By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Holocaust survivor Luna Kaufman doesn’t reach for words to describe her teenage years as a Nazi labor and concentration camp prisoner, the loss of her father and sister in Auschwitz or her hopes for the future of humanity.
“It is something to know it and say it,” Kaufman, 92, said of her experience. “But that is not enough. You have to live it,” not by seeking revenge, but by “becoming an instrument of forgiveness.”
Kaufmann shared her story with more than 400 parishioners and members of the community in Spring Lake’s St. Margaret Church, a worship site of St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish.
The event, “There’s Hope for a Better World,” was coordinated by St. Catharine’s Classics mature adults group, which is making a donation on Kaufman’s behalf to the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies in Seton Hall University, South Orange, a favorite charity she selected.
The mood was informal, with Kaufman seated in a chair near her granddaughter Manya Gaver for the program, which was preceded by a performance of the theme from “Shindler’s List” by parish violinist Holly Horn. A question-and-answer session was emceed by the Classic’s Gregory Scheurermann with assistance from Msgr. Harold F. Cullen, pastor of St. Catharine–St. Margaret Parish.
Throughout, Kaufman held everyone’s attention with the tale of how, as a 12-year-old girl, she went from life with a loving father, mother and sister in a comfortable apartment in Krakow, Poland, to the Hasag-Skarzysko and Leipzig concentration camps.
Story of Survival
Separated from her sister and father, who would perish at Stutthof and Auschwitz, respectively, Kaufman and her mother endured unimaginable conditions that brought them close to death several times.
“Call it a miracle that I am alive,” said Kaufman. She cited a number of instances when her life was in peril, including one during the Jewish High Holidays Days when she and her mother were working in a forced labor camp where prayers were forbidden. Deeply religious Jews working with them refused to obey the order, and when they were observed praying, the prisoners were quickly shot.
During the shooting, Kaufman explained, “You had to keep working like nothing was happening. A man looked at me to see how I was working and I heard a ‘click’ behind my head,” which she took to be a cigarette lighter. She learned later that the solider had put a gun to the back of her head and pulled the trigger. Because he had already fired so many shots, the chamber was empty.
When asked how she managed to survive, Kaufman replied simply “I did the only thing I could do,” which was dressing as neatly as she could in order to focus on being a human being. This annoyed her captors, who responded by forcing her to work with poisonous chemicals.
Following the war, mother and daughter were liberated and had to cope with the loss of their loved ones, their home and possessions when they returned to Krakow, not to mention the rise of communism and an ongoing host of hardships.
Still, Kauffman’s human spirit persevered.
Kauffman completed her studies in the University of Krakow, where a young man named Karol Wojtyla became one of her fellow students in a class on the benefits of Communism, she noted with a touch of irony. She would meet the young man years later in the Vatican after he became Pope John Paul II.
She and her mother managed to immigrate, first to Israel and then to the United States, which her mother likened to a diamond with “so many facets” of beautiful humanity. Here, Kaufman married, had three children and devoted a lion’s share of her energies to building interfaith bridges.
A trustee and woman emerita of the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Jewish-Christian Studies, she is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Seton Hall University as well as the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit bestowed on her by Poland in 2011.
“It is part of the legacy and a duty to my family because we did survive,” she said. With the rise of hateful language on social media, she added, “we must build bridges of dialogue and not see [people] as other.”
Kaufman, who signed copies of her book “Luna’s Story,” expressed desire that “we all need to accept all people as human beings. I hope this will make you think twice about what they did to us.”
Msgr. Cullen and Scheuermann agreed that it is important as the different generations pass on to continue to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
“We have a very short memory,” said Msgr. Cullen. “It’s important for the story to keep being told.”