By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
The Kansas City Star
The year is 1942. World War II rages on. In occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime is systematically shattering the Jewish population through intimidation, persecution, discrimination and slaughter.
Initial reports reach the West that gas is being used to kill Jews being shipped by rail to concentration camps.
Two Jewish teenage girls whose tragic circumstances will eventually bring them to Kansas City as young women — and bond them as lifelong friends — struggle to live amidst chaos and sorrow.
By August 1942, 13-year-old Rivka Chaba, born in Lipiny, Poland, has already survived three years of unthinkable conditions in the Polish Kamionka ghetto (formerly the Jewish town of Bedzin) with her mother, Faygla; father, Berl; sister, Adela; and brother, Abramkin.
Under a blazing summer sun, SS doctors scrutinize Rivka and her family during a selection process. Divided into male and female lines, the elderly and children younger than 13 are shuffled into a group that will end up in a death camp. Boys and girls 13 and older are marked for work camps.
Wrenched from her family, Rivka is crammed onto a sweltering transport train with thousands of other souls bound for Parschnitz, a Czechoslovakian slave-labor concentration camp.
Rivka is unaware of her family’s impending destiny. They are on a transport train headed for Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp, a horrific point-of-no-return for most of its inhabitants. They would all die there.
Meanwhile, in Byten, in the Soviet republic of Belarus, Gitla Slonimski survives not only the Soviet occupation of her hometown but also its Nazi takeover and ghettoization with her mother, Frieda; father, Samuel; and brothers Israel and Chiya. She and her family narrowly miss the demise of her village’s population by German soldiers who shoot 850 people directly into a mass grave.
Gitla and her family hide when the Nazis storm their home, although she witnesses, through a cellar window, her grandfather’s murder in the backyard near her mother’s gardens.
Now in August 1942, 14-year-old Gitla is literally running for her life in the dense forests outside Byten. Her parents, brothers and she join a band of resistance fighters led by the Polish Bielski brothers, who rescued Jews from extermination and fought Nazi occupiers in Belarus. During several terrifying years traversing the woods to evade the Germans, Israel and Gitla are separated from their parents. Chiya is killed.
After countless harrowing life-and-death situations, Gitla and Israel reunite with their parents and other family following the war’s end, at which time Gitla vows to forever honor Israel, the brother she credits with saving her and helping to protect thousands of others.
Rivka and Gitla met decades ago as part of Kanas City’s small Holocaust survivors’ community. Although the world was unkind to them, the women emerged from the war determined to love their fellow humans as deeply as possible in the hope of preventing future atrocities that they witnessed and suffered as a result of anti-Semitism.
Old age has put distance between the two women and their traumatic pasts, but the memories are still as vivid as if they happened yesterday.
Rivka, 85, changed her name to Regina following the war and married Eric Dollman, who was born in Germany and left for America in 1929. They met on a blind date during Regina’s 1958 trip on a visitor’s visa to Kansas City.
Lori Dollman, 42, Regina and Eric’s younger daughter, is her mother’s caregiver. The two live in a south Kansas City home filled with pictures and memories of the Chaba family.
Lining the walls and scattered on tables are framed photos portraying life with Eric, Lori and their oldest daughter, Felice, who lives with her family in Tampa, Fla. In the dining room, Eric’s World War II medals are displayed on a table below framed portraits of Regina as a nurse in Haifa in northern Israel in the late 1940s and Eric in his Army uniform.
Gitla, 86, resides in an Overland Park house in need of repair. A former seamstress, she has decorated her living room with her meticulous needlepoint work, including a pillow on the back of a sofa inscribed “Love spoken here.”
Like the Dollman home, Gitla’s brims with pictures of family members lost in the war that are intermingled with photos of the two daughters she began raising in Kansas City in 1950 with her late husband, Felix Doppelt, a German she met while living in a camp for displaced people in Austria.
The women have not forgotten their experiences on the front lines of history’s darkest chapters.
Regina Dollman doesn’t like the dark or nighttime, or being alone. Widowed since 2002, she suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and the beginnings of dementia. Her daughter is desperate to keep her mother in familiar surroundings, where she can tend to her physical needs and soothe her emotional scars.
Gitla Doppelt recounts her story whenever possible, mentioning her brother’s name, Israel, in conversation that begins with a passionate “God bless America for my home and the opportunity” and ends with an emotional “God bless America.”
Dollman and Doppelt are two of 62 remaining survivors living in the Kansas City area who either self-identified or have been identified by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park.
“Many Holocaust survivors have special economic and health needs as they age,” said Jean Zeldin, executive director of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. “Some say it becomes more difficult to speak of the cruelties they witnessed and experienced the older they get, which is counterintuitive to what you think, because the memory fades.”
Zeldin emphasizes the lasting trauma inflicted on Holocaust victims and notes that few, if any, received psychological counseling.
