My father, William Bernheim, a Holocaust survivor born in Poland, made it to age 98 with elegance and grace … always dapper, topped off with a hat and ascot.
“Daddy,” as I affectionately called him my whole life, was a born storyteller. While early on he rarely shared even fragments of his wartime experiences with the family, over the last three decades of his life my father felt he had an obligation to speak up about the horrific experiences of his youth.
This is just a glimpse of his amazing story.
On September 8, 1942, a few years after his dad passed away suddenly in a Vienna hospital, my then-19-year-old father watched as his mother was forcibly removed from the Lodz Ghetto on a Nazi truck and sent to her death at the Chelmno extermination camp outside of Lodz. In a last act of love, she pressed her ring into my father’s hand and told him to “save yourself.”
That was the last time he ever saw his mother, Gittel.
He lived through the privations of the Lodz Ghetto, and barely survived Buchenwald. On the last day of his imprisonment, weighing barely 62 pounds, he took off his prisoner’s jacket and hid bare-chested under a pile of dead bodies. He and other prisoners at the camp were liberated by American soldiers the next day — April 11, 1945 – a date he forever considered his “second birthday.”
Daddy came to the United States a few years later, the only member of his immediate family to survive World War II. He eventually met my mother, Lucille, also a Holocaust survivor, and together they embarked on an extraordinary 70-plus year journey, making an incredible life together, first raising a family in Brooklyn, New York and thereafter running a successful jewelry designing business in New York City.
Over the last 30 years, my father was not only driven to paint the images of the Holocaust that he personally witnessed, but he also felt an obligation to speak up about his horrific experiences during World War II, to remind the world of what happened and that it could most definitely happen again.
Daddy spoke at colleges and universities around the country, at synagogues and organizations that wanted to hear directly from an eyewitness to the horrors of the Holocaust, especially since there were so few survivors still alive. In his spare time, he painted powerful allegorical visions of suffering during the Shoah. Some of his large oil paintings are now displayed at Yad Vashem and at the Anti-Defamation League’s national headquarters in New York.
Over the years, as he retold his story, my father became increasingly well known as a Holocaust survivor whose positive attitude and outlook was an inspiration to all. He even wrote and published an autobiography about his life and his art (“My Story: From Hell to Rebirth”) inspired by his experiences. And as his reputation as an artist and writer spread, he was interviewed by television reporters and articles were written about him. People young and old would reach out to him through his website, letting him know what an impact his story had on them and how his optimism inspired them.
Daddy would have turned 100 on December 13, 2022. The family had of course hoped to celebrate this major milestone with him, and I thought he would live forever – the man who had proven to have more than nine lives. But alas, he did not.
In August 2020, during the height of COVID, I received an email through my father’s website from a man named Wim Leydes, a researcher, author and collector of historical photos and artifacts from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While researching his fourth book, Wim had learned that two of his uncles were resistance fighters for the Dutch. One of those brothers, unbeknownst to his family, had been held in Buchenwald from 1941 to 1945.
This reminded him of a prisoner’s number patch from Buchenwald which came into his possession years ago — a small, fragile rectangle of fabric he kept protected in a glass case.
Wim wondered–What if he were to look up the number in the same German archive, he was using to research his family’s background? He was anxious to share with me what happened next:
“I punched in the number; 12510.
“On my screen pops up about 8 – 10 documents they have in their archive;
Berenhaim (Berenheim), Zenek, 13 – 12 – 21…..(also lists 22?)
Buchenwald, Prisoner Number 12510, born Litzmannstadt/ Lodz
“So, now I am blown away. Is this patch that I have sitting here for the last years, could this be from this person? Zenek Berenheim? The number matches, it is in Buchenwald, like I thought. Could it be? I continue my search via Google, but now with this name.
“I keep coming back to the name William Bernheim. Upon further searching and also on my own knowledge that a lot of survivors from countries like Poland, Germany etc., would ‘Americanize’ their names and sometimes make small changes, I come to the conclusion that Zenek Berenheim must be William Bernheim.
“So now I am reading about your father and the amazing art he has made and I want to know more about his story. This is why I ordered (his) book recently. As I was looking through the book the other day, my research proved to be correct. Right on the dustjacket as soon as one opens the book it says: William “Zenek” Bernheim.
“I found the person matching these documents, but what about the patch? Then I see on page 34 in your father’s book a picture of his pants he was forced to wear in Buchenwald. I thought that next I was maybe going to see a jacket as well, with the prisoner number, showing me I might be wrong all along about the patch, but what do I see written with it? “…jacket (later lost)”.
“Lost? That means you, your father, your family does not have this? So again, does that mean that the patch I have was your father’s? …
“Anyway …. IF, indeed, I have traced this patch back to your father, and it is his original patch that he had on his prisoner clothing in Buchenwald, then I have no other wish then to donate it back to your dad, you or your family. That’s where it belongs…. if this is indeed what was once from your father, please allow me to return it. It would be my honor.”
I was stunned!
Sometimes, life is crazier than fiction. Was it possible that the patch from the jacket my father still existed 75 years later?
At this point, Daddy was almost 98 years old, but still very alert and mobile. I wondered whether my parents were ready for the story I was going to tell them. Because of COVID, I had not visited my parents for over 10 months. They had not left their apartment at all during this time, but we spoke a few times a day over the telephone.
So, I called them and at first, they couldn’t comprehend what I was saying. How could this stranger be in possession of a small patch from the jacket my father discarded over 75 years ago? Who was this man Wim Leydes from Minnesota?
Of course, I later reached out to Wim, and we had a long and incredible conversation. I told him that my father could not believe this turn of events, but my mother asked me to research everything Wim said, and it all checked out. The only mystery we couldn’t solve was the question of who “saved” that jacket that was tossed on the grounds of Buchenwald 75 years ago and removed and kept the patch as a memento?
Daddy had an amazing selective memory for certain things – but we truly believe that the reason he could not remember certain day-to-day horrific occurrences as a concentration camp prisoner was just a way for him to survive. How did he survive sicknesses? How did they survive the intense cold of winter? Where did inmates go to the bathroom? Though he was at Buchenwald for years, these memories were totally lost to him.
But one thing he remembered clearly was being known merely as prisoner 12510 — not a person, just a five-digit number — and the realization of the tiny patch from his jacket making its way back to him shook him to his core.
My parents wanted to see a photo of the patch, so I asked Wim to e-mail it. I sent the image to my father, and we Facetimed immediately. In all the years I have known my father, I had never seen him speechless – until that day.
The tiny patch of threadbare fabric had found its way back to my father almost a full lifetime later. But now my father was no longer “just a number” – no longer the thin, emaciated child who had lost his mother and watched people suffer and die around him for nearly four years.
Instead, he was an accomplished artist, businessman, the patriarch of our family, a loving father, an American who had never looked back.
My father took from his closet the striped pants he wore while imprisoned in Buchenwald more than 75 years ago, compared them to the material of the patch, and the memories all came flooding back.
Unfortunately, my father never had the opportunity to be “reunited” with the patch. In January 2021, after a short illness, he passed peacefully and without pain, just the way a “Tzadik” would die.
My father lived an incredibly horrendous yet amazingly beautiful life and spent each and every day of his journey sharing his message with the world, through his art and his words. There was nothing left to squeeze out of his 98 years. His job was done.
On this December 13, 2022, which would be his 100th birthday, remember my father, William Bernheim, who lived a life to be proud of.