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Remembering the Farmer Who Rescued Him: Holocaust Survivor Gary Eichenwald’s Tribute

I recently participated in the annual Shoah Memorial event at the Polo Club in Boca Raton, which was co-chaired by Nate Miller and Sharon Barash. During the program, Nate emphasized the crucial role of survivors in preserving the memory of historical tragedies, stating, “The survivors are tasked with ensuring that the memory of the greatest of human tragedies never fades. They remind us that good and decent people must not close their eyes to evil and ignore the suffering of others.” At the event, I had the privilege of meeting Gary Eichenwald, a Holocaust survivor, who graciously shared his poignant story with me.

Holocaust survivor Gary Eichenwald.Photo by Linda Chase

Holocaust survivor Gary Eichenwald. Photo by Linda Chase

Gary, originally named Gert before later adopting the name Gary, was born on June 2nd, 1930, in Düsseldorf, Germany, to Walter Eichenwald and Thea (Heumann). His family resided in Benrath, a suburb of Düsseldorf, where they lived above his grandmother’s textile store. The escalating hostility towards Jews in the neighborhood since Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 constrained Gary’s outdoor activities, confining him to play only in the backyard with his cousin. In 1936, he commenced his first-grade education at the nearby elementary school, but the following year, Jewish children were barred from attending public schools, leading Gary to continue his studies in the synagogue. As the challenges mounted, Gary’s father sought work in Eindhoven, Holland, functioning as a peddler selling goods to farmers. The infamous Kristallnacht in November 1938 brought devastation as German soldiers ransacked his grandmother’s store, although their home above the store remained untouched. Subsequently, Gary’s grandmother was compelled to sell her business to a Nazi and was relocated to a home for the elderly in Cologne. In 1939, Gary’s mother initiated their relocation to Holland by writing a letter to Princess Juliana, requesting permission to move, which was granted, allowing them to reunite with Gary’s father in Eindhoven.

Gary Eichenwald as a child.Photo courtesy of Gary Eichenwald

Gary Eichenwald as a child. Courtesy

Reflecting on his experiences in Holland, Gary shared

The invasion of the Netherlands by the German army on May 10th, 1940, marked the onset of a tumultuous period characterized by persecution against the Jewish populace. Similar to his encounters in Germany, Gary was once again deprived of access to public education. By the summer of 1942, Gary, along with his parents, was compelled to share cramped living quarters with another Jewish family, intensifying the scrutiny under which they lived. Shortly thereafter, a notification mandated their assembly at the railway station for deportation to Camp Westerbork, a Nazi transit camp in the Northeastern Netherlands. Amidst the preparations for this harrowing journey, Gary’s father, overwhelmed, expressed his reluctance to proceed. In a remarkable display of compassion, the Bloem family, acquaintances of Gary’s father, offered refuge to Gary and his mother, providing a semblance of familial ties to shield them from the impending horrors. Tragically, Gary’s father and Uncle Paul faced betrayal and subsequent arrest in June 1943, leading to their tragic demise at the Sobibor extermination camp. Amidst the constant threat of discovery, the Bloem family orchestrated a daring rescue, concealing Gary and his mother in a forest shack, evading the clutches of the German authorities. For 15 arduous months, they survived on the meager sustenance provided by the Bloems, who risked their lives daily to ensure their survival. Liberation finally arrived in September 1944 with the intervention of the American forces, although the aftermath of war brought its own set of challenges, including the destruction of the farmhouse they sought refuge in.

Post-war reflections and new beginnings

Following the war’s end in May 1945, Gary and his mother reunited with Aunt Maddi, a fellow survivor from Theresienstadt, a transit camp notorious for its facade of normalcy concealing the horrors within. Maddi’s poignant tale of loss, having witnessed the deportation and murder of her husband and son at Auschwitz, underscored the profound tragedies that befell countless families. The charade of normalcy perpetuated at Theresienstadt, where inmates were coerced into deceptive displays of contentment, served as a stark reminder of the atrocities committed. The anguish and trauma experienced by survivors like Aunt Maddi left an indelible mark on Gary, highlighting the resilience and fortitude required to endure such profound loss.

Embracing a new life in America

In May 1947, Gary and his mother embarked on a new chapter in the United States, sponsored by Uncle Ernst, who facilitated their resettlement in Yonkers. Renaming himself Gary upon arrival, he embarked on a journey of adaptation and resilience, finding employment as a mechanic after serving in the US Army. Subsequently, Gary established his own electrical repair business, eventually finding love and companionship in his marriages to Marcia and later, Harriet. Despite the trials and tribulations that punctuated his life, Gary’s enduring message of gratitude resonates, underscoring his appreciation for the opportunities and blessings he has found in America.