December 2, 2023
December 2, 2023

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Defying Birkenau and Auschwitz: A Warm, Sweet, Gentle ‘Poppy’

Editor’s note: This speech was given at the recent levaya of Fort Lee resident Anton Adler z”l, the father of Jewish Link staff member Risa Lefkowitz. Anton, or “Poppy,” was born in 1930, and would have been 87 on March 5. Anton is survived by his loving wife, three children, six grandchildren and a large extended family. Aly is one of his grandchildren, Risa’s daughter.


I wanted to write something to say on behalf of my grandfather today, and I was hoping to keep it somewhat upbeat and pleasant and not bring up sad or negative things that happened in his life. But in thinking about him, the negatives are the events that he had to suffer through at times and they helped form him into the man that brings all of us together here today.

My grandmother always says that he is such a good patient, and it’s true, but it goes further than that; I think he’s got to be one of the best. And I’m really, really biased, so it’s not even my feedback. Any nurse he’s ever had, any age, color, demeanor, severity of his ailment—they’d all be eating out of his hand, swinging by for extra visits, winking and grinning at him from across the room. He’d tell them he was married to the most beautiful woman in the world, but they were close seconds. When any other person would be wincing, or moaning, or at the end of their line, he would be content and kind and just always himself. And most of them would stop me outside of his door, or tell me right in front of him, that he was special, or the best guy there.

And this past week, the hardest week I’ve ever seen, but amazingly, not the hardest week he’s ever seen, I heard the same from his nurses. They told us he was special, or their favorite, how peaceful he was and how they loved being able to sit by his side at night when we weren’t there. But this time, he wasn’t awake, he wasn’t flirting, or charming, or complimentary. His spirit was just so unique that it touched strangers even when he could no longer do anything but listen to us all tell him how much we love him.

He lived through war and hate and devastation, and came out warm and peaceful and sweet. As most of us know, and are so incredibly proud of, this man was once a boy that fought for a life he could only barely dream of in concentration camps. And we will never know if Birkenau and Auschwitz and events that transpired beyond our wildest imaginations during his holocaust turned him into the man he was, but what he became is what I take as a silver lining from his pain. He survived—but more than that, he thrived.

I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to undo what he went through. I wanted to spoil him the way kids deserve to be and he couldn’t. I’m thankful that he had an interest in affordable things, though; otherwise, I would have been less lucky. But he liked collecting pens, so… so did I. He got plastic bags filled with them at a time. He used to need VHS tapes so he could record movies and add them to his library—that was unnervingly well-organized—so I’d buy them as soon as I could get the change together. I got my first job working at a candy store and spent almost everything I earned on sugar-free candies. Because his smile was worth everything.

But he really didn’t need anything. Because what he had taken away from him so many decades ago was his family, and security and love. And he moved forward in life and built that for himself. He walked out of a concentration camp against all odds and laws of human nature, and he came here and created everything he was ever denied, everything he lost. We sit here today because his drive to have his life filled with family and love was successful.

He had every right to be mediocre, and still be praised for it. He earned the right to have a chip on his shoulder, to lose his temper or to be negative. But he somehow didn’t. And the only bad things he ever had to say were about his unexplainable one true nemesis alive: Whoopi Goldberg.

I’m going to try to keep his spirit with me by continuing to be inspired by his love and joy and just goodness. Because if he could do it, none of us have any excuses.

Thank you, Poppy.

By Aly Lefkowitz


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