Holocaust Survivors Mark 70th Anniversary With A Gift To Future Generations
They stood at the center of the room with loved ones all around. A candle shot sparks into the air from an elaborate cake as the crowd sang, “Happy anniversary to you.” It was a moment Shoshana and Sol Winkler never could have imagined in their wildest dreams.
The couple married 70 years ago, on July 17, 1946, in a displaced persons (DP) camp in Italy after surviving the horrors of the Holocaust. At the time of their wedding, she was 18 and he was just a day shy of 21. They were scared, confused and alone, with no family members or friends to witness the occasion.
Seven decades later, the couple have two children, seven grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, a vast network of friends and a lifetime of stories to tell.
“It means Hitler didn’t win,” Shoshana says. “We did.”
The Winklers’ remarkable story is one of perseverance, strength and determination against all odds. The Nazis murdered their parents and seven of their siblings combined. Twice, they moved to new countries, learned to speak new languages and found ways to support their family.
“My parents struggled and endured more hardships than anyone I have ever known,” says their son, Alex Winkler of West Bloomfield. “Even as they struggled, they managed to raise my sister and me while providing us with a home filled with love, affection and discipline.”
The couple sat together, watching and listening, as family members stepped up to a microphone and shared thoughts and good wishes during a recent 70th anniversary party at Lelli’s Inn on the Green in Farmington Hills. Their great-granddaughter, Hayley, 5, wore a pink, frilly dress and coyly said, “Happy anniversary; I love you!”
Grandson Steven Schostak of Northville spoke on behalf of all the grandchildren.
“Papa and Bubbie, I can’t even begin to comprehend the obstacles you encountered, stumbled and triumphed over. Your love was born out of one of the darkest periods of humanity. That love is still strong 70 years later, and through your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, it will last forever.”
“If it wasn’t for the Holocaust, we never would have met,” Shoshana points out when asked how their relationship began.
They were born in different countries — Sol in Czechoslovakia, one of eight children, and Shoshana, one of six children, in central Hungary. Their youngest grandson, Alex (AJ) Schostak of Baltimore, put together these accounts of their family histories:
[Sol] was born in the town of Beregszasz (now Ukraine). His mother, Chaya, came from an ultra-religious family, and his father was a horse-and-buggy driver from a religious background. They did not have a lot of money, and the children often fought over the little bit of food Chaya could put on the table.
At the age of 17, [Sol] left his family to make it on his own in the big city. He took a train to Budapest where he worked as a cook and watchman at an all-boys Jewish orphanage. He last saw his family at his childhood home when he visited for Purim in 1944 …
The Nazis took over the region and deported the Jews of Beregszasz on the last day of Passover that year. Sol spent the remainder of the war on the run from the Nazis. His blond hair, blue eyes and youthful visage allowed him to pass easily enough as an Aryan schoolboy, and he was even employed at one time as a cook for Hungarian Nazis.
He was on the run from the Nazis and Hungarian Nazis on six different occasions and sent to three working camps (including a brick factory and an airfield where he had to load bombs onto Nazi planes). Each time, he managed to escape at just the right time.
Shoshana was born in the town of Fadd, about a hundred kilometers down the Danube River from Budapest. The small town had about a dozen Jewish families before the war, and her father served as cantor in the town’s synagogue (he was also a university professor and a war hero from World War I) …
Shoshana convinced her father to let her spend spring vacation in Budapest in 1944, where her older brother, Avri, was apprenticing as a tailor. It was on the day she was to return to Fadd that Germany officially took over Hungary, and Shoshana was unable to board the boat that would have taken her back because she was a Jew. In the chaos that ensued, she was separated from her brother and would not see him again until after the war.
Shoshana spent several weeks in a girl’s orphanage outside the city before being sent to a factory. Because she was under 16, she was placed in a line with other girls who were alone without family, and they were sent to a train platform.
Before she could board the train that would have likely sent her to a concentration camp, a man handed her a Swedish passport and told her not to speak any Hungarian. The man, who unknown to her was likely Raoul Wallenberg [a Swedish businessman and diplomat credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews], took her and the other girls away to a safehouse by the Danube River. Shoshana was placed at the Spanish Consulate and hid there until the end of the war.
When the war ended, Shoshana went back to her childhood home and was horrified to learn the handyman and his wife had moved in, claiming the house and all of her family’s belongings were theirs. She approached a friend from school, excited to see a familiar face and was met with a cold and callous greeting. “She said, ‘What you doing here? I thought we killed all the Jews,’” Shoshana recalls, her voice cracking with emotion from the painful memory.
Without homes or their families and with nowhere to go, Sol and Shoshana both ended up at the DP camp. He remembers the first time he laid eyes on her.
“I was in love with her as soon as I met her,” Sol says. “I told myself, ‘That’s it.’ I used to take her out across the street from the immigration camp. We got married about three months later.”
Following the wedding, the couple tried to leave along with about 200 others packed into a fishing boat bound for what was then Palestine. They were stopped by the British and forced to an internment camp in Cyprus where they were imprisoned for several months. When they finally got to Palestine in 1947, Sol immediately went to war, helping fight for Israel’s independence. Ten years later, he moved to Detroit with his brother, Joseph, eventually bringing Shoshana and their two young children to join him.
“I always wanted to come here. This country is the best country in the world,” Sol says. “It was a good feeling. But, after then, it was very hard here because the country was very anti-Semitic in 1957. I didn’t get a job because I came from Israel, and I was a Jew. My profession was a telephone technician.”
Sol ended up doing various jobs, including selling fish and fresh fruit. Shoshana learned to sew and was a seamstress on Detroit’s “Avenue of Fashion” on Livernois. She recalls her pay was 90 cents per hour. Today, the Winklers live with their daughter and son-in-law in Beverly Hills. Sol is 91 and Shoshana is 88.
“To be able to go through what they went through — the war years, helping build Israel, coming back to another country again and starting all over in this country — that determination and that willpower is incredible,” says their daughter, Lillian Schostak. “They gave my brother and me and their grandchildren their inner strength.”
Like many Holocaust survivors, the Winklers never talked about their horrific experiences until recently. They now feel strongly about sharing their story to ensure that future generations continue to learn and never forget. In their honor, the family created the Shoshana and Sol Winkler Educating the Next Generation Fund through the Holocaust Memorial Center.
Family members surprised the couple with the fund at the anniversary celebration and also presented a scrapbook with photos and handwritten messages from partygoers.
“I am filled with such joy knowing that not only do my grandparents get to spend quality time with my children, but that my kids will be old enough to have actual memories of their great-grandparents, who represent their connection to the history of the Jewish people,” says Michael Schostak of Bloomfield Township. “My grandparents have been my inspiration in life to never settle for second best.”
Reflecting upon the couple’s lifetime commitment, Shoshana recalls something her father told her that she says helped keep them together through thick and thin.
“He said when you give your word to somebody, you stand behind it and don’t ever change your mind about it,” she recalls. “I gave him my word. I stayed with him, and I am still here.”
To make a contribution to the Shoshana and Sol Winkler Educating the Next Generation Fund, go to holocaustcenter.org/makeagift and select the fund in the dropdown box.
Story and photos by Robin Schwartz, JN Contributing Writer