New Jewish Family Service food pantry’s name a fitting tribute to Holocaust hero
The Jewish Family Service Utah food pantry in Salt Lake City will have a new name next week in honor of the ancestors of a Park City family.
The pantry is now known as the Alex and Sally Lebwohl Food Pantry, named after the late grandparents of Jason Lebwohl, whose family moved to Park City from Houston, Texas, three years ago, said Ellen Silver, Jewish Family Services executive director.
Naming the pantry after his grandparents, who both survived the Holocaust, is fitting due to how they resisted the Nazi German regime, Jason said.
Alex Lebwohl, a Polish citizen, smuggled food into the ghettos the Nazis had set up to segregate the Jews.
“He was in and out of ghettos, smuggling food, until he was eventually detained and arrested and sent to Auschwitz,” Jason said.
Even while in the infamous death camp, Alex was able to find ways to help his fellow prisoners resist starvation.
“He was lucky, because he was 18 or 19 and as strong as he could be,” Jason said. “So he was assigned work detail.”
One task of the work detail was to travel to other towns and build more concentration camps.
“Since he had an elevated status because he was in work detail, he could communicate with the kapos (prisoner in charge of administration) and get food into the camps for the prisoners,” Jason said.
Alex’s language skills also proved to be an asset for getting food. He grew up in Sambir, a then-Polish (now Ukrainian) town that was a crossroads of Eastern Europe.
“Because of that, he knew people from Russia, Germany; Romania, and that allowed him to learn languages other than the Polish and Yiddish they speak at home,” said Jason, an emergency room surgeon.
In addition, Alex was fair skinned, blond and blue-eyed.
“The way he looked was very rare for a Jewish person in Eastern Europe,” Jason said. “That allowed him to blend in and pretend to be German in the months before he was put in the ghetto.”
During the time Alex was smuggling food, Sally, who briefly escaped a death march by hiding in a barn, was working in another camp in sorting stations, said Jason’s wife, Casey.
“That’s where the prisoners would give up their jewelry and clothes, and the soldiers would plunder them,” she said. “Sally was very sick at the time, so her coworkers would hide her under the sorting tables and then carry her back to the bed at night.”
Alex and Sally met after the war’s end (Wednesday, May 8, marked the 74th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender).
“My grandfather ended up working at a municipal building in East Germany, trying to give people their properties and possessions back,” Jason said. “My grandmother walked in, and that’s how they met.”
The couple lived in East Germany for three years before immigrating to the United States.
“When my grandmother got pregnant with my dad, family members in New York put enough money together to fly them out,” Jason said. “My grandmother was six months pregnant at the time, and flying was better than spending two weeks on a boat.”
Alex died in 2008, and Sally in 2015.
The food pantry’s renaming was precipitated when Jason, Casey and their two children Zachary, 13, and Layla, 10, who are all Temple Har Shalom congregants, began volunteering as a family at the pantry two years ago, Silver said.
“They were part of the volunteers who would come down one Sunday a month to help sort and fill food bags for families who use the pantry,” Silver said.
Layla said she enjoys volunteering with her family.
“It’s awesome that I’m helping in a big part and that I’m making a difference,” she said.
Last year, the Salt Lake pantry served 8,000 people, and the need continues to grow, according to Silver.
“We don’t just serve the Jewish community,” Silver said. “We serve the whole community, and to meet the need, we have been looking to build an additional food pantry space in Park City.”
Silver and her staff had to figure out a way to fund the upcoming expansion, she said.
“We rolled out the idea of a naming opportunity, through a donation,” Silver said.
Jason thought it would be serendipitous for the pantry to be named his grandparents.
So the family made an undisclosed, but “substantial and generous” donation to Jewish Family Service, said the nonprofit’s president, Joy Erickson.
The Lebwohls believe Alex and Sally would be “overjoyed” to have this happen close to Zach’s upcoming bar mitzvah.
“It would mean a lot to them to see how the family has gone forth and grown,” Jason said.
Zachary said the pantry naming is significant for him.
“I always hear how my grandparents were always helping people,” he said. “And then my Torah Portion states that you must always help the poor. So to have that tie into everything really means a lot.”
For information about Jewish Family Service, visit jfsutah.org.
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