Posted: April 29, 2016 - 8:33pm
Topeka author to share Holocaust survivor's story Monday at Kansas Museum of History
Irene and Joe Rubinstein hold copies of Nancy Sprowell Geise's book "Auschwitz #34207," which tells the story of Joe's survival of being in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Geise, of Topeka, will be the featured speaker at the State of Kansas
Holocaust Commemoration Service at 1 p.m. Monday, May 2, at the Kansas Museum of History 6425 S.W. 6th.
By Phil Anderson
After reading a few pages from Nancy Sprowell Geise’s book on Holocaust survivor Joe Rubinstein, I could plainly see how writing his story became the driving force of her life for the last three and a half years.
There are few words that adequately describe Rubinstein’s life.
Remarkable, certainly, but that doesn’t begin to do it justice.
Indomitable? Surely this encapsulates Rubinstein’s life.
Miraculous? Perhaps when all is said and done, this one word is closer to the truth than any of the others.
Ultimately, the right words will have to come from those who read Geise’s book “Auschwitz #34207: The Joe Rubinstein Story” (Merry Dissonance Press, softcover, 330 pages, $17.95).
In the year since her book was published, Geise has been making presentations to groups near and far, including at the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington D.C.
She will be the featured speaker at the State of Kansas Holocaust Commemoration Service at 1 p.m. Monday, May 2, at the Kansas Museum of History, 6425 S.W. 6th. A PowerPoint presentation featuring photos that she has never shown before will be interwoven into her talk.
That she even wrote the book at all is something of a miracle, considering she met Rubinstein in 2007 when she was selling residences at a retirement community in Fort Collins, Colo.
“Joe and Irene were our first residents to move in,” Geise related. “One of my coworkers met Joe on his first visit — and he told her he was a Holocaust survivor.
“A few weeks later, I saw a number from a tattoo sticking out from under his sleeve. I asked him about it, and he said it was from Auschwitz.
“I asked him if one of our daughters could interview him for one of her history class projects, and he said ‘Never! I will never talk about it!’”
Geise, of Topeka, said she had “just assumed at that point that he’d been sharing that story for years.” It never occurred to her that it was something he hadn’t shared with anyone outside his immediate family — and his immediate family knew only bits and pieces.
“I let it go at that point, but we became great friends,” Geise said. “He was like a grandfather to me. He’s the most gregarious, kind, outgoing soul.
“He’s 95 now but he looks like he’s 75 and acts like it — he just spent most of the winter in Mexico near the beach.”
It seems an eternity from his years as a prisoner at Auschwitz, where he received 25 lashes for something he didn’t do. He survived his wounds — from which he surely would have died from blood loss — by submerging himself for hours in a mud-filled pit.
He lost all of his family members in other Nazi death camps, including his widowed mother and all four of his siblings, his identical twin among them.
One of Joe’s jobs at Auschwitz was moving the bodies of the dead in wooden hand carts from the gas chambers to open pits.
In spite of the millions who didn’t make it out of the death camps alive, Rubinstein did — somehow, some way.
His faith in God, which never really wavered, helped pull him through the unimaginable horrors of the death camps where he spent several years of his life.
He was liberated and married his wife, Irene, then immigrated to the United States with virtually no money in his pocket. But he was alive, and that was worth more than money could ever buy.
Rubinstein ended up making a very nice living as a shoe designer, of all things. He designed shoes for movie stars and for First Ladies.
And, in 2012, five years after Rubinstein first told her he would never talk about his story, Geise was on a trip back to the retirement community in Fort Collins where she formerly worked.
Seeing Rubinstein walking on a sidewalk as she drove her car, Geise stopped and rolled down her window. There was Joe, looking as good as always.
“He sticks his head in the window and out of the blue says, ‘Nancy, I’d like to tell you my story, and I’d like you to write it if you’d like,’ ” Rubinstein said. “At that point, I thought I was maybe writing a little keepsake for his family, but as soon as I started hearing his story, I knew this was something much bigger.”
As a Christian, Geise said she wasn’t sure how her book would be received by those in the Jewish community. But the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with several going so far as to tell her they were so pleased a non-Jew wanted to write and is so devoted to Joe’s story.
Joe himself recorded introductions for each chapter on the book’s newly released audio version. And in what Geise calls yet another miracle, a researcher she commissioned recently tracked down long-lost photos of some of his family members, who were all taken from him by the Nazis. Geise said when Joe saw the photos after some 70 years, it brought out the rawest of human emotions.
Joe has never been back to his home town of Radom, Poland, since being taken by the Nazis in 1942. A company has offered to make a documentary of Joe returning home to Poland but he isn’t sure he will be able to do so, as the memories are still very painful for him. But Geise said she is hoping he will decide to do so as she believes it could be healing for him.
A feature movie isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Her book, she said, is one filled with hope — along with faith and love. It is inspirational and has found audiences among people of many faiths or no religion at all.
“That’s really one of the miracles of Joe’s story,” Geise said. “He says to this day that may be one of the reasons he was spared is that people can learn they can overcome anything.
“And he did — he lost everything a human being can lose, with the exception of his life and his health, which he nearly lost, yet he found a way to go on and not just live but thrive.
“He tells everyone who will listen that we must love life, we must love God and we must love each other, because that’s all there is.”
The book is a finalist for Foreword Reviews’ 2015 Book of the Year. It also has a sparkling five-out-of-five star rating from 90 customer reviews on Amazon.com.
The Holocaust service on Monday afternoon will include remarks from Gov. Sam Brownback; participation by Kansas clergy, political leaders and students; and recognition of Holocaust survivors, World War II veterans and children of survivors.
Students from Most Pure Heart of Mary Elementary School, Topeka High School, Washburn Rural High School, Holy Name Elementary School and Immaculata High School are scheduled to attend. A reception sponsored by the Kansas State Holocaust Commission will follow the program.
The free event has limited seating.
Phil Anderson can be reached at (785) 295-1195 or email@example.com.
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