MOVER AND SHAKER
Sheryl Bronkesh, president of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, has steered this organization toward a more expansive and community-oriented role in her years at its head. Her latest accomplishment is convincing the Arizona legislature to mandate Holocaust education in the public schools. Sheryl can most definitely be described as a mover and shaker.
Despite this major triumph, Sheryl does not rest. She is currently at work planning the next community project the organization will sponsor, beginning February 27th. Read on to learn about it.
In the photograph below, which appeared recently in Arizona Jewish News, Sheryl is pictured at the Arizona State Capitol with two Holocaust survivors -- Alex White, on the left, and Oscar Knoblauch, on the right. The two survivors have just given testimony to the Arizona legislature.
Here is Sheryl's story:
Both my parents grew up in Poland. That is where the similarities of their stories end. My father was from a small town, Ryki, located about 90 kilometres southeast of Warsaw. His family was Orthodox. He had three brothers and two sisters. The brothers and father bought produce from Polish farmers and sold the fruit in Lublin and Warsaw. During occupation, my father was a slave laborer in a munitions factory several kilometres from Ryki and his three brothers were in a slave labor camp in nearby Deblin. Two of his brothers were married and one had three children and the other a pregnant wife.
The women and children and their mother were in the Ryki ghetto. My father Sane (later Sam in the U.S.) broke out of the munitions factory and met up with his brothers and several other young people from their hometown in the thick forests of the area. Together, a group of about 30 survived two and a half years in the woods fighting as partisans. My father survived in the forest from 1942 to 1944 and was awarded a partisan medal by the Israeli government years later.
My mother grew up in a middle-class family with one sister in Sarny in eastern Poland. Her area of Poland became part of the Soviet Union in 1939 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, (also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact), that created a non-aggression treaty between the two behemoth military powers of Germany and the U.S.S.R. Overnight, Russian became the official language. Although my mother Bronia had graduated the gymnasia (high school) in 1938, she returned to high school for two years because a graduate of a Soviet high school could go to college and in my mother’s case, medical school, even if you were Jewish. She had always wanted to be a doctor but was barred from medical school in Poland because she was Jewish.
Shortly after Bronia graduated a second time, Hitler broke the pact in June 1941 and began marching toward Sarny. My mother found out that the Germans were heading toward her town and encouraged her family to escape across the border into Russia. Unfortunately, her father and grandparents stayed. With her mother and sister, Bronia walked and then took a train being bombed by the Nazis until they got to Kiev, where an aunt lived. When informed by the aunt's husband that their aunt had evacuated and it was unsafe there for them, they left, reuniting with Bronia's aunt on the train out of Kiev. The Nazis had overrun all of Ukraine so their flight was a wise move. They got to Armenia, which they found to be a beautiful countryside with kind, friendly people. Many of the Armenians had never met a Jew and expected them to have horns. They were good to them, however, and Bronia was able to attend medical school there. After Kiev was liberated, they went back and Bronia was able to attend medical school there as well.
In August 1942, in a mass shooting by the Einsatzgruppen, 14,000 - 18,000 Jews and Roma were murdered in Sarny over two days. In October 1942, Bronia and her mother and sister read in the newspaper Pravda about the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the territories they had conquered, and the town of Sarny was mentioned. They learned that the ghetto had been liquidated, the Jews were forced to dig trenches, and then they were shot at the edge of the trenches so that they would fall in. Many were still alive when the shooting was over and the Poles in the area reported hearing screams for days.
On August 27, 2021, in commemoration of the 79th anniversary of the Sarny Massacre, the Jerusalem Post published the following excerpt from an account by survivor Zvi Pearlstein as recorded in the Memorial Book of the Community of Sarny: “'When I ran over the barbed wire, there had already accumulated a mound – a meter high – of dead people, wounded people, and people who had fainted. They fell from the shooting of the German and Ukrainian gendarmerie. I also saw that the barracks, full of people, were burning. It was the Germans who had fired on them. “I ran, coursing over the piles of the dead bodies. Bullets whistled by my ears. Grenades fell, it was a fire and a Hell on all sides.'" Today, the once-thriving Jewish community and the Sarny Massacre are remembered in their Memorial Book, as well as in a memorial erected in the Holon Cemetery in Israel and in three memorials at the site of the massacre itself."
When Bronia and her mother and sister were finally able to return to Sarny, they found that their relatives who had stayed, along with all the Jews in the Sarny ghetto, had been killed. They heard that one Polish lady they knew had had a total nervous breakdown. Her husband, a doctor, helped her to commit suicide.
A few did escape. A friend of Bronia's sister, who had not been shot, managed to crawl out of the trench and run home. Her family's maid hid her there until the end of the war. She eventually got to Montreal and could provide an eyewitness account of what had happened in Sarny. She told Bronia that their father had lost his mind near the end.
When Sarny was liberated, Bronia, with her mother and sister, went back. They found their house destroyed and Bronia's grandparents' house occupied by Ukrainians. Everything had been stolen, and not one Jew was left alive. Slowly, a few Jewish partisans emerged from the woods where they had been fighting Germans and hiding.
