Sheldon Bleiweiss explains harsh reality the Holocaust had on his family

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Sheldon Bleiweiss, the son of a Holocaust survivor, tells his perspective and family story surrounding the tragedy. Leesville classes and students gather in the auditorium to deepen their understanding of the Holocaust. (Photo Courtesy of Cameron Broer.)

On Tuesday, April 23, 2024, Leesville invited the son of a Holocaust survivor to speak.

Tenth-grade English classes, which are studying WWII and Night, were invited along with a variety of social studies classes.

Mr. Bengston, a Leesville English teacher and organizer of the event, said, “I have taught the Holocaust with 10th grade ELA for quite some time, and every time I have an opportunity to introduce students to, what I call, ‘living history,’ I always take that opportunity.”

After several years without a Holocaust guest speaker at Leesville, Bengston worked to organize Mr. Sheldon “Shelly” Bleiweiss’s appearance and presentation.

Bleiweiss shared his Holocaust knowledge, perspective, lessons, and family stories to emphasize the transgressions of the tragic historical event.

Holocaust Facts

Bleiweiss began his presentation by explaining the Holocaust in one sentence — “the step-by-step bureaucratic state sponsor, persecution of 6 million Jews by the Nazis.”

Bleiweiss explained to the audience the 3 viewpoints the Nazis had to reach the extremity of extermination camps–

  • “You can not live among us as Jews.”
  • “You can not live among us.”
  • “You can not live.”

Bleiweiss goes on to give the audience a chronological look at the Holocaust, beginning with the wrongful laws, which dehumanized and restricted Jews in all aspects of their private and public life.

In 1938, Kristallnacht occurred, where 1,400 synagogues and thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed or vandalized. 30,000 Jews were incarcerated simply because of being Jewish.

Bleiweiss explained that Hitler invaded Poland and had now gained control of 3 million Jews “because the world chose to not take any action.”

Hitler forced Jews into concentration camps, where the daily ration of food was 1 slice of bread. The Jews suffered abuse all day while performing manual labor and then had to sleep on hard bunk beds with multiple people.

All these factors led Jews to die of starvation, disease, exhaustion, or just being shot by Nazi soldiers. 

After invading the Soviet Union, Nazis began transporting Jews to the 6 extermination camps throughout Europe. 

“Throughout Nazis occupying Europe at the time, there were 42,500 ghettos and concentration camps, 6 were death camps,” said Bleiweiss. 

Jews were deported to these camps, separated from their families and belongings, never to be seen again after entering the gas chambers.

Family

Sheldon Bleiweiss introduced his parents — Sophie Greenberg and Eddie Bleiweiss. 

His orthodox Jewish mother, Sophie Greenberg, was 14 when the war began and lived in a small Polish town named Tarnobrzeg. At the time, the population consisted of 40% Jewish residents. 

Sophie Greenberg and other Tarnobzerg Jewish residents were deported to Mielic, a forced labor camp in Poland. 

Greenberg and her family were then sent to a transit center, where they were moved to a different labor camp until Greenberg and her sister watched their parents leave for the extermination camp. 

When they realized they would never see their parents again, they ran away to their hometown where their neighbors helped hide them and gain new identities. 

Formally known as Sophie Greenberg, was now a Polish Catholic laborer known as Zosia Minklewicz.

Eddie Bleiweiss, Sheldon Bleiweiss’s father, grew up in Mizritch, where 90% of the population was Jewish, but only 1% survived the war.

Eddie Bleiweiss was the only member of his family who survived because he bought a new identity for $170,000 (in today’s dollars). 

He was then known as a Polish man named Jan Kaslowki, who became a machinist at a local factory to avoid manual labor.  

Eventually, Eddie Bleiweiss, who knew 5 languages became a translator for the Allied forces.

Eddie (25) and Sophie (22), who had previously met and fell in love, reconnected post-war, and married in April of 1946. 

Together, they boarded the SS Marine Flasher, a boat that took the first group of refugees and survivors from Germany to the United States. 

After moving around the States, the young family landed in Houston, where Sheldon and his siblings were raised. 

Sheldon’s Childhood

Growing up, the close proximity of the Holocaust survivor community was prevalent and dependent on the Bleiweiss family. The Houston Holocaust Survivors was a trusting social network, which was hard to come by.

Bleiweiss grew up surrounded by this community, and most individuals who overcame the Holocaust had PTSD. 

Although PTSD was not acknowledged or well-known at the time, everyone experienced the symptoms including anger, mood swings, flashbacks, depression, hypersensitivity, hypervigilant, and mistrust. 

Bleiweiss explained to the audience how every day growing up, he watched his mother cry but never knew why because he wasn’t informed of his parent’s stories until he was 30 years old.

As a youth, he lived by the concept of “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t share” so, he applied that to his mother’s emotions.

The surviving generation, full of survivor guilt and resiliency, would constantly ask themselves, “‘Why did I survive? Why was I the only one?’” So, they all had “a psychological need to see their children perfectly happy.”

“Second  generation of Holocaust survivors were special. We were the most important things to our parents, and their worst fear was to lose us,” said Bleiweiss. 

Bleiweiss grew up with strict expectations due to his parent’s need to keep a low profile for safety, and their immense love for their rare loved ones. 

Bleiweiss couldn’t play any sports, had to stay home and be obedient, earn all A’s in school, get a college education, marry the right person, etc.

Growing up, Bleiweiss’s pain never compared to his parents, so he attended therapy regularly to get his emotional needs met.

Sheldon’s Adulthood

Bleiweiss gained his master’s in social work and went on to work in a mental health clinic and as a religious school educator. 

In 2002, Shelly participated as a mental health counselor on the week-long “March of the Living” trip to Poland, where several thousand high school students explored the remnants of Jewish life and visited various sites, including former death camps.

“I cried every day that I was in Poland, and I’m standing here crying right now,” said Bleiweiss as he explained his first-hand experience in the extermination camps. 

Bleiweiss explained the gas chambers, where Jews were told they were going to shower, but in reality, they would never exit. 

Bleiweiss described the scratch marks on the walls from people trying to escape before dying and being cremated. 

Bleiweiss saw the exhibit rooms in Auschwitz, where baby clothes, eyeglasses, brushes, crutches/prosthetics, suitcases, hair, shoes, earns of ashes, etc. 

“There were the things that made the Holocaust real for me, even though I had lost family, I am now seeing it, I am witnessing it, I am there, and the enormity of it I had a hard time with,” said Bleiweiss. 

Bleiweiss, now retired, was the Chair of the NC State Holocaust commemoration for five years, is a member of the NC Council on the Holocaust, and is a Holocaust instructor for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Duke and NC State.

Bleiweiss finds himself throughout the country and world as he shares his emotional story about the heartbreaking event of the Holocaust.

It is important to educate and fully gain an understanding of such tragic events, such as the Holocaust, in order to better yourself and the future of society. 

“You can begin to fully grasp that these events in history are real because there is a person standing in front of you sharing their story and being a witness,” said Bengston. 

Scan the QR code to listen to Bleiweiss’s story to learn more!

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