The Museum’s Campaign: Bernard Aptaker’s Enduring Legacy
Born in Zakrzòwek, Poland, in 1926, Bernard Aptaker and his brothers, Stanley and Moshe, spent their childhood in a warm, observant household. When the Nazi occupation shattered their lives in 1939, strong family bonds helped the family survive until they were split apart. “When there’s love in the family you can overcome just about anything,” he said.
In the fall of 1942, the family was ordered to report to the Kraśnik ghetto after being turned out by a sympathetic Polish farmer who initially hid them but feared being found out by authorities. Bernard’s younger brother, Moshe, and his mother were deported to a killing center. Bernard, Stanley, and their father were sent to a series of camps where they endured unimaginable barbarity. By mid-1944, they arrived at the Flossenbürg concentration camp as forced laborers.
In the spring of 1945, the Germans forced Bernard, his father, and brother on a death march to Dachau. They survived. Bernard was 19 when he was liberated by American forces on April 29, 1945.
Thanks to his language skills in Polish, German, Yiddish, and Russian, Bernard worked for two years with US intelligence units in Europe to capture German war criminals. He immigrated to New York in 1947 and got a job working in a delicatessen. After relocating to Houston in 1970, Bernard launched what became an exceptionally successful real estate business and devoted his life to philanthropy. After his passing in 2015, the Museum received an extraordinary gift of more than $34 million from his estate.
“This represents the largest single gift the institution has ever received,” said Museum Vice Chairman Allan Holt. “The emotional scars left by Bernard’s experiences during the war shaped his views of humanity. He believed in this Museum’s educational mission and its potential to shape a better future.”
In His Own Words
In his 1996 testimony with the USC Shoah Foundation, which is available at the Museum, Bernard Aptaker started by saying, “I lived through this nightmare and survived, perhaps to tell this story.”
On experiencing antisemitism:
As kids, we couldn’t understand it. We were no different than the other… My parents would just say, “this is how things are.”
On the start of the war:
I realized something terrible and tragic was underway. Life changed in that we were frightened…. We lived moment to moment.
On going into hiding:
At night we slept in barns and attics…. I felt great confusion and fear…many nights, I couldn’t fall asleep because I wondered what it would be like when you get shot in the head….
On being discovered:
We were hiding out in hay…. One afternoon the farmer came running and he said, “They’re coming for you.” I hid, but suddenly heard screams. It was Moshe, who was nine…. I saw him in the middle of the field with at least a dozen farmers coming at him with pitchforks. He was frightened and crying. I walked toward him…. We were marched into the city. I was barely 15 years old.
On his mother, Sarah:
The last time I saw my mother was in Kraśnik when we turned ourselves in…. Later, in Flossenbürg, we heard that my mother and Moshe had been shipped to [a killing center] and gassed…. No matter how old you get, it just doesn’t leave you — what your own mother had to endure in order to just die.
On surviving Flossenbürg camp:
If [my father] had a piece of bread, he broke it into three pieces, for me, for him, and my brother, Stanley. This is how we survived. [In April 1945,] there was about 30,000 people in a death march from Flossenbürg to Dachau. It was the ultimate nightmare because you were starved, you were cold, you were hot, you were sick, and they shot you as soon as you sat down to fix your
shoelace or anything.
We didn’t know, but we were five days from being liberated…. There was much disarray at the camp. My father, Stanley, and I took off into the woods. Later, the three of us were picked up by American military units…. We would all have been doomed to a terrible end without the Americans.
To me, religion means tolerance. Every person can choose the way they want to climb the mountain to their god…. We don’t have to accept others’ views, but if we don’t tolerate one another, we have nothing.
Building the Accessible Collection of Record
In 2007, Museum Curator Kyra Schuster received a large envelope from Alaska. Inside was an old photo album full of snapshots from the 1950s. The album also held something else: liberation photographs from Dachau. It also contained immigration documents and telegrams with a name on them — Berek Aptajker — along with a note saying the album had been found in a storage unit purchased by someone unrelated to the album. That conscientious person sent it to the Museum.
Schuster looked up Berek Aptajker online and reached out to the man, by then called Bernard Aptaker, in Houston. He replied, surprised to hear that the long-lost photo album had ended up in her hands. He had lived in Anchorage for a short time and the album must have been lost or left behind. He thanked Schuster and gave her permission to copy the Holocaust-related images for the Museum’s photo reference collection before she returned the album to him. Schuster had no idea that one day Aptaker would become one of the Museum’s biggest donors.
The Museum has named one of the collections wings of the David and Fela Shapell Family Collections, Conservation and Research Center in Aptaker’s honor.
Every object in the Museum’s collection tells the story of an individual. It serves as evidence of the truth. Aptaker’s oral testimony tells the story of life before and during the Holocaust. Digital images from his long-lost photo album tell the story of his life after liberation from Dachau. These items are permanently housed at the new David and Fela Shapell Family Collections, Conservation and Research Center.
“The collection is the physical bridge between the individuals, their stories, and the events of the Holocaust and our world today,” explained Travis Roxlau, director of collections services for the Museum’s National Institute for Holocaust Documentation.
In addition to collections that find their way to the Museum through the efforts of the general public, our professional team aggressively collects in an effort that spans 50 countries on six continents. The depth and breadth of our existing collection belies the fact that the majority of Holocaust materials are likely still out there, stored in attics, basements, and lost photo albums. This is why the Museum has accelerated its race to collect evidence while there is still time.
“When we no longer have our eyewitnesses, these items will be the remaining firsthand link to that period of time,” said Roxlau. The Museum’s oral histories, photographs, and other collections give the institution the ability to tell peoples’ stories, while also serving scholars who work to advance knowledge about the Holocaust.
In addition to acquiring and preserving artifacts, an important goal of the Shapell Center is to make the collections accessible both online and onsite. Since its dedication in 2017, the Shapell Center has hosted a number of scholarly meetings, seminars, and workshops, including welcoming individuals from more than 40 museums, archives, and affiliated professional organizations.
“It’s a dynamic place,” Roxlau said. “We’ve always said we were going to build a state-of- the-art facility. Now we have, and it’s being recognized as the international gold standard.”