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Woman recalls the Holocaust so the world will remember

by Virginia de Leon


Several German families risked their lives and defied Nazis during World War II to help save Miriam Abramowitz-Ferszt.

People in a rural area near Munich took her in with her mother and little sister. They knew her family was Jewish and had false papers but did not turn them in to the Nazis. They helped them by sharing food and supplies.

Miriam Abramowitz-Ferzst
Miriam Abramowitz-Ferzst

For their courage and their willingness to risk their lives to save the Jews among them, Miriam will always be grateful.

 “I lived from hour to hour,” she said of the years in Nazi Germany when she and her family passed as non-Jews. “We were always scared and looked over our shoulders. When there is war all around, you just hope to survive.”

Miriam was 19 when the war began in 1939. Now 88 and living in Cheney, Miriam will share her experience in Yom HaShoah, the international day of remembrance of the Holocaust. As part of the ceremony at 7 p.m., Sunday, April 19, at Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th in Spokane, Miriam will present a commemorative keepsake to the winner of the annual creative writing contest.

For three years, Temple Beth Shalom has invited area students to compose an essay or poem on the Holocaust. This year’s theme is “Honoring the Rescuers: People Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust.” Students are writing on qualities of a rescuer, imagining what they would do if they lived next door to a Jewish family during the Holocaust and what it would take to persuade them to be a rescuer.


“Honoring the Rescuers:  those who saved Jews during the Holocaust”
is the theme
for Yom HaShoah,
Spokane’s observance of the Holocaust,
at 7 p.m., Sunday, April 19,
at Temple Beth Shalom,
1322 E. 30th Ave.

The keynote speaker is the high
school student essay-contest winner. 


Until recently, Miriam talked little about her experience.

Memories still haunt her, but she now realizes the importance of sharing her story. Last year, during a trip to Europe, she visited Auschwitz and was moved by the fact that thousands of people continue to go to the site where 3 million Jews were murdered.

“They want to know and remember,” said Miriam, whose late husband, David Ferszt, survived Auschwitz. “What happened should never be forgotten. It must be taught in our schools.

“Jews have always been persecuted and chased out and those who say it didn’t happen must be out of their minds,” she said.

When Mary Noble, a member of Temple Beth Shalom and an organizer of the local Yom HaShoah observance, asked her to take part this year, Miriam knew she had to accept the invitation.

“It’s a way to help others become aware,” she said.

Her experience in the war shaped her life. When she wasn’t busy working and raising children, she participated in activities of the Jewish community.

In 1970, she became a member of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which works to improve the quality of life for all people of Israel and to strengthen Jewish life in the United States.  It focuses on health, education, youth, environment and tikkun olam—making the world a better place.

Miriam also has been a longtime member of World ORT, a Jewish group that provides education and vocational training. It helps more than 200,000 Jews and non-Jews in 58 countries.

Born in Munich in 1920, she experienced a “wonderful childhood” before the war, living in a rural area outside the Bavarian capital. When she was eight, her family moved back to Munich so she could attend a better school.

Although they had one Jewish neighbor, her family didn’t have Jewish friends. Munich didn’t have a Jewish neighborhood, and her family was not religiously observant. Like many Jews, they didn’t think they were vulnerable because they saw themselves as German and assimilated into the mainstream culture.

In 1933, when her parents became more conscious of the growing prejudice against Jewish people, her father, Joseph Weiglein, made plans to retire from his courthouse job and move his family to Africa. Six months later, he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 41. Miriam was 13 and her sister, Gertie, was five.

Just before her father’s death, Miriam was kicked out of the private school she attended because she was Jewish. It was the first time she realized she was not safe.  At another school, she learned commercial skills and at 14 became an apprentice in a small store selling wools and yarns.

After her apprenticeship, she became a courthouse clerk in 1936, but was fired in early 1937 after someone discovered she was a Jew. In 1938, the synagogue in Munich was burned down.

Among the people who helped save Miriam and her family were Felix and Ida Hensel, whom they called “uncle” and “aunt” even though they were not related. Felix was a regional salesman for an Austrian steel company.  He hired Miriam to work in his office. He took care of her family, especially Gertie, who had a more difficult time passing as a non-Jew. For a while, Gertie lived with the Hensels and worked as a maid. The couple also helped them acquire false papers including passports without the “J,” which saved them from concentration camps.

Part of the time, Miriam, Gertie and their mother, Ellie Weiglein, lived with an acquaintance in a rural area outside Munich. Many people, especially families with children, left the city for villages. Air raids bombed Munich and major cities, so people escaped to the countryside.

Another “aunt” who helped shelter Miriam for a while was Mitzi, an actress who lived alone on a farm. Her husband, “Uncle” Walter Margerie, had been a major in World War I and was called back to active duty during the second war. Miriam said Walter was involved in an attempt to assassinate Hitler. Mitzi and Ellie were friends before the war. Miriam was born in Mitzi’s house.

Miriam did all she could to prevent her identity from being discovered. She kept her mouth shut and refrained from joining in political discussions. She did, however, become more aware of people who were helping Jews.

One man sold and repaired washing machines. She socialized with him and learned he was part of the underground that provided food and supplies to Jews.

She remembered how Jews were rounded up and taken to a concentration camp, but she didn’t know it was Dachau, 10 miles from Munich. When the war ended, the U.S. Army marched Nazis out of Dachau as prisoners.

“At the time, we didn’t know what was happening,” she said. “I saw people from the concentration camps work on the railroad, but what could we do? Nothing.”

After the war, she worked several years at a military PX. She married her first husband in 1947. Their daughter, Gabriel, was born in 1948. From then to 1950, she did clerical work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s International Refugee Organization.

In 1948, Miriam applied to emigrate to the United States. Her husband, mother and Gertie came in 1949. In July 1950, Miriam and Gabby joined them. After divorcing, she and Gabby lived in New York. She married again and her son, Armand, was born in 1956.

After her second husband died of a heart attack in 1959, Miriam, her mother and her two children moved to Los Angeles. Disenchanted with the smog and traffic, they moved in 1965 to Pocatello, Idaho, where they had friends, and where there was a Jewish temple.

In 1978, Miriam, Ellie and Armand moved to Cheney, to be with Gabby, who moved there in 1976. Miriam joined Temple Beth Shalom and worked as a travel agent until she retired when she turned 75. Her mother lived to be 98.

In 1990, Miriam met David, the widowed father-in-law of Rabbi Jack Izakson of Temple Beth Shalom. The two married in 1998. David died in 2002.

Like many people who lived through the atrocities of Nazi Germany, she and David didn’t talk much about their experiences. David was one of 10 children.  Only three survived.

Although it still hurts to remember, Miriam now feels more comfortable discussing her experiences. She wants to tell her story so others will know and the world will not forget.

For information, call 747-3304.