City Life Who Owns Memory?

Holocaust survivors are dwindling as age takes its toll. The Jewish community is determined to preserve the memory of their suffering. But at what cost?

“YOU HAVE TO BE VERY CAREFUL,” ONE rabbi warns, “it’s very complicated.” The rabbi is talking, ever so gingerly and not for attribution, about Holocaust survivors. I’ve called to ask about the lawsuit filed in January of 1999 by Tiferet Israel synagogue and the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies against the estate of a deceased Holocaust survivor-and stepped into a hornet’s nest.

Dallas motorcycle dealer Jack Oran was diagnosed with cancer in June of 1997 and died two months later. In his will Oran, a longtime supporter of the Holocaust Center, created a trust that bequeathed a shopping plaza he owned in Forney to the center and the synagogue. That no one disputes. What they are disputing vociferously are 16 acres adjoining the strip shopping center. Oran’s widow and co-trustee contend his gift included only the shopping center, not the land. The two Jewish organizations insist Oran intended them to receive all the Forney property. They filed suit to get it.

As word of the quarrel began to circulate last year in Dallas1 small but influential Jewish community, some were horrified: others were puzzled that such a seemingly small matter could blow up into such a large and public tight. Arguments and accusations have escalated over the past months, leading the disputants to dig in their heels and forcing one-time friends to choose up sides.

In the dwindling community of local Holocaust survivors, the subject of the lawsuit elicits scathing opinions. “The Holocaust Center is just interested in money,” says Leo Laufer, who survived nearly five years in various labor and concentration camps. He contends the center does virtually nothing for the aging survivors. “What did the Holocaust Center do for Jack Oran? Nothing. It has become a money-making machine.”

Jack’s son Damon, 39, is especially bitter. A founder of a Dallas group called “Second Generation Holocaust Survivors,” Damon worked for years as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial and served a term on its board. He feels its mission is vital. “My legacy, if you will, is the Holocaust,” .says Damon, “what it is, and what it did to my family.”

Is this lawsuit about the money? The land, which the family has already sold, is worth less than $400,000. Legal fees have begun to eat into that. In a case so fraught with emotion,Damon Oran’s words are haunting. The case seems to turn less on some acreage next to a shopping plaza in Forney than on questions that strike to the heart of the modern Jewish identity: Who owns Jack Oran’s memory? Who owns the Holocaust?

IN THE RECITATIONS OF HORROR, ONE moment on the videotape is particularly chilling. Jack Oran. his dark leather)’ face ringed by a leonine man of white hair and a beard, sits in a chair before a camera, calmly recounting in his heavy Yiddish accent the last time he saw his father.

As 17-year-old Yakoff Skurnik. Jack had been swept with his family inio the Auschwitz concentration camp, forced into slave labor, beaten, and starved. He was forced to steal, to He, in short, to do whatever it look to stay alive. Then he was chosen for a special experiment.

His voice flat and emotionless. Jack tells how his testicles were removed during two primitive operations, with minimal anesthesia, by a physician under the supervision of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. Months after the second operation, Jack glimpsed his father for the first time in several years. They had only moments to exchange a few words. “Is it true that they spayed you?” his father asked in a whisper. Jack could only nod yes.

Jack’s voice falters when he recalls the look of anguish on his father’s face as he trudged away. His father would die in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, along with Jack’s mother, brother, and four sisters. In the exchange of those few words, his father knew that his line was being wiped from the face of the earth. Through no fault of his own. Jack would always feel he had betrayed his father-and the Jews.

After the war Jack sought treatment in France, which restored some sexual function. but he was still sterile. Making his way to New York, he found work and changed his name to Oran. {Oran is the Hebrew word for the Polish Skurnik, or “skinner.”) In early 1950 Jack moved to Dallas, where about 200 survivors of the camps would eventually settle. Almost accidentally, Jack built a family. First was a baby girl named Sharon he adopted with his first wife, who died two years later. The family grew instantly when he married Quinta and adopted her two preschoolers. Damon and Kemberley. “He was very upfront about why he married me.” says Quinta, who now lives in Sedona, Arizona. “He wanted a boy, an Oran”-to continue the Skurnik line. She and the three children all converted to Orthodox Judaism on the same day.

