by Lucy Collins (Class of 2022)
This is part of a series of articles written by journalism students from Pine View School in Osprey, Fla., based on in-depth interviews the students conducted with Holocaust survivors.
Marcel Infeld plays pickleball every day. He walks two miles daily and is a member of the finance committee of his neighborhood, Pelican Cove. He is a charming, well-dressed and well-spoken man in his eighties with a slight European accent. Together with his wife, they adopted a baby girl from China who is now 26 years old, living in the Bay Area and working for one of Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic initiatives. He describes himself as an optimist, which is evident when you speak with him. His life, however, was forever impacted by the events of the Holocaust.
Nazi soldiers captured Antwerp, Belgium in 1940, the year after Infeld was born. The town was nonsegregated, but Jewish people tended to live in certain neighborhoods together. The family stayed in Antwerp as long as they could, but when the Nazis began rounding up Jewish people, they fled to Lyon, France, which was still partly under French control. One day on a bus with his parents and younger sister when he was around three, they were not wearing the Jewish star the law required them to and someone called the police.
“I really don’t know [how they knew we were Jewish]. There’s a lot of material I’m not familiar with. My mother did not like to talk about it; it’s painful for survivors to talk about their history. All the information I have is gathered from personal documents, from an aunt who was with us at the time. I assumed we looked Jewish, the reason we were pointed out.”
His father was arrested and taken to a sports arena outside of Paris in Darcey to await deportation to Auschwitz. The conditions were atrocious, with many men falling ill in the crowded space. After a few weeks, they were transported.
“He was gassed the same day he arrived. I know this because someone who was with him and survived the transport lived in Israel and moved there after the war. My sister, who lives in Israel now, interviewed him about ten years ago,” Marcel said.
The rest of the family left France after Marcel’s father was arrested. They went to Switzerland, which was neutral in the war. Those who passed into the country illegally would be turned over to German border guards and faced with certain death. But since the Swiss government was housing the exiled Dutch government at the time, Dutch citizens were allowed to cross and would be supported. Marcel’s mother obtained forged Dutch citizen identification and given they spoke Flemish; they were granted passage into Switzerland.
“[My earliest memory] was 1945 in Switzerland. I was looking up at the sky. I saw the moon during the day, and I said to myself, ‘What’s the moon doing there? It’s only seen at night,’” he said.
The family remained in Switzerland until after the war and decided they needed a fresh start. The British controlled Palestine at the time and were limiting the amount of people who could immigrate into the country to 5,000 per year out of the hundreds of thousands of Jews in displaced persons camps, and his mother received a spot.
“[Life was] really hard. We were in a kibbutz for the first six months, and they supported us. My uncle and aunt were with us at the time in Switzerland, as well, and they found an apartment, started working, but mother was not employable because it was not a time when women worked so she could not support us. She placed my sister with my aunt, and she placed me in an orphanage.”
In 1946, his mother returned to Antwerp to find a husband to support the family. She met a Hungarian Jew whose wife and five children perished in Auschwitz. After they married, they had two more children and reunited with Marcel and his sister. He lived in the orphanage for three years. French was his mother tongue and he learned Hebrew while living in Palestine, but his stepfather only spoke Yiddish and in Antwerp, Flemish was the primary language. By the age of 11, Marcel spoke four languages.
The next few years brought about more change. In 1951 they moved to New York City. Since his stepfather was born in a country with a communist government, the United States suspected him to be a communist and did not allow him into the country. He lived in Canada for two years before joining the family.
“I was placed in religious school again, there was a French Jewish student who had lived in the United States for a while. I remember asking him ‘How do you say wi et nob,’” Marcel said. He picked up English quickly but has since forgotten Flemish. All the other languages, though, he still remembers.
Marcel’s mother passed away when he was 15, and he was once again separated from his siblings.
“After high school, I no longer felt comfortable being orthodox, so I became secular. That was difficult because it was a closed community, the orthodox community, and anyone who left it was frowned upon and excluded from the community,” Marcel said. “My parents died when I was young, so I was left without parents and without community. I had to make my way on my own and I had no guidance. Beyond the age of 15 I was making my own life decisions. I was making the best decisions I could, but they were not always the best decisions.”
After high school, he taught at an orthodox religious school during the day and attended Brooklyn College at night where he majored in math and physics. He received his degree after six years and decided to join the Peace Corps and moved to Ethiopia where he spent two years as a schoolteacher.
When he returned, he attended UNC Chapel Hill for a master’s in public health. He began working with the Office of Economic Opportunity, an anti-poverty government program focused on establishing health centers and resources for low-income individuals. After working in the government, he worked at various times as an HMO director, a healthcare consultant, a high school teacher, and a real estate broker.
“My biggest struggle was survival, maintaining both mental and physical health,” he said. “Under normal circumstances, I think to myself, what would I have done? I would have probably gone into finance because I’m good with numbers.”
Marcel and his wife moved to Sarasota, Florida two years ago and joined the congregation Kol Haneshama (KH), which means all souls in Hebrew. Here and at his previous congregations, he teaches classes such as American Jewish Thought Since the 1930s, Hebrew Bible classes, and Hebrew reading classes.
“I feel like I need to share my knowledge. It’s a drive within me to share what I know,” he said. “I feel an obligation to the 6 million. I survived for a purpose. For me it means to maintain Jewish humanistic values that the Nazis tried to destroy; to live a life of normalcy despite upheavals; and to promote Jewish culture to the best of my ability.”