Talking about the past is difficult for many Holocaust survivors, and so it was with Dr. Henry Fenichel, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Cincinnati, who did not speak openly about his experiences until the early 1990s. Since that time, he has shared his life story with hundreds of people – including many school children – and will be the featured speaker at the Jewish community’s Yom HaShoah commemoration on Monday, May 2, at 7 p.m. at Temple Shalom.
Dr. Fenichel provided some insights into his past during a recent telephone conversation.
“I don’t consider myself a hero for living through the Holocaust since I was just a child when it happened,” he said. “I felt I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time or in the right place at the wrong time, but either way, I became a respected professional and did not want others to consider me “a person with baggage.”
All that changed in 1993, however, when the Holocaust Memorial Museum was dedicated in Washington, DC and each community wanted a local angle. The Cincinnati Enquirer interviewed Fenichel as one of the Holocaust survivors invited to the opening. He later attended a reunion in Jerusalem of 222 primarily elderly Dutch Jews that were able to leave the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in 1944 through a prisoner exchange and live in British-mandated Palestine. At that point, he felt the need to speak out and will do so again for our local Yom HaShoah commemoration.
A fascinating sideline to Fenichel’s story came about when Rona Ramon, the widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon (who lost his life on the Columbia Space Shuttle tragedy in 2003), was part of a videoconference between Cincinnati and Israeli schoolchildren on Yom HaShoah 2006 in which Fenichel participated. During the program, he was holding a miniature Torah given to him by elderly relatives who escaped from Nazi Germany.
The Torah was identical to the one Ramon’s husband, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, took with him into space to tell the world about faith and hope even in the midst of human suffering during the Holocaust. Ramon had received the miniature Torah from Joachim Joseph, a Dutch Jew who studied for his bar mitzvah in Bergen-Belsen with Holland’s Chief Rabbi, Simon Dasberg. The rabbi gave the scroll to Joseph, who eventually became an astrophysicist and a mentor to Ramon.
Rona Ramon was moved by Fenichel’s story and later asked the professor if he would allow his Torah to be carried into space to complete her husband’s mission. Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean found the story remarkable and agreed to include the Torah among the items he requested to take with him on the Atlantis. Ceremonies were held in Cincinnati and in Israel to mark the Torah’s return.
In addition to Fenichel’s address, the commemoration will include time to remember the six million Jews and five million others lost in the Holocaust. Keneseth Israel Cantor Sharon Hordes, chair of the Yom HaShoah program, and Adath Jeshurun’s cantor, David Lipp, will sing.
Each year the names of Holocaust victims are recalled at the program. If you have loved ones you would be interested in adding to the list of those to be remembered that evening, please call JCL Community Relations Director Matt Goldberg at 618-5321 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This program is sponsored by the Jewish Community of Louisville.
[by Phyllis Shaikun]