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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 30, 2004

8 to get honor that's 'long overdue'

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

Tana Basa, one of the youngest known Holocaust survivors living in Hawai'i, checks on some flowers at her Hilo home.

Tim Wright • The Honolulu Advertiser

Basa was the youngest in this portrait of the Hecht sisters, from left to right, Eva, Tana, Erika and Ruth.

Photo courtesy Tana Basa

As a child, Stan Rubens and his family lived in a third-floor apartment in Amsterdam's west end, much like Anne Frank's family. Today, Rubens lives in Manoa and composes music.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Risa Whiting lives on Maui with her husband, Bob. Whiting has learned that she owes her survival to orphans who hid her and five other babies instead of letting them to be sent to Auschwitz.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

Sunday lunch honors survivors

Holocaust survivors will be honored Sunday at the annual installation for the B'nai B'rith Honolulu chapter and Hillel at a private luncheon at the Hale Koa Hotel. Keynote speaker is University of Hawai'i political science professor Neal Milner. Survivors living on Neighbor Islands have traveled to O'ahu compliments of Hawaiian Airlines.

The Holocaust

What: The systematic extermination of 5.8 million to 6 million Jews during World War II at Nazi hands. Several million died in the approximately 1,600-2,000 death camps.

Who: While the word is associated primarily with the murder of those of Jewish ancestry, the Nazis also killed millions of other Eastern Europeans, including Russians, Ukrainians, gypsies, Poles and many others. The first concentration camps were built for German political prisoners and the first people who were gassed were German patients from mental institutions and the hopelessly crippled. But the Jews were the only people whom Hitler intended to wipe out completely.

Quote: "This is not simply a Jewish issue," said Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "These were crimes against humanity."

Risa Whiting has imagined herself as a child of 2, with a shock of brown curls, sitting in a crib with five other toddlers in a room at a Belgian train station.

Instead of being sent to Auschwitz on that October day in 1942, those babies, now called "The Miracle Six," vanished — and survived.

Yet Whiting has no memory of that, or of her parents, who disappeared with millions of other Jews into Nazi death camps in World War II.

Whether the families somehow arranged their children's separation and rescue as a last act of heroism, she will never know.

"I have no idea whether my family knew what happened to me," said Whiting, who was hidden for a few years afterward by a Christian family working with the Belgian underground before being adopted at 7 by American Yiddish actor Maurice Schwartz and his wife, Anna.

"I've never been able to trace anyone except one blood relative, my brother, who came to America with me. The cattle cars were rolling and my parents were some of the first to go."

On Sunday, Whiting, now 64, will meet seven other survivors of the Holocaust — all Hawai'i residents — being honored as part of the annual commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Week by the Honolulu chapter of B'nai B'rith and the University of Hawai'i-Manoa's Hillel Jewish organization.

The eight have never met, but are being brought together to honor "the spirit of survival and defiance of the survivors," said B'nai B'rith board member Johanna Afshani. They are the only survivors the two organizations have been able to locate in Hawai'i.

"This honor is long overdue," Afshani said. "These individuals rose from the ashes of the Holocaust and went on to lead lives of distinguished service in their adopted communities."

Between 85,000 and 100,000 survivors are still alive in the world, said senior researcher Aaron Breitbart of Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization. But many of the approximately 300,000 people released from concentration camps at the end of the war have died, he said.

For many survivors, the past has been shuttered to avoid the pain. And five of those being honored Sunday have asked that their names not be revealed.

The other three retell with hesitation the horror of that time and find that in survival they faced a new world of emotional scars. One bought a boat years later "to escape" if he ever had to. Another is fearful there won't be food to eat. A third was so overcome with unnamed terror in her 30s that she couldn't get out of bed in the morning.

Each has purged the past in a personal way, one by plunging into music, another by years of psychoanalysis, a third by placing the highest priority on family. And they all talk of how luck played a big part in their survival.

A letter from Adolf Hitler to Tana Basa's father, a World War I hero who lost a leg while serving his German homeland, gave them the "pull" to stay out of an extermination camp and be incarcerated instead in a camp for political prisoners. Later, because her father knew the prison doctor, the physician was willing to keep the youngster hidden in the infirmary when the guards wanted to send her away.

Meanwhile, Stan Rubens' father's blue eyes and excellent German paved the way for one of the family's escapes.

It is Rubens who lived with the recurring nightmare of being chased until he finally discovered its source during self-analysis — his capture by a Nazi soldier during a harrowing five years living underground in occupied Holland.

Holed up in a third-floor apartment in Amsterdam's west end, much like Anne Frank's family, nine family members were crowded into a few small rooms, staying away from the windows to avoid detection. Only Rubens and his father went out, and then only once a week and under cover of darkness.

"The people my father was renting from finally got fed up carting in groceries for us and gave us up to the Nazis," said Rubens, who lives on O'ahu. "The Nazis would give 500 guilders — about $250," he said, estimating the amount — "for every Jew they could get."

Detained after their discovery in a Jewish theater that had become a holding area, the 9-year-old Rubens managed to escape, as did his sister and parents because of their father's language ability and blond Germanic looks. For four more years they survived by their wits, living in hidden rooms, traveling mostly by night, and trusting friends.

