If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Holocaust survivor Elizabeth Bleiman’s photo album is worth an autobiography.
Among photos of her Hungarian childhood home, husband and daughter and concentration camp paperwork is also a clipping from a June 29, 1951 Jewish Exponent article, detailing her time as a cottage parent for a group home for children through the Association for Jewish Children, a precursor to Jewish Family and Children’s Service.
Seventy one years later, Bleiman, 101, is still involved in JFCS as a client for its Holocaust Survivor Support program. Active in the Jewish community, Bleiman and her story are not only representative of American Jewish history, but of a story close to the heart of Jewish Philadelphians.
“Her history is like the history of the immigrant in Philadelphia,” said daughter Hannah Fishman.
Born in Ofehértó — which translates to “Old White Lake” — Hungary to the prominent Jewish Zuckerman family, Bleiman described her childhood as a happy one until it wasn’t. When she was five, her mother died after a miscarriage, leaving behind Bleiman, her older brother and younger sister.
Despite early tragedy, Bleiman has fond memories of her childhood, becoming close with her stepmother, despite her siblings’ lack of emotional connection to her.
As the children grew older, even as the war began, they were mostly untouched by Nazi rule, though were sent to different parts of the country to attend gymnasium, similar to high school, because as Jews, they were not allowed to attend many public schools.
“We had antisemitism later on or in a certain time, but not [much] in my time,” Bleiman said. “In the village we did not feel it because the family was respected and well-liked.”
Though Hungarian Jews are safe for most of the war, when Nazis invaded the country, change was quick and unrelenting.
“As soon as the Germans came in, everything changed,” Bleiman said.
In April 1944, Bleiman and her father and stepmother were sent to the Kisvarda ghetto. By then, Bleiman was a young adult and became a nurse at the field hospital there. Only weeks later, the Germans began shipping people off to concentration camps. Bleiman was torn between staying with the sick to care for them or travelling with her parents. Her father convinced her to stay with him, a decision that ultimately saved Bleiman’s life.
In June 1944, Bleiman arrived in Auschwitz and was separated from her father and stepmother, making friends with the four women who shared her bunk. While they remained friends and were transferred to Stutthof labor camp until it was liberated by the Soviet Red Army the following year, half of them died of typhus shortly afterwards.
Bleiman spent three years after the war at a displaced person camp in Germany, where she met her husband, a teacher who taught Bleiman Yiddish, which was not commonly spoken in her Hungarian Jewish community.
The two settled in Philadelphia with their young daughter, where an aunt of Bleiman lived, and looking for work, found jobs as cottage parents at AJC.
“They thought that maybe it’d be good to be with children. I guess we went through plenty of hardship,” Bleiman said.
By 1952, when the Bleimans left the cottage home so Bleiman’s husband could make a living working in a junkyard, AJC continued to change as well. Originally founded as the Jewish Foster Home in 1855, AJC was the oldest Jewish children’s service in the country, according to a 1963 fact sheet from the organization. By the time Bleiman left, AJC was starting to shift their model from a group home to foster model, later rapidly expanding the services they provided to children. Though still a part of the Federation for Jewish Charities, the group merged with Jewish Family Service in 1983, becoming the Jewish Family and Children’s Agency.
Bleiman has been part of JFCS’ Holocaust Survivor Support program for 10 years, working with various case workers there. Decades after her first involvement in the organization, she continues to make her mark at JFCS.
“I do not think that I’ve ever had a conversation or interaction with Elizabeth Bleiman where she hasn’t been smiling, laughing or just overall pleasant,” said Carly Bruski, director of JFCS’ Holocaust Survivor Support program. “She’s probably one of the most positive people I have ever met, survivor or not.”
Just as seven decades ago Bleiman cared for the vulnerable populations AJC assisted, she now has come full circle, receiving care and building community with the same organization that has evolved parallel to her.
“We really look at Holocaust survivors as a core group to this agency,” Bruski said. “They’re truly the backbone of this agency.”