A bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley last month was the site of an emotional reunion for two childhood friends who grew up together 77 years ago — and hadn’t seen each other since.
In the late 1930s in Dubno, Poland (now part of Ukraine), Sasha Genirberg and Mehal Kesler lived near each other, attended the same school and sang together in the choir of the city’s Great Synagogue.
Mehal even dipped the braids of Sasha’s girlfriend into an inkwell.
In their mid-teens, each boy got out of the city at their parents’ insistence, barely ahead of the Nazis. Sasha went west on a trail that ultimately led him into the heart of the Third Reich. Mehal and his 19-year-old sister went east into the Soviet Union and Uzbekistan.
Both boys survived by their wits, the resilience of youth and enough lucky escapes to fill several adventure movies.
Eventually, both made it the United States. Sasha became Sam, Mehal became Michael.
Each achieved undreamt-of success in their chosen fields, Sam Genirberg in the Bay Area as a businessman and real estate property manager, and Michael Kesler in New Jersey as a chemical engineer and consultant to the petroleum industry.
Several years ago, they each wrote a book about their Holocaust experiences: While nearly blind from glaucoma, Kesler finished “Shards of War: Fleeing To & From Uzbekistan” in 2010; two years later, Genirberg’s “Among the Enemy: Hiding in Plain Sight in Nazi Germany” was published.
Through it all, each had assumed that the other — like their parents, families and most of the friends of their youth — was buried in the mass graves near Dubno.
Cue social media.
Early last month, Santa Cruz County resident Shirley Ginzburg (the wife of Genirberg’s nephew Allen) met Kesler’s daughter, May, through Facebook and Yahoo groups dedicated to connecting the survivors of Dubno. When the word “choir” came up, the women’s hearts skipped a beat: They knew they’d found a connection.
Genirberg and Kesler, both 90, exchanged a phone call, and their relatives arranged for them to meet in Berkeley at Kesler’s grandson’s bar mitzvah on March 15.
Genirberg doesn’t recall the exact words he and Kesler said when they first met again. “The excitement was finding out that another young person my age had survived,” he said.
Most of his childhood friends had been murdered over the summer and fall of 1942.
“I’m so glad to see you,” is what Genirberg thinks he first told Kesler. “We talked about what had happened to the Jewish people in Dubno, about where we lived in Dubno; we both lived on the same street.”
As partygoers celebrated the bar mitzvah of Joseph, the two men sat outside and brought Dubno back to life. Suddenly Kesler said, “It’s almost 80 years: Let’s go!” and they began to sing together again, both voices strong on the Yiddish verses of “Oyfn Pripetshik” and “Tumbalalaika,” then soft and melancholy for the haunting lyrics of “Zog Nit Keyn Mol,” now the hymn of Holocaust survivors all over the world. (A video of the men singing is at www. tinyurl.com/kesler-genirberg.)
When Genirberg’s relatives Allen and Shirley Ginzburg traveled to Dubno a few years ago, they saw the tattered remains of the Great Syn-agogue, “with birds nesting in the rafters, broken windows, peeling frescoes on the walls,” Shirley says. For a time, the Germans used the building as a stable for horses, Kesler writes in his book.
“I remember a different Dubno,” Genirberg says.
In those days, the majority of the population was Jewish. “Saturday was a holiday,” Genirberg recalls. “All the streets were closed.” He remembers long days of playing pretend games with friends outdoors and his early penchant for assuming different identities (a preview of the social skills and versatility with languages that later contributed to his survival). He remembers kayaking on the River Ikva. He remembers following his elder brother Leyzer into the local Zionist youth group, where 12-year-old Sasha became a passionate participant in discussions on politics.
Michael Kesler’s Dubno is similar. “The Jews were doing pretty well, a middle-class community. We provided lawyers, dentists, doctors, and we also provided the bulk of the commerce.” He remembers his friendly rivalry with Genirberg in the choir, and how, as a short child, he had to stand on a chair provided by the cantor when he soloed. “We went along OK until the late ’30s, when all of a sudden Poland turned very much pro-Hitler.”
Kesler and his sister Luba spent several years on the run, looking after each other as they had promised their parents. Young men were so charmed by Luba that they were happy to help; one Jewish Red Army lieutenant sheltered the brother and sister with his parents.
Kesler nursed Luba through a near-fatal illness, and she spurred him to jump onto passing trains as they traveled through the Soviet empire. “She had the demeanor of a small dictator; when she said something, she meant it.” They nearly froze to death about 40 miles south of Stalingrad, where Kesler was arrested for stealing firewood.
By the time World War II ended, Kesler had served in the Red Army, worked as a veterinary assistant and started a weaving business in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. When he and Luba returned to their house in Dubno after the war, they were confronted by an outraged Ukrainian brandishing a pitchfork and shouting “dirty Jews” at them. Today, Kesler and his second wife have six children and 11 grandchildren between them. He notes proudly that Luba, who died two years ago, has 44 descendants.
Dubno changed hands several times during the war. The Russians had been in charge since September 1939, but German troops entered in June 1941 and promptly began killing. In July, Ukrainian police dragged Sam Genirberg’s father away and he was never seen again. By May 1942, Genirberg, his mother, and his older sister, Brandel, were crowded into Dubno’s ghetto along with his brother Leyzer and Leyzer’s wife and baby. Genirberg’s other brother, Herschel, was serving with the Red Army, no one knew where.
In his book, Genirberg records his mother’s words ordering him to get out: “You must do this for me, darling, even if this is the last thing you can do for me in my life.” Young Sasha Genirberg spoke fluent German, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish, and his Aryan appearance offered a rare opportunity.
With a doctored identity document, he turned himself into the non-Jew Andrey Trag, hoping to join a group of labor conscripts on their way into Germany. Brandel and a friend also slipped out of the ghetto, and by then Leyzer had joined the partisans. Their mother and Leyzer’s wife and son stayed behind. When the two brothers met in the woods outside the town, they learned of the massacre of all Dubno’s remaining Jews on October 5, 1942.
Genirberg worked his way through a series of foreign labor camps in Germany, often serving in the privileged position of interpreter. He carried on an affair with a beautiful Russian woman, but lived in constant fear of being exposed as a Jew.
Escaping from a labor camp landed him in a prison camp. He dug clay and worked in a coal mine. He saw other inmates beaten to death and mauled by dogs. On the run, he changed his identity to that of Ukrainian Ivan Kravtchuk. At war’s end, he was working as an interpreter in a camp near Osnabrück, where he watched the Allied bombing raids overhead.
Today, Sam Genirberg lives in El Cerrito in the home he shared with his wife, Shoshana, who died a year ago. They married while on a “kibbutz” near a displaced persons camp outside Zeilsheim, Germany, just after the war. With the first of their three children, Kejla (named for Genirberg’s mother), they immigrated to the United States in 1948.
Genirberg frequently addresses student groups as a speaker on the Holocaust, and last year was guest speaker at the city of Berkeley’s Yom HaShoah commemoration. He has never discovered the fates of his sister and his brother Herschel. Leyzer, although in poor health, is still alive.
Sitting with a reporter in his kitchen, Sam Genirberg’s eyes fill with tears as he speaks of his mother’s sacrifices so that he could live.
A few years ago, a rabbi gave a sermon on the necessity of admitting mistakes, and Genirberg was moved to speak up about his own still-painful guilt at following his mother’s last request. He says the rabbi silenced him by saying, “If your mother could know what you have done with your life …”
Holocaust Remembrance Day begins on the evening of Sunday, April 27. For a list of local commemorations, see calendar, page 31.