EXTREMELY CONTROLLING AND DOMIneering. Jack was emotionally and verbally abusive and meted out harsh physical punishment to his adopted children, “He raised us in a concentration camp environment,” Damon says. “He wanted his kids to be survivors.”

Damon vividly remembers the only time he ever saw a crack in his father *s hard armor. In the early ’80s, Jack took Damon to the small village of his birth and to Auschwitz. During the tour of the concentration camp. Jack listened intently, correcting the guides when they got a detail wrong.

Near the end of the tour, as the group gathered around a small depression in the ground where a single candle burned. Jack put on a skullcap and prayer shawl. As a cantor’s voice chanted a traditional prayer. Damon was stunned to see his father-the most stoic person he’d ever known-begin weeping.

If his father had cried once in the previous 50 years. Damon would have been astonished. “What are you thinking about?” Damon whispered, expecting Jack to mention the constant hunger, the beatings, or the horrific operations he’d endured.

“About all of them…everyone who died,” Jack said.

AFTER THEIR TRIP JACK BECAME ONE OF the founders of the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies. It opened in 1984 in the basement of the Jewish Community Center, where the family. like many North Dallas Jews, exercised, took classes, and attended social events, reminded of the Holocaust even while going to the gym and dropping the kids off for preschool.

Though small, the center is an effective piece of history. Visitors enter through a boxcar once used to transport prisoners from Belgium to a concentration camp. Through metal “Gates of Fire” lies a memorial room. Short marble pillars chiseled with the names of the death camps form a square at the center; marble plaques engraved with the names of survivors’ family members who died line a wall. One row is taken up with Skurniks.

After his trip to Auschwitz, Jack began speaking to schoolchildren, to students on college campuses, to adults at churches. Steven Spielberg sent a crew to film Jack’s story as part of the director’s Shoah project. Jack gave generously-and usually anonymously-to various organizations promoting Holocaust studies.

Damon got even more passionately involved, acting as a docent and serving on the board of the Holocaust Center. He put together a “reconciliation workshop,” bringing children of Holocaust survivors and children of perpetrators together. Though Damon often clashed with other board members and Frieda Soble, the executive director (he was probably the only board member not asked to repeat a term), no one could say he didn’t care.

But Jack’s demons took hold in his children’s lives. All struggled with depression. Damon, now sober, became an alcoholic. He cried with joy after reading a book on children of Holocaust survivors, relieved to know he wasn’t the only one struggling. “Growing up, I felt he was cruel,” Damon says. “Later, I realized his intentions were entirely honorable.”

In the mid-90s father and son made a kind of peace. “My father was a dead man walking.” Damon says. “He made a choice to live. He did the best he could with what he had.” Though unable to conceive children. Jack had implanted his tragic story in his adoptive son. As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, Damon became determined to keep the memory alive.

SINCE 1984 THE HOLOCAUST CENTER has become one of the most active in the country, with an operating budget of about $400,000 a year, and a 67-member board that includes prominent Jews and sympathetic Gentiles. It receives not only memorial gifts from families and estates, but contributions and grants from such Dallas institutions as the Junior League and Exxon.

Each year, more than 60.000 visitors come for a presentation mat lasts about two hours. The center’s declared mission-to teach about the corrosive effects of hate and prejudice, not only the Holocaust-has been so successful at reaching across religious and racial boundaries it is running out of room. The center and seven other Jewish organizations are in the middle of a campaign to raise $30 million to build and improve infrastructure at the Holocaust Center, the JCC. the Jewish High School, and other facilities.

EVEN AS DAMON WAS SITTING SHIVAH FOR his dead father, people started asking him about the property Jack had given to Tiferet Israel and the center. Rumors were flying: Jack had given 100 acres; the land was worth $1 million. If so, it would be the single largest bequest in the Holocaust Center’s history.

A few days after Jack’s funeral, a lawyer named Jack Altman. a member of the center’s board, called Damon and asked: “When are we getting the property?”

Long before his death, the family Jack had forged had splintered under the assault of his demons. Quinta had divorced him in 1982. Kemberley married well and moved to Israel, in part, Quinta says, to put distance between herself and her father. Damon’s relationship with his father was on-again, off-again. Sharon was permanently estranged.

