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‘The Holocaust and Genocide Don’t Start With Bombs, They Start With Words’

A roundtable discussion with Holocaust survivors about the rise of antisemitism in America, the importance of education, and who will pass on the lessons of the Shoah when the last survivors are gone

Abigail Pogrebin
January 26, 2023
The Minyan
Roundtables on the state of the American Jewish community, bringing together people from a shared demographic or background—everyday people with personal opinions, not experts who earn their salaries discussing these issues.
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This article is part of In the Shadow of the Shoah.
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As of January 2023, only 23 states in the U.S. require Holocaust education. Two-thirds of Americans surveyed could not say how many Jews died in the Holocaust. A survey of Americans ages 18-40 found that 48% could not name one concentration camp or ghetto. Meanwhile, hate crimes are at their highest since the Anti-Defamation League started reporting in 1979 and attacks against Jews exceed any other group in America, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

We thought this was an important moment to gather representatives from a group that is, sadly, fast disappearing: survivors of the Shoah.

The stories of what they endured as children during the Holocaust are harrowing: Ben survived two ghettos, nine concentration camps, and two death marches. All the members of Sam’s family, except for two sisters, were deported to Treblinka and murdered. Judith saw her parents loaded onto a cattle car bound for the death camps when she was just 5 years old; she never saw them again. Ruth was hidden by a neighbor, but only after enduring two years in the Vilna ghetto, and seeing her father deported to Dachau; even in hiding the horrors loomed large: “Any knock at the door produced terror,” Ruth recalled. “There were almost daily events that reminded us that any Aryan could kill us, with impunity, at any time.”

All of these survivors eventually came to the U.S. Thanks to age and infirmity, we are losing these eyewitnesses and storytellers by the day—it is estimated that the national population of Holocaust survivors will be at 36,800 in 2025—and many worry that their searing accounts will perish with them. What do they want to tell us while they can?


Where and when they were born, when they came to the U.S., and where they live now

Ben: Born in Warsaw in 1921, came to the U.S. in 1946, currently living in Berkeley, California

Lilly: Born in a small town on the Polish-Russian border (now Ukraine) in 1929, came to the U.S. in 1949, currently living in Forest Hills, New York

Mark: Born in Poland in 1933, came to the U.S. in 1961, currently living in Livingston, New Jersey

David: Born in Slovakia in 1929, came to the U.S. in 1950, currently living in Coral Gables, Florida

Sam: Born in Demblin, Poland, in 1935, came to the U.S. in 1947, currently living in Kildeer, Illinois

Fran: Born in Sokol, Poland, in 1938, came to the U.S. in 1949, currently living in West Orange, New Jersey

Ruth: Born in Vienna in 1933, came to the U.S. in 1940, currently living in Seaside, Oregon, and Palm Springs, California

Kati: Born in Transylvania in 1939, came to the U.S. in 1983 (“I lived all over the place, in different countries, before coming to America”), currently living “on a farm in New Hampshire”

Sigmund: Born in Berlin in 1932, came to the U.S. in 1948, currently living in Sarasota, Florida

Rosalyn: Born in Lodz, Poland, in April 1945, came to the U.S. in 1947, currently living outside Portland, Oregon

Judith: Born in Pieštany, Czechoslovakia, in 1936, came to the U.S. in 1956 (after first immigrating to Israel in 1951), currently living in Greenwich, Connecticut

Erika: Born in the Nyíregyháza ghetto in Hungary in 1944, came to the U.S. in 1948, currently living in Springfield, Missouri

All of you are survivors. Where were you during the war?

Ben: In 1942, I was taken to Majdenek. In ’43, I was taken to Auschwitz, then to Buna-Monavice, Jawischowitz, Buchenwald, Ohrdruf, Grafinkl, Celten Lager, and Liebenau. These were all camps I visited. I paid my dues. At the end, I was at the displaced persons (DP) camp Zeilsheim near Frankfurt. We obviously wanted to go to Palestine. I married a girl after the liberation and we intended to go to Palestine. The Kibbutz Authority said Israel did not want young married couples.

Lilly: I survived the war together with my parents. I was very lucky. We were hidden by a Polish gentile—in a bunker for two-and-a-half years.

