Veronica Phillips’ secret survival story lives on
When Holocaust survivor Veronica (Vera) Phillips passed away on 24 February 2021, her pallbearers were German Ambassador to South Africa Dr Martin Schaefer; Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Lior Keinan; Ádám Vadász (the husband of acting Hungarian ambassador to South Africa, [chargé d’affaires] Zsuzsanna Bernadett Rothschild); and Jonathan Andrews, who made the film, The Secret Survivor, about her life.
“Where do you have a funeral with all these ambassadors carrying her to her final resting place and crying, saying they are heartbroken? That was Veronica Phillips,” says the director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC), Tali Nates.
Phillips was the tenth Shoah survivor to have died in the past year in South Africa. “Although she was 94 years old and her health had deteriorated, it feels like the end of an era. I’m heartbroken,” says Nates. She and Phillips were as close as family.
“She was iconic. She began to tell her story only very late in life, and did so with such gravitas, wisdom, detail, and empathy,” says Nates. “It was very difficult for her to tell it. It was very painful, and she always broke down, but she was so authentic. She was a ‘silent’ survivor’ for 70 years.”
Veronica Philips (nee Katz) was born on 9 November 1926 in Budapest, Hungary, to Regina and Meyer Katz. Her mother and her brother, Michael, survived the Holocaust thanks to the efforts of Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz. For a time, she was protected by Lutz and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in the “international ghetto” in Budapest, but then the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators deported her and her father to Ravensbrück concentration camp in December 1944. Although it was in the dying days of the war, for Phillips, the horror was just beginning.
After a harrowing nine-day journey in cattle cars in the coldest winter on record, she arrived at Ravensbrück, a concentration camp mainly for women that had by then also become a death camp. Her father was murdered. Phillips was housed in a giant tent with thousands of other women. There was no food, toilets, or medicine. A gas chamber had been built, and in Andrews’ film about her life, Phillips recalled how the smell of burning flesh would never leave her.
While in Ravensbrück, she was selected as a labourer, and taken to work in Penig (a sub-camp of Buchenwald concentration camp) where she suffered inhumane conditions. She was then taken on a death march. At Johanngeorgenstadt, the group was liberated by the allies, but only after many were killed by the Nazis or by starvation and fatigue.
She started an incredible journey in an emaciated physical condition back to Budapest to find her mother and brother. After World War II ended, Phillips became a microbiologist and geneticist at Brunel University. She went on to marry Herman (Hermuscz) Phillips. As a result of what she endured as a teenager under the Nazis, she suffered eight miscarriages and could never have children. The only child she gave birth to survived less than two days.
In 1956, she and her husband escaped communism and settled in London, following her brother. Her niece, Janice Leibowitz, remembers this time. “I was an only child and my parents shared me with them. We were very close.”
Leibowitz’ father got a job opportunity in South Africa, arriving in 1975, and Veronica and Herman followed a year later. “While everyone was leaving, we were arriving!” remembers Leibowitz. [Phillips] got a job very quickly as a microbiology lecturer at Wits [the University of the Witwatersrand], where she stayed for 20 years.”
Nates says that in spite of all she endured, “she was loving and embracing of everyone. For example, a few years ago, we had an ex-Neo Nazi come to our centre, and Veronica was the one who hugged him and invited him over for tea. She told him he was special. That’s the kind of person she was. And when we had an event on statelessness, there she was, saying, ‘This is terrible, we were stateless, and now it’s happening again!’ She went beyond just remembering the Holocaust, she made the connection to today’s world. She had a really authentic voice that we will miss.”
Nates first met Phillips only about 15 years ago. “This was before the establishment of the JHGC,” says Nates. “[Psychologist] Tracy Farber and I started running group meetings for survivors in Johannesburg. Veronica became part of it, and started to speak about her story for the first time. First to the group, then to pupils, teachers, and schools. And then she discovered us [the JHGC], and we became her family.”
Phillips was intricately involved with the centre from the start. “I remember when the centre was being built about eight years ago, there was just a ramp going up to what would become the third floor. We invited all of our cherished survivors to see how the building was going, and they all went up the ramp with their hard hats on. And there went Veronica, going up the ramp in her high heels! She was always so elegant,” recalls Nates.
Asked why she told her story only so late in life, Nates surmises that the trauma of the past, escaping communism, and not being able to have a family meant that she was continuously battling the next challenge and never had a chance to stop and speak about what had happened to her. “In one way or another, she was always trying to survive the next hurdle.
