Elisabeth Sudfeld has a love story to tell. Amid the horrors of the Holocaust, concentrations camps and losing her family, she found, lost and later reconnected with her husband Alex. They were married for 60 years.
Gary Phillips met and fell in love with his wife as the war was ending in a prison in Berlin. She was an Auschwitz survivor and he had been imprisoned for most of the war. They spent the next 58 years together.
Sudfeld and Phillips were part of the pilot program of the Memoirs Project at the New York-based nonprofit Selfhelp, which sent young adults to help Holocaust survivors write their stories and submit them to the Claims Conference’s Worldwide Shoah Memoirs Collection. To date more than 340 memoirs have been submitted to the collection, which searches for previously unpublished stories.
Groups of volunteers from the young leadership committee at Selfhelp went out in pairs to the first 10 selected Holocaust survivors, to hear about their lives, and record an audio account of their histories.
“The project has been incredibly meaningful and exciting,” said Adeena Horowitz, program director for the Nazi Victims Service at Selfhelp, which services more than 5,000 clients here. “There have been incredible connections made between volunteers and clients.”
Phillips, now 88, never went to a concentration camp. A resident of Berlin, he wasn’t initially on the government’s radar since his Jewish father and Aryan mother were divorced. But when Phillips was 13, he asked his parents for a bar mitzvah, where he became officially Jewish — “the same week, September 1935, that the Nuremberg laws were propagated,” said Phillips, his bright blue eyes and shock of white hair keeping a reporter and several Selfhelp officials captivated.
Since he was living with his mother at the outset of the war, Phillips was not a “deportation case” — required instead to go to forced labor — but his girlfriend Ilse was, and in 1942 they went underground together. That lifestyle was unsustainable, and for the first time, in 1943, Phillips was caught, and sent to a Gestapo prison in Berlin. Ilse was sent away to a camp, and Phillips never saw her again.
For the rest of the war Phillips was a fugitive. “I escaped three times and got caught four,” he said. One escape involved jumping from the back of a railcar and another time gaining enough trust from his Commander to go unsupervised.
At the end of the war, Phillips met his future wife, Olga, in that Berlin prison. When the Nazis closed Auschwitz, they sent the remaining prisoners on a death march to Bergen Belsen. Olga and two other girls escaped, but were captured and sent to prison. “Nobody had ever seen anybody coming from Auschwitz before,” said Phillips.
Together they navigated the next few months, as the Russians invaded the city and “complete lawlessness” set in. After the war was over, Gary and Olga were married, and waited for two years before their American visa came through.
Today, the 88-year-old remains busy — showing off pictures of his many young girlfriends who accompany him to dinner and ballets. He battles emphysema, but “mentally, I’m still totally … immature,” he quips.
Hearing Phillips’ story was inspirational for Dori Konig, president of Selfhelp’s NextGen, its young leadership committee, who, along with his wife, Maya, interviewed Phillips for the Memoirs Project.
The program was “nothing short of phenomenal,” said Konig, 32. “Every individual has gotten more enriched coming out of it.”
And after their three visits, the bond between them has grown. “He’s such a character and he’s an individual who is so full of life,” Konig said. “I’ve built a relationship with this guy and I’ve connected with him,” even inviting Gary to Shabbat dinner.
For Konig, a Selfhelp board member for four years, the project’s work hits close to home. “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust topic was something that was discussed in my household,” he said. “That’s why I got involved with Selfhelp — it’s an issue that’s very close to my heart.”
“Speaking to Gary and getting that information has really motivated me now to go and document the story of my family,” Konig said.
Tovah Feinberg felt the same way after spending time with Elisabeth Sudfeld.
“It was really special to hear her story,” said Feinberg, 31, who visited Sudfeld with her friend Julie Strachan.
The grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Feinberg traveled to Poland last year with her grandmother and extended family. “She really opened up a lot more to her grandchildren about it,” she said, and when Feinberg heard about the Memoirs project, “I obviously wanted to be come involved.”
And as she found, every survivor’s story is unique. Sudfeld, now 85, lived in Budapest, Hungary at the outset of the war. She got engaged to her husband Alex before the war started, since her parents hoped it would provide some protection.
Until 1944, Sudfeld and her family were living in “Jewish houses” and working in forced labor factories. But when the Germans took over the city, deportations began, and Sudfeld watched as her father was taken away to Buchenwald, where he was killed. Sudfeld was sent to Bergen-Belsen with her mother and sister, and they managed to stick together there until liberation.
But even after the British soldiers entered the camp, Sudfeld’s sister, Irene, was so ill that she died two days after liberation. Her mother was sent to a hospital in Germany where she died a month later. “She just couldn’t make it,” Sudfeld said.
At that point Sudfeld was so sick and weak — “I weighed about 90 pounds,” she said — that she began eating the needles of an evergreen tree, she recalled. She was taken to a Red Cross hospital in Sweden, where she recovered for six months. After a year in Sweden, she jumped at the chance to return to Budapest, hoping to find her fiancé, Alex, who had been in a labor camp in Hungary. As soon as she got there, she demanded that her aunt and uncle, who had survived, take her to find him. Alex and Elisabeth ended up passing each other in opposite directions in their quests to find each other.
They were reunited and got married, moving into her parents’ old apartment in Budapest. But in 1956 as the Communist Revolution raged, Alex convinced her to leave, and together they snuck over the border into Austria. There with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the American Embassy and Alex’s brother who lived in New Jersey, they got a visa to the United States.
Though they arrived in the country with nothing, “we worked hard here and we were very happy in the US,” said Sudfeld, 85. “It was the best decision we ever made.”
And her two volunteers couldn’t agree more. “What was so fascinating about her story was there were so many moments where there were really miracles,” said Feinberg. “Things happened at just the right time and the right moment.”
After a successful first run, there are already Selfhelp clients lined up and waiting to participate in the next round of the Memoirs Project in the fall.