Aug 3, 2011

Sticking It To Hitler

Some people after the Holocaust felt, and still feel, that they needed to really "live" and "show" Hitler, really stick it to him. Different people "lived" and "showed" Hitler in different ways, each in his or her own style.

One went and jumped out of an airplane. At 85 years old. Gary Lenzner lives his life to the fullest, every day, just to show Hitler.

Lenzner is a Holocaust survivor, having survived the first few years as a German Jew in hiding he was eventually caught and then had to survive Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And now he spends his time showing "that idiot" that he (Hitler) is dead while he (Lenzner) continues to live.

From the Orange Country Register:
Most birthdays for Gary Lenzner consist of a dinner celebration with his extended family – on solid ground. So for his 85th, he decided to aim higher, much higher.
On Sunday morning, the spry Mission Viejo resident jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet in the air, free-falling for about 40 seconds before landing safely by parachute on Nichol's Field in Jamul, east of San Diego.
For Lenzner, a Holocaust survivor who escaped a World War II concentration camp, the experience was more than an adrenaline rush – it was a way to prove Adolf Hitler couldn't put out his flame.
"I'd like to prove the son of a (expletive) didn't succeed," Lenzner said as he suited up with his grandson, Bryan Wasserman, who jumped with him. "Not only didn't he succeed, I had two children, eight grandchildren and five great grandchildren, and now I'm jumping out of an airplane."
Lenzner's skydiving dream has been nearly a decade in the making, and was carefully planned to prevent certain family members from finding out in advance – those who would, as Lenzner put it, have "gone crazy" had they known of his daredevil plan.
"I'm here with Papa," Wasserman, 26, of Costa Mesa, told his mother by phone from the airfield moments after the duo touched down. "We went skydiving."
"No way," replied Rhonda Wasserman, who is Lenzner's daughter and one of the worriers of the family. "You and Papa?"
"Papa went," a grinning Bryan Wasserman replied, "and he did a back flip."
Lenzner, who turned 85 on July 23, is an observant, talkative character with a sharp tongue and a wicked sense of humor. He refers to Hitler as "the idiot" or "the S.O.B.," and when asked why he wants to skydive at 85, he replies with a gleam in his eye, "You only live once. Once you're dead, you're dead."
He says he's healthy, keeps active and bowls twice a week through a local senior bowling league. His average is 160.
Wasserman considers Lenzner to be his best friend. He's always been able to talk to his grandfather about everything, and grew up just a few blocks away from him in Mission Viejo.
"I just have a special bond with him," said Wasserman, one of Lenzner's eight grandchildren. "He keeps things very secret."
So when the duo went parasailing during a family trip to Cabo San Lucas about eight years ago, it was only natural Lenzner would turn to his grandson and confide a secret of his own – he wanted to go skydiving.
But Wasserman didn't get the chance to act immediately on that dream. Shortly after the vacation, Lenzner's wife of 58 years, Caroline, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, and Lenzner became her primary caretaker. She passed away in 2008.
About six weeks ago, Wasserman was reminded of his grandfather's dream when he saw an offer on the coupon website Groupon for a discounted $125-per-person skydive through the Skydive San Diego company in Jamul. After confirming his grandfather still wanted to take the plunge, he purchased two tickets. It was the first time for both of them.
"If it were me, my heart would be going bah-boom, bah-boom," said Lenzner's girlfriend, Susan Nelson, 75, of Mission Viejo, as she looked upward at the tiny specks floating down from the sky.
Skydive San Diego's operations director, Blake Robinson, said Lenzner is one of the oldest people he's ever seen jump. (A 92-year-old is the oldest he can remember.) Although about 15 percent of all customers are in their 60s and 70s, less than 1 percent are older than 80, Robinson said.
"Once you hit 80, they drop off – literally," Robinson said.
Lenzner escaped from Nazi internment – and certain death – essentially by sheer luck.
The native German Jew was a teenager living with his grandparents in Berlin when they received notice in 1943 that they were to be forcibly relocated to another city. Lenzner, who describes himself as "a typical rebellious teenager," told his grandparents he would not be going with them, despite their pleas. (He later learned his grandfather committed suicide on the day he was to be forcibly relocated; his grandmother was sent to a concentration camp and never heard from again.)
After shedding his identification papers, Lenzner ventured into the city, becoming a transient youth who was forced to hide his Jewish heritage.
He slept in department stores, in doorways and hallways of apartment buildings. When necessary, he begged to stay with his mother, who had remarried a Christian Protestant. But she was fearful of being caught providing shelter to a Jew, and would often toss him out, he said.
While in line at a movie theater in 1943, a group of teens who lived in his old neighborhood recognized him and began chasing him, screaming that he was a Jew.
"I ran right into the arms of a policeman," he said.
Lenzner said he was taken to a police substation, where he was left alone near an open window and managed to escape. But by then, he was already on the police's radar, he said.
About three months later, he was caught in a pedestrian checkpoint, imprisoned, and whisked away by the Nazi's secret police force – the Gestapo – to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, where he spent more than two years working as a laborer, helping to build a Nazi chemical factory and doing supplies inventory.
From there, he was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp and sent to harvest crops on a nearby farm. In 1945, as he was being marched back to Buchenwald on a chilly April day, he realized he needed to make a run for it.
"During this march, as people fell down, they were shot – it became a death march," he said.
He veered off the trail as it passed through a wooded area, and began running, eventually making his way to a farmhouse, where a sympathetic woman offered him shelter. Within weeks, American tanks were rolling through the area.
A great aunt in Detroit, Mich., offered to help him immigrate to the United States, he said. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, served a four-year term, and met and married his wife, Caroline, in Detroit. He spent the rest of his professional life installing and repairing laundry machines in Michigan and later Oklahoma. Thirty-one years ago, he retired to Mission Viejo.
After everything that the Holocaust survivor has been through, a 10,000-foot plunge was hardly much of a feat for Lenzner.
He was calm and collected as he boarded his plane, joking to the four family members who were with him: "If I get any more calm, I'll fall asleep."
When he met his tandem skydiving instructor, Josh Higgins, he introduced himself by saying: "I'm 85 years old, and I'm a Holocaust survivor."
And how was the experience?
"I enjoyed it very much," Lenzner said. "There was a fleeting moment when I got a little bit dizzy, mainly when I started going sideways. If I stay healthy, maybe I'll do it at 90."


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