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Holocaust survivor, 91, to speak of ordeal in Germany

Colchester — Henny Simon learned about it before her mother did.

It was a Tuesday late in 1941, and she’d gone to the gym in Hanover, Germany, for a regular meeting of her sport club.

“The teacher said, ‘This is the last time we meet,’” the 91-year-old Simon recalled. “He said, ‘Tomorrow you’re all going to get a letter from the Nazis saying that you have to leave your apartments.’”

Devastated, the then 16-year-old Simon sobbed as she told her mother the news.

“She said, ‘Come on,’” Simon said. “She didn’t believe me.”

The letter came the next day.

“When they collected us in Hanover, they put us in a gym ... and there were only mattresses on the floor, one mattress to the other,” she said. “If you had to walk somewhere, you had to walk over the mattresses.”

To Simon, the bedding-filled floor was a symbol of the freedom she’d already lost.

On Dec. 9, just shy of 75 years to the day the Nazis evicted her and her mother from their home, Simon will embark on a trip to help the city of Hanover remember the actions Germany is now so ashamed of.

As in previous trips to Hanover, she’ll address students and adults alike to keep the memory of the atrocities alive.

“If we survivors don’t speak about it,” she said, “it actually will be forgotten.”

• • •

The SS murdered her mother.

Jenny Rosenbaum was one of more than 6 million Jews the Nazis systematically killed from 1941 to 1944. Some were burned alive in the basements of synagogues. Others died in gas chambers after being herded there like cattle. Many didn’t survive the long, harsh marches from camp to camp.

Members of the SS paraded Rosenbaum into Bikernieki Forest near Riga, Latvia, after promising her and thousands of other young, old or sick people they would find easier work there. Instead they shot her and placed her in a mass grave. 

Simon cried when she flipped to the page in her delicate, leather-bound photo album that depicts the forest, where a memorial now stands. She visited it on a previous trip.

"That was very emotional," Simon said.

Her father, Ludwig Rosenbaum, didn’t have to see the sign at the Riga ghetto advising that people who tried to climb the fence “will be shot without warning.”

He didn’t have to watch as his daughter lived on rotten potatoes and tried to shovel snow in spite of a gangrenous toe so she wouldn’t be the next one sent to her death.

He wasn’t there when she found uneasy sleep on a wooden shelf in the work camp Strasdenhof, or when she was moved to concentration camp Stutthof, which she’ll only say “was hell” compared to the others.

Ludwig Rosenbaum made it to Shanghai, China, in April 1940 because his wife had worked day and night to secure a visa for him. He eventually made his way to the United States after the war, where he met back up with his daughter.

Simon and her mother originally were supposed to join him in China. Their visas were canceled on Dec. 8, 1941.

• • •

For years, Simon suffered anxiety attacks. Doctors couldn’t tell her why.

“Then I started writing my book and speaking about it,” she said, referring to "Am I My Brother's Keeper?: The Story of A Holocaust Survivor."

She has since recounted her experiences dozens of times locally and around the world, receiving various citations and other honors for the effort.

One of those came from the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut in June 2011.

“Henny, you have been a pillar of strength in the community of Survivors in eastern Connecticut,” the citation reads, noting that she’d spoken in schools and in the community 132 times since 1998. “You have made friends with faculty and students at many of the schools, and your presence among these students has led to a better world and a better future for all of us.”

Jerry Fischer, executive director of the federation, said he met Simon “years and years ago” when he began working in Holocaust education.

She was kind, he said. Articulate. Ecstatic to be alive.

And as Simon spoke to students across the region, Fischer noticed something striking: The students weren’t only learning about an event in history in a new way, they were finding resolve to overcome their own struggles.

“You don’t get that out of a history book,” Fischer said.

On Dec. 9, he’ll accompany her to Hanover, where she plans, in addition to speaking publicly, to visit friends, museums and other sites of note.

“As she gets old, she continues to be a determined person,” Fischer said. “I admire that.”

• • •

Simon said she was too young to grasp the magnitude of the situation in Germany.

When the Nazis fired Jewish teachers and kicked Jewish students out of public schools, Hanover opened up a Jewish school. Simon was one of the first to attend.

When Simon wanted an accordion, her father told her she’d have to win first prize at a sports tournament held in Berlin for all of the country’s Jewish schools. She did. She got only a few lessons on it before the instructor said he could no longer teach Jewish students.

“I was sheltered,” she said.

Still, she remembers watching people standing in groups across the city, reading the pages of the propaganda tabloid Der Stürmer plastered on walls.

“You can’t believe how they talked — and what they wrote,” Simon said. “If you say something often enough, people start to believe it.”

Simon said this return trip, at least her fourth, won’t be at all like the first one.

“The first time they invited us, we all were thinking, 'we don’t want to go,'” Simon said of Hanover survivors from Connecticut. “Then they told us they wanted us to speak at their schools.

“I said, ‘You know what? We should go. Because we are the witnesses. We have to go.’”

She compares her trips to the construction of a bridge. The first time, the foundation toward friendship was laid, but the bridge wasn’t ready to cross.

By the third visit, she said, the bridge was complete.

“They’re bending over backwards to try to make up for what happened,” Simon said of Hanover’s residents. “They want to show us that they are different. And they are.”

Simon said it’s weird she’ll be the only local Hanover survivor making the trek this time. Others are still alive, she said, but one is 96 and another has Alzheimer’s disease, so it wasn’t feasible for them to come.

She hopes only that she’ll retain the good health she needs to carry out all the plans she has.

“It’s a beautiful city now, it’s really beautiful,” Simon said. “I wouldn’t want to live there anymore with my family here, but I think I could now. Before I couldn’t, but I think I could now.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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