KRAKOW, Poland — On Tuesday night in a Krakow hotel, at a farewell dinner for Holocaust survivors, Lisa Steinberg was one of many thanked for making it all happen. More than 200 survivors came to Poland to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camps this week.
But even as she was being applauded, Steinberg, 64, was in the back of the room, texting and e-mailing, a hot meal getting cold on her plate. Her husband, Harold Steinberg, had to nudge her.
“I still have to help get all these people home,” she said.
Once she finished on the phone, Steinberg sipped a glass of red wine, relaxing, for a moment, as this trip wound down.
“Excuse me,” she said, “I need to go hold that baby.”
Steinberg grew up in Levittown, Bucks County, and attended Neshaminy High School. When the family moved to South Jersey, she graduated from Cherry Hill West, then later lived at Second and Christian Streets in Queen Village, working in the Jewish community in Philadelphia, she said, for 30-plus years. Her official job title at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation is director of leadership engagement, helping raise funds for its endowment.
She now lives in Riverdale, N.Y., and works in Manhattan.
The foundation raised $1.7 million to help bring survivors and their families — 400 people in total — to Poland for the anniversary of the camps’ liberation by the Soviet Red Army on Jan. 27, 1945. In Philadelphia, Steinberg said, the foundation raised $830,000 for its endowment.
In Poland, however, she took on a whole slew of tasks, and “Where’s Lisa?” became a familiar phrase on shuttle vans and tours. She had to move people along, slow them down, and find out where they’d wandered off to. She procured wheelchairs, oranges, even hand-warmers.
“I got it under control,” she said on the phone a few times on the shuttle.
Often, she repeated the phrase in person.
During Tuesday’s tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Steinberg was able to take survivors into laboratories where workers were salvaging artifacts, personal items the Nazis took, everything from suitcases to shoes and letters. Much of the foundation’s endowment is funneled into that project.
Steinberg grew emotional watching the lab workers focus so intently on restoring the items, giving them more care than the Nazis ever did when they ripped them from families’ arms.
“They are called to their work the way I’m called to mine,” she said. “It’s so impressive.”
The trip to Auschwitz was personal for Steinberg, too, as Harold, 69, was visiting for the first time. He said Berta Cik, his “mother’s mother,” died there, along with other family members. In the Book of Names, a mind-boggling accounting of every Jew killed in the Holocaust that’s displayed at Auschwitz, Harold ran his finger down the list.
He stood in the room, by the large scrolls, tears pooling in his eyes.
"I found them,” he said to no one in particular.
Later, at the farewell dinner, Lisa called him her best friend.
“I think he met his grandmother today,” she said.
As the night came to a close and survivors and family members made their way out into the cold to get into taxis, Steinberg made her last rounds. She hugged, cried a few more times, and yes, had to check her phone every now and then.
She found every baby in the room, because she needed to.
“Tell me,” she said, “is there anything better after a day at Auschwitz than holding a Jewish baby.”