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Akiva Pudell Saves a Life: Survivor Discovers Righteous Gentile Roots

I know that the elections are the main topic this week, but I have to ask for your indulgence and share with you a very special “Jewish Link” story. It� begins back in 2014 when we published an article titled “MTA Student Akiva Pudell Saves a Life at Marathon, Then Completes Race.” In the piece, authored by Asher Finkelstein, we read about the incredible selflessness and heroism of then-MTA senior Akiva Pudell of Teaneck, who was running in the ING Miami Half-Marathon as part of the MTA varsity hockey team’s Team Lifeline group.

Below is a short excerpt from the 2014 article:

In the middle of the ninth mile and while still keeping a strong and fast pace of 9 minutes per mile amidst the heat and humidity, Pudell heard someone calling out, “Man down! We need a medic!” As a trained EMT and TVAC member, he immediately ran over and found a man lying on the ground face up and not breathing.

He snapped into action. “I checked his pulse, but there wasn’t anything, so I began performing CPR…and I saw pretty quickly that we needed a defibrillator, oxygen and a sharp object to cut open the guy’s shirt,” said Pudell. He directed the marathon’s medical staff to bring the necessary equipment and continued to treat the fallen runner until a defibrillator was brought to the scene. Pudell placed the electrodes on the man’s chest, until the defibrillator’s built-in computer announced “shock advised.”

“I said ‘clear!’ but nobody moved. Then I said ‘I’m shocking this guy!’ and everyone got out of the way,” recalled Pudell. After being shocked with a defibrillator, the runner regained his pulse, began breathing and, though disoriented, was eventually able to talk to Pudell. Soon afterward, other paramedics arrived in a golf cart, and he briefed them on the situation.

After relaying the necessary details, Pudell then got up, brushed himself off, and completed the four remaining miles of the half-marathon.

“I just did my job,” Akiva says, “it was all training and instinct.” In recognition of his service, Pudell’s half-marathon medal was engraved with “EMT – CPR Save,” a brief acknowledgement of his accomplishment.

A few months after this was published, I received an email from a man by the name of Erwin Hogeweg, a Dutch national living in Florida, who explained that someone sent him the Link’s article and that he was the man whose life Akiva Pudell had saved. He was emailing to ask if I could help put him in touch with Akiva so he could thank him for saving his life in Miami. This was easy for me, as the Pudells live a block away from me, daven in the same shul, and I have known Akiva since he was in elementary school.

I marveled at the time about how amazing it was that the then-newly established Jewish Link newspaper was so widely read and how this fellow with no connection to the Jewish community found this article and ultimately found his savior. Of course, I connected Erwin to the Pudells and they spoke by phone and resolved to meet at some point. At the time, I asked them both to send me a picture if and when they met, and I offered to publish something about their meeting in the paper, if and when it would occur. Of course, I shortly forgot about it and Akiva moved to Israel to serve in the IDF, made aliyah, and life moved on.

Fast forward six years to this past Shabbos in Teaneck where I was attending an outdoor, socially distanced yahrzeit kiddush in the backyard of my friend and neighbor Harold Nussbaum, who was marking the 23rd yahrtzeit of his father’s passing. Who shows up at the kiddush but Akiva Pudell? He and his wife Leora were in the U.S. visiting their families and were planning to return to Israel this past Sunday. Upon seeing me, he came over to me and said, “I have to tell you something! You should know that I finally met the man I saved!… And he told me a very interesting story also.”

Akiva explained that he was in Florida this summer and he arranged to finally meet Erwin in person. At their meeting, Erwin told him that during WWII, his Christian grandparents were members of the Dutch resistance and helped to shelter a Jewish family from the Germans and enabled them all to survive. According to what Akiva told me, Erwin’s wife felt strongly that there was a direct connection between the fact that his grandfather had saved Jews 60+ years earlier and the fact that Erwin merited to have his life saved by a Jew.

I called up Erwin on Tuesday (I found him on LinkedIn) and I asked him to verify what Akiva told me. He proudly did so and asked if he could send me a writeup of his connections to his family’s story and his meeting in Florida in 2006 with the Shoah survivor whose life was saved by his family. I have included that writeup just below.

Letter from Erwin Hogeweg of Boca Raton:

On Nov 25, 2000, we moved with our three children from the Netherlands to the United States. It was only supposed to be for 2-3 years, but we are still here. In April 2006, my wife and I had just watched the first half of the high school musical “Mame,” in which my daughter Sam played one of the lead roles. It was intermezzo and we were discussing what a high quality these high school musicals had. My youngest daughter Krissy was helping her older sister backstage with make-up, drinks, and whatever other chores there are backstage.

All of a sudden Krissy comes running over to us and tells us that we need to come backstage, because there is somebody who wants to talk to us. We suggest to wait until after the show but she is persistent that we have to come now.

So we go backstage and there is this older, European woman who mentions that she saw Sam’s last name, Hogeweg, in the program. She continues to say that her name is Sonja and that she is Jewish. She didn’t have to continue; I instantly knew who she was.

The story goes back 60 years to when the Germans occupied the Netherlands. My grandparents were in the resistance, and at one point my grandfather and his brothers decided to provide refuge to an entire Jewish family. Each of the brothers sheltered one family member. None of these family members could communicate with each other, nor did they know where their family members were or if they were even still alive.

My grandparents had three young kids, so it was decided that one of the Jewish girls would stay with them. For years she slept under my grandparents’ bed and was forced to hide in some shelter my grandpa built—he was a carpenter—when there was another raid, until the war was over. The entire family survived. Very few people in the neighborhood and in school knew that that cute girl really wasn’t my dad’s little sister. As a kid I had heard the story over and over again, and it was only until I had my own family that it really sunk in what heros my grandparents had been and what a tremendous risk they had taken.

That little girl was now standing in front of me. The conversation went something like:

“As a little girl I was with this family during the war. Their name was Hogeweg as well. The man’s name was Sjoerd,” she said.

“Yes, that was my grandpa, and my grandma’s name was Willy,” I said. “And they had a little boy, Rens.”

“That is my dad.”

“I need to sit down,” she mumbled, “and I need some water.”

Unfortunately for my daughter I missed most of the second half. My mind kept racing; what a stupid coincidence. Sixty years later and 5,000 miles from Amsterdam I ran into the woman whose life was saved by my grandparents.

The next morning I immediately called my dad in the Netherlands. “You’ll never guess who I met yesterday,” I said. Indeed he didn’t guess.

We met Sonja and her husband a couple of times before they returned for good to Switzerland. I looked them up there twice when I happened to be in the area for work, and she and my parents and my dad’s siblings met with Sonja and her husband for a reunion lunch.

As we learned later, the coincidence was even bigger. This was the closing night of the show; she and her husband were snowbirds and now lived in Switzerland. They have been attending every show for the past 20 years, but due to her husband’s poor health this would be the last time they have come to Florida.

After Akiva saved my life in 2014, my wife Astrid is convinced that the two events are related. My family helped the Jews during the war, Akiva saved my life 70 years later.

I believe and hope his wife is right. And I am happy to have shared this story with you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I and my editors have.

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