Ginger Lane, a Chicago Holocaust survivor urges, ‘Never be a bystander’
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is Thursday. To escape the Nazis, Lane and her siblings were hidden in a fruit orchard near Berlin by non-Jews willing to risk their lives for them.
It’s Berlin, 1943.
Ginger Lane, born Bela Weber on Nov. 27, 1939, is the youngest of seven children. Her Jewish mother, Lina, is from Hungary. Her father, Alexander Weber, raised Catholic, converted to Judaism to marry her mother.
Her mother, who worked for the underground, disappeared. She was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Auschwitz in March. After that, her father was jailed for a month. The children were arrested and released. Out of necessity, they were baptized Catholic. With forced transport to Auschwitz looming, they needed a safe haven.
In April 1943, “Herr Schmidt took us out to his fruit orchard,” Lane said.
A friend of Lane’s father, Arthur Schmidt, and his wife, Paula, hid the Jewish children, risking their lives if the Nazis caught them.
The children stayed at the orchard, in the town of Worin, some 40 miles east of Berlin, for about two years. They lived in a laundry shed. Young Bela dug for potatoes to eat.
Alexander Weber was able to work in Berlin, most likely because his papers were never stamped with a “J” — for Jewish — when he converted. Somehow, Alfons, the oldest of the seven children, was able to be employed along with his father. They would visit the family on weekends.
Lina was murdered in Auschwitz on Dec. 1, 1943.
At the end of the war, the seven siblings — six girls and a boy — started a journey that eventually landed them in Chicago.
More on that very layered story below.
REMEMBERING THE HOLOCAUST, VICTIMS AND HEROES
I am interviewing Lane, who lives on Lake Shore Drive, near Belmont, over the phone a few days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is Thursday.
We are talking in an era of rising Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. Earlier this month, Malik Faisal Akram took hostages at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, near Fort Worth.
The United Nations established International Remembrance Day on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the biggest and best-known German Nazi concentration camps. Yom Hashoah, another Holocaust Remembrance Day — marking the Warsaw Ghetto uprising anniversary — this year is April 28.
The Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, and with collaborators in other nations, murdered 6 million Jews and others — Roma, homosexuals, political opponents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled and some from Slavic countries.
It’s important to keep telling, retelling and preserving the stories — the eyewitness testimony — of survivors of Nazi horrors as well as highlighting the people who risked their lives to save Jews.
Lane said that the Bürgermeister — the mayor of Worin — and the whole village knew the children were hiding at the Schmidts’ — and never turned them in to the Nazis.
Schmidt would save the Weber children twice — in Worin and back in Berlin. Near the end of the war, Russian troops were advancing through Worin en route to Berlin. The siblings were better off back in Berlin. The building they were in was bombed — and Schmidt rescued them from the rubble.
Lane is part of a new social media Holocaust education campaign, #Don’tBeABystander, to “honor righteous rescuers,” launched this week by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany with Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.
The stories of the Schmidts and other “heroes to humanity, often get lost,” said Gideon Taylor, the president of the Claims Conference. That’s the group administering payments to Holocaust survivors with money provided by Germany.
“Their story is not just about what happened during the Holocaust. It’s a message about today, and what lessons we can learn from the Holocaust,” Taylor said.
Lane and her late brother, Alfons, pulled together the documentation needed to get Arthur and Paula Schmidt posthumously honored at Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations — non-Jews, Yad Vashem says, “who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.”
Lane traveled to Israel for the ceremony on March 14, 2018.
“Anti-Semitism has never disappeared,” Lane told me. “It’s just shocking to me and very disquieting, disappointing, how the world just doesn’t seem to learn, and how there are so many bystanders that continue to say nothing.”
I asked Lane if she had a theory about why no one turned them in.
Along with the horrible evil of Nazism, Lane said, “there were a lot of good people and righteous people, many, many of them in Germany and Poland who hid Jewish people because they could not abide what was happening.”
Lane said her message to the younger generation is to “never be a bystander … do not put up with bullying or taunting. … Learn your history, to not be put off by Holocaust denial.”
And be aware “that one person can make a difference.”
GINGER LANE’S CHICAGO STORY
A ship with the seven Weber siblings docked in New York in May 1946. They took a train to Chicago, arriving June 14, 1946.
They were written up in The New York Times with local coverage in the Sun-Times’ predecessor newspapers, the Chicago Sun and the Chicago Times, plus the Tribune. One article featured a photo of the seven siblings — ranging in age from 6 to 18 — in the downtown offices of the Jewish Children’s Bureau just after they got to Chicago.
Every article called the Weber siblings orphans. That was not true.
Their father was alive.
The children lied about their father’s death.
They knew they had to say they were war orphans to get into displaced persons camps, putting them in line to be refugees and, therefore, allowed to enter the U.S.
Lane said she thought her father would soon follow. That never happened.
The photo taken of them at the Jewish Children’s Bureau would be the last time all seven were together for about 40 years.
From the bureau, the Weber children were dropped off at the homes of seven Jewish families in Hyde Park. After being together during the war, they were separated in Chicago.
To make a very, very, long, complicated story short:
After being in foster care, Lane was adopted by I. Joshua Speigel, a neurosurgeon, and his wife, Rosalynde. Bela got a new name: Ginger.
Her father, still in Germany, had to give up rights to Lane. As part of the adoption, the social workers thought it best for the young Ginger to not see her German family.
Lane told me her siblings were able to keep tabs on her from afar — but contact was rare. She never had a relationship again with her birth father, who made his way to Chicago in 1956.
While poor in Germany, Lane was raised in an affluent Chicago home. She attended the private University of Chicago Lab School and studied ballet. She went to Northwestern, earning a degree in theater and communication.
A sorority sister fixed her up with Fred Lane, whom she would marry and later divorce.
On their blind date, he took her to see “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
He didn’t know.
Their son and two daughters were raised in Wilmette.
Lane was performing and teaching dance. She’s in a wheelchair, and I asked why. She said, “quadriplegia as a result of a skiing accident in Telluride, Colorado, in 1984.”
After she became disabled, Lane took stock.
She reconnected with her siblings — Alfons, Senta, Ruth, Gertrude, Renee and Judith.
As she said in a 2016 oral history interview for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the family reconciled and they have “good relationships now. ... Everything has been put to rest.”
Lane became an accomplished disability rights activist while continuing to perform — in her wheelchair — and choreograph. She worked at Access Living, one of Chicago’s top organizations for the disabled. She retired in 2020, spending her last 11 years there as the arts and culture project coordinator. While at Access, she founded CounterBalance, a dance company. In December 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot named Lane to her new Cultural Advisory Council.
Daughter Beth Lane is a filmmaker and actress in California, making a documentary about her family’s Holocaust story. The title, “Would You Hide Me,” raises the essential profound questions about the actions of individuals.
As Beth wrote at bethlane.com, “Have you ever wondered if you could be a hero? Would you hide an entire family? Who would hide you if you needed to be hidden?”
NEW ILLINOIS HOLOCAUST MUSEUM EXHIBIT
On Thursday, the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie launches a new, first-of-a-kind virtual reality exhibit, ‘The Journey Back.” Using VR headgear, a viewer follows — in a 360-degree experience — Chicago area concentration camp survivors — the late Fritzie Fritzshall and George Brent — as they lead people through past and present Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Ebensee.