By Cindy Mindell ~
WEST HARTFORD – When M. Fred Jacobs died on May 15 at age 91, he left behind a community-wide legacy.
A Holocaust survivor who lived through the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, Jacobs came to Hartford with his wife Regina in 1947 and did more than build a new life: he helped to create a community.
Jacobs is responsible for the Holocaust memorial in front of the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford, and for the annual communal Holocaust commemoration service, one of the first in the country.
“His life read like a movie script, full of danger, triumph over evil, and romance,” says his daughter, Adele Jacobs, of Fairfield. “A lot of people say of their parents that they had an amazing life. But my father really had many lives.”
Jacobs came to Hartford with many stories that he would tell for the rest of his days – to Adele and her brother Henry and five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, to countless schoolchildren
and college students throughout the state, to customers at the Jacobs’ dry cleaning store, to fellow survivors and the Jewish community. As a child in Poland, he was kidnapped by gypsies and ransomed back to his parents. He was trampled by a horse-drawn cart and his parents were mistakenly informed that he had died.
The narrative became even more harrowing in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland and herded thousands of Jews into the Lodz Ghetto, including the 18-year-old Jacobs, his parents, and his younger brother and older sister. There, he learned to live by his wits in order to save his family. He moved his family regularly to new hiding spots in order to dodge the frequent roundups. He made his way to Warsaw to bring his sister back to Lodz, saving her from certain death in the Warsaw ghetto or Treblinka. The limp he bore until the end of his life was payment for that nerve, inflicted by a Nazi guard who struck Jacobs’s hip with a shovel.
In August 1944, eight months before the war ended, Jacobs’s mother gave in to exhaustion and couldn’t move any more. The family was discovered and put on a train to Auschwitz. The last time Jacobs saw his mother, she was being chased through the central yard at the camp, her arms raised toward the sky. “The last thing she said was, ‘Take care of your brother,’” says Adele Jacobs. “And he did that, against all odds.”
The three siblings survived and landed in a Displaced Persons camp after the war. Jacobs married fellow Auschwitz survivor Regina Oksenhendler in the camp in 1946. A year later, the couple followed Fred’s brother to Hartford.
Fred worked three jobs, earned his GED and an insurance sales license, and studied English at night through Jewish Family Services. An early and ardent supporter of Israel, Jacobs approached the United Jewish Appeal in Hartford, offering to solicit fellow survivors in the community. Over the decades, he continued to advocate for Israel, organizing rallies and marches to show communal support.
Archbishop LeRoy Bailey, Jr., senior pastor of The First Cathedral in Bloomfield, was a young clergyman when he began frequenting the Jacobs’ Budget Cleaners in Hartford. Over the years, Bailey not only became a regular customer, but a friend, and the Jacobs family got to know his wife and children. Fred convinced Bailey to join other clergy on a mission to Israel.
In 2012, Bailey and his congregation hosted “Night to Honor Israel,” an event of the national advocacy group, Christians United for Israel. In his introductory remarks, the pastor credited
his love of Israel to Jacobs.
For the next 65 years, Jacobs worked to organize, engage, and take care of Holocaust survivors in greater Hartford. “His mission was that the Holocaust not be forgotten,” says Bob Fishman, executive director of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT). “The main thing he wanted was for the community to recognize the Holocaust, even in the late ’50s before it was called ‘Yom Hashoah.’ It’s to his credit that he pulled it off.”
The annual commemorative ceremony, which began as a recognition of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, was first held in the JCC auditorium, later evolving into the annual communal Yom Hashoah service now held at Beth El Temple in West Hartford. In 1981, Jacobs spearheaded a fundraising effort to commission Hartford sculptor Elbert Weinberg, who created the Holocaust monument in front of the JCC. Jacobs organized an annual program there between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for survivors who had lost family members to the Nazis and had no gravesites to visit.
Ronny Siegel worked with Jacobs for many years as the JCC staff person for the two annual Holocaust commemorations. “Fred had a great sense of humor,” she says. “But as the unrelenting force behind the programs, he was serious, committed, dedicated, and was driven by the mission to remember those who perished in the Holocaust. He fully understood the role of the commemoration ceremonies in the life of the Jewish community. Through his persistence, these ceremonies are now significant yearly events in our community.”
The current Yom Hashoah committee at the Mandell JCC is planning a tribute to Jacobs at the annual commemorative ceremony.
When JFACT was asked to organize an annual state Holocaust commemoration in the senate chamber, beginning in 1978, Jacobs “jumped on board,” says Bob Fishman, as he did when JFACT joined the global Save Darfur movement. “I told Fred that it would be important for him to talk about his experiences and what we didn’t learn from the Holocaust, and he did,” Fishman says.
“When my father spoke about the Holocaust to kids, he wanted them to understand that the Holocaust was a horrible thing, but that we can triumph and overcome so much if we just try,” says Adele Jacobs. “He spoke about how to be kind and loving; that was his message.”
Adele Jacobs cites the two mantras her father carried with him throughout his life. “One was ‘We shall overcome’ and he never gave that up,” she says.
The second was a request of sorts: “If we who suffered so tremendously at the hands of humanity could instill charity in our children, then you who are so fortunate and so privileged can try to live by that credo as well.”
“My father was my moral compass,” says Henry Jacobs, a practicing attorney and ob/gyn in West Hartford. Jacobs is also senior U.S. Civil Surgeon in Connecticut, performing medical examinations for immigrants, a position he took at his father’s suggestion. “People thought a lot of him because he could be depended upon to be honest, and would put others’ interests ahead of his own. He came back from as dreadful an experience in life as anyone could endure, only to create a family and maintain a personal that stood for decency. He set the ‘mensch bar’ high.”