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Living History

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Oakmonte Village at Lake Mary is home to several women who survived to help the world remember the horrors of the Holocaust

A t Oakmonte Village, Lake Mary’s luxury senior-living community, everyone has a unique story. But, over the years, Oakmonte has also been home to a handful of residents whose stories are truly heartbreaking and gut wrenching, like those of Holocaust survivors Malka Kornicki, Helen Greenspun, and Ruth Nebel.

“We have had three or four survivors over the years, in addition to the three we have now,” says Michael Slagel, Oakmonte’s director of sales. “Like our World War II veterans, the survivors are disappearing. That’s why it’s so important to keep their experiences alive. The world must never forget, in order not to repeat the atrocities of the past.”

Michael marvels at the strength of these women. He notes that they have three very different personalities... with a very terrible and unique thread in common.

“These ladies are a good reminder to appreciate life and not to take the little things for granted,” he says. “I am honored to know these strong women.”

Helen Greenspun and Ruth Nebel

Sitting on a couch in the lobby of Oakmonte Village at Lake Mary, Helen and Ruth laugh and joke with each other like sisters. They’ve known each other for more than 60 years, having both moved to Cleveland, Ohio, shortly after the war ended and both were freed from concentration camps.

 

Both women were born in Poland – Helen in 1926, Ruth in 1929. Helen was just shy of her 16th birthday when she and her two older siblings were ordered to go to the local marketplace, where they were forcibly taken to labor camps. Two other siblings also ended up in concentration camps, but Helen’s parents and youngest siblings, ages seven and nine, were killed in the gas chambers at Treblinka.

Miraculously, Helen and four of her siblings would survive. But Helen will never forget the three years she spent in two labor camps and five concentration camps. Shortly after she and her husband, Joe Greenspun, moved to Orlando in 1973 with daughters Rita and Pauline, Helen started telling her story at schools throughout Central Florida. She also worked tirelessly as a volunteer and board member at the Holocaust Center for more than 30 years and was honored at its 2013 Dinner of Tribute.

“What was my story?” says Helen, who turned 93 on September 9. “Starvation and lice. We were filthy. We wore the same clothes for months, and when they brought us clothes, they were from dead people. We slept on wooden beds with no mattresses. We had no showers. But if you ask me what was the worst thing, it was starvation. You can’t imagine. We’d get a piece of bread, water, and soup in the evening. The only thing I’m glad about is my mind is good, and I can tell my story so it should not happen again.”

Ruth, who turns 90 on December 20, recalls being sent to a labor camp (used as a munitions factory) when she was about 11 years old.

“They put me to work,” Ruth says, “and when you had to go to the bathroom, they would search you. The Nazis found a piece of ammunition in my pocket; it got in there by accident. I was beaten until I was black and blue, and I was put in jail. Then, one Saturday, two gentlemen came and looked at the room I was in. I told them what I did was totally an accident. They called me out of the room, and they told me not to do it anymore, and then they let me go. If I hadn’t spoken out, I would’ve rotted in there.”

 

A few weeks later, the war was over, and Ruth was freed. Although both her parents and oldest sister survived, two other sisters died in the concentration camps. The family relocated to Cleveland because Ruth’s father had a brother who had moved there before the war.

Shortly before she graduated from high school, Ruth married Ben Nebel in 1948. They would raise three children: Ellen, Terry, and Michael (she now has eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren). Ruth’s husband passed away about three years ago, and last year her children helped her move to Lake Mary. Ruth was reunited with her longtime friend about six months later when Helen also moved to Oakmonte.

“She’s like a sister to me,” Helen says of Ruth. “I was at Michael’s bris; Ruth was at my daughter’s wedding. What else can I say?”

As for what they endured as young girls, both women find comfort in the strength they gained from surviving such a                 horrendous ordeal.

“You know how you cannot break iron? That is how you cannot break us,” Ruth says. “All of us Holocaust survivors, we are very strong.”

Malka Kornicki

Malka Neuman was just three years old when the Nazis invaded her hometown of Pultusk, Poland. In response, Malka’s mother, Sara, fled with her two daughters to Warsaw, about 30 miles away, to stay with Malka’s aunt, who was a gynecologist.
“But when we got to her house,” Malka recalls, “she said to my mother, ‘Sara, take your children and run – run wherever you can run, because we are going to be next.’”

Since Sara spoke fluent Russian, she decided the best thing to do was escape to Russia. She took her daughters to the train station, and the three of them snuck on a train that was transporting cows and horses. When they woke up the next morning, they were in Siberia, where they would spend the next five years in a refugee camp.

“My mother never stopped talking to us about it, what we went through,” says Malka, now 83. “It was a terrible place. We had hardly any food. We had to wait a week to take a bath. My mother just prayed to God that the war should be over and we would be alive and we would find my father [who was in the Polish army].”

Malka’s parents and sister would survive the war, but her aunt was not so lucky. The Nazis tortured her and made her perform experiments on women, and then they killed her and her daughter.

When Malka’s family was released in 1944, they ended up in a small town in Kazakhstan. They lived in a little farmhouse, and Malka’s mother and sister made money by selling sewing and dye supplies at a local flea market.

“They did very well; they made money,” Malka says. “My mother could buy potatoes and make potato soup. We were not hungry anymore.”

About a year after the war ended, Malka’s family found out that her father was alive and in a Russian prison. When the prisoners were eventually released, the family was reunited in Poland. They moved to Israel in 1947.

In 1953, at age 17, Malka married Aron Kornicki. Daughter Joan was born in Israel the following year, and they moved to Flushing, Queens, in 1958, where Malka and Aron owned and operated a bakery. Son Marvin was born two years later. The Kornickis moved to Miami Beach in 1970, and Malka – who was widowed at age 48 – moved to Oakmonte Village three years ago at the encouragement of Joan, who lives nearby in Winter Park.

Joan, who teaches a monthly Yiddish class at Oakmonte Village, says she didn’t know much about her mother’s story until she was a teenager.

“My mother didn’t talk about what she went through,” Joan says. “Her only concern was that we get an education and have a happy life. I didn’t really appreciate her until I got married, and I didn’t realize what she sacrificed until I became a mother.”
Malka and Aron worked seven days a week at their bakery to make sure their children had everything they wanted.

“The love I grew up with is just insurmountable,” Joan says. “I would say my mom is a true inspiration, and when you speak to her, you realize what’s important in life. She rarely complains. She only sees good and just wants to help people. I can’t believe how grateful and appreciative she is. She really is amazing.”

Malka still loves to bake – her noodle kugel is a big hit at Joan’s monthly Yiddish classes – and her knitting is legendary. Malka estimates she has made more than 100 baby blankets for Joan’s friends.

“My body is very, very bad; I have a lot of problems,” Malka says. “But my mind is wonderful. I am very blessed.”

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