Nearly 80 years ago, under the Nazi occupation of Poland, a young Israel Arbeiter and his parents and siblings were among the Jewish families who were rounded up during the October 1942 liquidation of the Starachowice ghetto, where they had been brought the year before from their home in Plock.
Arbeiter and two of his brothers who were deemed fit to work were sent to one group; his parents and 7-year-old brother to another. “It was the first time I was separated from my parents,” Arbeiter recalled.
He risked his life to race over to his parents. “Whatever happens to my parents, let it happen to me, too,” he thought at the time.
But his wise father told him and his two brothers, “‘Children, go back over there, and if you survive, remember to carry on with Jewish life and Jewish tradition.’”
It was the last time Arbeiter saw his parents and young brother, who were sent to the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp. He tears up as he retells the life-shattering experience.
For the next 2½ years, Arbeiter endured hunger, typhus, and miraculously escaped death in four other Nazi camps, including Auschwitz. He was among the concentration camp survivors being led by Nazi SS guards in a death march when he was liberated by Allied Forces in southern Germany on April 25, 1945, his 20th birthday. He and wife, Anna, also a Holocaust survivor, immigrated to Boston in 1949.
He’s become a prominent local, national, and global leader devoted to keeping the memory of the Holocaust and its victims alive. Arbeiter has been an inspiring presence at the annual Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance program presented by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.
This year’s virtual Yom HaShoah Holocaust commemoration will take place at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 11 and will feature the announcement of the winners of the 15th annual Israel Arbeiter essay contest.
Arbeiter’s father’s parting words have become Arbeiter’s lifelong guidepost. He and Anna raised their three children in their Newton home filled with Jewish knowledge and joyful traditions.
He testified in the Nuremberg trials; founded the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston; and was instrumental in creating the New England Holocaust Memorial.
Most significantly, he has been a constant presence at schools and colleges, locally and across Germany and Poland, sharing his story in ways that resonate with spellbound students.
Now, the lifetime contributions of the soon to be 96-year-old great-grandfather have been recognized by the government of his native Poland, which in December awarded Arbeiter the Order of the Merit medal, bestowed by Polish President Andrzej Duda.
The award came as a complete surprise, Arbeiter, known by many as Izzy, said.
Recipients of the various national medals are customarily invited to a ceremony at the consulate, according to Adrian Kubicki, Consul General of the Republic of Poland in New York. Because of the pandemic, Kubicki decided to make the trip from Manhattan to Newton to personally present Arbeiter with the prestigious award – in a socially distanced, low-key outdoor ceremony in Arbeiter’s yard.
“It’s a very high recognition, given by the president for his accomplishments for the remembrance of the Holocaust,” Kubicki said in a phone conversation. He admired Arbeiter for being outspoken to “preserve the truth about the Holocaust.”
The award is in good company along with other commendations Arbeiter has received, including the Order of Merit from Germany for fostering Jewish-German relations.
Arbeiter’s enduring impact is most evident among the young people who have heard him speak and students who have won the JCRC’s Arbeiter Essay Contest.
With hate crimes on the rise, the contest “continues to be a vital learning tool,” and a “transformative process for students to learn what it means to stand up for others in the face of injustice,” Emily Reichman, JCRC’s director of community engagement, said in an email.
Over the years, close to 10 of Sarah Callah’s middle school students at Methuen’s Tenney Grammar School have won the Arbeiter award. Arbeiter has spoken frequently at the school, Callah said.
He brings the history out of the textbook.
“The way he tells his story. He’s made it real,” she said.
Sherley Maximin, the 2018 contest winner, remembers hearing Arbeiter speak at Malden High School during her junior year.
“It was kind of a defining moment for me,” she said.
Maximin, now a junior at Wellesley College, said her high school history class had studied the Holocaust. But as an immigrant from Haiti, she had never met a Holocaust survivor.
When Arbeiter speaks with students, he emphasizes that the Holocaust unfolded “in the heart of Europe, [orchestrated] by educated people, doctors and lawyers,” he said.
“You will remember when you heard it from a former Holocaust survivor, never should you allow this to happen again.”