While living in a concealed bunker for 22 months during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Jerry Koenig, his younger brother, Michael, and nine other Polish Jews shared a single pot of cabbage soup during the day, and slept in vermin-infested beds of straw at night.
The hid in the underground space to escape capture and deportation to the nearby Treblinka death camp.
Daily they endured starvation, lack of sunlight, and they were deprived of all the joy and freedom they had known. Only free to leave their refuge by night for fear of capture, 11 courageous people survived in the 24-by-6 foot bunker that had been built under a Polish farmer’s barn, located just seven miles from Treblinka.
On Sunday afternoon, during the Yom HaShoah Community Holocaust Commemoration, Koenig’s daughter, Laurie Horn, spoke about her father and his life in front of a crowd of around 500.
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The program, held in the White Theatre on the Jewish Community Campus in Overland Park, honored those who lost their lives, as well as those who survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Holocaust. The event commemorated the 74th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and was the 54th anniversary of the dedication of the Memorial to the Six Million.
Violinist Coleen Dieker and pianist Ellen Kort opened the event with music from the film “Schindler’s List.” Along with presentations by several keynote speakers, war veterans from MO-KAN Post 605 carried out the Presentation of Colors and the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy Choirs performed a selection of songs.
One of Sunday’s highlights was a candle lighting ceremony in which six candles were lighted to honor and pay tribute to the 6 million who lost their lives in the Holocaust. During a moment of silence, those from the community who represented World War II veterans, along second- and third-generation family members of Holocaust victims, lighted the candles.
In her inspiring tribute, Horn recounted the overwhelming her father overcame to survive the Holocaust and to build his life after the war ended.
For her presentation, Horn drew from the book “At The Edge Of An Abyss: A Story Of Holocaust Survival Near The Death Camp,” written by her uncle, Michael Koenig. The book chronicles Koenig’s life, and those of his extended family, before, during, and after the war.
“How do you win the lottery if you have never bought a ticket?” asked Horn, as she began her presentation. “Well, I am a living example. If my family had not survived the Holocaust, I would not be on this podium today. I shouldn’t be here. My father, Jerry Koenig, is a living testimony to surviving against all odds.”
In 1944, the Koenig brothers and their bunker “family” were liberated.
Jerry Koenign went on to earn an engineering degree and, in 1951, moved to Davenport, Iowa.
“Even after all he went through in his life, my father has always said life is worth living,” Horn said.
Sharon Lindenbaum, board chairwoman of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, spoke about the importance of honoring those who died — and those who struggled and fought for freedom.
“It is so important that we remember and commemorate those lives today and in the future,” Lindenbaum said. “Their efforts must not be in vain. We must remember the Holocaust, and it is our responsibility to carry forward this collective memory.”