Archive for Thursday, April 28, 2011

Holocaust survivor leads museum speaker series

April 28, 2011

For the better part of five years, Mike Jacobs (or Mendel Jakubowicz, as he was known to his family, or No. B4990, as he was known to Nazi officers who tattooed the number on his arm in Auschwitz-Birkenau) was literally starving to death.

After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Jacobs was forced into Jewish ghettos in Ostrowiec, Poland, and then, later, various concentration camps. Meals, if you could call them that, consisted of a slice of bread here or a small bowl of rotten-vegetable soup there. In 1945, when Jacobs was liberated from his final camp, Mauthausen-Gusen, he weighed 70 pounds.

So it wasn’t food that sustained him. Jacobs says from age 14 to 19, he lived on hope.

“I never gave up my hope. I never gave up my hope. I was always positive that I would survive,” Jacobs said during a recent phone interview with The Chieftain.

Jacobs, 86, who now lives in Dallas and is one of the original founders of the Dallas Holocaust Museum, will speak about his experiences Sunday, May 1, at the George Meyn Community Center in Wyandotte County Park as part of Yom HaShoah, a Holocaust remembrance ceremony.

Jacobs’ presentation also will kick off a speaker series that is coinciding with the exhibit, “Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings,” on display at the Wyandotte County Historical Museum.

Those attending the event will learn that Jacobs’ survival also came about through quick thinking, resourcefulness and an ample supply of teenage pluck.

“Teenagers don’t think about dying,” Jacobs says in a memoir he wrote about his time in the camps, “Holocaust Survivor: Mike Jacobs’ Triumph Over Tragedy,” in which he recalls many instances of stealing, or “organizing,” as he prefers to call it, food from the Nazis whenever he could to share with friends and family at the risk of his own life. He also, at one point, negotiated with a Nazi officer the purchase of several guns for an underground resistance of Jewish prisoners that had formed — this under the full knowledge the officer could have turned him in at any time, Jacobs says.

Luck or, as Jacobs said, “someone upstairs,” seemed also to be on his side throughout his ordeal. In one instance, he recalled that he and his immediate family of parents, three brothers and two sisters were all together, from 1939 until 1942, in the first large Ostrowiec ghetto they were taken to after the Nazi invasion of Poland. On Oct. 11, 1942, Jacobs said, he and his family were told they were going to be moved and needed to get ready to leave. As they made their way to the large town square, Jacobs saw Nazi officers selecting Jews in another, smaller square across the way. He convinced his brother Reuven to go with him to the smaller square, saying “When we find out where the family went, we can always follow them.”

Jacobs later found out the selection process he had seen was to determine which Jews would remain in a smaller ghetto that had been created in Ostrowiec. Jacobs and his brother were selected to remain in that ghetto, but all those that were forced to leave, including the rest of Jacobs’ family, were transported to the Treblinka extermination camp, where they were killed.

Reuven, who joined the underground resistance while in the smaller ghetto, was later shot and killed, as well, Jacobs said.

Jacobs will recall all these stories during his presentation, as well as others.

But much like he did in the camps, Jacobs will also focus on the positives in his life. After being liberated, he went on to become a gymnastics teacher in Germany.

He immigrated to the United States in 1951 to his current hometown of Dallas, after which he married, had children and opened his own business, Jacobs Iron and Metal Company, Inc. After learning English in 1956, he became a prolific speaker, sharing his experiences with churches, universities and synagogues from that point until the present day.

Along with a group of other Holocaust survivors, Jacobs formed the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust studies, which opened in 1984 and is now known as the Dallas Holocaust Museum.

Jacobs said he doesn’t hate the Nazis for what they did to him and millions of other Jews.

“Hate breeds hate,” he said firmly.

But if there is one fact he wants people to take away from his story, it’s that one can always “bounce back” after even the worst of circumstances.

“I was never a teenager. I spent all my teenage years in the concentration camps,” Jacobs said in his memoir. “I lived on less than 800 calories a day of food, working twelve-hour days, every day. I was tortured; I was beaten. I’ve got scars on my face, but I always stood up. I always bounced back and said to myself, ‘Someday, I’m going to be free.’”

The Yom HaShoah event will begin at 1 p.m. The George Meyn Community Center is at 126th and State Avenue, Kansas City, Kan.


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