rom war torn Poland to opportunity in America, Henry Eisen celebrates his bar mitzvah 80 years late
Studying his Hebrew, practicing Torah passages, Henry Eisen — Hesh, as the family calls him — has been getting ready for his bar mitzvah. He’ll come to the ceremony, a rite of passage Jewish males go through before taking on the responsibilities of life, with a little more background than is typical, some depth of perspective earned through experiences — fleeing Poland, living in Siberia, Nazis, Russians, the horrors of the Holocaust.
Eisen is nearly 93. His bar mitzvah at Chabad Jewish Center of Ridgefield on Saturday, Dec. 7, will come about 80 years late. World War II got in the way.
“I didn’t have one because Hitler came in,” said Eisen.
He told his story, surrounded by family, at The West Lane Inn in Ridgefield, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Eisen lives in Queens, N.Y., but comes out — drives his own car — regularly, with a son and daughter in the area, grandchildren and great-grandchilden living on Olmstead Lane in Ridgefield, and more family in Brookfield and Westport. They go to services at Chabad — a temple that somehow
reminds him of his youth, in Rymanow, Poland.
“It’s a very small town,” he said of Rymanow. “Little — 80 families, 90 families.”
The town had a mix of Jewish families and Catholic families, as was common in Poland before the war. He was one of three children born to his parents, Josef and Cylia Eisen. He grew up with his brother, Nathan, and sister, Sophie. His father was a cattle trader.
“Just making a living, that’s all — not starving,” Eisen said.
His older brother Nathan had been bar mitzvahed, and he understood that he’d have his own bar mitzvah — until, in September 1939, things got crazy.
“I knew it was coming,” Eisen said. “But the whole place was taken over by the Germans.”
“They had to run for their lives,” said his son, Mel Eisen of Danbury.
“The Nazis sent, not spies, but lookouts to the village, to see if there was going to be any resistance. At the same time, they dropped fire bombs.
“He said, ‘They were dropping bombs from the sky, fire was everywhere,’ ” Mel Eisen said of his father. “They were cutting off the beards of all the Jewish people.”
This was an affront with religious significance for many Jews.
“I see it now. It’s in my mind,” said Henry Eisen, who at 93 seems like a man of about 70.
A good German
His mother operated a little restaurant of sorts and once the Germans took over the town, one of them became a regular customer.
German soldiers generally don’t play sympathetic roles in stories told by Holocaust survivors, but this man did.
“He said: ‘You better get out of here,’” Henry Eisen recalled.
The German soldier got them in a truck, and delivered them to Sanok, a town about 10 miles away on the river San.
“The German soldier took his life in his hands,” Mel Eisen said.
But it wasn’t safe. The Germans were marching toward Sanok, and the family soon left for the neighboring town of Lesko — territory controlled by the Russians, who at that point had a treaty with Germany and had divided Poland between them.
“Sanok is already not good,” Henry Eisen said. “We decided ‘Let’s go’ so we went on the Russian side.”
“On the Russian side, Jewish people were not being hunted by Nazis,” Mel Eisen said.
A family that owned a bar gave the five-member Eisen family and two other people a room to stay in.
Across the bridge
“We didn’t have much at all, just what we wore,” Henry Eisen recalled. “My father said: ‘The bridge is still open’ — he went back.”
His father meant to get some of the family’s belongings.
“He said he’d be returning shortly,” Mel Eisen said of his grandfather, Josef.
But then the bridge was closed. Josef Eisen didn’t come back.
Henry Eisen’s older brother, Nathan — Nat — did see him, though.
“His brother saw their father across the river,” Mel Eisen said.
So, Nat Eisen found some people with a boat, who did some smuggling, made a deal and went to bring their father back.
He got caught, was put in the jail by the Russians and sent “to the Gulags” — labor camps in Russia.
Henry Eisen was about 13 at the time.
“We didn’t know where my father is, and we didn’t know where my brother is,” he recalled.
His sister, Sophie, began fasting.
Mel Eisen described it in an account of his father’s experiences that he wrote some years ago for his children, so they’d have some sense of what their grandfather and his family went through.
“Sophie fasted two days each week, Mondays and Thursdays, during Nat’s absence hoping this food she was not eating would find its way to her brother and nourish him,” Mel Eisen said.
Then, the authorities gave Jewish families a choice.
“The Russians gave us papers to fill out: ‘Who wants to go back to the German side? Who wants to stay on the Russian side?’ ” Henry Eisen recalled.
Things seemed to have quieted down and the family — now just Henry, his mother Cylia and his sister Sophie — said they wanted to return to the German-controlled side, primarily to find Josef and Nat.
“Because they registered to go back, the Russians sent them to Siberia,” Mel Eisen said.
They ended up in a labor camp, cutting lumber for the Russians.
“They weren’t killing Jews there, they were working Jews there,” Mel Eisen said. “They weren’t killing them, burning them in ovens.”
Even in a Russian labor camp, in Novosibirsk, in southwestern Siberia, the family learned some of the slaughter was going on in Nazi-controlled areas.
“Listen, things go on — no matter what, people tell people,” Henry Eisen said.
