Dora Zaidenweber moved to Minneapolis in 1950, just a few short years after being liberated after surviving the Radom forced labor camp, Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, and for 74 years after, would tell her story to anyone who would listen.
“Having survived, I have an obligation to tell my story,” Zaidenweber told writer Lili Chester, who documented the words of survivors for the Transfer of Memory project. “That responsibility is based on the fact that I am still here.”
Zaidenweber, who gained media attention earlier this year for powerful testimony to the Minnesota House Education Policy Committee, passed away in the early hours of Thursday, Sept. 21. She was 99 years old.
“She was just a tireless advocate, and I think that strength and resilience of surviving fueled her passion to leave a legacy,” said Laura Zelle, the director of Holocaust education for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “And what a legacy.”
Zaidenweber was one of the witnesses who helped make Minnesota’s new Holocaust and genocide studies education mandate a reality. Originally the bill was going to be laid over, or held, for future consideration. Zaidenweber’s testimony was so powerful that members changed course and moved it forward in the process without delay.
“Sitting in her wheelchair, and leaning into the microphone, Dora’s poignant stories told with grace and honesty, served as a powerful reminder of the atrocities of the past and a warning against the perils of forgetting history,” Zelle said. “She spoke about the need to live outside one’s comfort zone, and getting to know people that are different from you as a way to create bridges across our increasingly diverse society.
“Dora was a force that winter day, there’s no doubt in my and my JCRC colleague’s minds that her words, her presence, and her voice changed minds in that packed Capitol hearing room.”
“She made every year after liberation count,” said Ethan Roberts, the director of governmental affairs and deputy executive director of the JCRC.
To make sure her message was properly understood that day, Zelle said that as Zaidenweber’s daughter, Rosanne, was pushing her wheelchair towards the exit, Zaidenweber was asking where the governor was. She got her opportunity to talk to Gov. Tim Walz at the JCRC’s annual benefit in June.
Beyond the testimony
While Zaidenweber told her story of surviving the Holocaust to thousands of people over the years, her grandchildren got to cherish the regular, everyday interactions. Her grandson, Jonah Krischer, said that he and his brother went to his grandparents’ house every other Sunday where the learned to play bridge, had dinner, and watched “60 Minutes.”
“It was really wonderful to grow up near nearby to have them be such a part of our lives and be able to really develop a relationship with them,” Krischer said of Dora and Jules Zaidenweber. “We saw them regularly, and they came to, you know, every school event, every school play every bring your grandparent to school day. They were always, always there.”
As her grandchildren got older, Krischer said that his grandparents told them their story of survival. And while she was a survivor, Krischer didn’t think his grandmother was defined by that, but it was undoubtedly a huge part of her identity.
“From the moment she decided to start telling her story, which was when my mom was in high school…she didn’t stop,” he said. “She basically created the JCRC Speaker’s Bureau, and they went all over the state, all over the Midwest and spoke to schools. It was definitely a big part of their identity. But it also wasn’t their own only identity: she was a mother and a grandmother and was trained as an economist.”
She lost her eyesight to macular degeneration, but stayed connected to the news through audio versions of books and magazines, including “The Economist” and “Hadassah.”
Eleven years ago, she was part of publishing a memoir that her father, Isaia Eiger, wrote decades earlier about surviving Auschwitz. Krischer said that she had found the memoir, written in Yiddish, and started to translate it when she realized it was incomplete.
“She thought for a long time maybe he never got around to finishing it,” Krischer said. As she was packing up boxes of papers to send with relatives to Israel to donate to Yad Vashem, she saw a piece of paper and realized that her father had handwritten the entire manuscript during the war, and then typed only part of it on a Yiddish typewriter.
Even with her eyesight nearly gone, she used a reading machine to magnify the letters allowed her to transliterate the Yiddish into English letters, and then translate that into English words. The project took two and a half years, but the family self-published Sky Tinged Red: A Chronicle of Two and a Half Years in Auschwitz.
In her 80s, Krischer said that she and a friend, Don Masler, started studying Talmud together over the phone, and over the course of seven years, completed a tractate.
“She called it as she saw it, and she didn’t pull punches with anyone,” said Adath Jeshurun Rabbi Emeritus Harold Kravitz, whose children grew up with Zaidenweber’s grandchildren. “Our kids loved her for that.”
Kravitz said that he and his wife, Cindy Reich, went to visit Zaidenweber in the hours before she passed away. He said that Zaidenweber had been so inspiring to one of her caretakers, a Black woman, that she went to Washington, D.C., to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to understand what Zaidenweber had endured.
“She told Dora she had done this, and Dora was completely blown away,” Kravitz said. “There was a sense of whomever she encountered, she was like a magnet. People gravitated towards her.”
As evidence of that, Kravitz pointed out the relationship between Liel Pink z”l and Zaidenweber, who lived together as both were ailing, despite the 78-year age difference.
Said Krischer: “She was definitely a survivor. And also a lot of other things, too.”
Dora Zaidenweber was preceded in death by her parents; her husband, Jules Zaidenweber; brothers Moniek and David Eiger, and sister-in-law, Barbara Eiger. She is survived by daughter Rosanne Zaidenweber (Judy Levitan), son Gary Zaidenweber (Rachel Adelman); grandchildren Etan Newman (Kashmir Kustanowitz), Tamar Goldblatt (Mat), Anat Naomi Zaidenweber, Jonah Krischer (Amy), and Gabriel Deacon; great-grandchildren Jules, Caleb, Adin, Ezra, and Nava. The funeral will take place at Adath Jeshurun Congregation on Friday, September 22nd at 2 p.m, followed by burial at Beth El Cemetery (3800 Winnetka Ave. N. Crystal). Minyanim during Shiva will take place on Saturday night at 8:30. Contact Washburn-McReavy Funeral Home or Adath for location information. Donations can be made to Hadassah or the Holocaust Education fund at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.