Keeping Memories Alive
The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors
Wilson (center) cherishes time with son Kirk (left), wife Andrea, and their daughters; and her daughter Jessica Curran (right), husband Philip (rear), and their twin sons.
Photo by Douglas Foulke
Judith Apfelbaum Wilson often thinks of her parents as Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches each spring. The 70-year-old longtime resident of Fairfield is the child of Holocaust survivors, Erno Apfelbaum and Edith Berner Apfelbaum, who lived by their wits—first separately and then together—throughout the interminable duration of World War II. Wilson, the eldest of the couple’s ten children, was born in a DP (displaced persons) camp, Bamberg, in Germany.
“I was born in 1946, the year after the war ended, and I spent the first five years of my life in Germany, in displaced persons camps, before we came to America in 1951,” she explains.
The internationally recognized date for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, corresponds with the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. The date this year is Monday, April 24.
Wilson believes her parents were teenagers when they met in a German concentration camp. Her father was a native of Hungary who spent most of his early years in Romania, and her mother began life in the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade.
“My mother was eleven and my father thirteen when the war broke out,” she says. The name of the concentration camp is lost in time, but Wilson was told “a German soldier felt sorry for my mother and was going to release her, but she wouldn’t leave unless my father could go, too. He let them both leave.”
The teens made their way to Italy, where “at one point an Italian family took them in and protected them.” They hid in the forests and scavenged for food. On one occasion young Edith was able to escape the Nazis by getting “under a freight train and holding on with her legs and arms.”
Wilson explains that both she and her parents began learning English in Foehrenwald, the second of the two DP camps in Germany where they lived in barracks-like conditions. The family considered immigrating to Chile, Israel, and the United States, before choosing the latter.
“They believed they would find opportunity, prosperity, security and, most of all, freedom to practice our religion without fear of persecution, “ Wilson says.
The Apfelbaums crossed the Atlantic aboard a former U.S. Navy transport ship, the General S.D. Sturgis, and arrived at Ellis Island in early January of 1951.
Her father, who Americanized his name to Ernest, lacked education, but found work as a baker, furniture refinisher, and as a laborer in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The family settled in Brooklyn, and as Wilson recalls, “there were twelve of us living in a four-bedroom apartment.”
Money was scarce, and Wilson began to supplement the family income at age 13 by working a part-time job. She graduated from Franklin K. Lane High School (alumni include dancer/choreographer Jose Greco, singer-songwriter Richie Havens, actress Anne Jackson, and NBA Hall of Fame coach William “Red” Holzman) and attended Brooklyn College for two years.
Did her parents share many of their stories from escaping the Holocaust? The answer, sadly, is no. “They were too traumatized by what they had gone through. They both lost many family members,” Wilson says. “They stopped speaking about it. Some of the trauma filtered down to some of the children.”
Wilson, who married twice, lives in close proximity to her two adult children, Jessica Curran of Fairfield and Kirk Mathew Wilson of Westport. She devotes some free time to babysitting for her grandchildren, Jessica and Philip’s twin sons, and Kirk and Andrea’s newborn and three-year-old daughters.
Last summer, four generations of Apfelbaums gathered for a family reunion at a restaurant in New York City. Several of the 60 attendees came from far-away places—Romania, Israel, California, and Canada.
“Agnes, a first-cousin twice removed who lives in Toronto, was the organizer. She wanted to reach out to see if any other family members had survived the Holocaust,” Wilson says. The answer, happily, was a resounding “Yes.”
SNAPSHOT IN TIME
Judith only has a handful of photos of herself with her parents. These, with Edith and Erno, were taken in Germany, circa 1947. As a young woman, Judith was devoted to helping elevate her family in their new country, and she worked in brokerage houses on Wall Street before marrying for the first time at age 22.