I was lucky enough to meet William Bernheim at a recent event hosted by American Society for Yad Vashem. William actually sat next to me. I met his wife and grandchildren and actually touched the striped garments he was forced to wear in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
His story MUST be shared, as just this week it was announced that California is considering adopting a new ethnic studies curriculum that is anti-Jewish and anti-Israel.
His is soft-spoken, very huggable and very artistic, as shared in his art and the book he authored.
I will let him share his story in his own words.
1. Share bio info:
I was born in Lodz, Poland in 1922. My family was very large, and we lived a comfortable life until 1939 when the Germans began to move Jews into the Ghetto. In 1941, I was separated from my mother, never to be seen again. In 1942, I was sent to an ammunition factory to work for the Germans, and then sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp where I was working and tortured along with so many others for approximately two years. In April of 1945, the German soldiers gathered the prisoners up to take us on a death march, there were suddenly sirens and I broke away and hid under a barrack. I heard my number 12,510 being called to report, but I dare not move. At this point, I realized I need a safer hiding place. I saw a pile of dead bodies and removed my shirt to blend in. I lay there hidden for days and I am not sure if I passed out or fell asleep. After several days, I suddenly heard singing and thought, “Have I died and am I standing at the gates of heaven?” or maybe it was a trick by the Nazis. The heat and horrific stench of decay I had to breathe was beyond human imagination. So I decided to crawl out no matter the consequences. As I began to climb out, a pair of hands belonging to an American soldier reached out and pulled me out of that mountain of death. Weighing only 62 pounds, I was liberated and ate my first bite of bread as a free man. That day was April 11, 1945, which I consider my second birthday.
I arrived in New York City in 1949, with no immediate family, money, education or trade. But I was so determined to make a better life for myself, that I never gave up. I took any job that I could find—carrying refrigerators on my back, washing dishes in restaurants, shining shoes, selling blouses in Harlem, working as an electrician in Lower Manhattan, and repairing elevators. No job was beneath me, I was just happy to have my freedom. I never went to any organization for handouts, and even slept many nights in Central Park.
Having worked on electricity and motors, with an aptitude for electrical engineering, which I studied at the ORT School in Cremona, Italy in 1948, I wanted to continue my engineering education in the US but had to stop early attempts due to lack of funds. Eventually, I learned the art of making fine jewelry. However, the hours were long and the pay was very poor. I would take home work at night, crafting beautiful gold and pearl piecework in large numbers at fast speeds in an effort to make more money.
Eventually, I met my wife and best friend Lucille. We have been happily married for over 68 years. We worked together and struggled many years to build up our small jewelry manufacturing and design business. I was one of the first graduates of the then nascent Gemological Institute of America (GIA), now a worldwide authority, and became a certified Gemologist and Diamond authority, in addition to being a lifetime member of the New York Diamond Club. Over the next two decades we built WB Designers, Inc. a well-known and successful boutique firm and showroom at 609 Fifth Avenue, which had an exclusive and international clientele. My unique and original jewelry designs have been worn by celebrities. I worked full-time until the age of 80.
While G-d tested me, he also certainly rewarded me. In addition to my wife, I am also blessed with a son, daughter, four grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.
2. Tell us why for many years you never spoke about your experiences and what triggered you to decide to speak out?
From 1945 until the mid-1970s, I never spoke about my experiences in the Lodz Ghetto and Buchenwald Concentration Camp, though they continued to haunt me every day of my life. When my children reached their teenage years, they began to ask me questions. At first, I tried to spare them the details but as they got older, more of my story came out. By the time my grandchildren started middle school, I was constantly asked to come speak to this younger generation so they could learn directly from a Holocaust survivor that which must never be forgotten.
3. What is your involvement with Yad Vashem Young Leadership?
I was asked to be the main speaker at the Pierre Luncheon.
4. Tell us about your book
After numerous presentations at different universities and organizations around the country, I have had many requests to write a book of my art and story, and I finally did so last year. A friend of mine published the book. The book tells my condensed life story and includes several of my paintings, along with part of my Holocaust collection which recall the torture and dehumanization I experienced and witnessed as a teenager during World War II.
5. Tell us about your art
Though I originally hoped to write a book about my life, I realized that an ocean of ink cannot describe the impact of the brutality, torture and dehumanization I and others suffered at the hands of the Nazis. For that reason, I have been driven to put my life experiences on canvas in an effort to minimize the hatred and prejudice that abounds today, and to share with future generations what must never be forgotten.
Though I was originally silent for 50 years because my war time experiences were, and still are, very painful, I originally decided to open up and tell my story through my art because it is more direct and emotional than any other medium. However, I was recently asked to write my autobiography which includes photographs from part of my Holocaust collection.
When I started painting over 50 years ago, I began with still life and seascapes. I attended the Art Students League in Manhattan, where I studied under renowned painter Robert Brackman, figure drawer Gustav Rehberger, and pastel artist Daniel Green. In addition to learning to paint with oils, I explored art in pastels. These collections are also included in my book. In fact, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem requested and now has one of my original paintings “The Holocaust Survivor” in their permanent collection.
6. Upcoming speaking engagements
As snowbirds, my wife, Lucille, and I spend the summers in New York and many months in Florida. Depending on the season and where we reside at the time, arrangements are made so that I speak at different universities, museums and organizations within a couple of hours drive from our residence. In the past, I would fly around the country to speak and present my art, but at almost 97 years old, I have slowed down a bit.
7. Anything else you would like to share:
As one of the last remaining eye witnesses to the torture that the Nazis made us endure just for being Jews, it is my message for everyone that no matter what race, religion, or gender to remember what hatred and discrimination can do. Because if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
8. Website info:
Copies of my book and lithographs of my signature painting “Kiddush Hashem” can be ordered on my website www.williambernheim.com
Yad Vashem’s Young Leadership Associates (YLA) is an organization within the American community of young professionals dedicated to promoting Holocaust education and remembrance worldwide. Inaugurated in 1997, this dedicated group has undertaken the task of developing an ongoing program to promote Holocaust awareness and connect our generation to Yad Vashem’s mission. http://www.yadvashemusa.org/
Cindy Grosz can be reached at email@example.com.