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July 24, 2024

Ashland Creatives: Bringing his mother’s experience of the Holocaust to the world

Irving Lubliner published his mother's account of enduring Nazi persecution and the Auschwitz death camp in the book "Only Hope: A Survivor's Stories of the Holocaust." Barbara Tricarico photo
December 11, 2023

Felicia Lubliner shielded her son from the horror she endured in Jewish ghettos and at Auschwitz; decades later he has shared her stories

By Debora Gordon

“Only Hope: A Survivor’s Stories of the Holocaust” is an assembled collection of writings and transcriptions of recordings done by Felicia Bornstein Lubliner. Her son, Ashland resident Irving Lubliner, a professor and writer, published the book in 2019, nearly 50 years after his mother’s passing.

As a child, Lubliner noticed his mother’s ongoing documentation of her experiences of the Holocaust. “I would hear my mother typing; late at night she had insomnia, suffered from nightmares and often would be up late or even all-night typing, and I looked at the papers sitting next to the typewriter,” where she recorded her recollections. By 1961, one of her stories was already published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Felicia Lubliner in late 1945, about seven months after she was liberated.

A quote in the book comes to mind: “And you store things in your memory, let’s not forget anything because if we do come out alive from this, if we do wake up from this insane nightmare, we have to bring the message that this will never happen again.”

Lubliner explained: “I think she was determined to tell what happened, to be a witness. She wanted to bear witness about what took place, make people aware and do whatever she could to see to it that such things never happen again, making them think twice about any hateful behavior and peaceful resolution to conflict. And that’s what I’m trying to carry on in my work.”

After the war, Felicia Lubliner resettled in Oakland, California. Her Aunt Helen had left Poland prior to the outbreak of the war and was already living in Oakland. Helen sent a food-filled package described in the story: “The fact that the package crossed the Atlantic, and made it into the Polish ghetto, leaving the family flabbergasted; representing so much more than its contents and it came with the knowledge that somebody far, far away cared about them and was thinking about them.” 

When Felicia, who had survived life in the ghetto and the Auschwitz death camp, was liberated, she established contact with Helen, who encouraged her to get a visa to come to the U.S. and move to Oakland, offering to help her make a new start. 

Lubliner, now 71, was born, raised in Oakland, graduated from Oakland High School, and eventually relocated to Ashland in 2005. He got his bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and his Master of Arts in teaching at UC Davis, including teaching credentials. He has gone around the country training math teachers, has a consulting practice and has spoken to teachers in 39 states.

Lubliner was invited by a history teacher at the Bentley School in Oakland to visit each year and share his mother’s stories. It was one of the biggest factors that led to his editing and publishing the book of her writings.

“I got so much encouragement from the parents and teachers and students,” Lubliner said, and they told him, “You really should publish these stories.” 

Many teachers have praised the book, both for the information being conveyed and the quality of the writing. Lubliner has spoken at Ashland High School annually for the last 10 years, as well as at schools in Grants Pass and Medford.

Felicia Lubliner was about 26 years old when she came to the United States. She did not speak English before arriving but she mastered the language and became an eloquent writer. An English teacher at Ashland High bought a classroom set of “Only Hope,” not just to inform the students about history but to provide examples of what quality writing looks like.

Felicia Lubliner in the 1970s

Lubliner’s parents did not talk about their experiences unless directly asked, and even then gave limited answers. But as Lubliner looked at the papers near his mother’s typewriter, he said, “I saw references to the Holocaust. I’m seeing references to gas chambers and the word Nazi, the whole gamut of vocabulary words one would associate with the Holocaust. So I had some awareness that my mother was writing about this phenomenon.”

Although he sometimes asked questions, his parents would give very short answers to questions such as: “Why don’t I have grandparents?” 

They would say, “They died during the war.” 

“Why do you have tattooed numbers on your arms?”

“Because we were prisoners during the war and our captors tattooed us.”

Lubliner felt his parents did not want to scare him and so didn’t go into detail, but he was getting a sense of what happened by looking at what his mother was typing. Or she might make reference to having spoken at San Francisco State University. He came to realize, “She’s talking about what she experienced during the war, this thing they call the Holocaust.”