In March 1945, they returned to Sarny again, when the Soviet government allowed former Polish citizens back. As Bronia wrote: "We all went to the mass graves to make sure that all that was reported was true. Sure enough, we started digging and on top was Grandpa. We covered the graves with plenty of dirt, collected stones, and fashioned a stone memorial. We said our good-byes to our dear departed and left Sarny forever."
They then went to Lublin in Poland, where Bronia met and married her husband, Sheryl's father. They wanted to leave Poland but Polish citizens were not allowed to leave. The Haganah smuggled them through Czechoslovakia. From there, they were able to get to Vienna and then to a DP camp in Germany.
Bronia's mother had a sister and brother in the United States and was hoping to locate them. An American Jewish officer she met while in Germany helped by placing an ad in the Forward newspaper for them. Fortunately, a friend of the brother saw the ad and this led to the reuniting of the family. In 1947, they were able to immigrate to the United States.
To learn more about Bronia and Sam’s lives, go to www.beforeamerica.com
I don’t remember not knowing that my parents were Holocaust survivors. When I was 3 ½, we moved from Bronx, NY, where I was born, to Millville, NJ after my parents bought a chicken farm. I have an older sister who was born in Munich while my parents lived in a DP camp. There were dozens of other Holocaust survivors who also moved to south Jersey on chicken farms which had been originally established in the late 1880s by Baron de Hirsch.
Sheryl, the younger child in front, with her sister Annette and parents at their chicken farm
I always felt different than other kids at school because my parents spoke with heavy accents and because we were Jewish. There was a small synagogue in Millville, but Jews were definitely a minority. There were less than a dozen Jewish kids in my high school graduating class of 350+. I had acquaintances whose parents were also survivors, but no close friends. Many of their parents had numbers tattooed on their arms while my parents did not and thus were not considered real survivors. This hierarchy of suffering always bothered me. My mother made friends who were American-born and that definitely influenced my childhood.
My parents focused almost exclusively on education. Both my sister and I were expected to excel at school, attend Hebrew school three times per week, and take piano lessons. Anything else was unimportant -- like sports, friends, and fun. College was never a question; it was expected. Though my parents had little excess money, my sister and I were going to college – whichever college gave us a scholarship. Other kids I was friends with had very different upbringings. They played softball, were cheerleaders, and dated. I was not allowed to go out with non-Jewish boys which was problematic since there were very few in my class. Fortunately, my parents encouraged my participation in BBG (B'nai B'rith Girls) in a neighboring town where I developed a community of friends.
My feelings changed when I got older. As a child, I was embarrassed by my parents’ accents and that they worked on a farm and that we were poor. By the time I was in college, they had moved off the farm and bought a wholesale food distribution company. As they began to move into a middle-class lifestyle, I focused less on their differences. As an adult with a child of my own, I became more and more proud of their experiences during WWII. After my parents moved to Scottsdale, where I lived, in 1992, I would go with them once a year to the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration put on by Phoenix Holocaust Survivors’ Association (PHSA).
My mother definitely talked about the war and her experiences. ALL THE TIME. My father was less verbal and while I knew he had been a partisan, it wasn’t until I was 17 and went to Israel on a teen trip with BBYO (B'nai B'rith Youth Organization) that I first met my father’s two brothers and their families. That is where I learned more about my father’s wartime experiences. In Israel, he was considered a hero because of his actions as a partisan.
While my father was living, I rarely asked him questions. Fortunately, we conducted a two-hour interview which was captured on tape once when he was visiting Scottsdale from their retirement home in Florida. The cassette tape became very important decades later when I became interested in genealogy research. My mother was still alive when I started on this path and I asked her many, many questions.
In 2009, my mother, my daughter, and I took a trip to Poland and Ukraine (Sarny is in Ukraine today) to continue my research. My mother had never been to Ryki until that trip. We also went to Kiev to see the medical school she attended but unfortunately, we did not get to Armenia. The three of us stood at the site of the mass grave where my mother's father and grandparents were murdered in a mass execution. We said Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) and this was an extremely emotional moment.
It was only after my father’s death in 1998 and then my mother’s declining health that I started getting involved in PHSA. There was a group trying to get a 2G group -- for children of survivors -- off the ground and I attended several meetings. Not much came of it until the third try in 2013 when Generations After was formed. By then, I was a member of the PHSA board of directors. I took on leadership roles with Generations After, which grew rapidly, and took on increasingly more of the public programming for PHSA. When I was elected president of PHSA in October 2018, the two organizations merged into Phoenix Holocaust Association. (We dropped the word "Survivors" from the name). I am still president of PHA.
I feel that my drive to get an advanced degree and my ambition to become successful in business stem from being a 2G. While my mother desperately wanted me to be a doctor, I went in a different direction. I did, however, start my career working for a hospital and became one of the first hospital marketing directors in the country (she was proud of that). When I moved from the East Coast to Arizona, I went to Arizona State University to obtain an MBA, which was rare for a female in the late 1970’s. Again, I attribute this drive to being a 2G. I tried to make my parents proud and always in the back of my mind was my mother’s words: "Education is one thing that can’t be taken away from you."
