North Woodmere resident Bernard Igielski fulfilled a lifelong dream by meeting a relative of Dr. Berthold Epstein, the man who saved his life four times in Auschwitz.
More than 70 people gathered at the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC in Cedarhurst on June 21, many of them members of the Gural JCC’s Holocaust survivors group, to see Igielski embrace Dr. Joseph Kohn, a nephew of Epstein and the only living relative of the doctor in the U.S.
“My knees are shaking,” Igielski said, as he walked to meet and thank Kohn with tears in his eyes. “I think that so many miracles have happened to me, and I’m here to say thanks to you, to your family.”
The two men embraced as the packed room filled with applause. Igielski, who survived three ghettos and eight concentration camps, called the reunion overwhelming.
“How are you supposed to feel about someone who saved your life four times?” Igielski said. “I don’t really know how to behave today.”
Igielski’s biggest regret is not searching for Epstein while he was alive, as he previously avoided talking about the “grueling situation” of the Holocaust.
“I would have kissed the ground, I would have kissed [Dr. Epstein’s] feet…” he said, crying.
Kohn, grateful and humbled by the deeds of his only cousin to survive the Holocaust, said that he does not deserve to be thanked. “Any honors that are being given to me are completely undeserved,” Kohn said. “Maybe there are some good things I’ve done in my life, but this is not one of them. The thanks should go in the other direction,” he said, expressing his appreciation for the community.
The meeting came about through the efforts of Katharine Gorsuch, who worked as vigorously as a detective. She and Avi Mizrachi co-founded the Hollywood, Fla.-based Foundation for Holocaust Education Projects. Mizrachi, who attended the Gural JCC event, said that Igielski’s plea in the 2004 documentary “Paper Clips” was picked up by Gorsuch, who sent out feelers across the globe and found Kohn.
“Dr. Epstein was sent to Auschwitz and being a doctor, Dr. Mengele told him he could live longer helping out,” Mizrachi said. Called the “Angel of Death,” Mengele was known for deadly experiments and was part of the physician team that selected victims for the gas chambers.
Mizrachi said calls were made to connect Igielski and Kohn. “We were trying to get them together in a public setting when the JCC offered to let us have it here.”
Holocaust survivors Bonnie and Jack Rybsztajn, of Woodmere, attended the event with their daughter, Dr. Jennifer Rybstein. The couple lost 91 family members in the Holocaust. The Rybsztajns have been married for 74 years.
“It took a lot of years for us, the children, and our parents to talk about [the Holocaust],” Dr. Rybstein said tearfully. “A lot of emotion didn’t show until now.”
She said her parents, as well as many other survivors, pushed their children to excel in education and emphasized religion.
“[Sharing] is what the world is doing now,” she said, looking around the room. “It’s a wonderful thing.”