By Deb Silverthorn
Helene “Leni” Bendorf — of blessed memory, who died Dec. 17, 2021, at age 101 — will continue forever to share the lessons and memories of her life with the next generations. Her family, guests and students and faculty of Ann and Nate Levine Academy gathered March 21 at Jewish Family Service to celebrate her memory, to present the Leni Bendorf Legacy Project and to launch the Holocaust Survivor Care program initiative: “Leni’s Legacy and Chesed.”
“It was a very special day and this is a beautiful program. We, as her family, couldn’t be more grateful,” said Leni’s daughter Fanny Watts. “We are so impressed by JFS, by Yaffa so very much, and we are happy the children of Levine who are so respectful, sweet and kind, will begin this program to honor our mother.”
The dedication ceremony took place just days before Leni would have turned 102. She first met JFS’ Holocaust Survivor Care Program Clinical Psychologist Dr. Yaffa Podbilewicz-Weinberg while recovering from a hip surgery. It was just after lockdown, due to COVID-19, and their relationship built first by phone, virtual and then occasional masked and distanced in-person visits.
“Leni was incredible, beautiful and such a special lady but we were in a difficult time. She really only had the use of one hand, one eye and she was mostly wheelchair-bound, but in just a few months we established a very special working relationship,” said Podbilewicz-Weinberg who spoke with Leni each Tuesday morning at 10:30, also visiting her home with a shofar and gift bags for the High Holidays, Pesach and more.
“She loved to knit, but with dexterity remaining in one hand she could only crochet. Together we found a way for her to reclaim her voice and lift her depression after having been alone rehabilitating after surgery during the pandemic. Our work followed evidence-based and person-centered, trauma-informed principles per our Jewish Federations of North America funded grant,” said Podbilewicz-Weinberg. “As she retold her story through this legacy project, we created a space to hold and give meaning to her experiences; her depression lifting one square at a time,” she added.
Leni told Podbilewicz-Weinberg that people don’t understand what “going into hiding” during the Holocaust meant and that she wanted this blanket to be a tool that children could touch, while hearing her story of survival.
She used catalogs to find the colors of yarn to depict her life and would “come” to her virtual sessions with a new square finished. Ultimately, she completed 100 squares which, with the help of her caregiver Rita Blackman were connected, as were her now healing stories, to create the blanket now housed at JFS.
“Through it all she was reminiscing and processing her experiences as we focused on the silver linings, the kindness found and her good fortune,” said Podbilewicz-Weinberg. “The first square she said represented her before the war — an idealistic young woman, others of her dashing husband, luggage packed quickly, her escape and time hiding in a barn attic.”
Born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, the daughter of Herman and Paula Rose, Leni was the younger sister of Saul, Frida and Erich. Her father died in 1933 and four years later, as Hitler’s regime was making life dangerous for Jews, her sister escaped to Palestine.
Leni was arrested on Kristallnacht but a doctor working with the underground brigades saved her. Her mother and Saul were sent to a concentration camp and she and Erich escaped, with the Queen of Holland’s allowance for passage; Erich went on to Palestine.
In Holland, Leni met Werner Bendorf, who had also left Germany, and almost immediately they went into hiding for the next three years, in the attic of a farmer friend and his family.
The couple that hid the Bendorfs, Evert and Dina Schutter, had two sons: Dirk and Antoon, when they opened their home. When Leni discovered she was pregnant with their oldest, Robi (Mary), the Schutters followed suit so that if a baby was heard crying, they could explain that as their own — just months after the Bendorf’s delivered their child, the Schutter’s youngest Evert, Jr. was born.
Werner’s younger brother Robert had come to the states as a teen and was adopted by Dallas’ Albert and Fannie Razovsky. In 1946 the Razovskys sponsored the Bendorfs, Robi — who was a toddler — and their newborn daughter Fanny (Mike Watts) and bought the family land between Forney and Crandall. In Texas, their youngest Allen (Petrice) was born.
