NEW YORK - "I just cried, I could cry right now, you just cried like a child," said Susi Kasper Leiter as she recalled that painful goodbye-- not knowing if she’d ever see her parents again.
It was 1939 and she was 14 years old, escaping from Nazi Germany on a children’s transport to France. FOX 5 NY has recovered archival video from two years later, right before Susi boarded a ship from Portugal to the U.S. Her family’s Holocaust survival story is a remarkable one. Susi and her parents miraculously reunited in New York in 1942.
In the present-day on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, we met with the vibrant 94-year-old and her grandson, Jake, to hear another extraordinary tale. It’s about an unexpected discovery, which meant their family’s story had not yet been fully written.
"I thought it was a magical story that a Bible could’ve been found after all these years." said Susi.
An unbelievable series of events unfolded that Susi and her family never imagined could have played out. Here they are now, united with an irreplaceable heirloom that belonged to Susi’s late husband’s grandparents, named Eduard and Ernestine Leiter, who are Jake’s great-great-grandparents. As Hitler rose to power, Nazis forced Eduard and Ernestine to move into a house in Oberdorf, Germany-- crammed in there with several other Jewish families. That’s when it’s believed that Eduard and Ernestine hid a 22-pound 1874 version of the Tanakh, which is a Hebrew Bible, comprised of the Torah and filled with descriptive illustrations.
"Not totally surprised because I knew that many of the Jews during the bad times, during the terrible Hitler years, hid their things between walls and doors of furniture, etc. What surprised me was the years that passed, that no one ever noticed it before," said Susi.
"For 50 years, 48 years, it was hidden behind a double wall. In 1990 a man bought the home, his son and him renovating the house, his son was up in the attic found behind a double wall in the chest, a Bible, letters, jewelry," said Susi’s grandson, Jake Leiter.
That father and son never returned the jewelry or letters, but did sell the bible on eBay nearly 3 decades later for 65 euros. Fortunately, the Tanakh ended up in the hands of an art historian who then donated it to a Synagogue in Germany. That art historian later contacted a staffer with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is based in Washington D.C. That’s where researcher Jo-Ellyn Decker works, who found Jake on linked-in and sent him a private message telling him about the Tanakh. Arrangements were soon made for the heavy bible to be hand-delivered to the Leiters in New York.
"It's never happened in terms of repatriating an item, I've worked at a museum for 13 years," said Jo-Ellyn Decker, research and reference librarian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
This feat was a huge accomplishment for Jo-Ellyn and her team, who believe stories like this one remind future generations of all the individual lives lost during that dark period in history.
"Without those micro-histories, you have no larger history you have no context in which to really put what happened to people together," said Jo-Ellyn.
In August of 1942, Eduard, Ernestine and the other Jewish families packed into that house were sent to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. It’s believed that the Leiters hid their precious few possessions, including the Tanakh, right before their deportation. The bible has been traced back to their family because a card with Eduard’s name on it and some other information was found inside the bible.
"Part of the family has been regenerated. I look at the Bible and I’m just fascinated by it, the beauty of the script. So periodically now in the evening if I want to be closer to my husband who died almost 12 years ago, I read it like a book, I find it just beautiful," said Susi.
"Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, so I want my kids to know that’s real life, this happened and it wasn’t that long ago so this is a real tangible item that they can see and look at and I could tell them that their great-great-great grandparents once held, I want them to know, that’s it," said Jake.
Eduard and Ernestine were later deported to the Treblinka extermination camp where they were murdered. Susi and Jake vow to make sure their legacies live on and that these unimaginable stories of horror serve to educate generations to come.