JACK REMARRIED AND DIVORCED TWO more times before meeting Arlene. For seven years they lived and traveled together. In June 1997 Jack retired, and they moved to Boca Raton. “He was at such peace in Florida,” says Arlene. “He didn’t give the talks here. There was no Holocaust Center.” But the dark cloud lifted only briefly. A month after the move. Jack, 73, learned he was dying of liver cancer and had only weeks to live. He called a lawyer in Boca Raton and. on July 17. signed a new will. Then he took care of some other business: He and Arlene formalized their relationship.

Arlene says that, during Jack’s last days, Altman called several times. “Jack would hangup the phone and say. ’They’re driving me crazy,’” Arlene says. “They’ve got me in the box already.’”

When Damon visited his father in August, he passed on papers Altman had given him regarding the property’s transfer. “I’ve taken care of all that in my will,” Jack said, throwing the papers in the trash. Jack hung on until Aug. 25, Arlene’s birthday, then died.

When the will was filed for probate, it revealed little about Jack’s wishes beyond cutting Sharon out completely. The financial details were set oui in a separate trust document. “Forney Plaza” was given to Tiferet Israel and the Holocaust Center, with a 40 and 60 percent share, respectively.

The controversy started immediately.

A FEW WEEKS AFTER JACK’S DEATH, Damon got a call from an attorney named Emanuel “Manny” Rohan, a Holocaust survivor and active in both the synagogue and the center. Rohan had represented both Quinta and Jack in their divorce. and he had drawn up several wills for Jack in the ’80s.

“I want you to get a couple of things together-the will, the deed, and the trust– and get down to my office right away,” Rohan demanded. Though the will gave Damon his father’s house and a share in the inheritance. Jack had named Arlene executor, and she and a Dallas software developer named Zvi Berkovitch, whose father had been in Auschwitz with Jack, were named co-trustees of the trust. Saying he had no role in the estate’s administration. Damon refused Rohan’s request.

Berkovitch says Rohan then called him. saying the land belonged to the two charities and he intended to pursue it. “Even though I’m not a lawyer, based on what I read in the will and what Jack said to me. I don’t believe they have a claim,” Berkovitch says.”My first and foremost responsibility is to the grandchildren to make sure their trust can be funded.”

Oran wasn’t a particularly rich man. Most of his money was tied up in a retirement fund, his business, his home, and that real estate in Forney-a shopping plaza and 16 adjoining acres, valued at less than $1 million. In December 1997 Arlene sold the land for $325,000.

David Bell, who was then president of the Holocaust Center’s hoard and its pro bono attorney, proposed an informal conference. In April 1998 Arlene. Berkovitch, and their attorneys met at the Holocaust Center with Rohan. Altman, Bell, and Frieda Soble. “They wanted to meet there,” says David West fall, the attorney Arlene hired to handle the dispute, “thinking ’we’ll take Mrs. Oran and we’ll twang on her heartstrings.’”

Bell and the others made their case, showing how important the Holocaust Center was to the Jewish community and how much it meant to Jack. At one point Rohan insisted that Jack had told him he was going to give all the Forney property.

“When was the last time you talked to Jack?” Arlene challenged, knowing the two men had had a falling out. Rohan admitted it had been at least 10 years. “The man lay dying and you never even picked up the phone once to call him?” she asked. The meeting ended without any resolution.

In a later mediation, Altman insisted the shopping center and the 16 acres were taxed as one property. Arlene pointed out that, in fact, there were three separate deeds and three separate tax bills.

The synagogue and Holocaust Center offered to settle for half the land’s proceeds. “No way,” Arlene old him. “You’re not entitled. Why should I give away half?”

Both sides refused to budge. On Jan, 27, 1999. Tiferet Israel filed suit against the estate. Aware there was a clause cutting off those who challenged the will, its attorneys were careful to say they were simply seeking clarification of the trust’s wording. The Holocaust Center joined the suit as an intervener. Berkovitch and Arlene filed a counter-suit. Reached by D Magazine, Rohan tried to disassociate himself from the controversy. “I wasn’t involved with it.” Rohan insisted. “If you say anything you can’t prove in a court of law, I’ll sue you.”