Mark: During the war, I was hiding in the forests and farms [of righteous gentiles].

David: I was in Auschwitz-Birkenau since January 1941. Then in November of 1944, we were transported to Buchenwald. I was found by the Czech underground, and then I was taken to a field hospital. Six weeks later, Patton liberated Prague and Brno, Czechoslovakia, and I was taken to an orphanage in Prague. I stayed at that orphanage for five years. And I was asked to take an aptitude test, which I was kind of resenting, but finally I was talked into it, and I’ve never regretted it because almost nine months later, I was advised that I was accepted as an international exchange student to the United States.

Sam: I was first in a ghetto. And then the Germans put us in the Deblin concentration camp. From there, we went by cattle car to Czestochowa concentration camp. And then I was liberated by the Russians in January of ’45.

Fran: I was 2 years old when the Germans came into our town. My father was murdered along with 400 other Jewish men at that time. They said they were taking them to work. We spent 22 months being hidden [in a pigsty] by a Polish Catholic woman and her daughter. In our town, there were 6,000 Jews before the war. After the war, 30 survived—and this Catholic woman saved 15.

Ruth: We escaped by the skin of our teeth.

Kati: I was persecuted under the Hungarians. I come from a mixed family: My mother was Catholic. My father was Jewish. There were 38 members of my father’s family. I’m the only survivor. He, too, had nine brothers and sisters. Everybody was deported. I was saved by a Hungarian peasant girl who hid me on her farm in the attic where I was totally alone for three months. And they came looking for me and tried to poke a bayonet in my head, but they didn’t get me.

Sigmund: After my father was imprisoned in Dachau in 1938, we fled to Shanghai. We spent the war years in Shanghai.

Rosalyn: I spent a month during the war in occupied Poland, essentially in hiding because my parents were still nervous about coming out of hiding after I was born [in April 1945]. The first ship we started out on was damaged in the ocean as we were coming out of Germany. (We lived in Germany the first two years of my life after I was born.) And so then we had to come back to Bremerhaven and board another ship and finally arrived in Boston harbor in 1947. Exactly on my birthday. There is an article in The New York Times about the ship and all these refugees that were on it. There were 33 orphans. So it was considered a big deal.

Judith: We escaped to another town in Czechoslovakia, and we lived as non-Jews—my family, my parents, my six siblings. Then the Gestapo found out that we are Jews, so they came and they got us. They took my parents. Four of us survived. I was taken by peasants over to Hungary, to Budapest. And in Budapest I was hiding under The Glass House [a building used by a Swiss diplomat who saved many Jews] in 1944. Then I went back to Czechoslovakia—to school in a convent, then I was in an orphanage. I went from there on the last Kindertransport to London, which was in 1948.

In our town, there were 6,000 Jews before the war. After the war, 30 survived—and this Catholic woman saved 15.

Erika: My father, who was in a forced labor camp, somehow managed to escape the camp briefly, get my mother and me out of the Nyíregyháza ghetto just two weeks before all the transports to Auschwitz began. He got us to Budapest, where my mother went into hiding with me. We were the only survivors in our family. I never knew my father or any family members.

I know this is a bit of a complicated, painful question, but if you could let me know how many in your family you lost.

Kati: Twenty-eight close members of the family. I’m the only survivor.

Mark: It would be easier for me to say how many from my family survived. Because I lost the whole family. With the exception of my mother and my sister—we were hiding. There was some family that escaped before the war, but very few. How many in my family were killed? Probably a hundred.

Ben: Hundreds.

Sam: We had a big family and I would say between 30 and 40 were killed.

Sigmund: All my family in Poland—in the Belzec concentration camp.

Fran: My father lost his parents, three brothers, and two sisters. My father was also murdered in Belzec. We were an hour away from that camp.

David: Our Etz Hayim [Tree of Life] had 105 branches. Each branch represented a neshama [soul] of our family. I am the only one that survived.

Rosalyn: In my mother’s family, only she and her sisters survived out of hundreds and hundreds of family members. In my father’s family, he was one of eight brothers and sisters and only a half-sister in Russia and a half-sister (who eventually moved to Israel) survived—out of hundreds of extended family.

Lilly: I’m the only one, with my parents, as far as my closest family. But on my mother’s side, there were over 300 people who perished.

