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From Germany To Jericho

An ORT Alum’s Journey

Gerry Landsberger of Jericho remembers the day his father Richard, a well-known and successful international pharmacist, was taken away by Nazis in Berlin.

“He was arrested,” recalls Landsberger in a thick German accent, who says his father wasn’t too concerned at the time and thought he’d be released. “He said, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’”

It was Nov. 9, 1938—Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass” when Nazi Germany launched a series of attacks, smashing the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues. The synagogue near Landsberger’s home was destroyed. Richard Landsberger was taken from his family and placed in a concentration camp.

After one month, Landsberger’s mother was able to free his father from the camp.

“To get out, at that point, the Germans would let you leave,” says Judy Vladimir, development associate for the Long Island Region of ORT, a global Jewish education and training organization founded in Russia in 1880. “As long as you left all your property and belongings.”

Landsberger’s story is on display as part of ORT Saved My Life: The Legacy Continues, a new exhibit running through October 4 at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove. In Jewish numerology, the Hebrew letters of the word chai (or “life”) add up to 18. For this reason, Jewish tradition celebrates “18” as a symbol of life lived to its fullest. In this exhibit, 18 people reveal 18 ways their lives were saved, in one way or another, by ORT.

In 1940, Landsberger, his twin sister Inge, older brother Kurt, and mother, along with three additional children chaperoned by the family, arrived in New York City from Berlin. His father, awaiting his immigration papers in Cuba, joined them two years later.

Landsberger was born in Berlin and attended schools there until he was 15 years old. “I started in the public school, then they threw me out. I had to go to a private school,” says Landsberger, now 89. “When the private school threw me out as a Jew I went to a Jewish school then they closed the Jewish school and I went to ORT.”

“I wasn’t allowed to play with anybody on the street,” he says. “I was a Jew—all my gentile friends if they had played with me on the street their fathers would have been arrested. It wasn’t always like that but it had been since ’33, ’34. You get used to it. If I went to school alone I was beaten up. I had to have somebody walk me to school.”

After the Nazis closed down the Jewish schools, Gerry was able to study at the remaining school open to Jewish students, the ORT school.

“It’s basically like BOCES over here,” says Landsberger. “I learned carpentry, so that gave me my mechanical background.”

“I learned how to use my fingers even though I did not go into woodworking, but I went into other machinery and I had to learn how to take care of that,” says Landsberger. “I operated the machines and I became a foreman and then I opened my own business.”

In New York, Landsberger was able to use the skills learned at ORT to find work and support the family. He worked in many jobs in the city and ended up in the plastics industry. He became a designer and producer of plastic items for major companies, including Revlon, Hanes, and Philip Morris, and eventually opened a factory along with two partners on Long Island that employed 150 people.

Forty years ago he went back to Germany.

“We went to the old playground which changed completely,” he says. “My wife went to her old apartment and there was a broken window when she lived there, it’s still broken….40 years later.”

He also went back to where the synagogue, destroyed the night his father was taken by the Nazis, once stood. He asked some local kids for the exact location. “They said there never was a synagogue,” says Landsberger. “Then I talked to a lady in her 70s and she said, ‘Yes those are the two houses where the synagogue was.’ It turns out she was a customer of my father’s.”

He says German kids were taught about the Holocaust in school but many times their families would deny it ever happened.

“They talked to their parents about it, the parents rejected it…it never happened,” he says. “So they came back the next day and [the teacher] said ‘Talk to your grandparents,’ and they admitted it.”

But Landsberger says over the years he’s seen attitudes change for the better and next year he’s planning a trip back to Germany with his family because they want to see where he grew up.

“I went to my old apartment 40 years ago and the woman said to me, ‘I live here now’ and shut the door in my face,” he says. “When my brother went last time, they opened it and made lunch for him.”

ORT Saved My Life: The Legacy Continues runs through October 4. Reception and program (reservations required) Sunday, September 29, 2-4 p.m.