A Heritage Reclaimed

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Temple Or Elohim Rabbi Harvey Abramowitz with Karin and Harry Arlin (Photos by Chris Boyle)
Temple Or Elohim Rabbi Harvey Abramowitz with Karin and Harry Arlin
(Photos by Chris Boyle)

Couple receives religious rite denied by war

After more than 70 years, a Jewish couple has finally reclaimed the birthright denied to them by the Nazis during World War II.

Huntington residents Harry and Karin Arlin, immigrants from Europe and married for 62 years, have been members of Temple Or Elohim of Jericho for many years. However, unlike many members of their congregation, neither of them had celebrated their bar and bat mitzvah—the respective male and female Jewish coming of age rituals—and both had finally decided it was time to do something about it.

The story starts when the couple was previously approached by Temple Or Elohim Rabbi Harvey Abramowitz, who said that he was shocked during casual conversation after Harry revealed the reason he had difficulty reading the Hebrew language during services.

“He told me the reason was that he never had a bar mitzvah because they didn’t have them in the concentration camp where he spent much of his youth during World War II. That stopped me right in my tracks,” he said. “Harry had always had this in the back of his head and he and his wife—she had never had her bat Mitzvah either—both decided that they wanted to finally have this wonderful ritual. They went through the process like everyone else, studying the language and how to read Hebrew together and I’m thrilled with their preparation and devotion. Theirs is an exceptional story.”

Harry Arlin, 88, grew up in Czechoslovakia (known today as the Czech Republic). While his youngest years were happy and uneventful, the rise of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany saw his teens years torn asunder when he and his family were forced to go on the run—living an undercover lifestyle for a spell, their luck nonetheless eventually ran out, Arlin said.

“We got out of Czechoslovakia when Hitler invaded and went to Yugoslavia in 1939. No country in Europe would take Jewish refugees, so my father bribed a priest and we became Catholic. We lived in a little village and I became an altar boy,” he said. “However, in 1941, Italy, along with Germany, went to war with Yugoslavia and my family was in the Italian occupation zone, so we were sent to an Italian concentration camp.”

While widespread stories of the atrocities committed in Nazi concentration camps have been etched into the pages of history in blood, fortunately for Arlin and his family, the Italians proved to be far kinder wardens than the Germans were reputed to be.

“Italian concentration camps were like summer resorts compared to Auschwitz, so we survived together as a family. Basically, Mussolini saved our lives by sending us to Calabria in southern Italy, which is where the camp was,” he said. “In 1943, we were liberated by the British 8th Army after they invaded Sicily. Afterwards, I went into the British Army as an interpreter—I spoke several languages—and went to England, France and eventually Germany.”

While Arlin was in the British Army, his parents managed to immigrate to a camp in the United States. After finishing his tour with the British, Arlin went home to his native Czechoslovakia but, dismayed by the post-war government’s shift to communism, instead elected to join his parents in America in 1946, where he served in the U.S. Army for a period.

Karin Arlin, 84, also had a rough go of it during World War II, although she was fortunate enough to be spared a stay in a concentration camp. Originally hailing from Germany, Karin came from a happy, well-to-do family that only casually observed the Jewish faith. However, none of that mattered to the Nazis when they took control, she said, as they only viewed the Jewish religion in terms of black and white.

“My father had a good position at Lufthansa, but when Hitler came he lost his job right away. He traveled looking for work and we eventually settled in Amsterdam in Holland where he worked as an engineer,” she said. “However, the Germans invaded Holland in 1940 and in 1941, we managed to get papers to get out and after traveling from Spain to Cuba, eventually made it to the United States, where we started a new life.”

Harry and Karin first set eyes upon each other in 1951 on Staten Island. The two have been inseparable ever since. And while they have lived a charmed life ever since, happily raising children and grandchildren, they have always felt that something was missing.

Now, Harry noted, the final piece of the puzzle was in place. On March 26, 2016—more than seven decades since their lives were turned upside-down by the Nazis—the Arlins, surrounded by family and friends, finally achieved the milestone of their respective bar and bat mitzvah at Temple Or Elohim, proving the old adage “better late than never.”

“It’s scary, sitting up there in front of everyone today, but it’s also very wonderful as well,” Harry said, with Karin on his arm. “We went through a lot in World War II and to be able to finally reclaim a lost bit of our heritage together after all these years is a great feeling.”

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