From Auschwitz to the White House


By the time you read this, Chanukah 2013 will be a distant memory. But, I still thought I’d squeeze in one last Chanukah story.
Martin Weiss was born on Jan. 28, 1929, in Polana, Czechoslovakia. His father, Jacob, was a meat distributor and his mother, Golda, kept their home and raised Marty and his eight brothers and sisters.
I’m certain you can guess where this story is going.
In 1939, Czechoslovakia was divided, with sections under Nazi control and Hungarian control. The Weisses lived under Hungarian control, but were still subjected to Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws. Weiss’ two brothers were conscripted into slave labor battalions and sent to the Russian front. His father provided for the family by butchering their animals at night and selling the meat on the black market.
In April 1944, the Weisses were arrested and deported to the Munkacs Ghetto where they were forced into lacor in a brick factory. In May, 440,000 Jews, including Marty and his family, were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Marty, his brother Moshe, his sister Cilia, their father Jacob and two uncles were selected for labor. The rest of the family was killed upon arrival.
Marty and Jacob were transported to Melk, a subcamp of Mauthausen concentration camp. They carved tunnels through mountains. Jacob died from exhaustion and starvation. Marty and the other inmates were forced to march to Gunskirchen, another subcamp of Mauthausen. It was from Gunskirchen that Marty was liberated by the U.S. Army on May 5, 1945.
Marty returned to Czechoslovakia where he was reunited with Cilia and Mendl (his oldest brother, who had been forced into a Hungarian labor battalion). They located their sister, Ellen, who had immigrated to the United States in 1939. She arranged for visas and Marty, Cilia, Mendl and Cilia’s husband Fred immigrated to New York in July 1946.
Marty served in the U.S. Army in the Korean war. He married Joan Merlis, went into the food business in New Jersey and raised two children. They moved to Bethesda and joined Congregation B’nai Tzedek. Marty and Joan were married for 57 years and have four grandchildren. He has been a volunteer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum since 1998.
On Chanukah 2013, Martin Weiss lit the menorah at the White House.
“The menorah they were lighting was a gift from the Czech Republic. It was one of those things,” explained Weiss on how he was selected. “The Holocaust Museum gave them my name.”
Margit Meissner, another survivor also from Czechoslovakia, joined Weiss in the ceremony. She also lives in Bethesda and her memoir, Margit’s Story, was published in 2003. I’m writing now about Weiss for the simple reason that I once sat across the table from him in a Torah study class. I didn’t know his story and just thought of him as the nice, retired man from my shul. This year, I resolve to pay more attention to the people and stories around me.
Weiss was humble when he spoke about being in the White House and meeting President and Mrs. Obama. “He [Obama] said it’s an honor to meet me! The fact that the president said that.” He continued, “The fact is, an immigrant like me is invited to the White House. As a Jew. The fact that we came this far and can hold our head up high and do something like this.”
He told me how nice the evening was, how charming Mrs. Obama was, how pleasant and positive the experience. Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elana Kagan, both Jewish women, were there. His daughter Gail was there, which, according to Weiss, “made it even nicer.”
Weiss spoke in a way that only a Holocaust survivor would speak. For others who attend the White House Chanukah party, it’s a given, of course, there should be such a celebration. Of course Jews should be invited to the White House and light a menorah and eat potato latkes with the president.
For him, “There was that time I didn’t think I would live another two months. The fact that I came here … in the U.S. capital. What else can you say? Not me personally but the whole thing. That we don’t have to deny who we are. That says it all. We don’t have to hide. We don’t have to change our names.”
“All of my friends did not come back and I did. It’s still a very important factor. For me to get invited and they didn’t survive at all, it says how things can change.”
But he worries about what hasn’t changed. “So many countries in Europe and the Middle East teach hate on a daily basis. Germany started talking about Jews doing this and that and no one took them seriously. They graduated gradually to killing. This is what’s happening today. Hungary, Greece. They are building statues for people who committed atrocities in World War II to those who were on the wrong side. This is happening while we’re still talking about the Holocaust. It’s happening all under our eyes. It starts by denigrating people. Hitler started the same way.”
Young people don’t think this way. He doesn’t blame them. They live when they live and know what they know. But, says Martin Weiss, who survived and fought and lived to light the White House menorah, “We do know what it was like.”

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