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Holocaust Survivors Celebrate : Religion: Brutalized by the Nazis as young girls, the 7 grown women recently participated in an important rite of Jewish adolescence, the bat mitzvah ceremony.

November 01, 1990|TRACEY KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At an age when many Jewish girls are preparing for their bat mitzvah, Gabriele Silten was stealing cabbage to survive in a Nazi concentration camp.

Rita Lurie was wasting away on a diet of raw potatoes and onions in a dark attic in Poland where her family was hiding.

Trudy Hill was watching an SS guard drown a woman in a latrine.

Last weekend, they and four other women in their 50s celebrated surviving the Holocaust by participating in the bat mitzvah ritual, which ordinarily marks a 13-year-old girl's symbolic entry into the Jewish community.

"We missed out on so much when we were children," said Lurie, 53, of North Hollywood, whose mother and younger brother perished during the family's ordeal in the attic. "This is a chance for us to undo that a little."

In a ceremony Saturday at Temple Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, the seven women chanted Hebrew prayers and made speeches in English with such feeling that many of the more than 600 people in the synagogue laughed and cried along with them.

"Hitler must be turning over in his grave at this celebration of being alive in spite of being Jewish," said Hill, 56, of West Hollywood, who watched the drowning and other atrocities while a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The women conceived the idea of participating in the ceremony during a convention of Holocaust survivors about two years ago, said Natalie Gold, 50, of West Hollywood. One night, nearly 50 pajama-clad men and women spontaneously gathered in her hotel room during the convention and held an impromptu slumber party.

For Gold, whose mother disappeared forever after abandoning her in front of a Polish police station to save her life, the slumber party was a rare opportunity to be playfully childlike. Gold was brought up in a convent with strict rules until the end of the war, when her father reclaimed her.

"We want to recapture our childhoods," she said, explaining why the women chose to participate in the ceremony.

For the past year and a half, with the support of psychologist Sarah Moscowitz and temple officials, the women met monthly to practice. Their closeness was evident in the many hugs they exchanged during Saturday's 1 1/2-hour ceremony.

Freda Gleitman of Beverly Hills was forced by the Nazis to work in ammunition factories and laundries when she was 12 years old. She never saw her family again because they were exterminated in a gas chamber. Saturday, she said the group of seven women was like a family to her.

"I feel like we're saying, 'Here we are. You Nazis did not succeed,' " she said.

Silten, 57, of Pomona, who stole from the Nazis to survive in the concentration camps of Westerbork and Theresienstadt, said the ceremony was "the start of a second life as a Jew, like coming back to my people."

The ceremony also represented a renewal of faith for Hannah Kagan, 52, of West Hills and Gitta Ginsberg, 53, of North Hollywood. Kagan's family was forced into hiding, and she is still so haunted by the experience that she prefers not to talk much about it. But she said she feels she has come full circle.

"I was brought up Orthodox, and these are not just words to me," she said.

Ginsberg was thrown by Nazis into a dark basement where she spent endless, terrified days alone before being brought to a convent. Before the experience in the cellar, she had pretended to be Christian in order to survive.

Gold said the women are hoping to relive other experiences they missed while growing up, either because the Holocaust was occurring or because they were so traumatized in the aftermath.

"We're talking about having a senior prom," she said with a smile.

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