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Museum of Pride and Sorrow

Holocaust survivor Irving Belfer gets satisfaction from sharing his hand-carved miniatures that represent a past he wants remembered.

April 30, 2001|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I like to talk," Irving Belfer says in a bit of understatement as, pointer in hand, he leads the way on a tour of his home museum of Judaica.

For Belfer, 86, who has painstakingly carved table-sized synagogues and created a miniature cemetery with markers bearing Stars of David, art is also catharsis. He lost his first wife, toddler son and all but one of his five siblings in the Holocaust.

A diminutive man with a neatly trimmed white mustache and fringe of once-red hair, he has lived in the same pale blue stucco house on a tree-lined Burbank street for 46 years and in 1975 welcomed the first visitors to his museum, which now spills into virtually every room.

Although Belfer tends to look ahead rather than back--he'll tell you that "in 13 years I'll be 100"--he cannot and does not wish to forget the past. Even now, more than 60 years later, tears well in his eyes as he talks about the World War II atrocities in his native Poland.

In his heavily accented English, he recalls the good life as a child in Lodz, a city about 75 miles southwest of Warsaw, where his father, a weaver, was prosperous enough that the family of six children could afford treats such as apples imported from Washington state.

Still, to be a Jew in Lodz was to be less than a first-class citizen. Jews and Gentiles were schooled separately. Jews could not work in the major factories. "Poland was very anti-Semitic," says Belfer, whose family was ultra-Orthodox.

When he was 16, his mother died of a ruptured appendix. At 22, he would marry Eva Sztrauch and, he says, "from this time, we were never separated. Hitler separated us." Their son, Baruch Hirsh, was born in late 1937. Eva and Baruch, together with her parents, died in 1942 at the Treblinka concentration camp. Three of his sisters died in concentration camps. He does not know how or when his brother perished.

Belfer describes himself as neither Orthodox, Reform nor Conservative but, rather, "all three together." He keeps kosher but drives on the Sabbath and worships at Adat Ari El, a Conservative temple in North Hollywood.

"You don't believe this," he says, moving from room to room in his three-bedroom home. Here hangs a menorah made of sequins, placed one by one with tweezers. There, on a background of blue velvet, are the Ten Commandments, each gilded letter hand-chiseled from wood. The gilded dome of an exquisite wooden replica of a synagogue has precisely 1,186 hand-cut shingles. "It took me six weeks, day and night." He delights in telling of going to Carpeteria to buy indoor-outdoor carpet for the synagogue's garden space--6 inches of it. The clerk "walked away talking to himself, '6 inches, 6 inches . . . .' "

Another synagogue, Orthodox, has illuminated exterior lamps and a hinged roof that opens to show an elaborate interior with little wooden benches, a chandelier, a balcony for female worshipers and an Ark, or bimah, with the scrolls of the Torah.

His miniature cemetery, with its 600 markers bearing blue Stars of David, is surrounded by guard towers and enclosed in barbed wire. "Every star represents 10,000 who perished" in the Holocaust, Belfer explains. At the entrance is a gate on which are emblazoned "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes You Free), the cruel words that doomed prisoners saw as they passed through the gate at Auschwitz. At the flick of a switch, a cantor sings a prayer for the dead.

Surely these replicas are the work of a man with a state-of-the-art woodworking shop? Belfer smiles, then leads the way to his garage where, on a shelf, sit his tools: a coping saw, a brush, glue, sandpaper. "The only electric tool I have is a drill."

Over 45 years, he has created more than 200 objects. When carving large decorative circles of wood for a building, a tuna can is his guide. Silver dollars work nicely for small circles.

As in many things, he is self-taught. He had only seven years of formal schooling, but he is still learning, keeping up on things, walking to the corner each morning to buy a newspaper, cherishing each day.

He terms his survival of the Holocaust "a miracle." Once, German guards stopped him, demanding to know if he carried money and warning that his whole family would be shot if he lied to them. Although he was hiding money and jewelry in the heels and soles of his shoes, he denied it. When the guard ripped off one of his soles with pliers, he saw only another sole. The shoes had been outfitted with double false soles.

In the fall of 1942, Belfer was taken to a forced-labor camp at Skarzysko-Kamiena, where he spent 22 months making bullets in a converted factory. Once, a guard whipped him with a branch for failing to clean a drop of oil from a bullet.

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