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Column By John Murray
All our lives are impacted by events and circumstances beyond our control. None of us choose our parents, our place of birth or our name. These are decided by love, arranged marriage, geography, culture and fate.
And once we arrive airside, millions of lives are uprooted by natural disasters, poverty and war. Entire populations scatter across the planet as refugees seek safe ground to rebuild their lives and begin anew. Waterbury has recently embraced refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, and most of the history of the city, and of America, has been forged by immigrants and refugees seeking security and the opportunity to build a better life.
As the publisher of The Waterbury Observer newspaper I’m often asked if I grew up in Waterbury, and when I say that I did not, people want to know what brought me to the city. The short answer is love, and the longer answer is two Jewish refugees who miraculously escaped Nazi death camps during WWII.
Let me explain.
In 1948 five Jewish survivors from WWII made their way to Waterbury, Connecticut, and their journey from concentration camps to the United States has had an unexpected impact on my life, and indirectly led to the creation of The Waterbury Observer newspaper.
When I was a 21-year old student at the University of Connecticut in 1978 I had shoulder length hair, a light brown beard, listened to rock and roll, drove a battered 16-year-old Volvo, chased frisbees like a dog, drank too much, skipped class, smoked pot and thought I had figured out the secrets to a happy life.
After graduation I planned to travel the world taking pictures and writing about the exotic and interesting people I met on the road. I managed to accomplish some of that, but my plans were altered when I fell in love with an English major from Waterbury.
Several months into our relationship, Laurie, who was Jewish, invited me to Waterbury for a Passover celebration with her parents and family. It was with a mix of excitement and curiosity that I arrived in Waterbury for the first time in the Spring of 1979. We showed up late (my fault) and when we entered the house in the Overlook neighborhood of Waterbury the meal had already begun.
There were five people at the table, and four of them had numbers from the Auschwitz concentration camp tattooed on their forearms.
Laurie’s parents, David and Freda Singer, were both Holocaust survivors. They were born in Ostrowiecz, a rural village in the southwest corner of Poland, and like millions of European Jews their lives were hurled into chaos by Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution”, a diabolical plan to exterminate Jews from the Earth.
On August 26th, 1942, Freda and David were married while imprisoned in a Jewish ghetto. Freda traded a tablecloth her sister had embroidered for ingredients to make a wedding cake, and she borrowed a blue dress for the occasion.
Days after their wedding the ghetto was destroyed and Freda and David were sent to separate concentration camps to work for the Nazi war machine.
Young Jews had value to the Germans. They could work. They could help Hitler carve out his triumphant Third Reich, an empire to last 1,000 years. Old Jews and children were quickly put to death. Freda’s mother, father, and three sisters were killed by the Nazis, and David lost his father and his sister. But Freda and David were young and strong, and during the next two years they were shuffled from work camp to work camp until time and place became a blur.
"The Germans had no horses," Freda said. "We chopped wood. We filled the carts with wood. We pulled the carts. We were the horses."
One day while marching to work in a field Freda spotted a pile of garbage strewn with rotting potatoes. She broke from the ranks and filled her pockets with the potatoes. "I was so hungry I didn't care if they shot me," she said. "What did it matter?"
Later, she shared the treasure with her fellow prisoners, thinly slicing the potatoes and spreading them across pieces of bread. "Many times after the war I tried to slice potatoes and eat them on a slice of bread," Freda said. "Now it doesn't taste good. Then, it was delicious."
After Freda was liberated in Czechoslovakia in April 1945 she made her way to Munich to try and find David, who was reported to be living in a house with fellow survivors. Freda carried a loaf of pumpernickel bread for two weeks to celebrate with him when they were reunited. When she finally found him, the bread had hardened to a rock. They dunked it in water and ate it.
Why Waterbury? The Singers could just have easily ended up in Toronto, but they came to Waterbury because David's grandmother, Dacha Kuperman, had escaped the Holocaust by immigrating to Waterbury just months before the Germans invaded Poland. David also had two uncles living in Waterbury, Abe Kuperman and Leizer Kuperman, who owned K&D Jewelry on South Main Street.
"My uncle told us in America there is money in the streets. Just sweep and pick it up," David said. "We believed him. We came."
They were bewildered when they arrived in New York City. They had never seen so many cars. In Europe, they saw one or two cars a day. "We were confused," David said. "We said, 'Look what's going on here, it's crazy.'"
When they arrived in Waterbury with David's mother, Sara Singer, and his two brothers, Paul Singer and Harry Singer, they were the talk of the town. They were the first Holocaust survivors to come to the city, and the Waterbury Republican splashed a big photograph across its front page. But it was hard for them. They didn't speak the language and they were living in Abe Kuperman's basement.
"It was rough at first," David said. "And we complained a lot to my grandmother. She used to get disgusted with us and say, 'Here's money, go back to Germany if you want'."
But they stayed and forged a new life. They attended English night classes at Crosby High School and worked at the Leila Dress Factory on Cherry Street. They bought a house on Clifton Avenue in 1956 and flew to Athens, Greece, in 1960, to adopt a baby. They named her Laurie. They had to marry for a third time to adopt Laurie because their marriage papers from Germany had been misplaced. In 1967 the Singers moved into a three-bedroom home on McDonald Avenue and continued to build on their American dream.
