There were barely 10 men to form a traditional quorum at the Tel Aviv funeral last Wednesday of Stefan Weiss, a 90-year-old Transylvanian survivor of Auschwitz, Dachau, and a brutal death march.
“The only people at the funeral, there were two distant relatives of his, very distant cousins who knew him and had some connection,“ said Yehuda Aaronson, the director of overseas development at Reuth, an organization that is behind the heavily subsidized housing complex in Tel Aviv for survivors, where Weiss lived for over 40 years.
“Those of us who work here at Reuth were there, and together with the chevra kadisha [burial service] we made up a minyan [quorum] of men there. ”
As the funeral wound down, out came what Aaronson described as “the kicker.”
“We’re standing there at the funeral, at the burial, and we’re finishing the ‘el male rachamim’ [prayer], and a golf cart pulls up with someone from the chevra kadisha and a body on it,” he said. “It was another Holocaust survivor who had no family and no friends, and we were asked to stay and provide the funeral for this person.”
At the cemetery, the small group stayed put to carry out the rituals for the anonymous Jew, paying their respects to a man who the burial service said was a Holocaust survivor, but about whom nothing else was known.
“We were standing there in shock… They told us, the chevra kadisha, that they bury three or four people a day, every day, who have no one — not all of them are Holocaust survivors, of course,” he said, adding that some definitely are.
Figures on the numbers of Holocaust survivors who die in Israel without living relatives or descendants are hard to come by, and the burial services in several Israeli cities were not available to comment to The Times of Israel by the time of publication.
However, in recent years, at least half a dozen funerals of a childless Holocaust survivor, or one with few relatives, was publicized on social media and Israeli messaging apps, drawing dozens or hundreds of Israelis to come pay their respects to the victims of Nazi persecution and raising some awareness of the phenomenon. In February, some 200 strangers attended the funeral of Hilde Nathan, a childless survivor from the Canary Islands who wished to be buried alongside her mother in Israel.
But for every uplifting media report highlighting Israeli and Jewish solidarity, there is a Stefan Weiss — or a John Doe Holocaust survivor — or, perhaps, dozens like them.
“It’s a tragedy that these people who gave everything…they live alone and die alone,” said Aaronson.
A community of survivors
Weiss was a notable presence at the subsidized housing complex in south Tel Aviv, where he frequently told his story to journalists and visitors. (The Times of Israel interviewed Weiss in 2015).
Outside the three rows of Reuth apartments, the lawns are well-manicured, flowers blossom, and benches dot the grass for those seeking quiet introspection.
The occupancy of the apartments, however, offers a sobering reminder that the population of Holocaust survivors is rapidly dwindling. The organization founded in 1937, known most for its nearby rehabilitation hospital by the same name, once housed 750 apartments of Holocaust survivors who could not afford rent. Today, there are 180 apartments overall — with some 80 Holocaust survivors — while the rest are occupied by economically disadvantaged elderly Israelis.
All of the residents are physically independent, according to the guidelines of the service. The apartments are simply — but individually — furnished. And life, among the survivors living there, is a commodity both exercised with flair and held dear.
Fanny Kroitor, the administrative director and “house mother” of the residents said that when she began working there over 20 years ago, most of the survivors living in the complex were childless or had few relatives. Now, the Russian-speaking daughter of Holocaust survivors said most of the residents currently living in the housing complex have children and grandchildren in the country. But many do not.
Like his late neighbor Weiss, 86-year-old Elli Laichtner has lived at Reuth for over 40 years, never married, and has no descendants. The sole relative of the Budapest-born survivor living in Israel is a cousin who lives in the northern city of Nahariya.
Dressed in a short-sleeved red button-down shirt, with a silver Star of David necklace dangling from his neck, the animated octogenarian speaks proudly of his theater acting, which began at the age of 4 and ended, officially, at 75.
Trained for eight months in Paris by famed French mime Marcel Marceau, Laich channels his training when asked to pose for a photo in dramatic pantomime. He is a Holocaust survivor who has played, on at least one occasion, a Holocaust victim — namely that of Peter van Pels, Anne Frank’s playmate in the secret annex in a stage version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
While the real-life Frank and van Pels huddled in their Amsterdam hiding place, Laichtner, at 14-years-old, huddled in the Budapest ghetto in a basement with eight others, no food, and some firewood to combat the bitter cold Hungarian winter. Across the way, bodies of Jews were piled in the square and raids by Nazi mostly saw children and the elderly deported, he recalled.
An only child, his father was deported and murdered in the Auschwitz death camp; his mother survived in a Swiss safe house and the two were reunited after the war when he returned to his childhood home. Throughout the war, “I was alone the entire time,” he said.
“But in the ghetto, there was also a theater,” he added, describing how in the post-war era he was denied major roles since he had no Communist party affiliation.
He also appeared amused in remembering a Haifa performance shortly after he fled to Israel in 1956, in which an Israeli theater critic ripped into his Hungarian accent in a newspaper review (“In what language was the young man speaking?”). He noted proudly that he primarily performed comedic roles, and referred to several productions held at a nearby senior center, also run by Reuth. And he kissed Kroitnor’s hand grandly and repeatedly as the two sparred good-naturedly over what they describe, respectively, as pesky “Hungarian” and “Russian” traits (though Kroitnor was born in Lithuania).
Nor is Laichtner embittered about the government’s treatment of the survivors, although he is eligible for the housing due to his economic state. State Comptroller Yosef Shapira published a scathing report last week painted a shocking picture of government failure to extend help to Holocaust survivors, who are dying at the rate of 1,000 a month.
“The state gives the maximum to the Holocaust survivors,” he firmly insisted.
Aniuta Reznik, 85, spent four years in Ukraine’s Vinnitsa Ghetto, with her parents, older sister and her brother-in-law.
“Every day, in the ghetto, they would say that tomorrow they would come and kill everyone,” she said of the area, which was first controlled by the Germans and later by the Romanians. At 9-10 years old, Reznik was sent to the fields daily for forced labor. Her parents, however, were spared labor due to their age and were not forced to leave their old apartment when the area was converted into the ghetto.
After the war, the family moved to Moscow, where Reznik became the principal of a high school. “The children loved me,” said the survivor, whose close-cropped gray hair and thick black glasses hint at a schoolteacher past, and whose frail body belies a powerful voice.
Reznik moved to Israel in 1991, after the fall of the former Soviet Union. Ten years ago, she gave up her apartment at Reuth to tend to her sick older sister for three years until she died. After that, the organization gave her an apartment again. She has a niece and nephew — the children of her only sister — and no one else.
Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began Sunday night, Reznik wished “peace, peace, peace in the entire world, and in Israel in particular.”
But looking down at her feet, she remarked that due to her illness and her caretaker’s schedule, she won’t be able to make it to the memorial Monday at the center.
“I ask, all day long, from God: A little, a little, just a little more health,” she declared with vigor. “And life, life, life.”
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