George didn’t think he had a story to tell. His daughter, Elizabeth, convinced him otherwise.
“I didn’t have to go to a concentration camp. I didn’t have to hide in someone’s closet. I was hidden in plain view. But my daughter said, You have a story. And you have to tell it.” – George
George turned 90 this year, and requested that anyone who’s inclined to give him a gift instead make a donation to support the construction of JFCS’ new Holocaust Center. His belief in this project is intrinsically linked to his childhood, his journey to the United States, and his latest endeavor: sharing his story as the newest member of JFCS’ William J. Lowenberg Speakers Bureau.
George’s story began in Strasbourg, France. His mother worked as a pharmacist and his father was an architect and engineer. When George’s father joined the French army in 1936, he wrote to his uncle Isaac in America as a precaution, asking that Isaac look after George and his mother should anything happen to him. This request would come to mean everything in the years that followed.
George’s parents, Ester and Emmanuel Bardenstein, 1933
After George’s father left the army, the family moved to Bordeaux in search of work. They built a little house in the country and were happy for a time, but as World War II neared, life became increasingly difficult. “The Jews at that time were not very well received, and my parents were having financial problems,” says George.
Once the war started, George’s parents’ difficulties worsened. They moved to Paris, where George’s father found work in an ammunition factory and his mother cleaned house for a local family, the Lequiens. It was a hard time for George; he didn’t have friends and was doing poorly in school.
Mr. and Mrs. Lequien, who agree to take George in, circa 1942
In 1942, George got sick. “That turned out to be the first miracle in my life,” he says. He had developed a kidney infection, and with no antibiotics available to treat him, he was hospitalized.
At the same time George’s parents, fearing they would soon be arrested, gave the family’s treasured photographs and official documents to Mme. Lequien for safekeeping. She and George’s mother had grown quite close by that time, and George’s mother knew she could be trusted not only with the family’s cherished belongings but with George’s safety.
One day in August, my parents came to visit me at the hospital. They brought a suitcase with them that held all my clothes,” George says, pointing to a worn suitcase that now resides in his living room in Daly City. “My mother started to cry. My father told me they were going away, but not to worry if I didn’t hear from them; they would be OK. I was just a boy, so I believed him. But because my mother was crying, I began to cry, too. And then they went away.
George had no understanding of what was happening in the world at the time. His health improved, but he stayed in the hospital, making friends with the other children and the nurses. The Lequiens, knowing George was safe while under medical care, arranged to have his tonsils removed—an operation that would ensure he remained in the hospital, and then a convalescent home, while they figured out where he should go next.
In 1942, the Lequiens moved George to their apartment for two months. “The Lequiens embraced me beyond reason,” says George. “They loved me so much. But you can imagine how dangerous this was for them. And that’s why I couldn’t stay with them for long.”
The Lequiens arranged for George to move to a Catholic orphanage that was willing to hide him. The orphanage became his home for the next four years. “I was quite happy with the nuns,” says George.
After the war was over, a letter arrived from the United States. George’s great uncle, Isaac Rothman, was trying to locate members of his family with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“My great uncle began a correspondence with Mme. Lequien,” says George. “That is the second miracle of my life.”
Isaac and the Lequiens wrote back and forth for five months, each ensuring the other of their commitment to George and his future, and making plans for how to get him to the United States. George has those letters still.
In 1946, Isaac arranged passage for George on a ship leaving from Sweden for the United States. On his final day in Paris, Mme. Lequien handled every detail. She carefully packed George’s clothes. She met and approved two young men who were also traveling on the ship to watch out for George. Then she said goodbye.
“I was excited,” says George. “But what the Lequiens felt was tremendous sadness. Mme. Lequien wrote a letter to Isaac describing our final day: ‘George doesn’t know how sad I am that he’s left us. But I know that he’s very young and someday he’ll realize what has happened.’ Mme. Lequien understood why I wasn’t sad. I was just a boy, and I was excited to be taking a ship to New York. But I regret that she died before I was old enough to understand the risks they had taken, and before I could say thank you properly.”
George before and after his United States “makeover”
The Lequiens kept in touch with George after his move. Mme. Lequien died when he was a teenager, but George kept up correspondence with M. Lequien. Many years later, George learned that his parents had been killed at Auschwitz.
George was adopted by Isaac and his wife, Emma, and they raised him in Los Angeles. George grew up, went to college, and became a dentist. He loved Southern California. (“I was a beach bum!” he says.”) He and his wife, Gail, raised two children; when Gail and George moved to Daly City last year, it was to be close to their daughter and several of their grandchildren.
George points to the suitcase in his living room again. “That suitcase has become a relic for me. It stays with me wherever I go.” He feels tremendous gratitude for his parents’ foresight, for the Lequiens’ devotion, and for the Rothmans’ generosity. “I was really loved by my parents. I was loved by the Lequiens. I’ve lived with love all my life. I’ve been so lucky.”
George’s daughter, Elizabeth, helped him compile letters and documents, photographs, and other mementos of his remarkable journey into a thick binder. Elizabeth convinced George that his story needed to be told. George has now spoken at several middle schools and high schools, and he recently joined JFCS’ Speakers Bureau. He’s grateful for the opportunity to talk to young people about his experience—particularly, he says, given what’s going on in the world today.
George’s family, Thanksgiving 2021—Saving one child created a family of 12.
George didn’t always feel his story—of growing up in France, saying goodbye to his parents, benefiting from the goodwill of his mother’s employer, living in an orphanage, and eventually emigrating to the United States—was a story about the Holocaust. But that’s exactly what it is, and it’s time that his story is told.
Members of JFCS’ William J. Lowenberg Speakers Bureau teach students and adults about the Holocaust and genocide through eyewitness testimony. Holocaust and genocide survivors as well as their descendants speak in classrooms, religious and lay institutions, companies, and community venues. Their stories illuminate the importance of tolerance, embracing diversity, and combating hatred.
To request a speaker for your school or organization, please complete this Speakers Bureau Request Form at least two weeks before your preferred program date.