Holocaust Survivor Relives Bar Mitzvah 80 Years Later

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Fred Behrend, Campbell Schwarz and Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz-Boro
From left: Fred Behrend, Campbell Schwarz and Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz-Boro (Photo by Michael Donahue)

Fred Behrend’s bar mitzvah was held under less-than-ideal circumstances.

The 93-year-old became a man in a Cuban schoolhouse after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. The refugees had little money and only 20 people attended.

This month marked the 80th anniversary of the ceremony and the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht. Behrend is all too familiar with the Night of Broken Glass, as he was there. To commemorate both occasions, a celebration was held Nov. 6 at Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, New Jersey. This time, hundreds attended.

“It was really nice. All the people were so happy to celebrate,” Behrend said. “It was a grand affair.”

Behrend moved to Voorhees in 2010 to be closer to family. It was at Congregation Beth El that he met Larry Hanover, a bar mitzvah tutor and adjunct journalism professor at Temple University. He encouraged Behrend to detail his life story in a book, which the two ended up writing together.

The memoir, “Rebuilt from Broken Glass: A German Life Remade in America,” was published in 2017. A copy has been given to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and it’s on the recommended reading list of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.

Behrend was 12 during Kristallnacht. He recalls the Nazis burning his synagogue in Cologne, Germany. He likes to say that, given his age, seeing his schoolhouse burn was one of the happiest days of his life as he got to stay home and play. At that age, he didn’t realize the dark implications it all held.

Despite having fought for Germany in World War I, his father was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Sachsenhausen. Eventually, he was released on the condition that he liquidate his business and take his family out of Germany immediately.

Behrend’s family was one of the lucky ones, making it out of the country. They resettled in Cuba for a year while waiting for entry into the United States.

In exile, with a uncertain future ahead, Behrend had his bar mitzvah. He recalls the toast his father made, in which he compared their fleeing to the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. The pharaoh allowed the Jews to leave with all of their precious possessions, but his father said the only valuables they had were their children — who represented the future. Behrend said it was a proper toast, but that the celebration paled in comparison to others he’s attended.

“I got so many presents I had to put them into a huge box in order to hold them. Don’t believe a word I’m saying, because all I got was a prayer book,” Behrend said. “Other than that, I got nothing.”

On Nov. 9, Behrend got to experience a more well-attended ceremony when he was invited to read the Torah at the bar mitzvah of Eli Gray, a Beth El congregant. The two read from a 200-year-old Torah rescued from a synagogue the Nazis destroyed. It was restored by another congregant, Campbell Schwarz, for her bat mitzvah project and rededicated about a month earlier. The yad used was one Behrend’s father salvaged from his own synagogue and smuggled out. It sat in Behrend’s curio cabinet for years until he remembered it and decided to let his granddaughter use it at her bat mitzvah.

“And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice for a Jewish girl, going to become bat mitzvah, that we could use this yad to read out of the Torah and to read her parsha, if for no better reason than as a sign that you can’t eliminate the Jews, that they are here to stay?” Behrend said.

Hanover said there were plenty of tears in the audience when the yad was raised at Gray’s bar mitzvah.

“It’s really heartwarming how people responded to it,” Hanover said. “It was one of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced.”

Now, Hanover is adapting Behrend’s memoir into a documentary. The film will focus on Behrend escaping the Holocaust and his new life in the U.S. His family was granted entry in 1940 and resettled in New York City.

Behrend served in the U.S. Army, where he was assigned to watch over German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who became a pioneer of space technology.

Later, Behrend ran an appliance business in New York City. There he had a chance encounter with a fellow Holocaust survivor he knew in Germany. This meeting, along with the reunion between Behrend and the survivor’s brother in February, are at the core of the film.

The celebration on Nov. 6 served as a fundraiser, generating more than $25,000. For the project, Hanover brought on Joe Fab, the director of the Holocaust documentary “Paper Clips,” and hopes to move into production sometime next year.

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