When Brock Cvijanovich kicked down the door of an elderly tenant’s apartment, he began a relationship that would change both of their lives.
The encounter began in 2021 when Cvijanovich purchased the building in which 93-year-old Alice Schuman lived in an apartment for 60 years. The owner had stipulated a new buyer must take Schuman on monthly errands. At one point, when Cvijanovich came to fulfill that obligation, he heard sounds of distress coming from the apartment.
“I kicked the door down and I got her out,” said Cvijanovich.
At the hospital, Schuman was deemed unfit to care for herself and transferred to a nursing home.
A real estate investor in Binghamton, New York, Cvijanovich eventually became the Holocaust survivor’s legal guardian, holding Schuman’s hand as she took her last breath.
“For me, this was an opportunity to be the good guy in someone’s story,” said Cvijanovich, whose company manages rental properties.
Prior to knocking down her door, the 26-year-old Cvijanovich had started to build a tentative relationship with Schuman. The elderly woman did not easily warm to Cvijanovich or his mother, a trained nurse who joined her son for the visits.
“At first, it was hard to build a relationship,” said Cvijanovich, “Then my mom and I were like, let’s see what we can do. We started to visit her every day. I came with food or books, she was an avid reader,” he said.
During months of almost daily visits to see Schuman, Cvijanovich noticed how their exchanges gradually warmed up. When it became apparent in the hospital that Schuman had no friends, family, or resources, Cvijanovich and his mother stepped up to fund her nursing home care.
At first, Schuman was “suspicious” when Cvijanovich took over payment for her care. However, said Cvijanovich, the survivor came to realize there were no strings attached to their regard for her.
“She started to respond more to us and be happy to see us,” said Cvijanovich. “The more we saw that, the more it encouraged us to do it,” he added.
As he built his relationship with Schuman, Cvijanovich said he often thought of his mother’s difficult youth to motivate himself.
“My mom grew up and is alive now because of the good nature and kindness of other people,” said Cvijanovich. “She had a rough upbringing. There are many people along the way she would not be alive if they had not shown her the kindness and decency that they didn’t need to.”
When Schuman started to decline for the last time, Cvijanovich was determined to give her one final gift.
“My mom and I were intent on her not dying alone,” said Cvijanovich.
‘Someone’s last moment’
After several months of getting to know Schuman in her apartment and later, the nursing home, Cvijanovich learned she was a German-born Holocaust survivor who came to the United States after liberation.
Both of Schuman’s parents were murdered in German death camps, along with her sister, said Cvijanovich.
Even after the Holocaust, Schuman’s life remained difficult. She lost two husbands, one to suicide and another to an accident. The survivor had long yearned to have children, said Cvijanovich, but she had to settle for a doll collection.
On her own for decades, Schuman managed to get by because the owner of her building – and later Cvijanovich – kept her rent at $200, while other units in the building rented for ten times as much.
Cvijanovich recalled some of Schuman’s advice about money, including, “by the time someone puts money in your hand, someone’s already looking to take it out.”
After Schuman warmed up to Cvijanovich and his mother, the survivor’s personality came out in engaging ways, he said.
“When she was with it, she was bright and funny and said things that were really kind of profound,” said Cvijanovich, who called the survivor a “sharp tack.”
In terms of what he learned from Schuman, Cvijanovich said it has to do with being thankful.
“One thing that was consistent with Alice was gratitude,” said Cvijanovich. “They would change her bedsheets and she would be like, how could you be sad with clean bedsheets? She was grateful for everything, even though she had no family, no friends, and no money.”
Cvijanovich said he will also never forget Schuman’s regard for other people, including how she “boosted” them up.
“She would always say how beautiful and handsome me and my mom were. This woman would make you feel like you were 10 feet tall,” said Cvijanovich.
During the months before Schuman died of pneumonia in January, Binghamton’s Jewish community came together to help Cvijanovich ensure Schuman was well-cared for.
“To see the whole community coming together, it restored some faith in humanity,” said Cvijanovich.
At the very end of her life, Schuman’s hands were held by Cvijanovich and his mother.
“One day she shook her head no about seeing her tomorrow,” said Cvijanovich. “She had always shook yes,” he said.
“Alice was suffering for those last 4 or 5 days,” said Cvijanovich. “It was profound to be there for someone’s last moment.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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