Why should a 96-year-old Israeli Jewish woman from Kiryat Haim, a Holocaust survivor, want to be buried in the Christian cemetery in Haifa? She wanted to give meaning even to her death.
She was born and grew up in Lviv − formerly Poland, later Ukraine. She studied music at the conservatory, and German philology at the university. He studied with her and my mother-in-law, Fania Werbin nee Taube, was her classmate in high school. Fania immigrated to Israel before the war, her girlfriend remained and was trapped. Her family was murdered and only she, Antonia Gruber, survived.
Antonia, whom I knew as Tosca, owed her life to a Ukrainian gentile, 24 years old at the time, named Nestor Zenon Sniadanko − what could be more Ukrainian than that? When the Nazis arrived in Lviv and imprisoned the Jews in the ghetto, Nestor would sneak in and bring food. Until the ghetto was about to be destroyed, and then Nestor took Tosca and additional Jewish friends, and hid them for two years in his one-room apartment. Even his parents didn’t know, and when they came to visit from time to time the closet became a hiding place. The German dogs were more dangerous − they were trained to smell people who were hiding.
Tosca and Nestor, former students and now lovers, married after the war, and together they made their way to the displaced persons camp in Rosenheim, Bavaria. In 1947 their only son, Freddie, was born, and a year later they immigrated to Israel. Freddie is Freddie Gruber, whose name may sound familiar to you: His reports on Channel 1 about human and natural landscapes are still the best thing this channel has to offer.
“Gruber” is their family name because Nestor Zenon Sniadanko got rid of his Ukrainian name and assumed his wife’s maiden name. From here on they called him Joseph, Joseph Gruber. He changed his name but kept his identity, although he was actually an atheist. He remained a Christian in Israel, an official in the Paz oil company. Had he not immigrated to Israel, he probably would have been a professor of philology somewhere else.
Joseph died 33 years ago − he was eulogized Brother Daniel Rufeisen. Six years ago he received a certificate from Yad Vashem: “Based on evidence brought before it, the committee has decided to honor Nestor Zenon Sniadanko Gruber, for risking his life during the years of the Holocaust to save persecuted Jews, and to award him the Righteous Among the Nations medal.”
Tosca lived a long life, taught music in the Haifa conservatory and in Shfaram. She bought a piano at her own expense and traveled by two buses in order to teach Arab children. “When I was weak,” she said, “someone came to strengthen me. Now, when I’m strong, I too have obligations.”
Toward the end Tosca became blind. She didn’t want to die blind, and convinced the doctors to remove the cataract despite her age. A month ago the bandages were removed and she was able to see. From the window she looked at the sea and the flowers on the balcony. She told Freddie, “You’ve lost weight, son, and your collar is wrinkled too.” And all her friends on the third floor of the senior citizens’ home rejoiced and cried.
Two weeks ago she died, sighted, leaving the following inscription on her tombstone: “Antonia Gruber, rescued in the Holocaust by Nestor Sniadanko, one of the Righteous Among the Nations.” At her request, she was buried in the cemetery of the Catholic church in Haifa, alongside him. She was accompanied by 12 people; a priest and a nun were also there. No prayers were said. “He followed me in my life, and I’m following him in my death,” she said, explaining her last wish.
How beautiful you were, Tosca, how beautiful you were, Nestor, how beautiful are human beings when politicians and religious leaders are unable to separate them, in their lives and in their deaths.
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