LEO LAUFER. 77, IS A SMALL, COMPACT man. a tattooed number visible between his gold tank watch and the rolled-up sleeve of his crisp striped shirt. Talking about losing his family in the Holocaust still has the power to bring him to tears. He knew Oran well for 50 years. “He was so bitter inside,” says Laufer. “We knew his problems and tolerated them. There isn’t a survivor in Dallas who would claim they suffered 10 percent of what Jack Oran had. This is why I think the Holocaust Center did such a cruel thing to him and his family.”

Laufer’s problems with the Holocaust Center predate the will dispute. Years ago. Laufer served on the board and was a frequent speaker, but says that changed after he began to rock the boat. “I thought the Holocaust Center would be for survivors to get together, to share, to work through things,” says Laufer. “The general Holocaust survivors have no say, only those with money.”

And those survivors are dying off. A few years ago, after realizing there were several in nursing homes who had virtually no visitors, Laufer asked Soble to form a committee to visit them when sick, repair their homes, even help them obtain restitution from the German government. (That complex process had taken Laufer himself several years of paperwork.) Thai idea went nowhere.

But Laufer is most irritated with the Holocaust Center’s emphasis on high-profile fundraising. For the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995, the center held a ceremony at the Lovers Lane United Methodist Church. The center received a grant to bring in Leon Bass, a black Army veteran who claimed his unit liberated several concentration camps. His story-the subject of a PBS film called The Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II-was later shown to be a hoax, “In September 1994,” says Laufer, “I went to Frieda and Jack Altman and told them it wasn’t true. They didn’t want to listen.”

Laufer recently got an invitation from the center for a “social gathering for Holocaust survivors,” which he says was the first held in a decade. About 25 survivors attended, but few of the board members bothered to show up. Laufer says with disgust that the real reason for the event was to solicit money for the center’s expansion.

TALL, TANNED, WITH CURLY GRAY HAIR and a beard, David Bell wears denim with corduroy pants, a tweed jacket, and snakeskin cowboy boots, a hip version of the city attorney. Chairman of the board of the Holocaust Center for four years, he recently turned over the reins.

Born in a displaced persons camp outside Munich, Bell is a second-generation Holocaust survivor. He’s served as the center’s pro-bono attorney for 10 years; it’s clear talking about the lawsuit pains him.

“I recommended to the board and executive committee that we intervene in the lawsuit.” Bell says. “I advised them that we had a fiduciary duty to our organization to intervene. It’s not a contentious personality assault on anyone, and anyone who queslions the motives of the synagogue and the Holocaust Center doesn’t understand what’s before the court.”

Berkovitch says that, if it were up to him, he would cut off the organizations completely. “We don’t want to give a penny more.” he says. “We’ve had a lot of anguish over this.” Meanwhile, the estate is in limbo and has spent about $50,000 in legal fees.

The dispute over a tew words in the will of a complicated man had the potential to drag out for months and leave bitter feelings for years. “I’ve spoken to so many survivors in Dallas who say they’ll never leave the Holocaust Center a dime.” says Quinta. “The center was a salve, a balm, a peaceful moment, a way to say we can’t let this happen again. I’m terribly ashamed of them. He was a wonderful man who was so hurt by the world, by life. Il hurts the old man’s memory.”

Quinta is the kind of witness the Holocaust Center would not like to see in front of a jury. She thinks her former husband was malicious and mean-spirited. (After she left him. Jack swore he’d die before he’d give her a Jewish divorce, and he never did.) But she loved him, and she believes his final wishes should be honored.

AFTER D MAGAZINE BEGAN INTERVIEWING participants, the boards of the Holocaust Center and the synagogue voted to withdraw from the suit. Their attorneys say the matter has been resolved. The only remaining issue is who will pay the estate’s attorney fees.

Both Arlene and Berkovitch welcomed the news, but were upset that it had gone so far. “They have given a very bad name to Jack Oran and his family,” Berkovitch says. “Damon’s the one who’s been hurt by this the most,” says Arlene of her stepson. “I would like a public apology.”

Damon now refuses to step foot in the Holocaust Center. He still hasn’t decided whether to have a plaque with his father’s name placed on the wall inside of the “Gates of Fire” memorial room.


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