While living in Forney the family commuted to Temple Emanu-El for the children to attend religious school and then, when they moved to Breckenridge, they participated in the lay-led Temple Beth Israel. Once in Mesquite, they returned to Temple Emanu-El.
Not long after the Bendorfs moved to Texas, the Schutters also left Holland to find care for Dirk who suffered from polio. The Schutters reconnected with the Bendorfs who arranged for a sponsor for them. The Schutters lived with the Bendorfs for a short time and the generations have remained close, including the Schutters’ youngest child, whom they named Leni, born in Texas.
After farming for a short while, Werner worked for an ice cream plant, then Liberty Iron and Metal and as a traveling salesman. Ready to be local, in 1977, Werner bought a radiator business in Mesquite and the couple remained there until he died in 1990.
Carrying on their name and heritage, are the Bendorfs’ grandchildren Tim (Nancy) Bendorf and Emily (Ted) Fischer, Michael Watts, Brian (Tonya) Watts, Adam (Laura) Bendorf, Lori (Jim) Malandrucculo; and great-grandchildren Alissa and Jayne Bendorf, Cori and Colette Fischer, Blake and Matthew Watts and Jack Bendorf.
After her husband passed away, Leni found a second home at the Aaron Family JCC where every Thursday she dressed up and enjoyed socializing with friends by playing bridge, having lunch and arts and crafts. She also volunteered at the Mesquite Community Center by which she was honored with the Volunteer of the Year award.
Leni connected with JFS when her son Robi saw an online article about older adult services and support from the German government she might be eligible for. Debi Weiner, former senior director of Older Adult Services, filed the appropriate Claims Conference forms and Leni received funding to help with caregiver support for her last five years.
Through that experience Leni was introduced to Podbilewicz-Weinberg. After decades of not wanting to discuss anything of the atrocities in Europe, she wanted to talk, and Podbilewicz-Weinberg was there to listen.
“Yaffa, who was so attentive and kind, became part of the family,” said Fanny. “Mom really opened up to her and they developed a very special friendship — more than that Yaffa helped Mom be at peace.”
Leni’s Legacy Project came from her lifelong love of crafting; for decades, she turned ceramics and strands into treasures. Her handiwork is now left to impact the children, teaching them and passing on the stories as Leni wanted to do.
Leni’s Legacy and Chesed program is an educational initiative that matches Jewish children to Holocaust survivors through a pen pal program. Beginning with Levine Academy fifth-grade students, with plans to expand throughout the community, participants sent mishloach manot (gift packages) and cards for Purim and Passover. Many of the survivors have returned letters to the children and the relationships will go on.
“This is an amazing opportunity to bring history, writing and social skills together with our heritage and our community,” said Marco Rodriguez, who teaches Language Arts at Levine Academy Middle School. He noted the children will be sending birthday cards and, this summer, writing their person from camp or vacation. “Most of our children haven’t hand-written letters or put a stamp on an envelope. It’s the beginning of learning so much and truly a wonderful way to bring our culture into the classroom in a lasting way.”
For Tori Zimmerman and her classmates, the opportunity to connect to those who lived through history, who survived trial and terror, who made their way to Dallas and created new lives and families is a gift.
“It’s important to know what people went through and this program is letting us, and the survivors, have special interactions. My pen-pal is Asya Gurtovaya and I look forward to writing to each other — maybe we can meet,” said Zimmerman. “It’s incredible what Mrs. Bendorf went through and I’m really glad she wanted to leave something behind for us to learn from,”
“Leni’s gift to us, the blanket and all it stands for, we accepted with a promise,” said Podbilewicz-Weinberg, “and that is an oath we will carry on.”
To make a donation in Leni’s memory, visit jfsdallas.org/donate. For information about JFS’ Older Adults services, and its Holocaust Survivors Assistance, visit jfsdallas.org/services/older-adults/#holocaust.