“I am appreciative, but it’s not really necessary,” Gerry said.
Gerry’s family was living in a town called Bielsko-Biala when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. His father ran a sheet-metal roofing business and, after criticizing the Germans, fled east with his brothers when they heard a rumor the Nazis were rounding men up and shooting them. They wound up in the hands of the Soviets, who imprisoned them for the duration of the war.
“In a way, it saved my father’s life,” Gerry said.
With his father gone and the Nazis in control, a neighbor felt emboldened to walk up to Gerry’s mother and demand the keys to the family’s business. She had no choice but to hand them over.
For the Jews of Poland, by 1940, “it was too late,” Gerry said, “and there was nowhere to go.”
Gerry, his older sister and their mother were moved to Jewish ghettos in larger cities before being split up and sent to different concentration camps. Gerry was in four different camps. Surviving was more pressing than thinking about his delayed bar mitzvah.
Practicing the rituals of Judaism was impossible, he said.
“But people sometimes in secret gathered in the barracks and organized a minyan,” he said. “There were no books, but there were some Orthodox people who remembered some of the prayers by heart.”
By April 1945, Gerry was in Flossenburg, a camp in Germany near the Czech border. With Allied troops advancing, guards forced inmates to march to a train that would take them to Dachau. Gerry knew the war was over when he saw U.S. tanks advancing.
“We saw tanks with a star,” Gerry said. “We thought because of the star they were Russians.”
Gerry learned that although his sister and father had survived the war, his mother had perished in Auschwitz.
Gerry immigrated to the United States, where he was soon drafted.
“That’s where I learned English, most of it,” he said, his voice still inflected with his native Silesian. He learned that Southern soldiers — what he calls the “boys from Alabama and Mississippi” — were fond of saying “y’all.”
“This is how they spoke, the lingo of the countryside,” Gerry remembered. “Every time they addressed me as ‘y’all,’ I looked around and thought, ‘Who else?’ ”
Photos from that time show Gerry with his G.I. buddies, smiling. He’s smaller than these strapping Yanks, his teenage years spent one bread crust away from starvation.
Some Americans, I said, don’t believe in the Holocaust. They say it couldn’t have happened.
“Well, it couldn’t, but it did,” Gerry said. “And in the 20th century there was such advancement in technology, people thought up a way to do mass murder on such a grand scale. It’s bewildering.”
When the Nazis were in power, no Jew was safe.
“There were people in Eastern Europe who were very extremely Orthodox,” Gerry said. “And there were people who were just the opposite, completely assimilated. To the Nazis, it didn’t make any difference, as long as you were Jewish.”
The ovens of Auschwitz and Dachau were full of people who considered themselves German.
“It was their country,” Gerry said. “They felt a great loyalty to the country because of culture, education, everything. And when Hitler and the Nazis came to power and started persecuting all these people, they were very disillusioned. They were the people who suffered the most. The Orthodox people, they expected it. They took it more as God’s will. But for the people who were more assimilated, it was a great tragedy.”
On Saturday, Gerry stood with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld as a passage from the Book of Exodus was read. Men in tallisim — the prayer shawls observant Jews wear — came up and danced with him in a circle around the Torah. They shook his hand and clapped him on the back and offered a congratulatory “mazel tov.”
Later, I found Gerry in the Ohev Sholom’s basement function room, a plate of lasagna and blintzes in front of him. How do you feel, I asked.
“Overwhelmed,” said the 92-year-old bar mitzvah boy. “Overwhelmed.”
At the end of the service, Rabbi Herzfeld announced that “dirty Jews” had been shouted from the windows of a D.C. public school bus as it passed students from Ohev Sholom who go to the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School down 16th Street NW.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.