Wake Forest’s Shelly Bleiweiss tells his parents’ harrowing story, and explains why it’s important to stand up to bigotry.
78 years ago today, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II in the European theatre.
After nearly six long years of bloodshed, on what is known as VE (Victory in Europe) Day, celebrations erupted throughout Europe, including large gatherings in London and Paris. However, a high price had been paid.
Cities and towns throughout Europe suffered extensive damage from bombings and fighting, while 70-85 million people (nearly 3% of the world’s population) had died. In the Nazi death camps, where the systematic murder of Jews, Roma, members of the LGBTQ community, and other minority groups took place, 11-17 million people had perished.
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Those who survived the camps, and the War, were able to tell the world their story and the horrors they endured. Sadly, most Holocaust survivors are no longer here to tell their story. But their legacy and memory lives on in the generations that follow.
One man who is keeping the memory of his parents alive is Shelly Bleiweiss of Wake Forest, N.C. I met with Bleiweiss, now in his 70s, at a coffee shop in town to hear his parents’ story, his work to keep the memory of the victims and survivors alive, and to discuss the recent rise of antisemitism in our country.
Bleiweiss’ father and mother, Edward (Eddie) Bleiweiss and Sophie Grunberg, were 17 and 15, respectively, when Germany invaded their native Poland on September 1, 1939. Edward grew up in Międzyrzec Podlaski in Eastern Poland, where 90% of the population was Jewish. Sophie was from a small town near Krakow, a member of an Orthodox Jewish family.
Bleiweiss recalled his parents’ incredible story of surviving the Holocaust in great detail. Edward and Sophie overcame improbable odds, with both escaping death multiple times.
After the war began, Sophie’s family was relocated from their home to the nearby town of Mielec. In March 1942 the Nazis put everyone in the community on a train bound for Auschwitz.
However, Auschwitz did not have room for everyone on the train. Some of the cars on the train were redirected to what was called a transit ghetto, where they would wait to be transferred to a camp. Sophie’s car was the final car on the train that was redirected from Auschwitz to Międzyrzec Podlaski, Edward’s hometown. It was at this time that Eddie and Sophie met and fell in love.
However, their time together would be cut short. Nazis decided to liquidate the ghetto in Międzyrzec Podlaski, meaning all Jews were to be sent to camps. Hoping to save their children, Eddie’s parents paid around the equivalent of $170,000 to acquire fake papers for a new identity.
He went from being Eddie Bleiweiss, a Polish Jew, to Jan Kozlovsky, a Polish laborer. But this did not mean he was safe from being found out. One of the biggest fears Eddie had was that the Nazis would discover he was circumcised, and in Poland at that time, only Jews were circumcised.
Shelly recalls asking his father how he was able to hide this during showers. “I used a lot of soap,” his father told him.
Once, all the laborers were required to undergo a full delousing, which required full-body shaving. Eddie saved himself by asking the head barber if he needed any help, claiming to be a barber himself. Eddie was handed a pair of clippers and started shaving, although Shelly recalls his father telling him he wasn’t the best barber.
When the Nazis liquidated Międzyrzec Podlaski, Sophie’s parents were put on trucks and taken to the train station to be transferred to the infamous Treblinka death camp. She never saw her parents again.
Realizing they had to act quickly to avoid being sent to the camps, Sophie and her sister fled to their hometown, and with the help of a local farmer, they acquired fake papers, taking on a fake identity as Eddie had.
A New Life
She and her sister disguised themselves as Catholic laborers, which is not easy to pull off when you were raised as Orthodox Jews. Sophie Grunberg became Zosia Minkewicz. She and her sister, along with two other women, one of whom was a friend of Eddie’s, ended up in Stuttgart, Germany, as laborers at a bed and breakfast.
Despite being separated, Eddie and Sophie remained in contact through their mutual friend. Distance was difficult for Eddie, who faked a transfer order to have him sent to Stuttgart to reunite with Sophie.
Eddie’s ploy was found out by the Nazis who retaliated by sending him to work with other laborers on a bridge they were fighting over with the Allies. With almost a 100% mortality rate for laborers working at the bridge, Eddie’s fate should have been sealed. But he escaped by falling on the ground and faking his death.
Afterwards, Bleiweiss was discovered by U.S. Army engineers, who offered him a job due to his ability to speak five languages.
After the war in Europe ended, he was asked to help in Japan, where the fighting continued. He declined and went to find Sophie back in Stuttgart. They were reunited after the War and married in April 1946, although most of their family members were killed.
Eddie lost his parents and both of his siblings. Sophie’s sister survived, but her parents and her brother were lost. Because Eddie assisted the Allies, he and Sophie were able to board the U.S.S. Marine Flasher, the first boat that brought refugees to the United States after the War.
In May 1946, they arrived in Cleveland, where one of Eddie’s uncles lived. A year later, Shelly was born. The family relocated to Houston once Sophie’s relatives arranged for her sister’s immigration there from a DP Camp.*
As an adult, Shelly Bleiweiss has worked extensively to share his parents’ experience surviving the Holocaust, to teach others about the horrors of the Holocaust, and the dangers of antisemitism.
He speaks with a wide-range of people, including school students, adults, and elderly people at local senior centers.
He’s provided education on the Holocaust to people in California, Texas, and here in North Carolina where he has lived since 2014.
Bleiweiss was also part of an effort to make Holocaust education mandatory in North Carolina public schools. Under the Gizella-Abramson Holocaust Education Act, which was written into the state budget in 2021, Holocaust education will be mandatory beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, with teachers trained by the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust.
A Rise in Antisemitism
Given the recent rise in antisemitism in the U.S., this feels like an important time for an increased emphasis on Holocaust education.
I asked Bleiweiss to talk about that, and to share his advice for people who want to push back. Antisemitism is not a new problem to this country, he said, but he pointed to the far-right Great Replacement Theory as part of the problem. The racist theory posits that white people are replaced by immigrants, Muslims, and other people of color in their home countries.
Bleiwiss said he also thinks some conservative politicians have been reluctant to call out hate groups because they don’t want to lose their votes. Last year, former President Trump, who is the favorite for the GOP nomination for president in 2024, was criticized for dining with a white supremacist who has denied the existence of the Holocaust.
And the data supports Bleiweiss’s concerns. 41% of American Jews believe the status of Jewish people is less secure than it was a year ago. Furthermore, 80% say that, in the past 5 years, anti-Jewish hatred is a growing problem.
Bleiweiss says that it is important that voices outside the Jewish community speak up. He emphasized that every-day people can make a difference in their daily lives.
“When you see that the other person is being denied the same rights you have, you need to speak up. If you see someone being mistreated because of who they are, stand up… and support them.”