As residents of the Beacon Hill senior living community in Lombard, Eric Blaustein and Charles Luner built a friendship on a foundation of one of history's darkest horrors. Luner compiled his late wife's memories of her time in Nazi concentration camps into a book titled, "Gerda's Story: Memoir of a Holocaust Survivor." Blaustein keeps his personal concentration camp tales in four handwritten binders, and in his head.
"We see each other every day," Luner says of Blaustein. "He has a very good memory."
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That's not necessarily a blessing.
"I have to forget. Some, they should remember," says Blaustein, 87, who lives alone in a single apartment after his wife, Fritzi, moved to the facility's Alzheimer's wing. Days of Remembrance, our nation's annual commemoration of the Holocaust, begins at sundown today and runs through May 4.
"I don't go around and advertise it," a smiling Blaustein, 87, says of his teenage years in hiding and seven months dodging death in a concentration camp. "I don't go to Holocaust anniversaries. It's not my lifestyle. I'm a regular guy."
His memories, however, are far from ordinary.
Childhood was happy until the terror of Kristallnacht, when German officials hauled away his father and other Jewish men in the city of Chenmitz. "That's the night I stopped being a German," Blaustein says.
His father -- a German military captain during World War I, a college-educated accountant and a man with political connections -- was spared imprisonment and went into hiding. As a teenager, Blaustein worked in a munitions factory until an attorney, stripped of his job and forced to become caretaker of the Jewish cemetery, broke his arm and asked the muscular Blaustein to dig a grave. The injured caretaker was sent to a concentration camp.
"They told me, 'We don't have need for a Jew with a broken arm,'" Blaustein remembers Gestapo officers explaining why the caretaker was gone. "Two weeks later, I buried his ashes."
His father's military buddy, Arthur Zweiniger, a wealthy and well-connected German who was not Jewish, provided the younger Blaustein with false documents identifying him as a Hitler Youth member traveling to a convention, so he could travel on the lam and avoid being arrested along with other Jewish teens. Once, when a drunken Nazi soldier on a train questioned Blaustein's papers and threatened to blow his cover, the 16-year-old threw the soldier off the speeding train to his death.
"It was either him or me, and he was not a nice guy," Blaustein says.
German soldiers finally arrested Blaustein on Sept. 19, 1944, his 18th birthday.
"They thought I was a deserter from the German army. I knew if they thought I was a deserter they would shoot me or hang me before sundown," Blaustein says. "To save my life I had to tell the Germans I was a Jew. In retrospect, there's some humor in that."
Sent to the camp in Buchenwald, Blaustein was awaiting execution when he used his connections to switch prisoner numbers with an Italian who had died that day. Known as "Luigi," Blaustein figured his life was over when the German soldiers, who knew Blaustein spoke German, asked him to translate orders to a new batch of Italian soldiers who refused to fight for the Nazis.
"They covered for me," remembers Blaustein. The leader of the Italian prisoners understood every word of the guards' German but pretended that he was getting his orders from the gibberish Blaustein hoped sounded like Italian.
"In order to survive the Holocaust, you needed three things," Blaustein says. "You had to have an iron will to survive. You had to have a lot of luck. And you had to have gentile friends who were willing to stick their necks out and help you."
Luner says his wife, Gerda, who died of ovarian cancer in 1999, credited luck above all.
"When people would say, 'God looked after you,' she'd get really ticked off," says Luner, who turns 89 in June. "She'd say, 'Why would God look after me and not 6 million others?'"
Born Gerda Nothmann in Berlin, Gerda was 12 when she and her sister were taken by their parents to the airport on June 10, 1939, and put on a plane to Holland. "There, we kissed each other goodbye," she wrote. "My parents so brave; all of us expecting to be together again in a few months. I never saw my parents again."
When the German army swept into Holland, her foster family ended up in camps, and she was forced into labor. Her skill making radio tubes kept her alive during stays at camps, including Auschwitz. She was the only one in her immediate family to survive the Holocaust.
Luner, a Polish immigrant who came to Canada before settling in the United States, was doing postgraduate work in physical chemistry at the Illinois Institute of Technology when he met his future wife working in research as a biochemist at the University of Chicago.
"She had a number on her arm so it was obvious," Luner says, recalling the Nazi tattoo on her left arm. "But she didn't really discuss the Holocaust. If people asked her, she'd tell them."
After his wife died, Luner took her writing and the letters she saved from her parents and turned it into a book, which also has been performed as a play in several states.
"If I hear the story of someone else who survived, I know the emotions," says Blaustein. But he notes that every survivor's story is different. After the war, he was reunited with his parents and loved ones.
"But I am who I am because of that experience," Blaustein says of surviving the Holocaust. "It's definitely in me, but I don't want to be it. I want to be here."
Blaustein, an engineer, and Luner, a chemist, went on to successful careers, just the way the American dream says we can.
"I overcame everything," Blaustein says, pausing a moment before continuing in a softer voice. "Yet, sometimes, I dream about it. I can't help that."
Blaustein's life as a German is separate from his postwar enlistment in the Israeli army, which is different from the life he made after arriving in the United States in 1954.
"My life became really dull," Blaustein says, unable to keep his sly grin from growing into a full-blown smile. "I had a wife, two children, a dog, and I lived happily ever after."