Erika: My mother lost her entire family, all of her siblings, their spouses, their children, her parents, her grandparents.

It would be easier for me to say how many from my family survived. Because I lost the whole family.

Ruth: We lost all our close family—aunts and uncles, cousins. Probably about 30 or 40 people. Most of them were sent to Auschwitz and died or were murdered there.

Judith: I would say countless.

I spoke to all of you in our pre-interviews about the current rising tide of antisemitism and antisemitic attacks, particularly in the United States. What is your reaction when you hear some people say that the alarm some Jews feel is overblown or over-exaggerated?

David: It pains me. It hurts me beyond words to know that there’s such a big element of our own people who are oblivious to what is happening in this blessed country of ours, in the universities, schools, everywhere. And nothing is being done, nothing is being said. I am so pained to hear some of the excuses. “Zorg nisht!” [“Don’t worry!”] I have been zorging all my goddamn life! And I submit to all of you that you need to wake up and you need to know that antisemitism is blatant!

Ruth: There is an echo: What is happening here in 2023 is very reminiscent of what was happening in Germany in 1933. It’s the same. But the only people who can really counteract it are the gentiles. The Jewish people can try, they can argue, they can be aware, they can pack their mental suitcases. But there is no way to stop this unless the gentiles stop it. The tide is coming in. And we need to be aware. And those Jewish people in America who are so naive to think that it’s nothing to worry about, all I can say is I feel sorry for them. “Don’t worry” is a ridiculous statement, because if we don’t worry, nobody else is going to worry.

Sigmund: I think for those of us who are fortunate enough to have survived, it is our duty to speak up. And the main reason for that is that if we don’t speak up, we increase the probability of a horror like that occurring again. On the other hand, we can’t always scream about it. It’s important to speak when it is appropriate to tell our story in a straightforward way so that people know about it. I accept every invitation to speak, whether it is from an elementary school, junior high school, or any other. It doesn’t matter whether there’s an honorarium or not, because I think it is my duty to tell this story. I think it is all of our duty to tell this story so that a horror like that will not be repeated.

You said we shouldn’t always scream about it. What do you mean by that?

Sigmund: I think when you scream about it all the time, people get tired. It’s important that this is perhaps the greatest catastrophe in the history of humanity: the murder of 6 million Jews. This is something which should not be forgotten. It should always be recalled. And it is our duty, as I said, to speak about it. Period.

The Jewish people can try, they can argue, they can be aware, they can pack their mental suitcases. But there is no way to stop this unless the gentiles stop it. The tide is coming in. And we need to be aware.

Fran: For 70 years I didn’t speak about any of this. In 2017, we went back to our town where I was born, Sokol, and we made a film of our experiences. There are three of us children who were left. I had never cried for my father, I had never mourned for him. But we went back to the old brick factory where he was killed along with 400 men and it’s the first time I cried for him. His brothers and sisters—they were all in their 20s and 30s when they were murdered. It had a tremendous impact on me.

Rosalyn: I grew up in a Jewish suburb [in America]. And the first time I experienced antisemitism was when I took a trip to Poland to see my birthplace. People didn’t know I was Jewish, so they were open about speaking about their hatred and antisemitism. I had never seen it before. But it really made me aware that the only thing that we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. And we are right now in a state of what I call unconscious denial about what is happening. It’s easier to go through denial than to really face up to what could happen because the outcome is too horrific to even imagine. People don’t understand that. The Holocaust and genocide don’t start with bombs, they start with words, they start with the hatred and bigotry. That’s what I speak out about to anyone who will listen, any group who will listen: It starts with words.

Kati: I managed to pass a law in New Hampshire: They have to teach Holocaust studies in every single school. It’s been signed into law by the governor. It’s now being taught in every school. And I go to many schools to speak about the Holocaust. And I warn them against antisemitism. And no one has come to tell me that the Holocaust didn’t happen, because I think I’d kill them.

I am so pained to hear some of the excuses. ‘Zorg nisht!’ [‘Don’t worry!’] I have been ‘zorging’ all my goddamn life!

Several of you know professor Michael Berenbaum, an expert in Holocaust studies. He talked to me about what he views as the recent “trivialization and vulgarization” of the Holocaust. He pointed to one example: the yellow stars worn by people protesting COVID restrictions during the pandemic.

