Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Loving Husband, Father and Papa -- and Holocaust Survivor

I always enjoy my visits to Charleston, South Carolina.  Great weather, a beautiful town and a lot of wonderful memories.  My wife, the former Susan Blas, was raised in Charleston.  We were married at the Mills House, the oldest hotel in Charleston.  It is also where my mother-in-law, Erika Blas, has a rental property at 286-288 King Street, in the heart of downtown. The three story building was old apothecary built in 1836, and it bears the emblem of a registered historic landmark in the city of Charleston.  My wife and I manage the building for Erika and so this past week I had to meet with a local contractor to go over some repairs that needed to be done.
286-288 King Street, Charleston, South Carolina

My father-in-law, Harry Blas, had a delicatessen in the same building under the name of Patrick's Deli.  He had a thriving business and did pretty well.  In April 1991, Harry and Erika, decided to retire, sell the restaurant business and lease the building to another restaurant owner.  The current occupant is Nick's Barbecue.

In this beautiful three story historic building Harry was asked by U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond for his vote.  In turn, Harry asked Strom to help his daughter, Susan, find work after college.  The next year, Susan would move to Washington, D.C., to intern for Senator Thurmond.   Fast forward to 1990 and the 1st floor of the restaurant went Hollywood with the filming of a lunch scene in the movie Separate But Equal, starring Burt Lancaster and Sydney Poitier.

When Harry died in 2003, Erika left Charleston to move to Atlanta to be closer to her only child, Susan, and her two grandchildren Gabby and Jack.  Erika would make annual sojourns to visit Harry's grave, but because of lingering health concerns, she had not made the trip in the last three years.   I had visited Erika in the hospital earlier in the week while she was recuperating from a severe illness. Since I was going to be in Charleston, I thought I would pay my respects to Harry and snap a few photos of his grave site to show Erika when she finally returned home from the hospital.

I arrived in downtown Charleston an hour before my meeting with the contractor.  I headed over to the Charleston Holocaust Memorial in Marion Square to snap a few photos of a Memorial built to honor the Holocaust survivors who had come to Charleston after World War II to rebuild their lives.  My father-in-law Harry was a 15-year old Jewish boy living in Lodz, Poland with his family, when Hitler's Army invaded in 1939.  In 1944, Harry's world fell apart as he and his family were shipped off to Auschwitz to face Hitler's 'Final Solution.'  Most of Harry's family would die in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  Harry and his brother Baruch were spared the gas chambers only to be put to work at a munitions factory in Austria -- and thankfully, both would survive the war.  Harry and Erika arrived in Charleston in 1966.

The Memorial is a poignant place of remembrance and it was an appropriate place for me to remember Susan's grandparents, aunts and uncles and all those she never had the opportunity to meet.

Behind the memorial is a wall with a bronze plaque with the following inscription:
 ... What began as racial laws to strip Jews of their livelihood, their property and their civil rights accelerated into a campaign to systematically slaughter millions of men, women and children. By 1942, the machinery of mass murder was in full operation. Jews and other victims from all over Europe were sent to some 9000 concentration and labor camps throughout Europe, and to the killing centers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka, Belzec and Chelmno located in Poland.
As survivors of the tragic events in Europe from 1933 to 1945, the following residents of South Carolina have been living testimonies in our midst.  
Hershel Blass, Lodz, Poland (9 Lines Down)
A few of the survivors and their families pose for a picture at the Charleston Holocaust Memorial (1999).
Click here to learn more about this beautiful monument:  Charleston Holocaust Memorial

Harry died in 2003.  This is the obituary I wrote and read at Harry's funeral.  May he rest in peace.
Herschel Blas was born in Lodz, Poland, on June 5, 1924.  He was the fifth of six children born to Sarah and Peretz Blas.  
As a result of the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939, Harry was robbed of his home, his family and the most promising years of his life. Harry arrived in Auschwitz at 20 and was victim and witness to the worst of man’s inhumanity.  He was later transferred to a German munitions camp in Austria.  After liberation by the United States Army in 1945, Harry found himself in the camp’s hospital unable to walk and suffering from the effects of forced servitude and deprivation.  One day he heard his name:  “Herschel, Herschel” being called out.   To Harry’s utter amazement, his brother, Baruch, separated from him at Auschwitz -- and unknown to either of them, had been working in the same munitions camp.

