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Auschwitz Survivor Celebrates 104th Birthday at Western Wall with 400 Descendants!

Ian Harvey
Old woman in front of Auschwitz. Not the lady the article is about.
Old woman in front of Auschwitz. Not the lady the article is about.

It isn’t often we hear the terms “Auschwitz survivor” and “raucous celebration” in the same sentence, but on the 104th birthday of Shoshana Ovitz, that’s precisely the kind of story her life has culminated in. Ovitz, who survived Auschwitz 75 years ago, recently celebrated her 104th birthday, and saw 400 relatives gather for her party at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

Seeing her family – all her family, or at least as many who could make the trip  – gathered at the holy place was Ovitz’s only wish for her monumental occasion. They gathered to celebrate and, perhaps, mourn those who didn’t make it out alive from the notorious camp.

Auschwitz

Main gate to Auschwitz

Her grandson, Meir Rosenstein, told Israeli reporters that his grandmother witnessed many horrible things at Auschwitz, including the sight of her mother’s selection by the cruel Dr. Josef Mengele, infamous for human experimentation. Once released from the camp, Ovitz met her soon-to-be husband, Don Ovitz. He too had survived the camps, although he had lost his wife and four daughters.

But the occasion of Auschwitz survivor Shoshana Ovitz’s birthday was one of celebration, rather than somber reflections on the past, at least as much as possible. Her granddaughter, Panini Friedman, told reporters that organizers tried everything imaginable to ensure all of Ovitz’s descendants gathered at the holy site for the party. However, she acknowledged, “we’re missing about 10 percent of them.”

Western Wall Jerusalem

The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo by Golasso CC by 2.0

The party was symbolic of the family’s victory over their captors, but it also represented a triumph for the Jewish people overall. All the guests felt that profound weight, Friedman said. “Everyone was there with tears in their eyes,” she said. “It was very emotional.”

Needless to say, the historic gathering was chronicled for posterity, with many taking countless photographs. In one, Ovitz sits in her wheelchair holding the hand of a young boy who could be her great grandson, or perhaps even her great, great grandson. There are at least four generations represented in the group shots. They are visual confirmation of how the Ovitz family, and the Jewish people, survived the war.

The photos of all the family members posing in front of the Western Wall is a testament to the resilience and determination to overcome the attempt to erase them from the planet. Bringing together everyone for the celebration was no small feat, organizers said, but the family was determined to make it happen, as it was Ovitz’s only wish for her birthday.

Many lived outside Israel, some in Europe and some in America. The organizers didn’t even have concrete details about the location of some, but they persevered. While the 400 party goers may not include every family member, everyone agreed the bash was a roaring success.

The number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling, not surprisingly. In 2016, a report by the Central Bureau of Statistics in Israel said that only 26,500 survivors will still be alive in Israeli by 2035. That figure includes not just concentration camp survivors, but those from ghettos, labor camps and hiding places, too.

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Time Magazine in 2016 said Holocaust survivors totaled just 100,000 today globally. “The number of eloquent survivors is few and far between,” said Michael Zank, director of the Elie Wiesel Centre for Jewish Studies at Boston University. “It puts the responsibility on the next generation, the children of survivors, (and) the grandchildren of survivors, to become as articulate as we can be in maintaining this memory, and the mandate that comes with it.” 

In spite of the gloomy prediction that we may soon be facing a world without direct testimony of the Nazi war crimes committed before and during the second world war, it is important to acknowledge that many can continue to tell their stories, and document them for posterity.

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But it’s just as important to pause occasionally to celebrate those who came through, who were able to reclaim their lives, start families, and watch those families flourish and prosper. Like Shoshana Ovitz, 104 years old and still thriving, still looking forward. If that is not a testament to the human spirit, nothing is.