Erika: Obviously it’s awful when people talk about the Holocaust itself in ways that are untrue. But what has driven me nuts over the last several years is how easily things are compared to the Holocaust or to Hitler. You know, Trump was called Hitler. People who are trying to cross our southern border simply for a better way of life are being compared to the Jews who were trying to get out of Nazi Germany. I find that actually even more frightening because that’s in mainstream media, it’s opinion that’s on the front page that is tremendously trivializing of the Holocaust.

Sam: Yes. People make comments about the Holocaust when they don’t understand what it really was. Winston Churchill said the Holocaust is the worst thing that ever happened in the history of mankind. And it is. There’s nothing like it. We are the yellow bird in the coal mine. You know, first they attacked us. The non-Jews have to know this. Like [German Lutheran Pastor] Martin Niemöller said: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist …” They didn’t speak up and so on and so on. Then they came for the Jews. Nobody was left. If we make hatred a human problem, not just a Jewish problem (although they tried to eradicate us) but a human problem, that’s what it is. If the most civilized country like Germany—with luminaries like Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, Einstein—can come up with the ovens and kill our families, why can’t it happen here? And here in America we already have antisemitism. The yellow bird in the mines—the Jews—and the gentiles have to be the Niemöllers of the world and say, “Stop.” And speak up when they see something that the people don’t understand. Education is the only thing. I am so happy that everybody here is involved in working with education. And by the way, in Illinois, we are the first state that required schoolchildren to study the Holocaust. I think there are now 20, 30 states. We started it in Illinois.

Since we are facing the increasing reality of losing survivors to old age, when you look at the landscape of who the storytellers are going to be, can a few of you address the loss of eyewitnesses and what that might mean?

If we don’t speak up, we increase the probability of a horror like that occurring again. On the other hand, we can’t always scream about it.

Ruth: I’m not sure how much of an influence we have had that will be long term. I’ve talked to thousands of children. I’ve caught the eye of a few dozen here and there who really understood what I was trying to tell them. I’m not sure that I would say that we’ve had that big an influence. I know that sounds very disturbing because we felt that we needed to tell our story and it would make a difference. But considering the situation at the given time right now, I don’t know if we really did. We’re going to find out when we are all gone. And by the way, congratulations to Ben—we should all live that long. I’m going to be very brief here, but I do need to say this: The first campaign speech that I heard by Donald Trump reminded me of the speeches I heard Hitler give when I was just a little girl. So there is a comparison. No, he’s not that evil, maybe. But you don’t know what the people around him who are evil will do. So we have not had that big an influence. And I’m so sorry that this is the case, but I see what’s happening.

Ben, I wanted to go to you on the question of losing survivors and who will keep telling the story.

Ben: Unfortunately, not many. Not many know the details of the Holocaust. They’ll have to stand up for their own Jewish rights. There won’t be too many who do. It’s very unfortunate, but I don’t see it. In our generation, we had to speak up, and we spoke up, and it worked. But when we are gone, not too many Jewish speakers will get up and give our defense. I don’t see it.

Mark: I feel very strongly that yes, we should all talk, we should all present our history of how we survived, what we went through. And I do it a lot. I speak to a lot of kids, grown-ups, and organizations. But there is one thing that we cannot do: We don’t have any power to create or influence the education system here, to do anything about it. So say anything you want, we can talk as survivors till doomsday. But we’re not going to accomplish anything; we’re going to change the mind of one kid here, one kid there, and then what? We are not gaining anything. So what do we have to do? We have to talk to people who have control over this education. Of course, if I go to the Board of Education, they will kick me out; they’re not going to talk to me. So who is the one? The reporters. The newspapers. They have to start opening their mouth. And when we have somebody running for the office, we should make sure that we go and influence people who are doing something to get the education system. Teach the kids from the kindergarten. You have some countries in the world that teach their kids from the beginning to hate the Jews. And later they even give their lives for the cause to kill the Jews. So education is the most important thing to do.

Sigmund: We human beings are the descendants of animals, and there is a bit of the beast in all of us. And I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that and be on guard against it. It’s important to speak out against genocide wherever it occurs. Of course, we speak out against the Holocaust, but I think we also should speak out, for example, about the genocide in Rwanda and other places. Wherever genocide occurs, it is a stain on the history of humanity, and we should do what we can to reduce its occurrence.