This brotherly reunion began the long road to recuperation and eventually, an extended search for other family members that may have survived the Holocaust.  In many respects this is Harry’s eulogy and that of his family’s as well, as only his brother and he were to survive this terrible tragedy.

While recuperating in an East German Hospital, Harry was befriended by a 17-year old girl of Jewish ancestry by the name of Erika, who had lost both her parents during the war.  While visiting an infirmed schoolmate, Erika learned that Harry was a Holocaust survivor and had no family to care for him.  Erika decided that she would bring flowers to Harry to cheer him up.  This simple act of kindness blossomed into friendship and then into love.  Fifty-two years later this love remains strong as evidenced by Erika’s devoted and impassioned care for a man incapable of caring for himself.
Indeed, Harry proved above all else that he was a survivor.  But to say that he was only a survivor fails to reveal the essence of Harry Blas.  Behind his diminutive stature was a man of tremendous courage and perseverance.  Harry was a fighter.  It was the fight in Harry that made him triumph against tyranny, inhumanity and indignity and every other obstacle that could be placed in Harry’s way.

Whether surviving the Holocaust; running to freedom through the minefields of Communist East Germany with his bride-to-be; to taking a chance on America, New York and ultimately Charleston, Harry exemplified the courage, tenacity and perseverance of his ancestral Jews, led by Moses, who escaped the bonds of enslavement at the hands of Pharaoh.  How appropriate and fitting that God would call Harry home on the last day of Passover.

For these reasons and many others, Pop was an inspiration to me.  I admired the fact that he was a simple man, but in his own extraordinary way.  Pop was a self-made man.  His skills as a kosher meat processor and as a savvy businessman, left a legacy of financial accomplishment that even the most educated and professional man would admire.

To say that my father-in-law had a rough exterior would be an understatement.  As many of you know, he was a man of great stubbornness compounded by a lack of patience.  But when you consider the totality of his life, one can understand his outward nature.  This is not the Harry that I want you to remember.  What many of you may not have seen or witnessed firsthand, was that Harry’s rough exterior hid a tender heart and man of great kindness.  I have been the beneficiary of his deep generosity.  I have witnessed his other sides:  his laughter ~ and also his tears ~ for a young man lost in the horrible memories of a past life he cannot forget.

Pop was a man who loved music and especially the three tenors ~ Pavarotti, Domingo & Carreras and more so if Itzhak Pearlman was accompanying them on the violin.  He liked to say neither of the tenors could hold a candle to Caruso or Mario Lanza.

He loved to spend time with my nemesis, the incomparable Bichon, Augie Doggie.  This dog and old man ~ were two pals inextricably linked by stubbornness so profound, that you would think that they had professional training from a mule in obstinacy.  Inseparable -- and some would say -- insufferable pals, each was the ardent defender of the other.  No one came between the two of them and no one in this family cried harder or longer than Harry when Augie passed last year.

Harry loved his daughter Susan, and the grandchildren she bore were the crown jewels of his life.  He spoiled them with his love and gave them all the joys of youth that one can experience and that he never did.  I am thankful to God that Harry lived long enough to get to know them both.

Pop as you move to your final resting place, know that we your family, were proud to call you husband, father, grandfather ~ pop-pop.  The sea that lies between heaven and earth has parted for you ~ your long journey is over, you are home and at peace.  Rest o’ weary one, rest in the loving arms of your family taken long ago.  
Pictured, is the head stone of Herszl Blass at Emanu-El Cemetery:

To learn more about Harry and Erika Blas visit the College of Charleston's Addlestone  Library Jewish Studies Program Holocaust Quilt:  Commemorating Charleston Survivors.

You are not forgotten Harry!

Harry Blass, 1924-2003