I didn’t expect to laugh. And I didn’t expect to enjoy my lunch, even though Kenny & Ziggy’s chopped liver is one of my all-time favorite foods.
But both happened Thursday when I had the privilege of attending a luncheon for Houston-based Holocaust survivors and liberators at Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen and Restaurant. The impetus for the meal was the upcoming September launch of a new exhibit, “The Texas Liberator: Witness to the Holocaust,” at the Holocaust Museum Houston. Designed and constructed by the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission in conjunction with Texas Tech University, the exhibit chronicles the experiences of more than 20 American soldiers who liberated European concentration camps at the end of World War II.
August is also National Deli Month, a collaborative philanthropic effort led Ziggy Gruber, co-owner of Kenny & Ziggy’s, and Jay Parker, owner of the (unfortunately now recently closed) Ben’s Best Deli in New York. About 30 Jewish delis in the United States this year are participating in this initiative to highlight the rich history, and unfortunate decline, of the Jewish-American deli, while raising money for local charities. Kenny’s & Ziggy’s is offering a $38 three-course menu, generous both in terms of diverse options and portion size, in which 10 percent of all proceeds will go to the Holocaust Museum Houston.
Usually when I walk into Kenny & Ziggy’s, my stomach immediately starts growling in response to the appetizing aromas of schmaltz and pastrami wafting from this kitchen. Thursday, however, anxiety had eradicated my appetite. While I was committed to listening to the stories of the survivors and liberators, as well as covering the event for this publication, I didn’t (and still don’t, really) know how to talk to people who had been through such atrocities. Theorist Elaine Scarry has written on the inadequacy of words to express the essence of pain, specifically that “[pain] resists the objectification in language.” If that be true, then anything I wrote would ultimately fail to convey fully the diverse horrors of their experiences.
But the dual warmth of the first course of matzo ball soup and the surrounding company substantially eased my nerves. I decided the sole purpose of this piece would not be to document all that I learned but rather to encourage others to seek out whenever possible the opportunity to hear the narratives of survivors and liberators. And as we progressed through more courses of chopped liver, latkes, stuffed cabbage, kugel, and Roumanian steak, I indeed witnessed and participated in some incredible conversations.
Liberator Birney “Chick” Havey, veteran of the 42nd Rainbow Division 222nd Anti-tank Unit, was just in his early twenties when he helped liberate the Dachau Concentration Camp in April 1945. When I asked him about the first thing he saw back then, Havey replied, “It wasn’t what I saw. It’s what I smelled. There was an entire railroad car of decaying bodies.” He paused. “When we finally got over the smell, we saw people in various states of deterioration. But they were so happy to see us.”
After teasing fellow survivor Bill Orlin about how handsome he “used” to be, much to the amusement of everyone at the table, survivor Dr. Anna Steinberger described to me how, during and after the war, “I was hungry for years. Not for a day, not for a week. For years.” Orlin, who regularly lectures on his experiences at schools and for various organizations, spoke fervently about the importance of forgiveness, “yet without forgetting.”
The aforementioned anecdotes represent a minor percentage of what I learned and absorbed in the luncheon. I am so eager to continue my education by visiting the exhibit. Of course, I’ll also be eating some chopped liver this month in service of supporting such important endeavors. I encourage you to do the same.