The family worked in that Russian labor camp through much of the war, part of a small community of Jews living in harsh circumstances.
“We were in barracks. They gave us 60 grams of bread a day,” Henry Eisen recalled. “We went to farmers — they were good farmers, Russians — they gave us extra food.”
At the labor camp in Novosibirsk, Siberia, Henry’s sister Sophie married Laezer Erreich who, among other things, made shoes out of paper. Her wedding dress was fashioned from potato sacks sewn together.
Their son, Izzy, was born there.
After the war Henry Eisen’s brother, Nathan — who’d gone looking for his father and gotten caught — was released from the Gulag. He somehow learned where his family was, and went there — taking a train to Novosibersk and walking the final 10 miles.
“He made his way,” Mel Eisen said, “without shoes, with newspapers on his feet, in jail clothing, he found the home where his family was living in Siberia.”
“He came to the door,” Henry Eisen recalled. “He knocked. Mother said ‘Who is this?’ ”
The hardships of the war had so emaciated and changed Nathan that at first his own mother didn’t recognize him.
But there was bad news, too.
“Their father, they found out, was taken by the Nazis to Belzec,” said Sharon Eisen, Henry’s daughter and Mel’s sister.
“It was strictly an extermination camp,” Mel Eisen said.
In the chaos after the war’s end, the family moved around.
“The Russians came: ‘You are free. You can go home,’” Henry Eisen recalled. “We had a choice, so we went to Uzbekistan.”
There, in the city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan, Henry Eisen — now about 17 — worked selling shoes in a bizarre and rolling paper around a pencil to make cigarettes to sell.
“Anything to survive,” he said.
The family moved to Frunze, Kyrgyzstan, near western China.
Then they heard Jews were being allowed to return to Poland. They took a train to Krakow, a major city near the village where they’d lived before the war.
But they heard it was not a safe place — Jews were being killed in the streets.
Rather than return, they went to a camp the victorious Allies were setting up for displaced persons — a “D.P. camp” — in Pocking, Germany.
There, Henry Eisen met his wife of 66 years, the late Fanny Gitelman — Mel and Sharon’s mother.
“I met Fanny, my Fanny,” he said.
“In these displaced person camps,” Sharon Eisen said, “life blossomed and there was romance and people were dating and he was playing soccer.”
“We met at a place kids hung around. She looked beautiful,” he recalled. “What she went through — forget it! She was in the partisans, with a machine gun. She was marching with soldiers all night in the woods!”
But that’s another story.
They ended up in a displaced persons camp in Foehrenwald, in the American-controlled area of Germany.
Mel Eisen was born there.
“They’re in Foehrenwald. She’s pregnant, I’m born,” Mel Eisen said. “They have to make a decision: Where are they going to go? Who’s going to let them in?”
Henry Eisen leaned towards going to Palestine, where the state of Israel was soon to be founded.
But his Fanny wanted to go to America.
“My wife had an uncle and aunt over here,” Henry Eisen said.
They were willing to be sponsors, and he agreed.
“My mother got her way,” Sharon Eisen said. “And she got her way the rest of her life.”
After coming to America, Henry Eisen’s story is like so many other stories of refugees who struggle to reach America, then thrive — work, hard-won success, sending money to bring more relatives over to the freedom and opportunity in America.
“I got a job,” he said. “I came here without a trade, a kid with a young baby.”
He worked painting houses, then for a food merchant — “scrubbing herring, stinking,” he said.
More family members followed, with Heny and those already here helping those still in the DP camps of Europe, bringing them over: first his brother Nathan, his wife, and their daughter; then his sister Sophie, her husband, and their two boys and their mother.
They came to America, to New York.
“They all lived within a block of each other in the South Bronx,” Mel Eisen said.
Henry Eisen went from painting houses and scrubbing herring for a grocer to owning a grocery store, then a supermarket, then real estate.
The bar mitzvah
The idea of having a bar mitzvah originated with Rabbi Sholom Deitsch of Chabad Jewish Center in Ridgefield, the temple Henry Eisen goes to when he drives up from the city to visit family — as he does regularly, even at 93.
“The original concept of a bar mitzvah is when someone takes upon themselves the yoke of the mitzvahs, the commandments,” Rabbi Deitsch said.
Henry Eisen was skeptical at first. “In the beginning, I didn’t even think about it,” he said. “... Having a bar mitzvah at 93?”
But the family talked about it. The idea grew on him.
It seems significant because of the evils still abroad in the world — prejudice, anti-Semitism, laws that target immigrants.
“Our mission as Jews is to affect the world, to make the world a better place,” Rabbi Deitsch said.
“To me, it’s a way of remembering why he didn’t have a bar mitzvah,” his daughter, Sharon Eisen, said. “We should never forget what happened to the Jews.”
“It’s not just anti-Semitism, it’s hatred of any minority,” Mel Eisen added. “...We have a responsibility to be good to each other, to give everybody a fair chance.”
So, on Saturday, 93-year-old Henry Eisen will be reading passages from the Torah in Hebrew, just like the 13-year-olds who get bar mitzvahed.
“But they’re smarter,” he said with a chuckle.
But it seems a safe bet they’re not wiser.