MARGATE - Six million murders don't really make for great light lunchtime talk.
So the few dozen people who usually come to the monthly lunches at Jewish Family Services of Atlantic County mostly do not talk about the one key thing they have in common: They all survived the Holocaust, the Nazi murders of those estimated 6 million Jews in World War II.
Bethanie Gorny, of Linwood, who helped start the "survivor socials" eight or so years ago, remembers asking the group if they would like to invite a poet who writes about the Holocaust to be the speaker at one of their lunches.
"They said, 'No - too sad. ... Too depressing,'" Gorny said at this month's lunch. "They want to be together, ... but they don't want to relive it."
So the December get-together was far from sad, featuring a long string of Hanukkah songs led by Bob Seltzer and his guitar. The Hanukkah party also featured some of the elderly survivors dancing their way around the JFS boardroom, linking arms and twirling in a circle that grew as more dancers joined in.
Some survivors never talked about what they went through for decades after they were liberated, their children say. They apparently tried to leave their pasts in the past and not tell friends or even family in their new country how close they had come to being added to the tragic count of one of history's worst crimes.
Jack Gorny, Bethanie's husband, says he knew little of what his parents went through in the war because they did not talk about it to him or his brother. Only after his wife started getting together regularly with his mother - by then, Eva, Jack's mother, was in her mid-80s - did he start hearing his mom's Holocaust story.
"I learned it through Bethanie, because she'd come back and tell me," Jack Gorny said.
Silent no more
Gail Rosenthal, director of the Holocaust Resource Center at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and one of the regulars at the monthly lunches, says Jack Gorny's story comes with many names in many versions.
"Even today, there are people who don't want (anybody) to know that they're survivors," Rosenthal said.
But many of the people at these lunches went public as Jews who lived through the Holocaust after a coalition from Rosenthal's center and the JFS put out a call about 10 years ago for survivors. The mission then was to keep the survivors up to date on the possibility of reparations payments for them. But during their search, the searchers learned that there were desperately poor people who had been through the concentration camps living right around Atlantic County.
That led to a fundraising campaign to help those needy survivors, which raised $125,000 on short notice. And that fund led, in part, to these lunches - although the guests generally pay for their own meals.
And even if the Holocaust is not the standard topic of talk at their get-togethers, all the guests of honor have stories burned into their memories of how they survived the Nazi extermination efforts - and painfully often, how their loved ones did not.
Rosalie Simon, of Margate, put down her turkey sandwich at the latest lunch to talk about Dr. Josef Mengele - the infamous "Angel of Death" to inmates of the equally infamous Auschwitz concentration camp - personally sentencing her to die.
"I was too young," said Simon, 78. "In his opinion, I was unable to work because I was just 12 years old."
Simon saw Mengele's face and acknowledged that "I still have a vision of him." She also saw her mother sent to the gas chamber. Rosalie was "hysterically shaken" and crying, and another woman - whose child also had been sentenced to die - volunteered to take Rosalie's place in the gas chamber. The woman apparently chose dying with her child over living without.
"I was let off. A Jewish girl (forced to work at the camp) ... told me to run," Simon said, and somehow, through luck, she met up with her four older sisters. They all managed to survive the war, and her father did also. But her mother "was killed that same day, along with my brother," Rosalie said. Her brother was just 13, apparently also considered too young to work.
Rosalie never was one of the secret survivors, the people who tried to hide their Holocaust experiences when they got to their adopted country. There were parts that were too painful for her to talk about, especially to her own children, but after she told her story to a documentary crew, the kids learned the details that way. Still, she knows it would have been pointless to try to suppress or ignore the memories.
"This is going to live with us forever," she said, before going calmly back to her sandwich. "We cannot leave it behind. We live with it every day."
Always a reunion
The lunch group acts as a monthly reunion for its members now, but the hosts say they have seen some of their guests shocked into tears when they ran into people they haven't seen for years. That can be 65 or even 70 years for those reunions - since the Nazis drove the people from their homes in eastern Europe, or since they were forced together after that in the death camps.
Joe Rosenberg, 80, moved to Margate last year, but he lived most of his life around Bridgeport, Conn., after being liberated from Auschwitz - he can still recite from memory the camp serial number tatooed on his arm. He knew some Holocaust survivors in Connecticut, he said, but he had never heard of them holding regular gatherings until he moved down here.
He can tell his story to the people he meets at the JFS lunches and know they will understand, or he can listen to their tales and know what they went through. But, he said, he likes the fact that for the most part, "These lunches are just to get together," not to go back over the worst days of their lives.
Cyla Kowenski, of Atlantic City, one of the unofficial leaders of the group, also is happy just to be able to talk to people who share her experience. But because that shared background ended so long ago, the crowd for these lunches is already old, and getting older every month.
"You know, it's getting to be less and less Holocaust survivors," said Kowenski, who still prefers speaking Yiddish over English when she has the chance. "And this lunch is getting less and less (guests). But they say that if there's just one survivor left, they'll still have the lunches."
But of course, nobody in the group looks forward to being that last person at the table. Because it's the chance to be among other survivors that is the main draw of the monthly meals - even if the people don't care to spend that much time in the present talking about the horrors they shared in their pasts.
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