I am writing again to let you know how much your generosity has meant to the Holocaust survivors of our community. Each time I write we have fewer and fewer survivors left, and the census of Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network reflects this. We are currently caring for 15 survivor patients; 8 have passed away in the past year. Our total number of survivor patients for the year is about 23.
During this past year, four survivors on our caseload passed away. Each funeral becomes more and more difficult for me personally. I spoke at the recent funeral of a survivor, and I said that we are honoring her, and accompanying her to her final destination. She represents all those who never had a proper Jewish burial. By burying her according to Jewish tradition, we are honoring all those who did not have that opportunity.
The beginning of this woman’s story makes her burial even more touching and significant. Shortly before her death, Rabbi Bunny received a call from a Jewish doctor in Howell, asking for a rabbi to visit an old Hungarian Jewish man whose wife was dying in a nursing home. Rabbi Bunny sent me, so I drove to Howell where I found Joseph sitting by his comatose wife’s bedside. Much to my surprise, Joseph told me he is not a Jew, but a Roman Catholic, but his wife is Jewish. And with his wife lying next to us, Joseph told me their story. Joseph grew up in a small city outside Budapest. His mother became critically ill, and Joseph found a doctor who came from the big city and helped save her life. Joseph was very grateful but had no money to pay. The doctor, who was Jewish, told Joseph he could pay whenever Joseph had the money. As thankful as he was, Joseph never paid the doctor.
A few years passed before he saw the doctor again. It was 1944, and Joseph was a border guard. As the trains were leaving for Auschwitz, amidst the crowds Joseph saw the doctor again, with a woman and two older teenage girls and Joseph recognized him immediately. He ran up to the doctor and reminded him of how he saved the life of Joseph’s mother. He said, “Doctor, I feel terrible that I never paid you!” The doctor said “You can pay me now — please save my daughters!” Joseph looked at the girls, who were twins, and told the doctor he could not take them both at the same time, but would take one of them, pretending she was his girlfriend, hide her and return for her sister. He took the girl, Elisa, to a safe place and returned for her sister, only to find the doctor, his wife and daughter were gone. Joseph returned to Elisa, and over the course of the next few months, Joseph and Elisa fell in love. The war ended, and the couple married and moved to Michigan, where they raised two adopted daughters, and lived in Howell. They lived a long and happy life together, and now Elisa is dying. Joseph had recently bought two plots in a Catholic cemetery, but a few days before my visit, Joseph had a jarring dream. The doctor came to visit Joseph in this dream, and said to him, “You saved my daughter and for this I thank you. But you owe me one last favor Joseph. I want my daughter to have a proper Jewish funeral and burial. Give her that, and we will be even.” Joseph awoke from the dream and knew he must follow this request. He asked his Jewish doctor how he could get in touch with a rabbi. The doctor called Bunny, who called me. When I heard Joseph’s dream, I immediately called Rabbi Levin from Hebrew Memorial Chapel, and we made all the arrangements for Elisa’s funeral. Joseph paid for all the expenses. A few days later, Elisa, born a Jew, was buried as a Jew.
It’s really interesting that this story begins and ends with the participation of a Jewish doctor. Elisa’s Jewish doctor father’s last wish, whether real or merely dreamed, was facilitated by a Jewish doctor who knew to call JHCN. I was honored to play a small part in this truly remarkable story and facilitate Elisa’s proper burial.
I was also honored to play a part in the end of life experience of Ann, who grew up in Kovna, a Lithuanian city on the border of Poland. She and her husband hid during the war and came to Michigan in the early 1950s. Her builder husband was successful and they raised three children. Ann’s husband passed away 15 years ago. In 2010, Ann’s health began to decline, and she began the journey from one hospital to another, and eventually to a nursing home. She had been put on so many medications, it became hard for her to communicate, and the family struggled to accept what the doctors told them- Anna had dementia. One day her son told me there was an old friend, a gentleman from Kovna, who lived in Chicago, and wanted to visit Ann. I was going to Chicago the following week anyway, and I offered to pick up the man and bring him to Detroit. Moishe was 90, and sharp as could be. He was very intelligent, could speak numerous languages, and had an excellent memory. He entertained me the entire ride back to Michigan with detailed stories about life in Lithuania, and about both his and Ann’s families. They had grown up together, and he knew her parents and siblings well. As we neared Detroit, Moishe told me that he had once been engaged to marry Ann, but she fell in love with and married another man from their town. Moishe and Ann had not seen each other since they left Europe, so when I walked him into the nursing home, I was concerned that Ann might have no reaction to seeing him at all. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Much to the shock of Anns watching family and everyone else in the big common area of the facility, Ann took one look at him and yelled “Moishe!” and he ran to her, calling “Chana!” They sat together, holding hands and reminiscing…day after day. For almost a week, Ann came alive, especially when Moishe was there. Everyone was transfixed. No one could believe the change in her. When I had to return to Chicago, I took Moishe with me. But he and Ann talked on the phone frequently. A few months later, Ann became critically ill and she passed away. One of Moishe’s sons brought him to Michigan, and he gave a very emotional eulogy for his beloved old friend. Moishe was able to tell the story of Ann’s early life, including details about her family. It was a beautiful tribute that no one else could have delivered. Again, I felt very fortunate to be a part of such an emotional, wonderful experience.
Neither of the above stories could have happened in such a dramatic way without the help of JHCN and in particular, without your generosity. Caring for survivors at the end of their lives is such a mitzvah, and I am so grateful that I can participate in making a difference, thanks to you. I cannot express in words how meaningful your devotion and generosity to Holocaust survivors has been. I know you give without directly seeing what your donations have meant to the survivors and their families. I hope my letter communicates in some small way how meaningful your generosity truly has been. May the new year be sweet and full of the joy you and your wonderful family so deserve!
Rabbi Hershel Klainberg