Holocaust survivor-lecturer Ernie Hollander dies at 77

But he already had been a huge presence in his synagogue.

"He was a giant," said Rabbi Howard Zack, the spiritual leader of Beth Jacob Congregation for 16 years. Zack, who left last year to take a pulpit in Columbus, Ohio, returned to a filled-to-capacity Beth Jacob on Monday and was one of several to pay tribute to Hollander at his funeral. By gently reminding him that a sick congregant was in need of a visit, or telling him of a custom unique to Beth Jacob, Zack said, "he turned me from a pisher into a rabbi."

Ernest "Ernie" Hollander died on Sunday night, after a long illness. He was 77.

Hollander was born in 1925 in Ochuwa, a small town in the Carpathian mountains, which was then Czechoslovakia.

Originally, Hollander's family name was Albergezie. They were Sephardim who left Spain at the time of the expulsion. First they fled to Holland, and then, when they arrived in Eastern Europe, their name was changed to Hollander to reflect this.

Hollander's father was a rabbi, and there was a rabbi in every generation of his family from the Inquisition to the Shoah. His parents owned a mill, which ground grain into flour and olives into oil.

Hollander's mother was a twin, and the two sisters had 15 children among them. Hollander was one of eight.

During the war he was sent to various labor camps and finally ended up at Auschwitz. He and his brother, Alex, were the only two of the 15 children to survive — or so they thought at the time.

Hollander lost his parents and numerous extended family members. His own father was killed before his eyes. He heard that his older brother Zoltan's body had last been seen being cut from a tree after German soldiers hanged him at the end of the war.

Hollander immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1946. He married his wife, Anna Marcowitz, on Nov. 29, 1947, the day the United Nations voted for partition, making way for the state of Israel.

The Hollanders exchanged vows on a Haifa rooftop. As they told the Jewish Bulletin in 1998, they had $3 to finance their wedding. Since Hollander worked in a bakery, he smuggled home two rolls in his pocket every day for a week. On his wedding day, he had 12, enough for each guest to have a sandwich.

By the end of the day, fighting had broken out, and the guests had to stay over in the Hollanders' one-room apartment.

Hollander fought in the Irgun in pre-state Israel, and also in the War of Independence, during which he was wounded three times. He was away at war when his daughter Beverly was born.

In 1950, the Hollanders moved to New York, and their son Michael was born shortly after. Then, in 1961, they moved to Oakland.

"He wanted to bring Yiddishkeit to the desert," said Rabbi Judah Dardik, the current spiritual leader of Beth Jacob.

When the Hollanders first arrived, they opened the predecessor of the Grand Bakery. Called The New Yorker Bakery, they made such confections as Hungarian strudel.

But there weren't enough Jews in the area to support the business, Hollander told the Bulletin in 2001.

"I remember, the first day I opened up, the rabbi from Beth Jacob said, 'Look, we're an Orthodox synagogue and we have no money. Can you supply us for free?' Then it was the old-age home [Oakland's Home for Jewish Parents], and we gave them free pastries. Then Beth Abraham came, Sinai, every synagogue, Hadassah. More than half the baking I did daily, I gave away for free. I couldn't say no. My wife always says that if I was a woman I'd be pregnant every nine months — I can't say no."

The Hollanders sold the bakery in the mid-'60s, and Hollander entered the metal business.

Over the years, Hollander became a fixture at Beth Jacob. Dardik called the synagogue "Ernie's house," saying, "This was his place, he lived here."

Sukkot was his favorite holiday, reminisced Zack, and as the congregation grew larger, so did Hollander's sukkah. Hollander did not consider it a successful holiday unless every member of the entire congregation had come and eaten in his sukkah.

Zack said Hollander taught him everything about the congregation, for which he was especially appreciative as a new rabbi. "He was the greatest rebbe who ever lived in this community," he said.

He also frequently lectured to schools, universities and churches about his experiences in the Holocaust.

"He was our not-so-silent witness to the most awful and awesome event in our history," said Zack. "He survived with a will and faith that few could match."

As director of community programming at the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, Riva Gambert plans the various Holocaust commemorations. She called upon Hollander often.

"He would so sensitively and so powerfully convey the lessons of the Holocaust to empower students to know they had it in them to stand up to prejudice," said Gambert. "It wasn't just telling his story but empowering others. He could see beyond his own pain and that was why he was such a powerful speaker and strong human being for everyone around him."

In 1991, Hollander received an invitation to debate a Holocaust denier on "The Montel Williams Show." Some, including Zack, advised him not to accept, arguing that to even appear on the same stage with a denier was to give his views legitimacy. But Gambert felt otherwise, and Hollander agreed to go on the show.

By chance, a man in Brooklyn recognized him as the spitting image of his friend in Serbia, who turned out to be a brother Hollander thought was dead.

"I'm in seventh heaven, what can I tell you?" Hollander told the Bulletin in 1992, after he learned of the news. "I cry every day from joy."

Zoltan Hollander had indeed been strung up to die in 1944, but he fell between the trees and played dead until he could escape. After 10 years of forced exile in Siberia, he eventually made his way to Kragujevic, Yugoslavia, where he became a printer. He believed his entire family had perished in the war, having no idea he had two brothers in California and extended relatives throughout the United States, Canada and England.

The brothers began speaking every day by telephone. "Religiously speaking, I believe it is a miracle," said Hollander at the time. "We will have to work very hard to make up for these 50 years."

"The Montel Williams Show" hosted the reunion, and Beth Jacob held an emotional service to welcome Zoltan, which some 600 people attended.

Zack said on Monday that the Beth Jacob community had not stopped mourning after Tisha B'Av. "To know Ernie Hollander was to know a walking, breathing text of Jewish history," he said, "to know a Judaism in all of its beauty and all of its suffering."

Hollander is survived by his wife of 55 years, Anna, of Oakland, his son, Michael, of Oakland, his brother, Alex, of Clear Lake and two grandchildren. His daughter, Beverly, died in 1998.

Donations can be made to Beth Jacob Congregation, 3778 Park Blvd., Oakland, CA 94610; the Holocaust Center of Northern California, 639 14th Ave., S.F., CA, 94118; or a favorite charity.

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."