Memoir profiles courage of a 90-year-old survivor

Holocaust stories are inevitably moving, always vital. What particularly inspires in "No Place to Run" is Gilbert — his resourcefulness, his devotion to family, his refusal to give up.

I had the honor of speaking with Gilbert and asked him point blank what he thought enabled him to survive. He answers: "Luck. Pure luck. And faith in God. It would have been impossible to survive without this faith. Some people became atheists during the war. But to me, the contrary occurred. One example, I'll give you. It was 1944, Yom Kippur. Behind barbed wires, [in Bergen-Belsen] I was praying by myself. At the end of the prayer I cried out to God, if you let my family and me survive, I will buy a Torah in your name. I kept my word."

In 1968, Gilbert purchased a Torah from Czechoslovakia and donated it to Temple Beth El in Closter, N.J.

When pressed further about how he survived, however, Gilbert admits: "I did many things. Never do what you're supposed to do, is one of my guidelines. All my life I was a risk-taker. I arrived in America in 1953 with $86 in my pocket. Today I'm comfortable."

Indeed, during World War II, Gilbert forged connections wherever he could and took many risks. He also paid attention to danger signs. German-born, when he first heard Hitler's anti-Semitic speeches in 1935 and saw the cheering German crowds, he left for Paris. To remain in France, he enrolled at the Sorbonne, where he met his future wife, Sophie. When the war began, the couple were living in Warsaw with their daughter, 2-year-old Micki.

From the time Poland was first invaded, to the imprisonment of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto to the final years in Bergen-Belsen (where he says Anne Frank was a neighbor across the barbed wire), Gilbert was never a victim. He always took whatever proactive steps he could to save his family, friends, fellow Jews and himself.

When Jewish businesses were taken over by representatives of the Nazis, he convinced the German kommisar to hire him at his former job. This meant removing his armband while at work (a violation of Nazi law) and risking severe punishment if caught. He entered into extremely dangerous business deals with Poles, German agents and other Jews. The extra money he earned paid for life-saving bribes, hiding places for his wife and daughter and crucial documentation. Once the hard-earned funds paid for six pairs of stockings for the girlfriend of a Gestapo member. She repaid Gilbert with vital information that later saved the lives of his family.

Why did Gilbert write a book after 40 years of silence? In 1984, while attending a lecture by Maurice Friedman, he approached the professor and began to talk. Friedman became his mentor, encouraging him to write about his experiences. Sitting alone with a tape recorder, Gilbert was eventually able to tell his story. "It is a truth that must be told to avoid a recurrence," he explained.

He began to give speeches at colleges and high schools in San Diego. After much perseverance, his chronicles were finally published in London. He has appeared at two recent book signings, one at Black Oak Books in Berkeley, the other at Barnes and Noble in Walnut Creek. Understandably, he still doesn't like to discuss the war years and won't read from his work at the signings.

Gilbert hopes middle school children will read "No Place to Run," as well as adults of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Although it is painful to delve into the past — he later said he had to take a nap after our interview — the most gratifying aspect of opening up has been teaching the younger generation. "I wrote it especially so my three grand-daughters could know what happened."

Gilbert is still active in numerous Jewish organizations including the Jewish Community Center, B'nai B'rith, ORT, Brandeis Library and his Independent synagogue, Beth Chaim in Danville.

When asked what he most wishes to convey through his memoir, he replied, "Simply because someone has a different color skin or isn't Jewish, that is no reason to hate. Our greatest enemy is hatred and prejudice."