Holocaust survivor, who fought to ‘right the wrongs’ of Nazi Germany, dies at 92

·5 min read

As the only Holocaust survivor in his family, David Mermelstein felt a responsibility to educate people about the atrocities of Nazi Germany and advocate for those who suffered through it.

In 2019, he testified in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to support legislation that would allow survivors and their heirs to use American courts to recover the benefits of unpaid life insurance policies from European companies, including Allianz, Axa and Generali, that were sold to their parents and grandparents.

“We all endured the ultimate hell,” Mermelstein testified. “We lost everything — our rights, our property, our loved ones.”

Mermelstein, who served as the president of the Holocaust Survivors of Miami-Dade County, died Tuesday. He was 92.

“David was a rare combination of intelligence, empathy, warmth and goodness,” said Sam Dubbin, a longtime friend and the attorney for the Holocaust Survivor Foundation USA. “He always had a smile on his face and even though he was very tough when it came to advocating for survivors’ rights, everybody loved him. He advocated forcefully, with a smile on his face.”

Born on Dec. 21, 1928, in Kevjazd, Czechoslovakia, Mermelstein was only 16 when he was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

His parents, four brothers, a sister and grandparents were all murdered. In 1948, Mermelstein left Europe and went to New York, where he met his wife, Irene, who was also a survivor.

The couple honeymooned in Miami and decided not to leave.

After settling in Miami, the newlyweds joined other survivors and created the New American Jewish Club.

“We started the group because it was very difficult for survivors, especially in the early years, to make close friendships and socialize with others who didn’t live through what we did,” he said in a letter he wrote to youngsters about his life in 1997.

Mermelstein started a dry cleaning business. He and his wife had three children.

Despite all he went through, Mermelstein was resilient and managed “to do whatever he had to do” to create a life for him and his family, Michael Mermelstein said.

“It always amazed me how they were able to go forward with new lives,” he noted of his parents.

He added that his dad had an ability to adapt to any situation, asking questions and learning how to assimilate.

“He heard some men talking about the stock market. So he learned to invest,” Michael Mermelstein said. “He was very successful for one guy, who didn’t even speak English when he got here.”

Mermelstein’s advocacy

After losing his family in the Holocaust, he said, his father felt an obligation to share his story with younger generations. He visited schools, the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach and other venues to share his survival story.

“He went anywhere they would have him,” he said of his dad. “He believed everyone needed to know what happened, so it wouldn’t happen again.”

The father also dedicated his life to helping survivors.

In 2001, David Mermelstein joined other Hungarian Jews in a lawsuit over the loss of their valuables seized from the Nazis’ Gold Train at the end of World War II.

The suit claimed the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators stole paintings, jewelry, stamps, coins and other valuables from Jews and sent them to Germany on a train, the Miami Herald reported at the time. When the war was over, the train was seized — but the items were never given back to their rightful owners.

The case aimed to hold the United States accountable, which came to possess the assets after American troops liberated Europe.

“We love this country more than Americans do,” Mermelstein, the Holocaust survivor, said at the time. “But our government didn’t do the right thing.”

After five years, the U.S. government agreed to pay $25 million in humanitarian aid to Hungarian Jews instead of individual payouts.

Mermelstein also worked for years to help survivors recover life insurance payments from major European companies, but they ran into legal barriers in U.S. courts and in Congress, denying them the ability to sue for damages. Dubbin said that Mermelstein was a tireless advocate for survivors getting what they are entitled to.

His son, Mike Mermelstein, said his dad just wanted to “right the wrongs.”

Family man

He sought to instill those values in his family as well.

While David Mermelstein worked hard, he always made it home for dinner. The family would always join together at 7 p.m. at the table for a meal.

“People often ask us how we managed to overcome the pain and horror we endured in the Holocaust, losing our entire families, to live a normal life and raise a happy, well-adjusted family,” Mermelstein said in the 1997 letter.

“All I can say is that it wasn’t easy. However, Irene and I both felt that the best way to honor our loved ones who were murdered, and all of the six million Jews who were murdered by Hitler, is to live life to the fullest of our abilities, to raise Jewish children who would become educated and make contributions to the community, and most importantly, to tell the world the truth about what we experienced, that it all really happened.”

In addition to Irene and son Michael, Mermelstein is survived by his daughters, Helene Davis and Debbi Mermelstein, grandchildren Jenna Fox, Lindsay Davis and Brian Davis, and his great-grandson, Eli Fox.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that donations in his memory be made to the Israeli Defense Fund.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at Riverside Gordon Memorial Chapels at Mount Nebo Kendall, 5900 SW 77th Ave. Masks and social distancing are required. The services will also be seen through Zoom: meeting ID: 968 3734 4322; passcode: 905510.

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