Members of the congregation view the garden dedication for Annie...

Members of the congregation view the garden dedication for Annie Bleiberg at Congregation L'Dor V'Dor in Oyster Bay on Sunday, May 15, 2022. Credit: Morgan Campbell

The plaque’s inscription on the memorial stone in the garden of remembrance at Oyster Bay’s Congregation L’Dor V’Dor captures the mission and vision of the late Holocaust survivor Annie Bleiberg. The quiet space — brimming with perennial and annual flowers and shrubs and accented with benches — honors the former Woodbury resident and beckons visitors to contemplate her legacy: a life dedicated to sharing her testimony of surviving the horrors of the Holocaust and standing up to anti-Semitism.

Bleiberg died in 2018 at the age of 97.

On May 15, the synagogue dedicated the garden to its former member, and grandmother and great-grandmother of three, at a ceremony attended by loved ones, friends and congregants, along with Nassau County Legis. Joshua Lafazan (D-Woodbury) and Andrea Bolender, chair of the board of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove, where Bleiberg served as a longtime docent.

Bleiberg’s daughter, Susanne Seperson, 73, of Locust Valley, said the memorial garden serves as a message of hope and a testament to her mother’s activism.

“The garden is a reminder to stand up to the face of evil and to never let the Holocaust happen again,” she said. “It gives people a chance to contemplate and reflect on that.”

Annie Wertman was 19 in September 1939 when Hitler invaded her native Poland. As Nazi Germany’s forces moved her and her family to the Belzec concentration camp, Wertman escaped through an opening in the wall of a train car and walked to Oleszyce, her birthplace, where a Christian family hid her until a member of the Polish underground secured false identification documents for her, Seperson said.

Trying to pass as a Polish peasant, Wertman had hoped to find work in Germany, but a former high school classmate betrayed her identity. She was beaten by police and jailed in a Krakow ghetto. After the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, she was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

“At the camp gate, guards either sent you to the right or left,” Seperson explained. “If you were sent to the left, you were gassed to death immediately, but she was sent to the right and selected for a work detail.”

‘Something for Annie’

The memorial stone, placed strategically to the right at the garden’s edge, symbolizes Bleiberg’s “chance to work and possibly survive at the concentration camp,” she said.

Seperson and members of the synagogue’s Enrichment Committee, tasked with sponsoring educational and enrichment programs at Congregration L’Dor V’Dor, selected the flowers and plantings and worked with a landscaper to bring “the living memorial” to fruition. Seperson and several synagogue members funded the project.

“My mother loved flowers and plants, and the Enrichment Committee thought a memorial garden would be a fitting tribute to her life,” said Seperson, adding that for two years, COVID-19 pandemic restrictions put planning and building the memorial garden on hold.

“We felt we wanted to dedicate something for Annie, who survived the Holocaust,” said committee co-chair Judith Tantleff, 84, of Oyster Bay, “and give a place to our members and children who are going to learn about it.”

Committee member Susan Holzman, 76, of Matinecock, said the garden is a “permanent remembrance of who she [Annie] was and what she went through and why we are living where we are living.”

Inside the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazis tattooed Wertman as prisoner No. 38330. They also branded her forearm with an inverted triangle, marking her as a criminal for attempting to escape the Nazi occupation. Bleiberg labored in a warehouse, sorting the looted prisoners’ property until November 1944, when the Nazis liquidated the camp and she was sent to a Czechoslovakian work camp, where she was liberated by Soviet soldiers in 1945. While her father also survived, her mother and sister died in concentration camps.

Sharing her experience

The young woman returned to Poland in 1946 and married a childhood friend, David Bleiberg, and moved to Germany the same year. In 1948, she gave birth to the couple’s only child, Susanne, and two years later, the family immigrated to the United States. David Bleiberg died in 1978.

Seperson says her mother worked as a bookkeeper and then a comptroller for a large Manhattan garment manufacturer. Over the years, she shared “bits and pieces” of her Holocaust experiences with her daughter and grandchildren.

“I knew something terrible had happened [to her], but I never got the whole story chronologically,” Seperson recalled. “She wanted me to feel proud of being Jewish.” But when the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington, D.C., in 1993, “she told me everything,” Seperson said.

Andrea Bolender, board chair of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County, who attended the dedication of the memorial garden, said Bleiberg volunteered at the museum for more than two decades.

“She [Bleiberg] was the definition of a [Holocaust] survivor,” Bolender recalled. “There are two kinds of survivors: ones who look ahead and others who look to the past. Annie was someone who looked at life and looked ahead. She made a life for herself and became a successful comptroller for a large company when women didn’t have careers.

“She never said, ‘I can’t,’ and she found humanity in many people who helped her along the way.”

With the support of the Holocaust museum in Nassau and other organizations, Bleiberg began to regularly share her story with audiences far and wide — at synagogues, elementary and secondary schools, military and police academies, and universities throughout the country and even in Poland.

“My mother felt strongly that if anyone could make a difference, students and young people could,” she said. “She felt education was the best hope to improve the world.”

Story chronicled

Her speeches not only educated, they imparted hope, encouragement and perseverance, exhorting audiences to “never give up,” said Seperson, who added that her mother’s narrative continues to inform visitors at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center and at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where her testimony is part of a permanent collection.

Many admired Bleiberg for her courage and determination.

During her life, senators, members of Congress and other elected officials — along with singer Gloria Gaynor, best known for the 1978 disco hit “I Will Survive” — recognized Bleiberg for her devotion to teaching tolerance and respect, Seperson said. She added that Gaynor, who met Bleiberg at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center, chronicled her story of survival in her 2013 book, “We Will Survive: True Stories of Encouragement, Inspiration, and the Power of Song” (Grand Harbor Press).

Rabbi Steven Moskowitz of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor, who said Bleiberg had been a member of the synagogue for 18 years, marveled at her “unmatched” resilience and strength.

“There was something about her character and inner resolve that helped her survive,” he recalled. “She was a force to be reckoned with.”

He said the garden, “a place to take in the beauty of nature and God’s handiwork,” would not only be a space for reflection and remembrance, but for teaching.

“We have already used it [the garden] to meet with our religious school students,” he said. “During the week we were dedicating the garden, I told all the students about Annie. Because Annie was a member of our synagogue, we are entrusted more than others with remembering her and telling her story.”