They eventually split up, with his parents finding spots for the two children through the underground. Even then there were Nazi raids, and Rubens remembers hiding for days under hay in a shed on a farm where he spent the last months of the war. He was barely 13.

Now a musician with four CDs of love songs to his credit, Rubens, who teaches song-writing part time at McKinley Community School for Adults, has tried to wall off those memories. The day he sold his boat in 1987 may have been the moment when "the demons" finally left.

"We heard about a fellow who had a little boat in Rotterdam and how he got away on his little boat to England," Rubens said. "After the war was over, I learned to sail and I felt secure having a sailboat, thinking that I could escape if something happened."

That's also how Hilo's Basa handles the memories now. The retired nurse, 64, lived for three years as a child with her family in Terezin, a Czechoslovakian camp for political prisoners during the war and watched her mother die and one of her three sisters disappear. Of 15,000 children who passed through the camp, only about 100 survived.

"I don't think we should have to relive it all the time. It's not good. Not healthy," she said.

"I don't need to be reminded of it. It's very painful, and my family thinks it's unnecessary torment. I have 'Schindler's List,' but I never saw it. I bought it, but I think it's wrapped in the cellophane still. I don't need to watch movies. I know what went on."

Basa, who came with her husband to Hawai'i in 1970, is curious about the other survivors but uncertain how it will feel to meet them. "We'll have to see," she said.

Because both Basa and Whiting were children during the Holocaust, gaps exist in their memories. Basa's older sisters, ages 10, 18 and 20, were separated from the family as soon as they entered Terezin, and the 18-year-old disappeared.

After Basa appealed to the Red Cross years later, the international agency discovered that her sister had been taken to Auschwitz, but had survived the death camp only to die of illnesses soon after her release at war's end. The Red Cross eventually sent medical records from the Stockholm hospital where she died and a photo of her grave in the city's Jewish cemetery. This summer, Basa and her husband will visit her grave for the first time.

"We had no clue whatsoever happened to her," Basa said. "The camp was a holding area and (there were) trainloads and trainloads of people they would take away every day. Because they were different ages, they all went different times. My oldest and third-oldest sister got called together for Auschwitz, but it was only three months and they survived."

Whiting, too, lives with fragments of unresolved memory. It's only in the past few weeks that she has learned she was one of those six miracle children scooped up at the train station by older orphans who had been scheduled to board cattle cars to Auschwitz. A last-minute reprieve came when Belgium's royal family intervened, and the older children were sent back to the orphanage, bringing with them the six babies they had taken and hidden.

"All I know is we were all children that were separated from our parents and placed in a room in cribs," said Whiting, a Maui resident. "These people (the older orphans) noticed there were no guards and said 'Let's grab these kids and take them with us.' "

There are no pictures that can show Whiting what her birth father, a diamond-cutter, looked like. Or whether she bore a resemblance to her mother. When Whiting was in her 20s, their death certificates arrived in her mail. Then, a few years later, she was able to find the Christian family that had taken her in as a toddler.

"Twenty-five years later I went back to see them," she said. "When I heard they didn't want to give me up and they loved me very much, it was one of the most important things I learned."

They had to give her up in 1947 when the actor Schwartz wanted to adopt her brother, who was in the orphanage, and the institution's administrator insisted that the siblings be adopted together.

While Whiting often dealt with those painful years through her work in theater, she hasn't liked to dwell on the past. It wasn't until her 30s that recurring depressions became so debilitating that she would be unable to get out of bed. Only years of psychotherapy saved her from an institution for the mentally ill, she believes.

"I once did a series of sketches imagining how my parents let go of me," she says. "Imagining that maybe I had to walk away without acknowledging them. Part of my therapy was writing reams and reams of diaries to myself that I burned years later. The idea is if I could observe my feelings I wouldn't be as trapped by them.

"But I think I mostly wrote about the issues of dealing with my second family because it was easier than dealing with my first. The ones I didn't remember I found much harder to deal with, so I made up stories. I rewrote my birth story the way I wanted it to be. That I was born in a wonderful, hugging, loving family that stayed with me through my growing years. And they told me how wonderful I was and how much they cared about me."

With her husband, Bob, Whiting created that kind of family for her children. Their daughter is an editor on the East Coast, but their son died at 16 in a bicycling accident.

"It's very easy for me to feel fearful," said Whiting. "After our son died, I developed irrational fears not based on any fact, like going in an elevator I feel like it's a living coffin. For a while I had difficulty driving on bridges. After he died I was driving on a bridge and felt all of a sudden like I was driving in the sky and was going to drive off the edge.

"Some part of me expected doom because I was programmed that way and I had to unlearn that."

Basa's life has held less unexplained terror. While there are still some things she can't speak about, including her mother's death, she has also found a new strength.

"I think one of the things I did bring back from it is the love of family. My family always comes first, even though I worked. My husband, my children, they are No. 1."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.

Correction: Holocaust survivor Stan Rubens is a musician who teaches songwriting. A photo caption incorrectly said he was retired.