MALDEN — After forging a bond with local high school students during three meetings with them, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor has challenged them to shoulder his life’s work.
“The war against intolerance must be fought daily. Don’t let this ever happen again on this earth. Don’t let them get away with it,” said Israel Arbeiter.
Since August when a Malden teenager was charged with vandalizing the Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Arbeiter has been educating Malden students about the Holocaust as part of an initiative launched by city educators and supported by Mayor Gary Christenson.
After the August 14 vandalism incident, Malden students visited the glass memorial to the more than six million Jews and others who were murdered in Nazi Germany during World War II.
The Malden students commemorated and honored both victims and survivors at the Holocaust Memorial and on both visits met personally with Arbeiter, a Newton resident who played an integral role in the planning and eventual dedication of the memorial.
“I am so impressed with the resolve of these Malden High School students and we are so fortunate they were able to develop such a bond with Mr. Arbeiter,” said Christenson.
The mayor picked up Arbeiter at his Newton home last week and drove him to Malden High for a third discussion with 400 students. Arbeiter delivered a pull-no-punches account of his 5½ years in captivity and how he survived as a slave laborer.
“At the age of 14, I was deprived of all civil rights, declared a slave and condemned to death,” Arbeiter said. “My only crime was being born to Jewish parents.”
The Nazis forced Polish Jews into an overcrowded ghetto, stripping them of valuable possessions and ownership rights. But the worst was yet to come.
Arbeiter openly wept when he spoke of the events of Oct. 26, 1942, the last time he saw his parents and then 7-year-old brother alive. “It was the darkest day of my life,” Arbeiter said.
Arbeiter and his older brother were separated from their parents and sent to a labor camp. Their parents and 7-year-old brother were sent on trucks to a new concentration camp which Arbeiter later found was Treblinka. He never heard from them again.
Arbeiter told a harrowing tale where he cheated death on several occasions, including one in which he was one of 87 patients recovering from a typhus outbreak in a makeshift hospital in the Starachowice labor camp in Poland. He survived by escaping out a window. The other 86 men were shot and killed.
On the morning of his 20th birthday, April 25, 1945, Arbeiter recalled he wept tears of joy.
He and others has just been liberated from the clutches of Nazi SS guards who were leading a death group of concentration camp survivors when they encountered French and British troops in the waning days of World War II in Germany’s Black Forest. The Nazis fled and the survivors were free.
Later that day there were more tears from Arbeiter, this time tears of anguish.
“I just sat there by the side of the road in a foreign country and realized that five and half years of my life were gone, ripped away. Since I was 14 years old, I had no education, had not seen any of my family for over five years and I had nothing but the rags I was wearing. What’s going to happen to me? What kind of future could I have?” Arbeiter recalled asking. “I broke down. I could not hold it in any longer.”
Freed from the death camps, the war all but over, Arbeiter eventually met his wife, Anna, who was an Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp survivor. They were married in 1946 and he came to the United States in 1949 where he became a tailor with a string of shops in the Newton-Boston area.
“Who would have known I would go on to speak before Congress, have four children and four great-grandchildren,” Arbeiter said before telling his young audience why he was addressing them.
“It has been my lifelong mission to tell as many as would listen about my own experiences in the Holocaust.”