Lt. Ryan Feingold, USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) command deputy judge advocate, from Miami, Florida, has served in the U.S. Navy for five and a half years. He grew up in a Jewish household and his grandparents on both sides of his family were survivors of the Holocaust.
“I grew up hearing stories about the horrors that my family endured during the Holocaust,” said Feingold. “Those stories taught me a lot about life and shaped me into who I am today.”
Feingold said that growing up, his family cared deeply about Jewish history and preserving important traditions. His family routinely went to synagogue on Shabbat, and he had his bar mitzvah in Israel when he was 13. Feingold’s maternal grandfather is 97-years-old and still alive today. Unfortunately, his maternal grandmother passed away two weeks ago at the age of 95. She was 13-years-old when Nazi forces invaded her home country of Poland.
“I would not say we are very religious,” said Feingold. “My grandparents certainly were though. My mother’s parents grew up Orthodox. Orthodox Jews in Poland at that time were very traditional, very observant.”
Feingold said that his maternal grandparents, along with other Holocaust survivors, immigrated to Canada after the war. They spoke Hebrew and Yiddish inside of the community, but his experience growing up in Florida was much different.
“It was a little bit of a different experience for us,” said Feingold. “You are around so many different people, so you assimilate into the culture. I didn’t grow up very religious, but I certainly care a lot about my faith, the Jewish people and ensuring that my religious practices remain free.”
Airman Ryan Newbill, Ford’s multi-cultural heritage committee public affairs officer, from Elkheart, Indiana, interviewed Feingold about his family’s history.
“America is definitely a melting pot; so many different religions, so many different thought processes and ideas,” said Newbill. “It’s like everyone is growing together with one another. That’s what makes America beautiful.”
Feingold said that his maternal grandmother was born Sara Golcman in 1926 in the town of Leopoldow, Poland. Golcman and her seven siblings helped run the family business, a large grocery store. When Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, life changed for them.
“In September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, my grandmother was forced into a ghetto,” said Feingold. “Germany created a ghetto in her town and forced all the Jewish people to live together and work in horrible conditions. Five of her siblings and both of her parents were sent to the gas chambers at Sobibor Extermination Camp in German-occupied Poland, and murdered.”
Feingold said that his maternal grandmother and her two remaining siblings escaped captivity miraculously and ended up joining a Jewish resistance group called the Glowver Forest Otriad. Surviving for several years during the war and seeking justice against the Nazis, Feingold’s maternal grandfather, Chonon (Charles) Bedzow, also joined a famous Jewish resistance brigade, the Bielski Brigade, which sought revenge on their tormentors by disabling trains, stealing supplies and attacking Nazi military units. More importantly to them, the Bielski Brigade, also saved Jews from an almost certain death by sheltering men, women and children.
“The Germans wanted to kill us because we were Jewish, but we fought back,” said Bedzow. “We saved over a thousand Jews, and we survived and resisted together.”
The Bielski Brigade lived in the woods of Belarus for two-and-a-half years, constantly avoiding capture by German military forces. The Hollywood film “Defiance” is based on their experience. Feingold attended the grand opening of this film in 2008 with his extended family in New York City with dozens of other Holocaust survivors and their families.
“After the war ended in 1945, my mother’s parents met, fell in love, got married on March 8, 1946 and lived in an Italian displaced persons’ camp in Garlasco, Italy for almost three years,” said Feingold. “They had nowhere to go, but through unyielding determination and courage, they persevered, had their first child named Frances Shapiro (Feingold’s aunt) and eventually created an amazing life in Canada and the United States.”
Feingold went on to say that his paternal grandmother originally lived in Berlin, but after the Nazi regime came to power in 1933, she fled Germany with her family for Israel. By 1936, Germany began passing laws stripping Jews of their citizenship, prohibiting relationships between Jews and non-Jews and prosecuting people that were deemed “undesirable” or “sub-human.” Those included were people who were physically or mentally disabled, homosexuals, people of African descent, Roma (also known as Gypsies) and Jews.
“My father’s family saw and predicted what was about to happen to the Jewish people in Europe,” said Feingold. “They fled the country in a creative and secretive way.”
Feingold said that all of his grandparents were and are proud of how they persevered and resisted the murderous regime of Nazi Germany. Some Holocaust survivors find it too painful to talk about their experiences, but Feingold’s grandparents want the world to know what Jewish people underwent during the Nazi regime.
“They wanted to ensure that the world learned an important lesson from the Holocaust,” said Feingold. “They felt like they needed to contribute to the historical effort. My grandfather is 97. He still talks about it today, and my grandmother, bless her heart, spoke about her experiences until the very end. She was a very brave woman.”
Feingold said that his family continues to encourage people to learn and educate themselves on the horrors of the Holocaust.
“I don’t like to hide from my Jewishness or my Jewish faith. I’m very proud and outspoken about it,” said Feingold. “It also makes me very proud to be an American. The United States is an amazing country that allows people to live freely. When my family finally made their way to the United States, it gave us a fresh opportunity to become successful and to live without fear. It is this pride that has led me to joining the U.S. military. The United States has created a safe haven for my family after 6 million Jews were massacred in Europe.”
Feingold said that he has a very specific hope for the future. He believes that it is very important to study what actually occurred during the Holocaust in order to understand the underlying currents of hatred and discrimination that allowed such a thing to happen.
“I read a survey done by the Anti-Defamation League, which is an international Jewish human rights organization,” said Feingold. “They surveyed tens of thousands of people in over 100 countries, and nearly 50 percent of people said they had never heard of the Holocaust, and of those who did know what the Holocaust was, nearly one-third of them said they thought the Holocaust was a myth.”
Feingold discussed how communities and societies can change rapidly, and that it is important to spread awareness about the Holocaust. Schoen Consulting, a New York research company, recently found that nearly one-fourth of millennials did not know if they had ever heard of the Holocaust and nearly two-thirds of millennials did not know what Auschwitz, the largest concentration camp where more than 1 million Jews were killed, was. Feingold appreciates the famous quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe in World War II and 34th President of the United States:
“Get it all on record now – get the films – get the witnesses – because somewhere down the track of history, some bastard will get up and say that this never happened.”
Newbill said that through trials and tribulations, families can persevere and pass on stories that can influence people for generations to come.
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