As time went on, he said, “If I saw a reference to the Holocaust in a book or on TV, at some point it dawned on me: That’s what my parents had lived through, without them actually sitting me down and saying, ‘We survived the Holocaust.’ The fact that my mother had no family members made it clear to me that she was a Holocaust survivor. I don’t remember my mother ever using the word Holocaust or concentration camp in a conversation with me.”

Lubliner recently visited the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum in Texas and took to heart an idea that arose there about people who witness someone being victimized. One can be a perpetrator and join those who are acting a hateful manner. It can be the easiest thing to do, joining those who express hate.

Or one can be a bystander and say, “This is not my problem.” That can also be an easy thing to do.

Or one can be an “upstander,” Lubliner said, who stands up for the one being victimized and does whatever she or he can to call out the bully and say to the victim, “Come with me, I’m just going to be at your side and protect you in this instance or report the action to the appropriate authority. In a school setting, that might be a teacher or administrator.”  

Lubliner encourages everyone to reflect on these words. “Now that I’ve seen that formulation, involving perpetrators, bystanders and upstanders, I’m including that in all of my school presentations in hopes of encouraging people to join the upstanders,” he said.

“What I’m trying to do is make people aware of something that took place 75, 80 years ago, and so I think my mother’s writing has something to say to you, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum in this country and where you are with regard to any conflict going on in the world today.”

One of the quotes from the book is: “Hating was so easy, and hating with a crowd” has a special appeal.

He said, ”With regard to the question, ‘Why is there so much hate in the world right now?’ I think when people’s lives are unsatisfying and frustrating for people, they look for scapegoats, and there are groups enthusiastically suggesting who those scapegoats should be and offering you support and encouragement to join them in their hateful actions. And I think it gives some people a sense of belonging: ‘I now belong to a group; it happens to be a hate group.’”

Another quote that Lubliner cites is: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” and he encourages all of us to recognize that when the world is taking steps toward another genocide, it’s important to look at what those steps have looked like in the past, and to say, “Oh, we’re heading in the direction again. I hear the rhyme, I hear the rhyming structure in the news that I’m hearing and reading, and it’s time to ring the alarm.”

Lubliner also encourages everyone to have intergenerational conversations. The elders in one’s family or one’s community have wisdom to share with the young and the young have perspectives that should be heard by the old their fears, their concerns.

“I’m the poster child for what happens when one waits too long. I thought I would have the chance to speak to my parents about what they experienced when I was older and more mature, and I did not expect to lose my mother when I was 21 and to have my father diagnosed with Alzheimer’s immediately after, and be basically unable to communicate with him. I now convey that message in every presentation I give and in the afterword of the book, which is broken up into three parts, to everyone.”

Lubliner said Part 1 of the afterward “is prefaced with the four words: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and I describe that as the unwritten rule that existed in my household. I would never ask many questions because I sensed that it brought sadness to my parents and they didn’t tell me much because they didn’t want to scare me.

“And the next part of my afterward is prefaced with the four words ‘Do ask, do tell,’ and I encourage these intergenerational conversations and try to make the point that the more one knows about one’s family history, the more one understands him or herself.

“The third part of my afterward is what it means to me, to carry my mother’s words forward and make them available to people and to give them a life beyond my life. This book will exist when I have died.

“Some people make a decision not to read my mother’s book because they think, ‘Why would I want to read about something so depressing?’ And yet, many people who have read the book have commented about it being as much about the triumph of the human spirit as it is about historical details, and I thought of that when I saw this quote that appeared on the website: ‘But there is more than feeling bad about the Holocaust. It’s not just that one should look back and be mournful; there’s hopeful energy.'”

Ashland Creatives features writers, artists, musicians, actors and other creatives who live in Ashland. Email Debora Gordon at debora.ashlandnews@gmail.com if you are a creative artist or would like to suggest someone to feature.

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and nonviolence activist who recently moved to Ashland from Oakland, California.

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