As a boy, imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Laszlo Berkowits was told to fall into line on one side of a road. On the other side was a line of boys deemed physically fit. Berkowits and the other boys in his line were to be sent to the gas chamber.
As he explained in a 2010 interview, when a guard bent down to tie his shoe, he and another boy snuck across the road, saving their lives.
Berkowits, who went on to become the founding rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, died on Dec. 13 of pneumonia at the home of his daughter in Falls Church. He was 92.
As an immigrant from Europe and a Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Laszlo “Larry” Berkowits served as a reminder of the past. He also led a growing, contemporary congregation in rapidly developing Northern Virginia.
“He really nurtured the growth of the congregation, and helped it take its first most important steps towards being the vibrant congregation that it is,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, who succeeded Berkowits when he retired in 1998.
Schwartzman described Berkowits as “the patriarch of the congregation,” who enabled congregants to live active and involved Jewish lives.
“With his death is the loss of connection to so many things,” Schwartzman said. “There’s not only sorrow and appreciation. I hope there’ll also be a sense of responsibility to continue to keep alive these many, many dimensions that he represented for us.”
Newly ordained from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Berkowits came to the just-formed Temple Rodef Shalom in 1963. It was the only congregation he ever served.
The temple was founded by 37 families. It has since grown to 1,700 households.
Sam Simon, a longtime Temple Rodef Shalom member and close friend of Berkowits’, said the rabbi helped many congregants, including him, develop and define their Jewish identity.
“What difference does it make if you’re Jewish on any given Tuesday? What Larry Berkowits taught me is that it does make a difference,” Simon said. “Jewish faith can define who we are as human beings, and that is a profound gift. And my relationship with him has enabled me to understand that.”
Laszlo Berkowits was born in Derecske, a village in Hungary, in 1928. In 1943, he traveled to Budapest to work alongside his father at a Jewish cemetery. Berkowits gardened the plots while his father dug graves, he said in the 2010 interview.
In 1944, they were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Berkowits would be moved around between various labor camps for 18 months. Much of his immediate family was murdered, according to interviews with Rodef Shalom leadership. Berkowits lived to liberation by United States 82nd Airborne Division in 1945.
“And I said to myself, if I never accomplish anything else in my life, this will be my supreme accomplishment: to have survived the gas chamber,” Berkowits said in the interview.
Following the war, he went to Sweden to study, and then emigrated to New York. He enlisted in the Army, and while stationed in Hawaii, he met a Jewish chaplain who convinced him to become a rabbi.
Later in life, Berkowits often spoke about his experience as a Holocaust survivor. In 2008, he published a memoir, “The Boy Who Lost His Birthday: A Memoir of Loss, Survival, and Triumph.”
“When he went and talked to groups of students about his story as a Holocaust survivor, he didn’t dwell on the tragedy and the horrors and the loss,” Schwartzman said. “He lifted up the importance of humanity to step up for one another, to be inclusive, to be tolerant, to rejoice in diversity. Yes, he told his story, but really, he told his story to further the greater good of humanity.”
According to Simon, Berkowits’ efforts to develop the Jewish community in Northern Virginia is “the ultimate legacy of a survivor.”
“The ultimate response to the Shoah is a life like Larry’s,” Simon said. “Having been able to create this gigantic Jewish institution that will create new, beautiful Jewish lives for generations and generations.”
Berkowits is preceded in death by his wife, Judy. He is survived by his daughters, Julie and Deborah, and grandchildren, Zoe, Sam, Hannah, Naomi and Yael.