Henry Birnbrey was born Nov. 29, 1923, in Dortmund, Germany, as the only child of Jennie Jacobsohn and Edmund Birnbrey. His father served in World War I, had a small textile business, and together, the family was living a happy middle-class existence.
After the Nazi Party came to power in the 1930s and anti-Semitic actions increased, things turned for the worse and Henry’s mother began applying for visas for him to leave Germany. One day a social worker told Henry’s mother that she could get him a visa to the U.S. through the Kindertransport program, but that he would have to be at the train station within 24 hours.
On March 31, 1938, at the age of 14, realizing that he might never see his parents again, Henry left Germany alone for New York. From there he would go to Birmingham, Ala., for a short time before settling in Atlanta in January of 1939 at the home of Fannie Asman, a kind and generous woman who created a loving home for German Jewish teenagers. Friends for life would be created among this group and Ms. Asman’s family would become Henry’s family.
A few months after moving to Atlanta, Henry would come to learn that his father had been arrested and severely beaten up on Kristallnacht and several days later, died from his injuries. Within months, Henry lost contact with his mother, eventually learning that she had also died of what was called unknown causes. Several years later, he would come to learn that over 40 members of his extended family had perished in the Holocaust, with only two first cousins who survived living in Israel.
After World War II began, Henry enlisted in the U.S. Army as a part of the 30th Infantry Division (Old Hickory) and immediately deployed to Great Britain for training. The 30th participated in the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and in August of 1944 fought and won the battle of Mortain, considered by many to be the single most important turning point of the war.
Henry would earn numerous medals in his military career, including a Purple Heart, and last year, mostly posthumously, his division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their heroism in this battle. He participated in the liberation of a train filled with Jews who were abandoned and left for dead. After the war in Europe, Henry worked as an interpreter in counter-intelligence interviews, eventually being sent home with his division in August 1945.
After he returned to Atlanta, Henry opened an accounting firm and attended law school at Georgia State University. In 1951, he married Rebecca (Ricky) Kresses. Henry and Ricky had four children as well as sponsoring and for a few years raising two of Ricky’s teenage cousins who escaped Castro’s Cuba. Every Friday night (Shabbat) the Birnbrey home hosted soldiers, local college students from other cities or anyone else he and Ricky thought might be hungry and need a friend. His beloved Ricky passed away in 1988 following a lengthy illness.
Henry found love again and married Shirlye Kaufman. Together, their family would grow to include eight children, 24 grandchildren and by summer 2021, 26 great-grandchildren. Shirlye, of blessed memory, passed away in 2013.
In his late 20s, Henry and a small group founded the Hebrew Academy of Atlanta, now known as the AJA. Henry was also an integral part of the early transformation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta into the agency it is today. Throughout his adult life, Henry served on the boards of countless organizations and received multiple honors including the Lifetime of Achievement award from the Federation and the annual dinner honoree (twice) from the Greenfield Hebrew Academy. Henry had the rare distinction of being honored as a trustee for life of both organizations.
He remained very active in the Atlanta Jewish and secular community until his final days. As a docent of The Breman Museum, he spoke with audiences of high school kids, armed service bases and other groups from all over the world about growing up in Nazi Germany. Those speeches included several years of speaking and traveling to high schools in his hometown of Dortmund Germany. He fought against racism and inequality and personified the commandment of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Although he will be remembered in the community as a man that worked tirelessly for the greater good, his family will remember him as the incredible Dad, Saba, uncle and friend that he was.
From his monthly Simchagram, announcing the happy life events in an extended family that numbered in the hundreds, to his weekly divrei Torah, with his unique and timely commentary on the week’s Torah portion, to his every Friday “Good Shabbas” phone calls to every one of his kids, grandkids and great grandkids, regardless of where they were in the world, his relationship with his family was epic and all-encompassing. His kids’, grandkids’ and great-grandkids’ problems were his problems, and he couldn’t relax until every issue was solved.
Henry was predeceased by Ricky, Shirlye and Henry’s parents, stepson Richard Kaufman and step-grandson Garrett Kaufman; and is survived by his children Judy (Shai) Robkin, Eddie (Joanne) Birnbrey, David (Karen) Birnbrey and Anita (Jeff) Stein; stepchildren Jeff (Alison) Kaufman, Mark (Nancy) Kaufman, and Karen (Craig) Senft; as well as his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The family requests donations be made to the AJA Ricky Birnbrey Fund, The Weber School, The Breman Museum or the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. Arrangements by Dressler’s Jewish Funeral Care, 770-451-4999
- Dressler Funeral Home
- Greenfield Hebrew Academy
- atlanta jewish academy
- Breman Jewish Heritage Museum
- Weber School
- World War I
- World War II
- Purple Heart
- Georgia state university
- jewish federation of greater atlanta
- Tikkun Olam