The Holocaust and genocide don’t start with bombs, they start with words, they start with the hatred and bigotry.

Kati: I absolutely agree with you that we have to include other genocides. The Holocaust is not just a Jewish tragedy. It is a human tragedy. I’m speaking to kids and I get tremendous response from them because I don’t speak to them as a Jew. I speak to them as a survivor of a genocide. I make it somehow a little bit more inclusive.

I want to talk about museums because so many of you are involved in them. Why are they so crucial in terms of the future when it comes to Holocaust history and memory?

Sam: I was involved and volunteered to build the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. What makes me most proud is seeing 12 yellow buses pulling up every day. We passed a law in Illinois that all the public school kids have to study the Holocaust. And kids come not only from Illinois, but other states. For those who cannot get to the museum, we have created boxes with the information, free for any school anywhere. It’s a great program. Education is the key. And we cannot conquer this alone. We have tried it for 2,000 years. We have to bring everybody else in to work as a team to eradicate antisemitism.

Rosalyn: You asked who will speak for us. The museums will speak for us. That’s who is going to outlive us. So we have to support those museums and those programs.

When we are gone, not too many Jewish speakers will get up and give our defense. I don’t see it.

I want to turn to a very hard question: For those out there who can’t conceive of the number 6 million, who can’t personalize the horror, can any of you offer a snapshot that might make it more real to readers?

Erika: Because of what you said—the depersonalization—my family had a brochure printed up, and the cover says “10 of the 6 Million.” And it has the pictures of all of the members of my mother’s immediate family who were murdered. I distribute it everywhere I speak. And I start my talk always by saying, “As I say these names, please look at these pictures. Because 6 million is a meaningless number. And they were individual people.” That’s how I personalize it and make people realize.

David: I need to give you two examples. I was 11 years and 4 months old when I arrived in Auschwitz. You wanted me to explain how I survived. There’s nothing magical about me. I was lucky. I had a brother called Yakov, who was four years and four months my senior. He was big and strong because he worked on the farm where we were born. Yakov took beatings that were meant for me. And he continued getting punished … I’m the guy who started to create The March of the Living in Miami. I have taken over 50-some-odd-thousand kinder [children] on the March of the Living. They will never forget. I took them to the bunk, to the barrack where I was in Auschwitz for two years and eight months. I was on the lower level of this three-level bunk. And to my right, there was a 26-year-old guy: Rabbi Huna. He was a redhead. Every morning we had to go outside to be counted. Rabbi Huna looked skyward and he was singing: a gut morgn robeynu sheloylem. [“A good morning, Heavenly Father.”] And the Gestapo beat the hell out of him. And he kept on doing it. Then another mega-Gestapo arrived: He was nicknamed The Whip Man. And one Yom Tov morning, Rabbi Huna is reciting “Modeh ani lefanecha” [the morning prayer of thanks to God for restoring the soul another day]. And he’s singing and this crazy killing bastard with his whip went ahead and snapped that whip and it wrapped around Huna. And I was standing there and crying because he was in pain. And I was saying to my brother, Yakov, “What about robeynu sheloylem, Yakov?” The guy pulled that whip and that rabbi went flying and wound up at the electrified fence. Within seconds, Rabbi Huna was dead.

I’m not sure that I would say that we’ve had that big an influence. I know that sounds very disturbing because we felt that we needed to tell our story and it would make a difference. But considering the situation at the given time right now, I don’t know if we really did. We’re going to find out when we are all gone.

I’m so sorry.

David: I submit to you that we need to reach out to our kinder first. I ask every child that I meet, to please know who they are. I plead with them that they need to know what happened. But mostly, mostly—and I’m speaking to the rest of us here as survivors—I tell these kinder, “I want you to become my mouthpiece when I’m no longer here.” This is the message that we need to give. I have confidence that the kinder—the second and the third generation—they will always know. And I thank my fellow survivors. I wish you ruach [spirit] and koach [strength].

