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LIU art program helps Holocaust survivors celebrate life

Gita Shorr, right, with Marion Weiner, talk at

Gita Shorr, right, with Marion Weiner, talk at an art therapy program for Holocaust survivors about their experiences in Germany and Poland, respectively, during World War II. The program, hosted by Long Island University students, was held at Bristal Assisted Living at North Hills on April 19, 2017. Credit: Johnny Milano

Gita Shorr believes a pair of shoes, and her sister’s quick thinking, saved her life.

She was 12 and her sister, Mina, was 17 when Nazi soldiers rounded up their family in Bialystock, Poland, on a terror-filled night in 1942. The two, along with their parents and another sister, were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Young children typically were sent to the gas chamber, the longtime Oceanside resident recalled, while older ones who could serve as laborers sometimes were separated out and sent to a work camp.

Mina gave Gita her shoes, believing that if the child appeared taller and older, she could be among those assigned to a labor camp, where there was at least some chance of survival.

The sisters, later taken to another camp, were rescued by British forces when the war ended in 1945. The other members of the family, including a brother who was rounded up separately, perished in the Nazi genocide.

Each year on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Gita is filled with gratitude. The commemoration of 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, which begins at sunset Sunday and ends Monday evening, is a national memorial day in Israel and is observed by millions around the world.

“I am so happy, I can’t even express it, because I’m alive,” the 86-year-old said last week at the East Northport assisted living facility where she resides.

The number tattooed onto her arm, 33380, is still visible. Her sister, Mina, 91, who lives in Israel, bears the number 33381.

Irving Roth, who runs The Holocaust Resource Center of Temple Judea in Manhasset, said many details of Shorr’s account coincide with what he knows of Auschwitz, where he too was a prisoner.

The youngest children and people over 50, for instance, usually were killed immediately because they were not considered useful as workers, he said.

Shorr and several others, including Jews who escaped from Germany, Poland and other countries as the Nazi terror began, took part in a special program this week to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day.

They gathered at Bristal Assisted Living at North Hills for an art therapy program run by Long Island University that helped them process the trauma they suffered during the Holocaust.

Separate programs on Long Island marking the observance include an exhibit at The Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea of Manhasset, a synagogue in North Hills. It focuses on Hannah Kroner, a noted dancer who escaped from Germany, settled on Long Island and opened a popular dance studio in Albertson.

The goal of all the events is clear, said Rabbi Todd Chizner of Temple Judea: “We want to never forget and make sure it never happens again.”

The LIU therapy program, which includes annual missions overseas by students and staff, was started in 2011 and has helped a variety of people in different countries. They include orphans in Russia, impoverished children in Nicaragua and disadvantaged teenagers in South Korea, said Christine Kerr, the professor who heads LIU’s graduate art therapy program.

This year, students are traveling to Israel to work with Holocaust survivors, and the university also is focusing on survivors on Long Island.

At the session earlier this week, survivors spoke about their experiences and then broke clay plates into small pieces with hammers. Out of the broken pieces they created a Star of David — “turning something broken into something beautiful,” said Brittany Colasanto, a licensed creative arts therapist who helped organize the activity.

“It was really powerful,” Colasanto said. “There were tears; there were smiles; they were able to connect.”

Shorr said the activity “was excellent” and helped her process painful memories of her time at Auschwitz, never far from her thoughts.

Prisoners considered it a good day if they received a slice of bread and some water for breakfast, she said. She recalled how a woman and her boyfriend tried to escape and were hanged in front of the entire camp as a lesson to others.

She survived mainly because her sister was always looking out for her, she said. For instance, if Mina saw that Gita was weakening, she would share some of her meager rations.

“To this day, I cannot throw out food,” Shorr said.

The exhibit on Kroner at The Holocaust Resource Center, located at the synagogue on Searingtown Road in North Hills, opens Sunday at 3 p.m. and will remain on display for several months. Featuring the dancer’s writings and photographs, it details how she fled Berlin in 1939 as the repression intensified.

She went on to found the Hannah Kroner School of Dance in Albertson. She died in 2015 at 95.

Kroner was fortunate to escape Nazi Germany, “a lawless society, where the human laws of man and God were suspended,” said Roth, who organized the exhibit.

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