“As children and teenagers, many survivors never got to see the natural aging and death process, because their parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles were murdered,” she said. “Although survivors have moved forward to have productive, fulfilling lives, the trauma experienced is a constant presence.”
Dollman and Doppelt receive assistance from Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City, a nonprofit social service agency that helps individuals and families on both sides of the state line who cope with crises and everyday challenges.
Programs offered by Jewish Family Services include two food pantries, both with a pet pantry, and emergency services to supplement rent and utilities and to help navigate the challenges of aging.
One program addressing the unique needs of aging Holocaust survivors living below poverty level — which accounts for about 2,000 victims nationwide out of 75,000 survivors — is the Blue Card, a New York-based fund.
Six months ago, Jewish Family Services of Kansas City and Laura Gilman, care management team manager for the organization, started helping clients such as Dollman and Doppelt apply for Blue Card aid.
Established in 1934 by the Jewish community in Germany, the Blue Card helped Jews already affected by various forms of Nazi oppression, including job loss and forcibly closed businesses — in short, anyone displaced by World War II.
In 1939, the Blue Card was established in the United States to lend support to refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe with the hopes of a better life in America.
“The Blue Card is there as aging Holocaust survivors’ financial needs increase, with things such as uncovered medical expenses, homecare services, and transportation and mobility issues,” explained Gilman, of Kansas City.
“The bottom line: Holocaust survivors — those forced to leave their homes and/or placed into forced labor — suffered significant injustices and the most devastating circumstances imaginable early in their lives,” she said. “They didn’t have pensions or had very tiny ones, and many who are now homebound deserve to live out their remaining years with dignity and comfort, as trauma-free as possible.”
A recurring roadblock that Gilman encounters when working with Holocaust survivors such as Dollman and Doppelt is a reluctance to apply for programs like the Blue Card.
“People are anxious, because they have mistrust and fear that things can still be taken away from them without notice,” she said. “And pride. There is nothing stronger than pride.”
Gilman pays regular visits to Dollman and Doppelt, assessing their needs and acting as a conduit to programs and benefits.
“Jewish Family Services, and how we connect with people like Regina and Gitla, is what community is all about,” she said. “Community is caring.”
Lori Dollman leaned into her mother, planting a gentle kiss on each rouged cheek, grasping her trembling hands.
“You’re my baby, aren’t you, Mama?” Lori spoke loudly and carefully enunciated her words, waiting for her mother’s response.
“Yes, yes I am,” Regina answered, a slight smile momentarily curling her cherry-red lips.
Lori stepped back to survey her mother, immaculately dressed in black pants and a cobalt-blue top, her jet-black hair styled into a fashionable coif. Settled into the corner of a sofa in the living room of her home, Regina’s large dark eyes were fixed straight ahead on the television, which is showing the Royals playing the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series.
“The boys, they’re going to win, Mama. I know it,” Lori said. “We love to watch sports and ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ right, Mama?’”
Gilman sits next to Regina, a clipboard with the Blue Card paperwork resting on her lap.
It’s a picture-perfect Midwest fall day, a world away from the bleak story Lori recited on her mother’s behalf. Perching on the edge of a recliner, Lori balanced thick files on her knees.
“These,” Lori tapped the bulging folders, “contain history, a legacy, about what happened to my mother and messages that should never, ever be forgotten so that something like the Holocaust and its ugliness never happens again.”
Her fingers flip through tatter-edged, faded papers. After a moment Lori pulls a well-worn sheet from one of the folders dated Nov. 2, 1966.
“This is from a physician who cared for my mother for five years and describes both physical and emotional complications as a result of her Parschnitz incarceration,” said Lori, her eyebrows knitted together as she scans the document. “Malnutrition, severe headaches as a result of beatings, anxiety and depression, insomnia. And it goes on and on and on.”
Lori, who hasn’t worked full-time in six years so she can be by her mother’s side, knows her mother’s Holocaust story as if it were her own.
“Mom told Felice and me the story at bedtime, like some mothers read their children fairy tales,” Lori said. “It was important to her that we grasped the hardships she and her family faced. And it’s important to me, as a second-generation Holocaust survivor, to understand, because what has affected her impacts me. Suffice it to say, I grew up quickly in this house.”
But Regina also shared fond prewar memories, Lori said, such as when she and her brother and sister carried baskets and collected berries in the forest near their home in Poland.
She also loves the story of how Regina and Eric met on a blind date arranged by her mother’s only surviving relative, an aunt named Jenny Blum, who immigrated to Kansas City after the war. The Red Cross connected Regina and Jenny in the early 1950s, and Regina came to Missouri from Israel on a visitor’s visa in 1958.
“Believe me, we had lots of laughter growing up,” Lori said, pausing to look at Regina. “And more love, warmth and acceptance than you can imagine. Felice and I are strong, independent women, and we owe that and so much more to Mom.”