Lilly: I wanted to tell you one instance that I remembered from my childhood. When we were going into hiding, it was in the middle of the night, it was dark and cold. We were going with my mother to a forest and the Polish person whose house we were going to, he led us, but when we came to a certain place, he told us that the day before, there had been “an action.” All of us knew what was an “action”: Jews were killed. They were brought to the forest, told to dig their own graves, and then they were shot and fell into the graves. When I had to cross that grave, I felt the soil heaving. That was the worst part.


Lilly: I also want to mention that I received a letter from my best friend and she said to me in that little note, “Lilly, I know that you will survive the war, but I won’t.” I don’t know how she knew. “So please remember and tell the world.” After the liberation, when I met my husband, we were working all the time remembering the Holocaust, building museums in Washington, D.C., in New York. My husband was active in Yad Vashem and Bergen-Belsen. We had teachers conferences where the teachers were learning how to speak to the children about it, and many more, which I cannot describe.

We human beings are the descendants of animals, and there is a bit of the beast in all of us.

Lilly, you are one of the people on this call who was hidden during the war. Am I correct that you were hidden by non-Jews?

Lilly: Yes.

And you had to lie down without actually standing up, bathing or changing clothes for over two years; your limbs atrophied and you had to learn how to walk again when you were finally freed?

Lilly: I had to learn how to walk, yes, and also talk, because we were always whispering. We never saw daylight. It was always dark.

You know that many assume there is apathy and hatred when it comes to non-Jews fighting antisemitism. What does it mean to you that there were non-Jews who acted to save Jewish lives? How does that sit with you today?

Lilly: You cannot say that all the non-Jews were antisemitic. There were many non-Jews that helped! There were nuns and priests. So you cannot think that all people are bad. That’s my answer. And I always try to see the good in people.

Fran, can I ask you to reflect on the kindness of the person who hid you in the pigsty?

The museums will speak for us. That’s who is going to outlive us.

Fran: We called her the “malach”—she was an angel. I can’t explain it. She intimidated me when she’d come to give us food. We were never hungry—she took excellent care of us.

You’ve previously recounted an episode where you were crying so hard as a scared 4-year-oldthat some in your group thought you would give away the hiding place and needed to be forcibly silenced?

Fran: Yes—I started crying and crying, and the owner of the pigsty said to the group, “You have to do something or it will be the end of all of us.” The family came to a decision to kill me because 13 of us were in danger. The doctor in the group had brought poison with him—in case he and his two sons and wife were captured, they would kill themselves. I remember them pushing something into my mouth and I kept pushing it out, telling them, “I’ll be good!” The doctor later described it: I fell asleep and they thought I was dead. The doctor went to pick me up and said, “I feel a pulse there. That child is alive.”

Incredible. I will end with one last question to all of you: When we speak about the Holocaust, we often say, “Never forget.” What should future generations remember?

Ruth: Each person murdered was an individual. It can happen again. It started in a peaceful country, a democratic country, and it can happen anywhere where there are Jews.

Erika: Evil does and will always exist. And good people have to stand up to it.

There were many non-Jews that helped! There were nuns and priests. So you cannot think that all people are bad.

Judith: I wrote my book, A Candle in the Heart, for the purpose that it should be remembered for generations. I became an orphan at the age of 4. Hatred can start all this. I wrote my book to teach the children when I’m not here.

Kati: Education. Education. Education.

Fran: A strong State of Israel, which I am very disappointed that many Jews don’t support, is the only thing that can help us. That’s the only place that could have saved us during the war. It’s not a popular opinion, but it’s my opinion.

David: My message is very simple: 6 million of our people! A million-and-a-half of our kinder! That’s my message.

Sam: Remember the past. Because he who forgets is condemned to repeat it.

Ben: Do you want to know why I lived to 101 years old? To say, “Never forget.”

Lilly: We have to remember. We have to fight it. And hope that it never happens again.

Mark: We have to make sure that the future generation will never forget what happened in this Holocaust, so that those atrocities will never happen again.

Rosalyn: What happens to one happens to all. The hate that we create produces more hate, and we cannot have a civilization that continues on that path.

Sigmund: There is a beast in us, and the beast is hatred of others. We are all capable of that hatred. And the beginning of the Holocaust is hatred.

A few days after this story was published, Sigmund died on Jan. 31, 2023, after a brief illness.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.