Despite financial success, both David and Freda missed the old country, where family lives were enveloped by a stronger sense of community. "Financially, life is much better here in Waterbury," David said. "But there is not the rich family life we had in Poland. It is not the same."
Laurie was their only child, and I was the first boyfriend that she had brought home for her parents to meet. They were nice enough to me, but there was an underlying tension because I was a goy, an outsider, a non-Jew.
Understandably, they didn’t approve of my desire to travel and write and photograph, and during the first few years of my relationship with her daughter, Freda repeatedly implored me to get a job as a mailman, a good paying job with benefits. Four years later, and with some reluctance, David and Freda walked Laurie down the aisle and we were married.
During the next decade, and with more twists and turns than a Coney Island roller-coaster, Laurie and I were married, divorced, remarried, had a daughter, and were divorced a second time. We had traveled for six months through Europe and North Africa, lived in Seattle, and one Autumn holed up on a small farm in Rhode Island. During that tumultuous decade I wandered around India and East Africa, worked on commercial salmon fishing boats in Southeast Alaska, hitchhiked 40,000 miles across North America, sold Christmas trees in the Bronx while living in a VW van for six weeks, and finally, became a journalist.
Through it all David and Freda (and Laurie) couldn’t figure me out, which in hindsight isn’t surprising, because I was in the process of figuring myself out.
When the dust settled on our travels we were living in an old house in the Overlook neighborhood, two blocks away from her parent’s house. After a decade of upheaval, we ended up in Waterbury, the only place Laurie ever wanted to be.
When we were divorced in April 1993 our daughter Chelsea was four years old. While Alaska and the open road whispered in my ear, I was determined to stay involved in my daughter’s life. I decided to plant myself in the city and co-founded The Waterbury Observer with Marty Begnal a few months later. If I wasn't going to travel, at least I could be my own boss, with the added bonus of bringing my daughter along on assignments (and Chelsea pretty much came with me everywhere).
My relationship with David and Freda improved as they witnessed my commitment to their granddaughter, and even after Laurie and I were divorced, I often stopped to visit with them. I was intensely curious about their experiences in Poland in the 1930s, and the horror they lived through during the war. David was more open to talking about his experiences, but I eventually convinced both of them to share their story in the Observer.
I spent hours interviewing them, but at first Freda was elusive and wouldn't sit down. She circled the dining room table while David talked, and she lobbed corrections and insights from the bleachers. Eventually I got Freda to take a seat, and her riveting accounts of survival deepened my understanding of who she was, and how she processed the world. I tape recorded the interviews and the family now has an oral history of David and Freda’s journey through Hell. Hours before the story went to print, however, Freda called and said I couldn’t use her name in the story, and ordered me to use a pseudonym.
That was a problem.
The story was already written and edited and laid out on the pages with several photographs of David and Freda Singer embedded in the copy. It was our cover story. I spent the next 30 minutes on the phone talking with Freda, encouraging her to share the important story she had privately carried within her for decades. She was worried what people would think, and I eventually re-won her trust, and she agreed to be Freda Singer in the newspaper. After the article was published the Singers were bear-hugged by the community. Freda was thrilled, and would go on to share her story several times in visits to local schools. Pandora's Box had been opened, and I believe the story was a mix of therapy, healing and relief for both of them. They told their stories and they had been acknowledged.
As the decades passed, Freda continued to be haunted by her wartime experiences. She could be found in the produce section of Stop and Shop looking for bruised and discounted fruit. She would rummage through her daughter’s refrigerator and peek in her garbage to pull out leftovers that she would take home and consume. She abhorred waste, and often chided her daughter by reminding her that food had once been a priceless commodity to her. Ironically, after nearly starving to death during WWII, Freda and David loved to go to all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants, where they would sit for hours gorging themselves.
When her mother-in-law passed away, Freda learned to cook in her mid-sixties, and made a one-of-a kind chocolate chip sour cream Bundt cake that her family adored. And whenever I visited, whether I was hungry or not, Freda would make a Bubula for me, a giant puffy matzo-meal pancake.
Laurie went on to become the first female President of the Waterbury Bar Association, and a three-term Waterbury Alderman. She still lives in the Overlook neighborhood of Waterbury. I've now been publishing The Waterbury Observer for 29 years. Occasionally I wonder how in the world I ended up here, but I've made deep connections into the community and found a way to write stories about the interesting people who have made their way to Waterbury and call it home. People like Freda and David Singer.
David passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2005, and Freda passed away nine years later, on April 1st, 2014. Ironically, they are both buried in a Jewish cemetery in Morris, 15 miles northwest of Waterbury, in a small rural town that I have lived in for the past two decades.
Their lives were shattered by hatred and racism more than 70 years ago. It was a barbarous set of circumstances that pushed them from their homes and eventually to Waterbury, CT. They emerged from the Holocaust into a world of disbelief and denial and endured through the decades as the world eventually embraced the Holocaust as an enduring symbol of hate. Never forget is the motto, but some claim the Holocaust never actually happened.
David Singer shook his head when asked about Holocaust deniers. "If I wasn't there I would think people were over-reacting," he said. "It's hard to believe a country like Germany could do such a thing. Who would believe Hitler would kill all the people?" •
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