Lengel: My Uncle Eugene Paskes, A Holocaust Survivor and Inspiration, Dies at 96

December 12, 2023, 8:45 PM by  Allan Lengel

Uncle Eugene Paskes

I once asked my uncle Eugene in Florida if he ever thought of removing the concentration camp number tattooed on his forearm from Auschwitz. “No,” he said, “I’m proud of it.”

That pride included not only surviving, but moving beyond Auschwitz-Birkenau, maintaining his humor and kindness, marrying, becoming a father and grandfather of three. On Sunday, Eugene Paskes died at age 96, six years after his wife of 57 years, Norma, had passed.

On Monday, at a brief memorial service, his daughter Amy delivered a heartfelt eulogy, saying: “He is someone I always admired because he overcame so much…He was a wonderful father and grandfather.” Afterward, he was buried in a white pinewood coffin at a Hollywood, Fla., cemetery, more than 5,000 miles from his birthplace in Czechoslovakia.

Eugene was my mother’s youngest brother, one of eight children in Czechoslovakia. He was the last of the Paskes siblings living – the last direct connection to my mother’s childhood, the final direct link to our family and the Holocaust.

He was a mensch, a Yiddish word meaning truly good person. He was a humble man.

He grew up working at the family general store -- which sold everything from hardware to candy -- along with my mother and his other siblings. He told me my mother Miriam was the funniest among the children in a family that had a very good sense of humor.  At home, they spoke Yiddish, a language of the Eastern European Jews. He said he had a happy childhood. He played soccer and went ice skating.

When asked by an interviewer for an oral history for the U.S. Holocaust Museum, where he was on the pecking order of siblings, he said, “I was the last one; they closed shop.”

He had a bar mitzvah at 13.  “It was a nice affair,” he said, explaining they had food after the synagogue service “but they didn’t make a big doing about it. It was a very happy occasion.”

He never finished high school. At age 17, he was rounded up and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with other family members including his parents and my mother Miriam. The parents were killed. Eugene and sisters Miriam and Dori survived. Three of his siblings didn’t survive the war. Two other brothers managed to dodge the Nazis and escape to Israel. 

At the labor camp in Auschwitz, he told me he had a job cleaning offices at night at the nearby IG Farban company, which produced the deadly Zyklon B chemical used in the gas chambers.

After the war, he made his way to Israel to join some of his siblings. He joined the army and later worked for the Israeli electric company. After about 10 years in Israel, he made his way to New York, and started a fabric and sweater company. He met his wife Norma, who had a son Marshall from a previous marriage, and they had a daughter Amy.

The family eventually moved to Florida.

For many years, my parents were snowbirds, living parttime in southern Florida. I would visit every year, and my uncle and his wife, and sometimes his daughter, would come by the condo and chat and have a nosh.

In past several years, I tried calling him every few weeks. He was a good guy, not to mention, the last connection to my mother, and he was a survivor among the survivors.

He remained mentally sharp until the end. He was always able to recount details and names in his past, but started to use a walker. When I called, sometimes I reminded him of what my mother said in her final year when asked how she was doing: “Schlepping,” she said, which meant dragging in yiddish.

“Yeah, schlepping,” he'd agree.

He followed current events closely. We talked politics. He wasn’t a big Trump fan. We talked about the Israeli-Hamas war. He was concerned about our relatives in Israel and talked about events. But there was never any name calling or bitterness. That just wasn’t him.

A mensch to the end, he provided inspiration to look beyond life’s tragedies and simply live.

RIP Eugene. 

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