Charles Lipshitz, guardian of memory

Lipshitz obit image
Charles Lipshitz, who died this week, speaks at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, organized by Sheérit HaPleitah. (Photo by Robert F. Kusel)

Charles Lipshitz dedicated much of his life to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, its victims, its survivors -- and its lessons. 

He founded Sheérit HaPleitah (literally: "Remnants of the Destruction"), the umbrella organization of Chicago-area Holocaust survivors groups, which he ran for many years. From the ashes of the Holocaust, Lipshitz and Rene -- his wife of 65 years -- raised a son and daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Lipshitz died this week at age 88; interment was in Jerusalem.

"I will remember Charlie as a man of deep convictions concerning the lessons of the Holocaust and the need for a strong Israel," said JUF President Dr. Steven B. Nasatir.

Lipshitz was born in Lodz, Poland. He remembers the Germans incarcerating the Jewish community in the ghetto in 1939, which capped his formal education at five years. In 1942, his bar mitzvah year, the Germans deported most of the children and elderly from the ghetto. Lipshitz hid in an attic. First, his father was sent to Auschwitz. Then, in 1944, Lipshitz, along with the rest of his family, was deported there when the ghetto was liquidated.

As a young teen, he and his brother survived three concentration camps, a death march, starvation, and sickness, to be liberated on April 15, 1945. Out of a family numbering more than 200 people, only his brother and a cousin survived. Lipshitz spent the next five years working in Hanover, Germany, then moved to Chicago to rejoin his brother. 

Charles and Rene, also an Auschwitz survivor, married in 1952. As they raised their family, Lipshitz built his businesses, first Lipshitz Sales and then R&L Specialty, an industrial linen supply service. 

"Freedom in America gave us new lives and enabled us to start again," Lipshitz said. "We built beautiful families and we are dedicated to living good lives. We are proud to be from a group that came from so little and achieved so much. We survived the impossible, and are determined to continue. We wanted to show our enemies that, no matter how they try to hurt the Jewish people, we will come back stronger. We stand strong with our families and future generations."

Lipshitz also became active in the community. He was honored in 1968 by Israel Bonds. He became a leader in the fight to prevent neo-Nazis from marching in Skokie in 1977. He chaired the committee to create a Holocaust Memorial in Skokie, which was dedicated in 1987 on the Skokie Village Green, on land donated by the village, and with funds donated by individuals, synagogues and JUF. Its plaque reads: "This monument will remain in perpetuity as a reminder of what hate can do to mankind if decent people are not vigilant to forestall such a calamity in the future."

As president of Sheérit HaPleitah, he organized fundraisers for JUF among his member organizations, and twice chaired JUF Snowbird events in Florida with Rene. His family's charitable foundation, which was established through JUF, has donated to special projects in Israel. In 2008, his family commissioned a Torah and dedicated it at a local synagogue in memory of his and his wife's parents, who perished in the Holocaust.

"Charlie and Rene have a tremendous sense of community, which they have imparted to their children and grandchildren," said Jeffrey Cohen, senior development advisor for JUF, who became a good friend of Lipshitz over the years. "It is remarkable how much he and so many other survivors have achieved in this country."

Aside from the statue in Skokie, Lipshitz ensured that Sheérit HaPleitah built monuments in time. Every year since 1945, the organization held Holocaust memorial services -- JUF a co-sponsor for many of them -- honoring victims, survivors and liberators. These memorials have become the largest annual gatherings of Holocaust survivors in the Midwest and one of the largest in the U.S. 

"This annual memorial honors the memory of our 6 million martyrs, including 1 and a half million innocent children who perished only because they were Jews," Lipshitz explained. "Many reactionary forces are hard at work to change history and deny that the Holocaust ever happened. We must be vigilant not to allow this to occur."

Lipshitz's grandson, Yaakov Katz, editor of the   Jerusalem Post , has spoken on behalf of JUF in Chicago and Florida and supports JUF's fundraising efforts in Israel.

Katz, who has received a fellowship from Harvard, called his grandfather "one of the smartest people I know. He has a tremendous sense of optimism, which led him to build up in this country what was torn down in the war."

Lipshitz, 88, was predeceased by his wife, Rene. He is survived by his children, Debbie Katz and Leon Lipshitz, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Burial was in Jerusalem on Har Menuchot.



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