Author: Jacobs, Melissa
Date published: October 21, 2010
"Have you ever Bat Mitzvahed an 88-year old?"
"Not yet," would be the answer from Beth Tikvah-B'nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim, the synagogue where Lore Bryan, the octogenarian in question; her daughter-in-law, Ivy Bryan, 57; and her granddaughter, 12-year old Alexis Bryan, will be called to the Torah in a triple Bat Mitzvah on Oct. 23.
"The day is really about Alexis," Ivy said. "The invitation only has her name on it, and the party is everything she wants. But neither I nor my mother-inlaw have been Bat Mitzvahed, so when I got Alexis's date, I brought up the idea. Everyone was all for it."
Lore and Ivy will each read four lines of Haftorah and four lines of Torah. Alexis will do the rest. "I think it's great that the three of us are sharing it," she said. "It's definitely unique. I've never heard of anyone else doing this."
There's much more that is unique about the Bryan family. Alexis is the only child of Ivy and Jeff Bryan, and the only grandchild of Lore and Roger Bryan, who died in 2008. What Alexis will someday learn is that the Bryan family's history is nothing short of epic.
Roger and Lore were born in 1921 and 1922, respectively, to observant Jewish families in Germany. Lore's father was a teacher and part-time cantor. Roger's father was a physician who served Germany in World War I and earned an Iron Cross, then a veteran's medal for active service. But that did not save him from being arrested by the police in 1936, and taken to a Berlin prison, where he died.
The families did not know one another, but they knew that, by the mid-1930s, Germany had become a dangerous place for Jews. For parents like Lore's and Roger's, there was one priority: to get their children out of the country.
In memoirs that he published for his family, Roger wrote that the question about emigration became not "if but "where." Countries like Venezuela, Canada, China, Cuba and Brazil took refugees, but those quotas were quickly filled. "Have you ever watched a mouse in a cage?" was Roger's metaphor for being trapped in Germany.
Finally, Lore, at the age of 17, was allowed to leave and live with second cousins in Liverpool, England. Roger, too, made it to England. On July 12, 1939, he left for London. Six weeks later, Hitler invaded Poland and World War II began.
Lore had already made her way from Liverpool - which was evacuated as a "protected area" - to Glasgow, Scotland, where she lived with relatives. Roger was left in a unique position. He was, technically, an "enemy" German on English soil. Never mind that he had gone to England for protection from the Nazis. The British government saw him as German first, Jewish second.
In May 1940, Roger and other Germans and Austrians were sent to Onchan, an internment camp on the Isle of Man in the Northern Sea. He lived surrounded by barbed wire in conditions he described only as "very primitive." But things were about to get much, much worse.
The British government ran out of places to house the thousands of Germans and Austrians classified as enemy aliens, and pressed its Commonwealth countries to accept them. In July 1940, Roger was put on a ship and told it was headed to Canada. It was actually headed to Australia. He was on board the infamous HMT Dunera.
Certified to carry 1,600 men, the Dunera was crammed with 2,542 men, 250 of them Jews. British sailors were mistakenly told that the men were captured prisoners of war and Nazi sympathizers. The crew treated them as such, subjecting the men to beatings, starvation and ghastly sanitary conditions for the 56 days of the journey. The ship was later described by a British historian as "a floating concentration camp." What happened on board was bad enough that the British government put a 100year ban on documents relating to what became known as "the Dunera scandal."
In early September 1940. Roger arrived at Hay, an Australian internment camp, and became one of what history called The Dunera Boys. The group, inspiration for many books and a movie, turned the camp into a cultural institution. They held lectures, concerts and educational seminars, which are described in Roger's memoir.
When The Dunera Boys were given the opportunity to volunteer for the British Army, Roger did so. "Yes, the British had arrested him. shipped him around the world, mistreated him on a horrible ship, and imprisoned him in the middle of Australia," Lore said. "But he wanted to fight the Nazis."
After basic training, Roger was billeted in Glasgow, where he met Lore at a dance at the Jewish Institute. They were married soon after, on Lore's 21st birthday, Sept. 22. 1943. It was a happy occasion, tinged with sadness. By then, they knew that their parents were dead. "I got a letter from the International Red Cross saying that my father had died in an old age home and my mother had been deported," Lore said. "It wasn't true. The Nazis killed them."
After Germany's defeat. Roger was serving as a staff sergeant in the Royal Army Service Corps when he was assigned to work as an interpreter at a POW camp in Belgium - a camp filled with Nazis. Lore said, "Here is my husband, a German Jew, in charge of Nazis who are now the ones in the camps."
Roger wrote, "I was sickened looking at them and wondering, 'Who of you is responsible for killing my mother and my relatives?'"
Roger was then transferred into Germany, near Hamburg, from which he had fled six years earlier, to the former concentration camp of Neuengamme. His job was to interrogate and document SS, Wehrmacht and Nazi party officials. "Difficult," is all Lore said about the experience. "Very, very difficult to hear what they had done."
It got more difficult. Although he tried to refuse the assignment, Roger was ordered to serve with the British War Crimes Executive at the Nuremberg trials. He sat at the British prosecution's table, translating the testimonies of Goring, Hess, Ribbentrop and other Nazis. "To see the whole rogues' gallery, not more than 20 feet in front of me, was an overwhelming experience," he wrote.
After the Nuremberg trials, Roger and Lore settled in Glasgow. In 1954, the couple immigrated to Philadelphia, where they had family Originally members of Har Zion, the Bryans switched to Society Hill Synagogue and were active members for 40 years.
In fact, the former cantor of Society Hill Synagogue is coming from Florida to attend the Bat Mitzvah. So are scores of Bryan family members. Although Lore's and Roger's parents perished in the camps, they were able to save all of their children.
From refuges-turned-homes in South America and elsewhere, the Bryan family will gather to watch Lore, Ivy and Alexis become Bat Mitzvahs.
Roger will be there in spirit. Lore will wear Roger's tallis. Ivy will wear a pin made from a ring that belonged to Roger's mother. And Alexis will wear Roger's gold chai necklace.
It will be a day filled with "Mazel Tov!"s.
Melissa Jacobs is the senior editor for Special Sections.