“Meeting us, helping to create the centre, and becoming part of a group of survivors was the start of something new. I think she felt she had a duty to speak. She would say that if you listen to a witness, you become a witness. Just recently in December, she spoke to students in Uzbekistan! She said, ‘I’m not speaking for me, I’m speaking for you. You have to speak up because there will be deniers, or those who distort the Holocaust, or those who don’t learn from the past.’”
“She really valued education,” says Leibowitz. “That’s why it was so important to her to pass the torch to the next generation. She loved talking to schoolchildren, and they loved her. There was an instant rapport. She was very close to the ambassadors – they all adored her. She had a way with people. She instantly called them ‘darling’, and befriended them. She found a way into everyone’s heart. If you met her, you never forgot her.”
Says Nates, “She said her story wouldn’t die with her. And it will continue in the hundreds of people she had an impact on. That’s her legacy. We will never forget her.”
Lost Barmitzvah boy finally finds his way home
When Stephen “Sugar” Segerman started searching for the Barmitzvah boy whose photograph was on his mantlepiece, he didn’t imagine he would find out from someone half way around the globe that the boy had once lived a few houses away from him.
Last week, the SA Jewish Report described how Segerman – who once searched for and found the musician Sixto Rodriguez
– was now trying to identify the boy in a photograph he found at the Milnerton Market in Cape Town a few years ago.
Within a few days of publication and the story spreading around the world, the identity of the barmi boy as the late Arnold Kleinberger was revealed. Segerman had an emotional meeting with Kleinberger’s daughter, Aura Zartz, who lives in Cape Town, on Tuesday (13 April) this week.
“In the days following the story appearing in the SA Jewish Report, it was shared all over the world, judging from the enthusiastic responses I immediately received,” Segerman said.
“I started receiving a lot of emails from people who thought they recognised the barmi boy. One said, ‘My name is Cedric Reingold. I grew up in Highlands Estate and matriculated from Herzlia in 1978. I recently read the article, and recognised the person in the picture. His name is Arnold Kleinberger. He was in our third-grade year and if I’m not mistaken, left [Herzlia] sometime thereafter.’”
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Chicago, Reingold said that he was scrolling through the online version of the paper, when he saw the photograph and immediately recognised Arnold. He then confirmed it with others in his matric year Facebook group. “But actually, I was 100% sure, even though he wasn’t at Herzlia for long [he then went to Cape Town High]. I can’t explain it – I just knew.”
Said Segerman, “I was elated. I then started an online search, and found that Arnold Kleinberger was born in 1960, which meant his Barmitzvah would have been in 1973, fitting with the timeline. Sadly, he passed away at the young age of 37 in 1997. I found a photo of his tombstone from the Cape Town Chevrah Kadisha website, and studied it to find any clues.
“It said that he was mourned by his family, but only his mother Sadie was named. I found out she had passed away in 2015. Her tombstone said that she was mourned by her daughters Marlene and Anita, son-in-law Maurice, and granddaughters Nadine and Aura.”
He searched the name Kleinberger on Facebook, and found a Doré Kleinberger, whose mother had been Eva Wolovitz. That led Segerman to Wolovitz’s tombstone, where again, he saw the name Aura. Further googling lead to the birth announcement of Aura and Adam Zartz’s son on the Herzlia Alumni Association site.
At this point, Segerman turned to his daughter, Natalia, and son-in-law, Ryan Rabinowitz, who were visiting from London, and asked if they knew them.
“Ryan looked at me with great surprise and told me that not only did he know Adam very well, but they had sat next to each other at shul that very morning,” said Segerman. “He immediately contacted Adam, and we spoke to his wife, Aura, who confirmed that the barmi boy was her late father, Arnold.
“She said that Doré was her mother, and her aunts were the late Anita Shenker and Marlene Kleinberger. Marlene had lived in Milnerton and passed away a few years before. Anita had cleaned out Marlene’s house and sent numerous items to the Milnerton Market.
“Aura was nine when her father passed away. She confirmed that his Barmitzvah was on 13 January 1973, and she had recently been given his Barmitzvah book by Anita’s husband, Maurice Shenker, which contained the same photo I had. She then told me that her father had grown up in Oranjezicht.”
Segerman and his wife have lived in Oranjezicht for the past 24 years, and it turns out they live just four houses away from where the Barmitzvah boy grew up.
