Park East Synagogue’s Special Evening with William Bernheim

Park East Synagogue’s Special Evening with William Bernheim

“The Hand of G-d”, William Bernheim

On the night of Park East Synagogue’s special event with artist and Holocaust survivor William Bernheim, the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School choir gathered in front of the shul to sing. The performance featured three songs, “Ay Li Lu Li Lu,” “Ani Ma’amin,” and “L’dor va’dor,” in remembrance of the tragedies of the Holocaust.

As the children opened with “Ay Li Lu Li Lu”, tears filled the eyes of those in the first few rows. Around the room, others began to quietly sing along, filling the air with a somber tone. Many knew the tune and words. Indeed, when Rabbi Arthur Schneier asked Morah Esther Radzyner, RASPED’s Music Director, to teach the children this lullaby, she immediately recognized it. Her mother, a Holocaust survivor, had sung it to her nightly throughout her childhood.

While “Ay Li Lu Li Lu” is known as a lullaby, it has a lesser known, yet integral relation to the war and the Holocaust. Its tunes are weaved from the Hungarian song, “Solo Kokosh Mar, traditionally sung throughout the ghettos, the death march, and the concentration camps during World War II.

Remnants of its tunes would later be revivified with Yiddish words by the victims of the Holocaust, becoming “Ay Li Lu Li Lu”. Its composition in Yiddish, the dominant language of the Jewish people at the time, spoke of the persistence of hope amidst desolation. As the opening song to the children’s performance, this piece served as a heartfelt and chilling ode to the victims of the Holocaust. Mr. Bernheim, the featured artist, was particularly moved by the children’s performance.

Following the musical tribute, Mr. Bernheim led a presentation showcasing some of his most prominent pieces. As a Holocaust survivor himself, memories of the war have inspired numerous collections of his artwork. Each painting in the presentation documented his journey from a victim in the Holocaust to a survivor with a blossoming life in America.

His featured piece, “The Hand of G-d,” depicted the spirit of G-d lifting a man from flames. Its caption read: “I have been asked many times how I survived the horrors of the Holocaust. I came to the realization that it was the Will of G-d, and His strong arm which pulled me up and out of that living Hell.”

As a native of Lodz, Poland, Mr. Bernheim was forced to work in German-run factories, pull human waste wagons, and sell cigarettes in the late evenings by the time Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939. In 1941, he was separated from his mother and eventually deported from the Lodz Ghetto to work in ammunition factories.

Not long after, he was forced into a locked boxcar for three days with over 100 people to be transported to the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. There, he and other inmates would endure countless marches in grueling weather, excruciating labor, conditions of starvation, and the constant, lingering threat of terror for the following two years.

By April 1945, the allied forces had closed in and U.S. tanks were coming closer to Weimar. Salvation seemed to be on the horizon. But days before liberation, the Nazi soldiers increased the death marches and mass shootings. Out of desperation, Mr. Bernheim hid underneath piles of dead bodies, and forced himself to remain motionless in the suffocating stench of human waste.

On April 11, 1945, he was finally found by American soldiers in the Buchenwald Concentration camp. He was a free man at last, but found himself in a foreign country, stripped of the family he had known. Slowly forming his new life in America, he studied at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and, together with his wife, established his own boutique firm, WB Designers, Inc. WB Designers garnered an international clientele, fortifying Mr. Bernheim’s reputation in America.

Aside from his career in jewelry, Mr. Bernheim decided to return to his passion for painting. To this day, Mr. Bernheim continues to share his story and artwork throughout the country. Though he has witnessed what may be the darkest side of humanity, he has built a life and family upon a foundation of promise and hope.

In an evening of remembrance, many left the shul feeling profoundly moved. When asked to capture his experience of the event, Shai Lamdam, an alumnus of RASPEDS, recounted: “Over 100 people sat riveted, listening to Mr. Bernheim’s story of survival and success. With his art, he transported us to the events he experienced, and we were in awe and inspired by his powerful spirit.”

It is rare to find a resilience that has only strengthened in the face of tragedy and terror. Mr. Bernheim’s legacy stands as a firm reminder that the goodness in humanity will prevail.  

The Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School is a prestigious NYC Jewish Day School in the heart of New York City.  Located in the Upper East Side, this Jewish Day School promotes academic growth through community and collaboration.