On a coffee table in the middle of the living room is a carefully arranged vignette of family pictures, candles and pins, bearing succinct messages, that Regina collected when attending Holocaust survivor remembrances: “Lest We Forget.” “Never Forget!” “Remember.”
Regina fell at home on Halloween 2013 and dislocated her shoulder. Following subsequent medical issues, hospitalizations and unsuccessful attempts to rehabilitate at several facilities, Lori decided to become her mother’s sole caregiver.
When Lori reached out in January to Jewish Family Services, Gilman was assigned to help the family.
“I wasn’t lost when I called, but I had no help, and I needed to make sure we could do whatever needed to be done to make Mama healthy,” Lori explained. “I am limited on time and what errands I can run, because I am an around-the-clock caregiver.
Gilman chimed in.
“I firmly believe Lori could singlehandedly start one of the most effective home care services in this city,” she said. “Caregiving at the level of skill Lori possesses is truly a calling. And Lori is relentless at seeking restitution for her mother.”
Lori shakes her head as if to say, “It’s nothing.”
“When Mama came home from the last rehab, she was beyond weak,” she said. “And now she’s thriving. I have my own system. I lift her by myself, she does exercises three times a day, and I have a beauty routine where I exfoliate and give her manicures and pedicures. And there are always three choices on the evening menu.”
Lori bent down in front of Regina, giving her a hug.
“No matter what, she will remain in this home where she and my dad raised their family,” said Lori. “Home is home.”
Since working with Dollman, Gilman has helped get VA benefits for Regina and work through some of the kinks in the Blue Card.
“We applied for a birthday stipend and holiday assistance, but that didn’t come through,” Gilman said. “However, we’re back on track.”
Lori moves Regina to a love seat near the sofa, primping her for a mother-daughter portrait.
“Mama, you look beautiful,” Lori said, adjusting Regina’s top.
The two snuggle, smiling for the camera, the Royals wrapping up their game on the television in the background — a surreal world away from Regina’s painful childhood.
Gitla Doppelt sits at a dining room table cluttered with pictures of her daughters Sarah, who lives in California; Cela, a physician in Boston; four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“God bless America for my home and the opportunity,” Doppelt said in a thick Polish accent, her voice quivering.
She clutches a frame with documents about her brother Israel, excitedly pointing at his picture and proclamation of his bravery as a Jewish resistance fighter during World War II.
“You can’t believe what it was like, living in the forest,” she said. “My father had to trade his boots for ammunition. We lived on potatoes. We were cold, frightened. It was so dangerous.”
After liberation, Doppelt lived in the Austrian camp sponsored by the United Nations and met and fell in love with Felix, who was born in Germany and escaped to Poland, where he survived a slave-labor concentration camp. The couple moved to Italy, where she worked as a seamstress and he made teeth for dentists.
“He was a sportsman, too, a championship volleyball player,” recalled Doppelt. “It was a beautiful life. We were young, reborn. We survived the war.”
With the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — which assisted Jews and other groups of people whose lives were considered vulnerable — the Doppelts relocated to the United States in 1950 with infant daughter Sarah, ending up in Kansas City, where they lived in an apartment building on the Paseo.
“It was very difficult at first. We didn’t know the language, didn’t even have a bed to sleep on,” Doppelt said. “In 1952 we had our second daughter, Cela.”
Eventually the Doppelts integrated into American society. Felix provided for the family and Gitla continued her profession as a seamstress. He died of cancer in 1991, and Gitla cared for her brother, now known as Israel Sloan, when he became ill in his later years.
Sloan’s character was featured in the 2008 movie, “Defiance” in which Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber played the freedom-fighting Bielski brothers.
“Israel was my hero and will forever be in my heart,” Doppelt said, her eyes tearing.
Gilman sits with Doppelt today, helping her complete documents for the Blue Card.
“Gitla, I know you never accepted anything like welfare or unemployment” benefits, she said.
“No, no, nothing,” Doppelt holds her arms across her chest. “Nothing. We survived. I am so lucky. We never wanted to take anything, Felix and I.”
“But you could use some help now, right?”
Doppelt nods and, tapping on the frame holding Israel’s precious mementos, sits up straight in the chair.
“God bless America.”
Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City is a volunteer relief agency that offers programs and services for the Jewish and whole community, regardless of religious affiliation. For more information about volunteer opportunities for every age, call 913-730-1410, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.jfskc.org.
Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, was a series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Germany and Austria on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, carried out by Nazi paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians. German authorities looked on without intervention. The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education has organized a community remembrance at 7 p.m. Sunday featuring Michael Alan Grodin, physician, professor, ethicist and author, who will address the topic “Jewish Law and Rabbinic Decisions in the Ghettos and Camps During the Holocaust.” The event is open to the public at no charge at Kehilath Israel Synagogue, 10501 Conser, Overland Park. For more information, visit www.mchekc.org.