Stephen Jacobs had the misfortune of being born Jewish, in Lodz, Poland, in June 1939. Nazi Germany invaded his country just months later. On the other hand, he had the phenomenal fortune of surviving several ghettos and Buchenwald concentration camp and, along with all of his immediate family, survived the Holocaust.
Years later, after immigrating with his family to the United States and becoming a world-renown architect, he designed the Holocaust memorial at the “little camp” in Buchenwald. More recently, he designed the Holocaust memorial in Tirana, Albania, a Muslim country that saved more than 2,000 Jews despite being occupied by the Nazis.
Jacobs will relate his story during Am Yisrael Chai’s “Miracles and Memories” annual event Jan. 24, this year online via Zoom.
Participants will be greeted by Albanian President Ilir Meta, while the d’var Torah will be shared by Rabbi Jacob Schacter, the son of the first Jewish chaplain to enter Buchenwald after its liberation by the U.S. Army on April 11, 1945. Rabbi Herschel Schacter, whose obituary was printed on the front page of The New York Times in March 2013, was instrumental in saving the lives of Jacobs and his family and several hundred other Jews by arranging a transport to Switzerland after the war.
As a child, Jacobs didn’t know of Schacter’s key role in his survival. It was only at the groundbreaking of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1995, which they both attended, that Jacobs learned how Schacter negotiated with the Swiss to allow the train containing mostly children to enter the country. “He threatened to call the international press,” Jacobs told the AJT as he related his story.
Even before the children’s transport took Jacobs and his family to a displaced persons camp in Switzerland, his survival as a child in Buchenwald could be considered miraculous. “There was an active underground in Buchenwald who decided that while they couldn’t save everyone, they could save the 1,100 children. I was hidden. You couldn’t be there unless you were 16. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. I had papers that said I was 16 even though I was only 4. My brother and I were given work assignments in the shoe department because those workers weren’t required to stand in the daily morning and night countings. We were two little boys, and we knew that if Germans came into the shop, we knew to say that we were 16. I have too many memories.”
Although Jacobs didn’t hesitate to design the memorial at Buchenwald when he was asked, he stated, “I wouldn’t take any money for it. There are certain things you don’t do for money,” said the architect whose firm is based in New York City. “It gave me the opportunity to deal with issues I had never dealt with. I have come to grips with Germany. As a culture, they have gone further than any other country.”
He is also proud of designing the Albanian memorial. “It’s a unique story. The Albanians had a peasant code that said if a stranger comes into your house, you must take care of him. They saved every single Jew, and not only Albanian Jews, also Greek and Macedonian Jews. I didn’t have a personal relationship to this, but the story is extremely important.”
For Am Yisrael Chai, having an online event provided a unique opportunity to broaden the program, explained Dr. Andrea Videlefsky, founder of The Daffodil Project. There will be links on the website that allow participants to get more in-depth information about Jacobs, Schacter and the Albanian story, she said. “There will also be a link to a recent forum on anti-Semitism in the Balkans.”
In addition to the Albanian president, opening the Zoom program will be the honorary consul general of Albania and Israel Consul General Anat Sultan-Dadon, along with Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.
In previous years, the program was held in the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center and often sold out. This year there won’t be that limitation, Videlefsky noted. As in the past, the event will honor Atlanta’s Holocaust survivors, this year with a video candle lighting. “So many have died this year, but we still have a large survivor community.”