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New York - Holocaust Survivor Celebrates 100th Birthday in Brooklyn

Published on: December 30, 2009 02:43 PM
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Holocaust survivor Jafa Wallach is pictured with her daughter Rena Bernstein on her 100th birthday, Dec. 28, 2009. She is holding her memoir, Bitter Freedom. Eagle photo by Phoebe Neidl  New York - It probably never occurred to Jafa Wallach that she would live to be 100 years old.

In the summer of 1944, she didn’t know if she was going to live another minute.

To avoid capture by the Nazis, she, her husband Natan and his two brothers were hidden in a 6- by 4-foot hole beneath basement floor boards in a mechanic’s workshop in southwestern Poland.

During the last desperate days of the war, the Gestapo, in search of ammunition, radios, anything of use, were digging in the basement where the Wallachs were hiding, a mere 6 feet away from them. “The tension in our hole was indescribable,” says Jafa.

Ultimately, the soldiers gave up, throwing down their shovels with the words “zum Teufel” (to the devil). Shortly thereafter, Jafa and her companions were finally able to emerge into the sunlight when the Russians retook the area. It was some time before she could walk again. They had been hiding for 22 months, in a space too small for them to stand or walk.

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Of the 30,000 Jews in the Galicia region of Poland, they were among 80 that are estimated to have survived.

And Jafa survives still, along with her daughter Rena, who, during the war, hid under the guise of being the Christian niece of a forest watchman in Bezmiechowa until she was reunited with her parents in 1944.

On Monday, Jafa Wallach celebrated her 100th birthday at the Ateret Avot retirement home in Midwood.

“Jafa survived, but she also thrived,” said Ateret Avot Recreation Director Alan Magill, who estimates that between one-third and one-quarter of Ateret Avot’s residents are Holocaust survivors. Brooklyn is believed to have the largest population of Holocaust survivors in the country, with approximately 29,700 as of 2002, according to a United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York survey.

Surrounded by her daughter, grandson, great-grandchildren, cousins and nephews, Jafa sat beaming from her wheelchair on Monday, festooned with balloons, flowers and a piece of birthday cake as big as her head.

“It’s an honor to know Jafa, because in this world where there is still so much conflict and hatred, I know that there is light,” said her great-granddaughter, Brianna, 20. “It’s an honor to know a woman of such grace, dignity and truth.”

Jafa is also a published author. Her memoirs, Bitter Freedom: Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor, were published in 2006, though they were written shortly after she and her family arrived in New York in 1947. Her daughter Rena, who was the driving force behind getting the book published, contributed an essay to the book detailing her own haunting experience during the war.

Rena now often speaks at schools, museums and civic organizations, and in 2007 won the Hannah L. Goldberg Award for Jewish Education for her Celebration of Life project, which brought Bitter Freedom to 20 School Districts throughout New York State. The book has been published in Hebrew and will soon be released in Polish.

Polish Neighbor Saved Family

It was the selfless bravery of mechanic Józef Zwonarz that saved the Wallachs. It was he who hid them under his workshop and found a home in which to hide Rena. Jafa and her husband stayed in touch with him until his death in 1984, and advocated for his receiving an award from Israel’s Center for Holocaust Remembrance, Yad Vashem, in 1980.

Józef’s grandson, who recently converted to Judaism and lives in Israel, sent his birthday wishes to Jafa on Monday, which elicited more enthusiasm from her than everything else.

“It always nice to celebrate a 100th birthday ... but we also celebrate the conversion,” said Jafa.

In addition to much of her extended family, Jafa lost her father, stepmother, a brother and three sisters in the Holocaust. Her husband Natan, who passed away in 1995 at the age of 90, lost his entire nuclear family — his parents and three sisters.

“Love prevails,” Jafa said on Monday, with her memoir on her lap and her daughter at her side.

“She’s one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met,” said Rena.



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Read Comments (15)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Dec 30, 2009 at 02:51 PM Anonymous Says:

mazel tov, wishing you many many more years of health and happiness with your family

2

 Dec 30, 2009 at 02:57 PM shtussem Says:

Just think about the shtussem we worry about today. We should be happy for every minute we are alive and always thank the abishter.

3

 Dec 30, 2009 at 03:19 PM Anonymous Says:

I am humbled to be able to wish a Happy Birthday to anyone who survived that hell.

4

 Dec 30, 2009 at 03:37 PM Anonymous Says:

mazel -tov, to a great lady ! i ,too , am a holocaust survivor. my question is, where does she get the will ,to live so long ?

5

 Dec 30, 2009 at 04:21 PM Zechus Avos Says:

Józef’s grandson, who recently converted to Judaism and lives in Israel, He was zoche to a Jewish grandson, of course kekoton hanolod etc. He has all the miztvos of the family he saved for generations, & was Zoche to his own Yiddishe family. Being a Gertzedek from Poland the most antisemitic populous of the world, who still hate us even though no Jews live there, is a zechus.
BTW Mazel Tov, arichas Yomim & yiddishe nachas is also a zchus, it seems like an orthodox family Boruch Hashem.

6

 Dec 30, 2009 at 04:51 PM Anonymous Says:

mazel tov...may you have more years of health and happiness

7

 Dec 30, 2009 at 05:04 PM Anonymous Says:

MAZAL TOV! ALL THE BEST TO YOU!

8

 Dec 30, 2009 at 05:58 PM jeettee Says:

AD ME'AH V'ESRIM IM YIRZTA HASHEM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

9

 Dec 30, 2009 at 11:21 PM Anonymous Says:

Mazel tov! may your years be healthy and happy with much Yiddishe Naches!

10

 Dec 30, 2009 at 11:33 PM Anonymous Says:

As the Satmer Rebbe A"H said once, these are the people we can and should ask brochos from, may she and all of us be bentched with only good.

11

 Dec 31, 2009 at 12:35 PM Anonymous Says:

mazal tov! the impression that onlly 80 peole survived from Galicia is a mistake . you probably mean one region in galicia

12

 Dec 31, 2009 at 12:51 PM frater Says:

Reply to #5  
Zechus Avos Says:

Józef’s grandson, who recently converted to Judaism and lives in Israel, He was zoche to a Jewish grandson, of course kekoton hanolod etc. He has all the miztvos of the family he saved for generations, & was Zoche to his own Yiddishe family. Being a Gertzedek from Poland the most antisemitic populous of the world, who still hate us even though no Jews live there, is a zechus.
BTW Mazel Tov, arichas Yomim & yiddishe nachas is also a zchus, it seems like an orthodox family Boruch Hashem.

There are thousands of Jews living in Poland, and absolutely nothing indicates that Poles are the "most antisemitic population of the world". The article mentions brave Poles who saved Jews and you still manage to express hate towards them.

13

 Dec 31, 2009 at 02:19 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #4  
Anonymous Says:

mazel -tov, to a great lady ! i ,too , am a holocaust survivor. my question is, where does she get the will ,to live so long ?

Because she lives at Ateret Avot, she is connected and thrives.

14

 Jan 01, 2010 at 11:25 AM ilene Says:

Happy Happy Birthday .. I am both blessed and humbled to be able to share this day with you!!!

15

 Jan 03, 2010 at 07:36 PM Anonymous Says:

reply to # 13. who can afford to live in that gan-eden.

16

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