I value my education and then putting that education to use in my career. After leaving hospital administration, I joined two of my business school professors in a healthcare consulting company. I stayed with the company for 36 years, eventually owning the company and serving as its president until it was sold. I am the co-author of three books on healthcare marketing. This success is my parents’ success. I don’t feel that my experience as a 2G scarred me or hampered me. Perhaps it made me very driven professionally which impacted my personal life.
Sheryl, at right, with her mother and daughter, having fun.
The focus of my life for the last few years has been the Phoenix Holocaust Association. When I started getting involved with their work, there were about 200 survivors in the Phoenix area. I realized that they were getting older and the next generation needed to step up. We worked at getting the next generation involved.
One of the firsts things I accomplished as a board member was expanding what it means to be a Holocaust survivor. Some people felt that one had to have been in a concentration camp to be considered a 'real survivor.' However, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum defines a survivor more broadly, and that's what I advocated. Thus, our definition covers anyone who has suffered or had their lives threatened, disrupted, or displaced and been persecuted in any way because of the Holocaust. I felt so strongly that all survivors need to be recognized and appreciated, not only those who were in concentration camps. My own parents felt like second-class citizens -- especially my father, because his English was not fluent. And no one was interested in their Holocaust stories that I recall.
We also began doing really broad community programming highlighting the Holocaust. We featured internationally known speakers, drawing audiences large enough to fill auditoriums and synagogues. We partnered with Scottsdale Community College for a week of educational programs called Genocide Awareness Week.
Some of our programs involved books. Several years ago, we promoted the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, which tells the story of Mona's musically talented mother, who was sent as a child from Austria to London on the Kindertransport and lived in an orphanage through the war, thus surviving while her parents perished. Our members gave talks throughout the area about the book and we brought Mona Golabek, who is a world-renowned concert pianist (fulfilling her mother's dream), to Arizona, where she performed at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
The following year, the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix promoted the book Violins of Hope by James A. Grymes. This is a book that follows the stories of several violins that saved Jewish lives during the war, either by being played in concentration camp orchestras or lifting spirits in the ghettos. A father and son team in Tel Aviv, Israel, repairs these old violins brought to them and collects the ones their owners do not want. 25 of the violins and the two men who work on and collect them came to Scottsdale, where an exhibit featuring the violins and chronicling some of their histories was mounted and some of the violins were played in a performance by members of the Phoenix Symphony, who felt honored to handle them. Arizona Musicfest Orchestra put on performances throughout the area as part of the project. World-renowned violinist Gil Shaham appeared as a guest soloist for performances of Brahms's "Violin Concerto" and Williams's moving theme from "Schindler's List." PHA got involved in the community education part, with members giving talks about the book.
These programs are not only geared to adults and not only to Jews. We bring them to public schools and have children get involved with projects. We reach out to the larger community through Genocide Awareness Week, adult education programs, and library talks.
Before the Covid lockdown, we were set to launch a program called "Holocaust by Bullets." This program highlights the work of the French Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois, who founded an organization that locates the mass graves throughout Eastern Europe in which millions of Jews who were cruelly murdered in mass executions lie unknown. Not only does he locate the graves but he interviews villagers, now elderly, who were witnesses -- and sometimes collaborators -- of these horrendous murders in their towns. His goal is to give back to the dead their dignity and to teach people to stand up to hatred by showing what happens when no one does.
Although this program, which included bringing Father Desbois to Arizona, had to be initially postponed, we are now happy to report that we are re-launching it. An exhibit at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona dealing with this mission will premiere on February 27th and run through April 17th. In addition, Father Desbois will speak there on April 4th. Tickets are required to see him, either in person or livestreamed. Before it was postponed, an exhibit had been put up at the Arizona Capital Museum and the Burton Barr Central Library, where many thousands of children saw it. The impact it had on them was obvious, and we look forward to resuming our work with this re-launch.
For information about the Holocaust by Bullets program, and tickets, visit:
What I am proudest of, however, is my work with lawmakers to ensure Arizona's public schools teach about the Holocaust and other genocides at least twice between seventh and 12th grade. This is crucial. A national survey in 2020 found that 63% of Millennials (ages 25-40) and Gen Z (18-24) do not know that six million Jews were murdered. The survey also found that 11% of national respondents (15% in Arizona) believe Jews caused the Holocaust.
Education is the only solution. We are spearheading a task force to develop resources for teachers to use to teach the Holocaust as well as other genocides in the world. That is huge. I am so proud that we were able to involve professors from all three state universities and from various community colleges as well as survivors and other educators to work together quickly to develop that resource. To me, that's a major achievement.
I do not want the stories of the Holocaust survivors to die with the survivors.
Although I am proud of what has been achieved, we keep teaching. The work is not done.
Bronia with her grandchildren at her 90th birthday celebration