April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Cousin Sam’s Lost and Eternal Life

As I write this he’s on his way to Israel. Unfortunately, he’s headed there for his burial. In Adar, the neis, the miracle, is that he lived more than 80 years after the rest of his family was murdered, and through years when attempts to remove him from among the living took place every day and night. The pity is that this is his first trip to Israel.

He could have gone there many times. There were many who urged him to visit or settle there, including my own family, who often invited him to join us on our visits to the country. He listened politely, yet declined those suggestions, along with many of our invitations for holidays or other special events, or to join us for family trips.

He did come to our homes for Shabbat or festivals. There was an occasional Rosh Hashana at the Pioneer Hotel with us in the Catskills and a Pesach in the Poconos, but taking vacations was not for him. He was incapable of living the life of privilege and frivolity that his hard work and frugality had earned.

What we didn’t understand, or failed to acknowledge, is that the man who spent many Sabbaths and holidays with us was dead. Dead inside. Despite his ability to work hard physically and mentally, despite his quick and witty sense of humor, his love for Yiddish literature, for the study of Torah and Talmud, and despite his beautiful singing voice, passion for opera and popular entertainment such as movies and ballroom dancing, an envious appetite and metabolism that allowed him to consume prodigious quantities of food without getting fat, despite friends and devoted employees, he was not living life as fully as he could. He appeared to be content with the status quo and we accepted, respected and loved him for who he was.

In truth, his life stopped when the war began and never fully resumed. At the time he was barely in his teens, just old enough to work as a slave and thus survive. He was still in his teens when World War II ended, leaving him, as it left most survivors, alone, orphaned, homeless and penniless. It would take years for him to be reunited with his distant relatives. He would never fully recover from his feelings of loss and abandonment. Sam’s Hebrew name was Sholem, the word for peace. Unfortunately, he never really knew peace, and spent nearly all his life plagued by guilt.

While many survivors of the Shoah were able to put aside feelings of guilt to follow the Torah’s command to “choose life”—marry, bear and raise children—Cousin Sam could not.

He loved pineapple and devoured it when it was offered, but considered it an unaffordable luxury he was not entitled to purchase. That said, he gave generously to support his shul and the poor in his community. Brides and grooms, the elderly and infirm, scholars and the hungry were beneficiaries of his anonymous support.

My parents urged him to rent a store, which he did. The business sense that had made his family successful in Cracow made Sam a successful businessman. I spent an occasional Sunday working in his store and noted how his easy banter and great sense of humor attracted customers.

The one thing my parents were never able to do was to convince him to get married. He could support a wife and child. He was attractive and highly personable. Unfortunately, he always suffered from low self-esteem.

He often spoke about a hurtful incident. During the war he obtained permission to leave his work camp to spend Shabbat with his married brother. A late-life child and already orphaned, he hoped his brother would invite him to remain with his family in the ghetto. When Shabbat ended, the brother was ambivalent. His brother’s reasons were undoubtedly a combination of practicality: bringing another person into an already overcrowded space, as well as the burden of assuming responsibility for yet another person’s life. How could the young teenager understand the burden he would be placing on his brother and his brother’s family?

His older brother could only offer a tearful, “I don’t know what to advise you,” when Sam asked if he should stay in the ghetto and risk arrest for deserting the labor detail, or return to the labor camp. Discouraged and disconsolate, Sam returned to slavery. His brother, along with his children and the rest of the family, were eventually sent to Belzec, a camp built as a brutally efficient death factory. Sam often said he wished he had stayed and gone with his family to their deaths.

I spent Sam’s last days and nights at his bedside, giving him what little comfort I could: words, compresses, sips of water, and on his last night swabbing his mouth and offering him little ice chips, because swallowing had become too difficult. I held his hand and talked to him. I applied cold compresses that soothed the pain in his head and neck. I placed hand warmers on his cold hands, and played music and Yiddish songs from my laptop that seemed to comfort him.

After he breathed his last breath, I said goodbye and went home to sleep, shower and prepare for the funeral. As we gathered in Sam’s shul for his funeral the next day, the chasid who always sat next to him told my brother that he had just noticed the plaque Sam had put up in memory of his beloved father, Yosef ben Mordechai. The sight left him amazed and quite shaken. Sam and his father died on the same day of the month.

It’s unusual for a father and son who died decades apart to share the same yahrzeit. What was absolutely extraordinary was that their yahrzeits were both leap-year yahrzeits.

May Shulim finally know and rest in eternal peace, recalled with daily prayers and perpetual Kaddishes said for him in the Galitzianer Hebrew he was raised and prayed and took comfort in throughout his 93 years, and may he be remembered for a blessing by all those who were privileged to know him.

By Barbara Wind

 

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