Julius Eisenstein walked out of Dachau concentration camp in 1945, built a life for himself and his family on Long Island and for years said little about the Holocaust, whose 6 million slaughtered Jews included most of his family.
He broke his quiet late in life after meeting one of the GIs who liberated him, becoming a public speaker who captivated audiences by telling, in straightforward, delicately accented language, what he saw and what he endured.
Eisenstein died Feb. 8 at his Hallandale Beach, Florida, home after a breakthrough case of COVID-19, said his son, Frederick Eisenstein of Sea Cliff. He was 102.
Newsday played a small role in Eisenstein’s awakening. In June 1988, the newspaper printed a photograph of Dachau on liberation day 1945, showing dozens of Dachau inmates, including Eisenstein, and two soldiers, only one of whom is facing the camera. Eisenstein's smile is imperfect because, his son said, his teeth had been smashed by guards. The soldier looks haunted. Eisenstein told columnist Paul Vitello he was trying to find that man. “I would just like to thank him … He symbolizes America. He gave me my life.”
A week later, Vitello wrote a follow-up: GI “Joseph Frolio of Plainview, a retired truck driver working part-time as a chauffeur for Banner Limousines of Massapequa, met Julius Eisenstein, the retired baker from Old Westbury, in the lobby of Newsday and shook hands.”
Frolio’s daughter had recognized her father in the photograph and called the newspaper.
Sitting in that lobby, Eisenstein asked Frolio to “Tell me what you remember from that day … It is important.”
“I seen people walking toward me like dead skeletons,” Frolio said. “You want to take your face and hide in shame. Hell couldn't be no worse."
That meeting “was the turning point,” Frederick Eisenstein said. “That’s what got him out of his shell.” Before, his father had been “completely consumed with bringing us into middle class American life,” spending days behind the counter at a succession of bakeries he opened in Roslyn, Mineola and Manhasset. Later, he opened a liquor store and shoe store, and bought buildings in New Hyde Park and Garden City.
Eisenstein and Frolio made several appearances together, Frederick Eisenstein said. His father kept speaking, first at schools in the metro area, later at schools and community groups in South Florida. “That evolved to be his mission,” Frederick Eisenstein said. “He talked about his family life in Poland, he talked about when the Germans invaded and overran their town very quickly, and how Jewish people were singled out and were executed immediately. It started right away.”
The immigrant from the Polish city of Tomaszow Mazowiecki gave his audiences a sobering version of American exceptionalism in virtually every talk, Frederick Eisenstein said: “You kids are very lucky — you may not realize it, but in other parts of the world, civilization can unravel very quickly.”
Eisenstein was born Oct. 13, 1919, to a family of bakers. He did not finish high school, his son said, because of laws restricting education for Jews and because he was needed in the bakery.
His family moved to the city’s ghetto in 1940. In November 1942, ghetto residents were ordered from their houses and marched to a train station. Eisenstein’s mother, father, two sisters and nephew were taken to Treblinka, where they were murdered.
Eisenstein and his brother, Jake, were spared because they could work. Frederick Eisenstein said they passed themselves off as carpenters.
When the liberation day photograph was taken, Eisenstein weighed 90 pounds. After the photograph was taken, he and his brother took off their striped uniforms, put on civilian clothes and walked to Munich.
In a 2017 local television news segment in Miami, Eisenstein reflected on the importance of bearing witness: “When I go, the other Holocaust people go, we have someone who’s going to be able to take over and make sure the world does not forget what happened to us.. For a normal human being, it’s impossible to comprehend. The cruelty is beyond any explanation.”
Jake later moved to Houston, Texas, dying about four years ago. In Munich, Eisenstein thrived, opening a bakery-cafe and later a cookie factory. He married the former Phyllis Zucker in Munich in 1947; they later moved to New York City, and then to Roslyn, Hicksville and Old Westbury. Phyllis Eisenstein died in 2017.
Eisenstein’s public appearances continued after he and his wife retired to Florida. A Miami-Dade schoolteacher, Neil Eichelbaum, brought Eisenstein into schools, filming a movie he shared as a tool for other educators. He helped get Eisenstein an honorary high school diploma in 2012.
Rositta Kenigsberg, president of Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Dania Beach, said that over the last 20 years Eisenstein had spoken to “tens of thousands” of students who attended the center’s programs.
Before the pandemic, South Florida had about 7,000 survivors, she said, few so energetic as the man she remembered. “He taught anybody, no matter who they were, where they came from … Never Again, for Julius, was not an empty word. It was a call to action.”
In addition to his son, Eisenstein is survived by a daughter, Tobi Soskin, of North Hills, New York, and Hallandale Beach. He is also survived by five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.