In addition, Arnold’s parents’ domestic worker, the late Lettie Gal, would sometimes work for the Segermans. This is just one of many other coincidences linking all the people connected to the story.
Zartz, whose first-born child, Allegra, is named after Arnold, said that her father was always “elusive” to her. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she didn’t see her father much in the years before his death, which were marked with difficulties.
She said that when Segerman phoned, she felt like she was on some kind of ‘Candid Camera’ show – it didn’t feel real. In some ways, she felt heartbroken that her father’s photo had landed up in a stranger’s home, “but then I felt a huge amount of comfort that he was so close to where he grew up”.
She spent much of her childhood in her late grandmother’s home, and feels closely connected to it. Segerman emphasised that he has always felt very protective of the photograph, which meant a lot to Zartz.
Her mother, Doré, is the last remaining Kleinberger. She said Arnold’s father, Ernest, came to South Africa from Germany in 1936 when he was 13. “He had his Barmitzvah on the boat!” His mother, Sadie, was born in South Africa. She understands that Arnold was quite a “troubled child”, but also had many happy moments in his parents’ home and general goods stores, where he would help himself to chocolate.
“Their home was always warm and welcoming – a central meeting place that people gravitated towards,” Kleinberger said. “Arnold had a tough exterior, but was the kindest person. I think he had a difficult time in the army. But he loved Formula One racing and motorbikes, and would time keep at Killarney. He also loved to braai and surf. For our honeymoon, we went up the coast with his surfboard.”
Segerman was deeply moved by these revelations and in the days after finding all of this out, he went on his regular walking route, which passed the house that Kleinberger grew up in.
“Today my walk was different – more special and emotional than ever before. I stopped at both gates and thought about Arnold and all that has happened these past few days.” He has decided that he will say Kaddish for Arnold on his yahrzeit.
Zartz said that when Segerman first called, “I thought, ‘What is my father trying to tell me?’ And when I heard Stephen say he lived in Forest Road, I realised that he was just trying to make his way home. I don’t want to keep the photograph. I give it to Stephen with a happy heart. This story means that my dad is exactly where he needs to be.”
Correction: In the 9 April edition of the SA Jewish Report, we wrote that Stephen Segerman’s Mabu Vinyl store had closed. This is an error – it has not closed but has moved to new premises at 285 Long Street, Cape Town. We regret the error.
Change is vital, Sydenham rabbis say
On Shabbat morning over Pesach, Sydenham Shul passed the leadership baton from the incomparable Rabbi Yossy Goldman to his successor, Rabbi Yehuda Stern.
For the first time in the history of the shul, there was a lectern on either side of the pulpit, and the two rabbis gave a joint drosha on the theme of transition.
They spoke of the need to hold onto our history and tradition, yet innovate. They spoke of building on what they had learnt so well until now to create an even more successful future.
“Just like the Jews of Egypt, we must always hold onto our history and traditions, and we must ensure these qualities remain with us for future generations,” Stern said.
“But while we cherish our history, we must continue to build our destiny. Innovation and creative planning for the future is vital if we are to continue to be the premier congregation in this country,” Goldman said.
He recalled a conversation with Issie Kirsh, who started Radio 702, and changed the format a year after launching the successful station. “I remember asking him, ‘Issie, if it’s not broken, why are you fixing it?’ You know what he answered? ‘In this business, if you don’t innovate regularly, people get tired and move on. As good as it may be, it needs to be refreshed frequently. It’s very easy to change stations.’
“I don’t think it’s as easy to change shuls as it is to change radio stations. But we, too, need to innovate.”
Goldman told the community it had “nothing to fear” as he would still be around for many years, but he asked it to “embrace the change”.
“Nothing is broken here either,” he said. “We’re strong, and will only grow stronger.”
UJW announces winners of mobile meals donation drive
Jane Klein won first prize in the Union of Jewish Women’s Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM) Donate and Win Pesach Appeal – a three-night stay at Savanna Private Game Reserve valued at R75 000. The prizes were awarded by the UJW outside Kosher Pie Works in Sandringham on 6 April. KMM supplies cooked meals to 110 mostly elderly and often very lonely members of the community who are unable to cook for themselves. These meals, packed and delivered by volunteers once a week, are made possible by donations and fundraising initiatives. Second prize went to Melanie Burman; third prize to Ann Smith; fourth prize was won by Yvonne Rimer; and fifth prize went to Shelly Stein.
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