Fort Gordon remembers Holocaust, survivor shares his story - WFXG FOX54 Augusta - Your News One Hour Earlier

Fort Gordon remembers Holocaust, survivor shares his story

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Fort Gordon recognized a dark time in history Tuesday, as part of their National Days of Remembrance. The United States Army Signal Center of Excellence and Fort Gordon Command Program paid tribute to the Holocaust.

The program invited Henry Birnbrey of the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta to share his story as a child growing up during the Holocaust.

The Holocaust was a period when six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Birnbrey's mission is to make sure no one forgets this important piece of world history.


For Henry Birnbrey, Dortmund, Germany was home. He and his parents, Edmund and Jenny Birnbrey, lived in a nice apartment and had a comfortable lifestyle. Henry attended the city's Jewish school where he received both a secular and Jewish education, and became a Bar Mitzvah in its magnificent synagogue. As a child, he affiliated with the Zionist movement (a movement to bring about the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine), learned Hebrew and dreamed of moving to the land of Israel.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, there was an immediate change in public sentiment regarding Jews. Anti-Semitism, which had long existed in Germany was now officially encouraged. Henry witnessed the burning of books, the first Nazi action in most cities.

When Hitler annexed Austria, the Jewish social service organizations feared that a war would close the borders and make it impossible for Jews to get out of Germany. The Dortmund Jewish community obtained a few emergency visas for children to immigrate to the United States, and one of these was issued to Henry. After receiving his visa, he had only 24 hours to pack and say goodbye to his family. He went alone to the American Consulate in Stuttgart, Germany. Henry arrived safely in the United States in April 1938. He lived in Birmingham, Alabama, until he moved to Atlanta in January 1939 to live as a foster child with the family of Mrs. Fannie Asman.

On the evenings of November 9 and 10, 1938, Germany erupted into organized violence against Jews. During this terrifying outburst of hatred hundreds of Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned, the windows of Jewish shops across the country were smashed, and inventories were ransacked. This event became known as Kristallnacht, or "The Night of Broken Glass." Everything Henry had left behind in Germany was destroyed to include the murder of his father.

After the Second World War broke out, Henry enlisted in the army eager to get back to Germany and fight. He served with the forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy, and his ability to speak German earned him the job of interrogating German soldiers and suspected war criminals. As a soldier, he smelled the horrible odor of freight train filled with Jews being transported from one concentration camp to another.

After the war, Henry started searching for his family. Most of the family had been murdered in various concentration camps. He was only able to find three cousins who had survived. Henry knew that his parents had died, but he met a woman who was able to tell him more about their deaths. He found their burial places in Dortmund and bought tombstones to mark their graves.

During his trip to Germany, Henry toured home city and saw that an opera house had been built where his synagogue was once located. He mentioned this to the mayor, and the next year a historical marker was erected stating that a synagogue had once stood on this site. In this small way, Henry was able to honor the beautiful synagogue where he had become a Bar Mitzvah.

Henry went to school at Georgia State University and later opened an accounting office in 1946. He also became an attorney. Having led a childhood and adolescence centered around Zionism, it was appropriate that Henry met his first wife, Rebecca (Ricky) Kresses, at a Young Zionist convention in Birmingham, Al. The couple had four children Judy, Eddie, David and Anita. Sadly, Ricky passed away in 1988. Henry has since remarried, and he and Shirlye boast of having eight children and step-children, 28 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Today Henry is very involved with the Atlanta Jewish community. His interest in genealogy and Holocaust studies adds to his relationship with the Breman Museum, and his appreciation for Jewish education has led him to work hand-in-hand with the Greenfield Hebrew Academy and Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. In addition to his own work, Henry is proud that he has passed Jewish values to all his children.

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