November 06, 1995 12:00 PM

THE SMALL TALK WAS WHAT YOU might expect at any reunion: “Where’s that beautiful head of hair you had?” “What have you been doing for the last 50 years?” But the bear hugs lasted a little longer than usual, and tears glistened in nearly every eye. The tattooed serial numbers on many forearms made it clear this group, assembled in some cases from halfway around the world, was taking part in no ordinary reunion.

Fifty years ago, the 25 men and women who gathered for a long weekend at a Berkshire County, Mass., country house this summer were Jewish students at the University of Heidelberg in Germany—living and studying in a country that had set out to annihilate their people. Most had spent months or even years in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.

As the camps were liberated in mid-1945, nearly all Holocaust survivors, estimated at nearly 200,000, fled Europe at the first opportunity. Most set sail for Palestine or the U.S. But these 25 were among a tiny number who remained in Germany to finish their education. In the fall of 1945, they got their chance, as the newly formed United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency began offering full scholarships at German universities to Jewish refugees. So despite the horrors still fresh in their minds, they came, one by one, to the ancient university town of Heidelberg—for 600 years a center of scholarship. There they formed a Jewish Students Union, the first in Germany since Hitler had ordered his Third Reich Judenfrei—free of Jews—in the mid-1930s.

“Why did we even consider staying in Germany?” asks New York internist Dr. Marcel Tuchman, 67, a founder of the original student union and the reunion’s host. “You must remember that we had absolutely nothing. Our previous lives and our families had been obliterated by the Nazis. Yet we were young and we were determined to take up where we had left off, as best we could.”

That, not surprisingly, turned out to be a challenge. Though the faculty at Heidelberg had been purged of Nazis, says Tuchman, “we had to share classes next to young men who still wore their German Army uniforms and with civilians from surrounding countries who had been Nazi collaborators.”

Tuchman remembers listening with shock as two ex-soldiers, shown a film on concentration camp atrocities, said it was all propaganda. “So I marched them to the de-nazification officer,” recalls Tuchman. “It’s amazing that they went docilely, but in defeat the Germans were totally demoralized.”

Mostly, though, the Jewish students simply avoided their former oppressors. Says Paul Ornstein, 72, professor emeritus of psychotherapy at the University of Cincinnati: “We simply blocked out the Germans. We were numb to the fact that we were even in Germany.”

The student union, centered around a dining hall where the young students met to share the scarce rations their U.N. stipends could buy, gave the young survivors a refuge in this hostile environment. They took meals and studied together. They played together, too, going to the theater and the opera, hiking the surrounding hills and even, in 1946, skiing in Bavarian mountains near the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s Berchtesgaden retreat. Recalls Jo Seelmann, 67, a historian and assistant chancellor at New York University: “The union became our family.”

At the recent gathering, they became a family once again. As they laughed and cried together during a relaxed weekend of food, talk and music, the reminiscences inevitably returned to the times, a half-century ago, that first brought them together.

“I entered the camps [in 1944] with one of my sisters,” says Shoshana Tuchman, Marcel’s wife and office manager, remembering when she was captured in Czechoslovakia. “Another sister refused to part with her child, and they killed them both right away.” All in all, she lost some 77 relatives in the Holocaust—the last an older sister Esther, who died of typhus at 25, less than a month after liberation.

Marcel Tuchman, who had lived in Poland, lost his mother when she was 43 to a Nazi firing squad—her punishment for being unable to do hard physical labor. Says Tuchman: “Someone who survived told me later that just before she was killed she shouted, ‘You bastards, you’ll get me, but you’ll never get my husband and my son.’ ” In the end, she was right: Father and son survived stays in several camps. Ignatz Tuchman finally died of lung cancer in New York hi 1959.

Marcel and Shoshana met in 1945 at Bergen-Belsen, Germany, after the death camp there had been converted into a displaced-persons facility. He left to enroll at Heidelberg; she joined him a few months later, and they were married in 1947.

Both Tuchmans started out in medical school, but Shoshana switched to the university’s Institute of Translation. When Marcel graduated in 1949, the couple headed for New York. Today, he is on the faculty of New York University Medical School.

Victor Zarnowitz grew up in Poland too. His grandparents ran the restaurant at the railway station in Oswiecem—which later, Germanized, became known as Auschwitz. He was in the eastern half of Poland when Stalin and Hitler carved up the country in August 1939. The Soviets invited him to apply for repatriation back to the west, then, suspicious when he did, arrested him. Zarnowitz, now 76, was sent to a labor camp in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia.

“No one tried to exterminate us,” says Zarnowitz. “But we died anyway, of disease and malnutrition.” After the war, he returned to Poland, where he was attracted to the newly reopened University of Heidelberg.

He enrolled in law school but, realizing that the study of German law made little sense for someone who intended to leave Germany, switched to economics. When he arrived in the U.S. in 1952, his degree was, at first, of little use. “My only job offer,” he says, “was as a rag sorter”—a menial laborer who organizes scrap cloth for papermaking. “But fortunately a position as a research assistant came up with the National Bureau of Economic Research in New York.” Seven years later he began a 30-year career on the faculty of the University of Chicago. Mandatory retirement at 70 only stopped Zarnowitz temporarily. He was recently appointed director of Columbia University’s Center for International Business Cycle Research, a think tank that analyzes world commerce.

The Heidelberg alumni who go back furthest are Paul Ornstein and Stephen Hornstein, whose families knew each other before the turn of the century. Says Ornstein: “Our grandfathers used to play cards together once a week in our hometown of Debrecen, Hungary, and our fathers were close friends as well.” The two teenagers were wrenched apart in 1944 when the retreating Nazis packed them off to forced-labor camps.

Remarkably, both managed to escape—Ornstein when he faked appendicitis and ducked out of a hospital; Hornstein when he slipped away from a guard at a crowded Budapest railway station—and took sanctuary in the Swiss Consulate. When Debrecen was liberated by the advancing Russian army, both young men returned there only to learn that their families had been destroyed. “It was only then,” says Ornstein, “that I learned about the death camps.”

Eager to become doctors, the two young men headed for Munich, hoping to enter the medical school there. Only after they arrived did they realize their mistake. “The place was bombed out. It was in terrible shape,” says Hornstein, 72, now a retired professor of gynecology at the University of Cincinnati.

The trip wasn’t a waste, though. While in Munich, Hornstein met a refugee from Poland, Lusia Schwarzwald, now 70, who had fought with the Polish Resistance in the 1944 uprising against the Nazis in Warsaw and later managed to hide her Jewish identity while working at a German air base peeling potatoes. Now she, too, wanted to go to medical school—and she and Hornstein fell in love.

The three made their way to Heidelberg. There Ornstein found Anna Brunn, whom he had met at a Budapest holiday party in 1941. Anna, now 69, married Paul in 1946 and is a child psychiatrist on the University of Cincinnati faculty. “Our revenge on the Nazis,” says Paul, “is that we not only survived but prospered, despite the worst they could do.”

The essence of their achievement, says Abe Shenitzer, 71, a professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto, is more basic still. “The key thing is that we had had our humanity crumpled. We were all collapsed as human beings,” he says. “Yet we’ve ended up standing up straight. What’s important is that we regained our pride.”

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