Convicted Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk leaves a Munich courtroom after hearing the verdict in his trial, May 12, 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Noah Neiman is a soft-spoken gentleman. I never once heard him boast or pursue honors or awards. Often, he chants the haftarah in my congregation in South Florida and he always does so well, with the utmost care and diligence.
The story he recently told me of the tumultuous earlier life of a Jew who barely managed to escape the Nazi juggernaut is one he wants to share with you.
Therefore, I offer Noah’s story to you as his story and his story alone. It is intriguing.
Noah was born in Vlodava, Poland, 91 years ago. His grandfather headed a yeshiva but two of his grandsons – Noah’s brothers – embraced Socialism and rejected Jewish tradition. One of his brothers abandoned the Jewish faith for politics as he neared being ordained as a rabbi. At the start of World War II Noah and his family were trapped in Warsaw under German control and desperate to leave. After a long and complicated journey, Noah’s family had the fortune of being in the interior of Russia, in the Ural Mountains. There he worked in a Soviet tank factory. Stalin happened to send a Jewish man to run the factory – every hour a tank was produced. Noah’s father died in 1942 after a struggle with cancer. For the most part, the family had been able to survive together. Most of Noah’s mother’s family remained in Warsaw and were murdered by the Germans.
Noah and his immediate family survived the war. They became part of the flood of refugees searching for home. Through the help of Jewish organizations – and the bribing of border guards – Noah found his way to Austria and only a few weeks later found himself in DP camp in West Germany.
This time in Ulm was lonely and boring. Noah was eager to get out. His mother’s surviving family was in Munich at the time and had connections to relatives in Boston. Noah sent a constant stream of postcards to the Boston family with the aim of relocating there. His connections went beyond Boston: Noah told me that at the time he even had an uncle who was ritual slaughterer in Dubuque, Iowa! Noah’s Boston family brought in the refugees. Again, Noah’s story was a fortunate one.
Because of his specific circumstances, having found haven in the Soviet Union, his family survived.
Noah’s baby brother went on to earn his degree at MIT, later designing the cameras used for the first moon walk in 1969.
One controversial aspect of Noah’s story was an event he witnessed at the refugee camp in Ulm, Germany. While on a break working in the camp garage, Noah witnessed a truck driver plowing into a group of refugees, resulting in at least one death. Many years later in Israel, during the trial of Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk, information began to emerge that Demjanjuk had likely been the driver. Noah met the son of the man who had been killed in the incident. Noah was able to make a positive identification based on a photograph of Demjanjuk, Noah was able to make a positive identification. To this day, Noah has never stopped believing that the driver was Demjanjuk. While I never discovered this information in studying the trial of Demjanjuk – who was not “Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka but did serve as a guard at the Sobibor death camp – I take Noah at his word. Still, this whole incident requires further investigation by journalists and historians.
Like most survivors, Noah Neiman rebuilt his life in the postwar world. If he had not been able to escape Warsaw for the interior of Russia, had the Soviet Union not provided a haven for his family, he would likely not be chanting the haftarah in shul on many Shabbatot. His story is one of courage and honor – and even good fortune. He traveled for years between Massachusetts and Florida and, like his brother, parlayed experience in the tank factory in the Ural Mountains, after extensive education, into selling missile components for defense companies in the US. There are many Holocaust survivors in my congregation, each with his or her unique and often harrowing stories. That they were able to rebuild their lives after enduring hell is a testament to the Jewish and human will to live.The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.