MIAMI, Florida — Eighty-year-old Ivan Gabor is finally a man after having celebrated his bar mitzvah 67 years after the Holocaust stole it — and his childhood — from him.
On September 1 his wife Rebecca threw him a very special surprise birthday party. Invitations went out for a run-of-the-mill celebration of his eighth decade at Temple Bet Torah in Sunny Isles, Florida (minutes away from Miami). But unbeknownst to most of the guests — and to Gabor himself — he would also be thrown a bar mitzvah. The Jewish right of passage for Gabor was a double-edged sword, but he was touched nonetheless.
“It was mix of happiness and anger: The happiness was knowing I had a family around me that loved me when all of this could have not even existed, but it was because I survived,” Gabor told the Times of Israel. “The anger was at God because of what happened.”
Gabor’s planned bar mitzvah many, many years ago came to a sudden halt when his father died. He was 12 years old, and says that his story (filled with new beginnings and outlined in his autobiography “Echoes of My Footsteps“) began some time earlier, when he was a young boy to a well-off family in Romania’s Baimare. The year was 1941 and Gabor — whose last name was Grossman at the time — was eight.
His father Armin ran a bank in the small city, populated by about 25,000 people, an eighth or so of whom were Jewish. When the city was handed over from Romanian to Hungarian control, people welcomed the army, but their elation would be short-lived.
“The first thing they did was they threw my father out,” Gabor said. Jews in authoritative positions across the board were thrown out of their jobs. Even though Armin changed the family name to Gabor, he quickly figured out a cosmetic change wouldn’t fix everything, and the family packed their things and moved to Budapest.
“It seemed to me everything would be okay,” Gabor said. “Life was quite good. My parents dressed elegantly. We had a nice apartment.”
Again, nothing lasted long in Gabor’s more optimistic moments.
On March 19, 1944, Gabor and his father spent some father-son time together, which Gabor called “very unusual.” The museum was close to home, and the two walked back.
“I was extremely happy (my father bought me ice cream) — from far away we saw a man getting close to us and waiving his arm,” he said, adding that the man told them the Germans were in the street.
“’It’s the end of Hungary,’ the man said. I’d heard about Hitler in school, but he seemed far away. I asked my father, ‘what does this mean? Is Hitler going to kill us?’ My father’s face changed and he said not to worry.”
Gabor listened, but he remembers to this day the look on his father’s face, noting that only in hindsight did he realize it was a premonition of things to come.
As they turned around the corner of the street that would take them home, they passed the headquarters of a Hungarian fascist organization called Nyilash. A crowd was assembled outside on the street, and people chanted and held up signs, one of them reading “Death to the Jews.”
“They tried to hide the reality from me,” Gabor said about his parents and grandmother, who was living with the family at this time. But shortly thereafter, his father was taken away to work at a camp. Nazi Germany’s occupation was in full swing. A ghetto was formed for the Gabor family and peers. It was a matter of weeks before the kidnappings and murders started tearing the ghetto apart. Hiding realities became more and more difficult.
The story follows familiar details. Gabor remembers the moment they were ordered to go get their stars.
“I was very impressed by the stars. Some were made from velvet, but those were expensive,” Gabor said, who would excitedly persuade his mother to buy him the velvet star. “I felt so happy when they sewed it to me. I was a general now — I didn’t understand the meaning.”
‘I felt so happy when they sewed [the star] to me. I was a general now’
Eventually, Gabor’s father came back from the camps. He was very sick, but he was back against all expectations, and 1945 seemed like it would be a good year.
“We started to build our lives back up,” Gabor, then 12, remembered. “The whole atmosphere, knowing that the entire family was still where we left them (in Baimare) — this was a very tough time to live. But I was still getting ready for my bar mitzvah.”
Before Gabor turned 13, though, his father died, but not before penning a letter to his son. A letter that Ivan Gabor’s son would read to bar mitzvah “boy” on September 1 in an American synagogue.
“My only sweetest little son! On this day you are arriving to your life’s most meaningful day…“
The life Gabor led between Budapest and Sunny Isles was complicated. He picked up his things and moved to Israel at 15 after being persuaded to do so by a recruiter who “bended the truth” of how well-off Gabor would be as an immigrant to the Holy Land.
He enlisted in the army three years later and discovered what he calls his “love for Israel.” He left the army a first sergeant major and landed a job running a government youth program in Bat Yam. On assignment to Buenos Aires in 1966, Gabor left the program and started a clothing business that would make him wealthy for the first time since childhood.
These days, he lectures at Holocaust events, Christian schools, Jewish schools, synagogues, and churches. He keeps a folder with dozens of handwritten letters in it from students, thanking him for sharing his story. Many of the letters say the same thing — thanking Gabor for sharing a story the students wouldn’t have heard otherwise.
On the eleventh floor of his Sunny Isles apartment, its wall-length windows looking out onto the blue Intracoastal, Gabor looks healthy and happy. Finishing his sentences sometimes is his wife of 34 years, Rebecca, who threw him his surprise party and who aided him in becoming a man in the eyes of the Jewish faith.
‘We had tragedy. It’s time for some happiness’
For 34 years she’d heard that he’s never had a bar mitzvah, and that he won’t make it to 80.
“We had tragedy. It’s time for some happiness,” she said, noting that the couple lost a daughter in 2011 (Gabor has two children from another marriage). “He would never make himself a birthday party or a bar mitzvah. He doesn’t buy himself anything. He doesn’t do anything for himself.”
The walls are covered in the modernist paintings that Rebecca — who was just 18 when 42-year-old Gabor met her and their relationship began — and Gabor both create and display. There are statuettes and Jewish paraphernalia strewn about the living room and kitchen. Everything is a far cry from the ghetto apartment where Gabor spent his youth.
During the September 1 celebration, when his son returned from his speech, he hugged his father and Gabor’s kippah faltered. Gabor pulled it off and buried it in his fist, all the while embracing and being embraced by his son.
Gabor describes himself an agnostic because his past won’t let him look up to a good god. And while the bar mitzvah was still dear to his heart, the people involved are a higher priority than the prayers he recited.