decades after he served as an army medic in Europe during World War II, Long Island resident Norman Werbowsky never talked about his wartime experiences. He had come ashore in the second wave of soldiers at Normandy Beach, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and served in a unit that liberated a concentration camp; the Jewish veteran found the memories too emotional to discuss.
“He wanted to shield his family from it,” says his daughter Joly Flomenhaft.
Then, in his 90s, he decided to break his silence, for the sake of history. He volunteered for the Speakers Bureau of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. “He was ready to speak,” Flomenhoft says. “He felt it was very important to document the stories” of what happened to the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust.
In May of 2012, during a short, oral history practice speech at the Museum in Battery Park City, he mentioned the camp his 84th Infantry Division had liberated — Salzwedel, a satellite of the Neuengamme concentration camp in northern Germany.
A white-haired woman in the audience jumped from her seat. Elly Berkovits Gross, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor who is also a member of the museum’s Speakers Bureau, was interned at Salzwedel; she was one of scores of emaciated women liberated by Werbowsky’s unit. She introduced herself to Werbowsky.
A few months later, Werbowsky gave his first full-length speech at the Museum, as part of a panel on liberation. Again, he mentioned Salzwedel. This time, a white-haired woman in the first row gasped. “Could you please repeat that,” Eva Lux Braun said. A native of Hungary, she too had been liberated from Salzwedel. She too introduced herself to Werbowsky.
Each time, Werbowsky came home excited by the serendipity of meeting survivors his unit had liberated on April 14, 1945, Flomenhaft says. “He wouldn’t stop talking once he started.”
Flomenhaft shared her father’s excitement.
The result is a short documentary film she produced, “Salzwedel Concentration Camp Reunion: Survivors and a Liberator Speak,” which will premiere this week at Congregation Machane Chodosh in Forest Hills, the congregation where Lux Braun is a member. She, Gross and Flomenhaft will speak at a question-and-answer session after the screening.
The documentary records a meeting among the two survivors (they live a few miles from each other in Queens, but had not known each other at Salzwedel) and Werbowsky in August 2012 at his house in Long Beach, L.I. It was the first time the three had come together.
“Each time he spoke, he met a survivor,” Flomenhaft says of her incentive for making the documentary. “It was a miracle — just by chance.” Those speeches were the only two her father gave in public about his army experiences; he died in August at 93.
The documentary was the first produced by Flomenhaft, who graduated last year from the graduate school of the New School in Manhattan, where she majored in media studies.
Edited by New School classmate Stephen Brown, it is one of the few that focus on Holocaust survivors and liberators, Flomenhaft says. It includes the women’s shared memories (both spent time in several concentration camps, lost most of their families in the Shoah, and have become active here in Holocaust remembrance), background on the camp (established in July, 1944 on the site of a former fertilizer factory, it consisted of eight barracks in which some 3,000 women, put to forced labor in a munitions factory were imprisoned), and the story of the 84th Infantry Division (popularly known as the “Railsplitter” division, it was recognized as a liberating unit in 1993 by the US Army’s Center of Military History and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.)
Neither of the women remembers Werbowsky among the American soldiers who saved their lives, but Gross, says her memories of the day her nightmare ended are clear. “I remember the big tanks that rolled in.” It was the first time, she says, she saw a black face — the African-American soldiers who were part of the 84th.
She has written several books of poetry and prose, and was interviewed by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.
Lux Braun, who speaks frequently at public schools about her survivor experiences, is the subject of a book, “The Promise” (h2hmemories, 2011) by Chavi Diamond, a daughter of survivors.
Lux Braun says she decided several years ago to keep her maiden name as part of her full name to avoid the inevitable remarks about her sharing the name of Adolf Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun.
In the documentary, Werbowsky tells how his fellow soldiers became aware of the concentration’s presence from miles away. They smelled something awful — something that turned out to be rotting bodies. “They followed the smell,” Flomenhaft says.
Werbowsky, who spent three years in the army, received several service medals, including the Good Conduct Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.
“He took pride in being Jewish, fighting this war, and liberating a camp – the liberation was a highlight of his army career,” Flomenhaft says. Her grandmother was from Hungary. Her father believed, she says, that if his family had stayed in Europe, “his mother could have ended up in such a camp.”
After the documentary’s initial screening this week, Flomenhaft says, she hopes to show it at other local Jewish institutions.
Her most important audience, her father, saw it before he died, she says. “He loved it.
“Salzwedel Concentration Camp Reunion” will be screened on Sunday, Feb. 9, at 9:30 a.m. at Congregation Machane Chodosh, 67-29 108th St., Forest Hills. For information or reservations: (718) 793-5656; machanechodosh.org/contact.php.
The clip can also be viewed on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXiX-NYwyQ4