Israel Passes Grim Milestone of 1,000 COVID Dead. These Are Some of Their Stories

Israelis who lost family members to the coronavirus share the stories behind the numbers

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The funeral of rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron in Jerusalem, April 2020.
The funeral of rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron in Jerusalem, April 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The last conversation Rabbi Yaakov Kolodetsky had with his son Menachem was on March 26. His granddaughter had been born that morning, and Kolodetsky called in the evening to congratulate his son on the birth. “He told me that in Nissan [the seventh month of the Jewish calendar] Israel was redeemed and there will be good news. I told him that I’m worried about him, and those were the last words I said to him,” Menachem recalls.

The following day, on Friday night, he was taken to the hospital. He walked by himself to the ambulance, but when he arrived at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, he was rushed to intensive care.

“On Saturday night we thought the worst possible news would be that his condition had deteriorated to moderate; we were optimistic,” says Menachem. But after Shabbat ended and they called him, he didn’t answer. “Then I received a phone call from the hospital, that three hours after he had arrived, he recited Tehilim [the book of Psalms] and collapsed in the process – and now he’s sedated and on a ventilator in serious condition.”

Five weeks later, on the eve of Independence Day, April 28, Rabbi Kolodetsky was the 210th person to die from the coronavirus in Israel. He was 69 years old.

The late Rabbi Yaakov Kolodetsky.

Since then, 797 names have been added to the list of fatalities. As of Saturday, 1,007 people have died, 481 of them in August alone.

Credit: Haaretz

Since the first Israeli coronavirus victim – Arye Even of Jerusalem, who died on March 20 – those who have died have all but disappeared from everyday discourse in Israel. When the pandemic started, the stories of many of the deceased appeared in the news. But as time passed, most reports were summed up by mentioning the victim’s number on the list while individual families’ tragedies were pushed to the sidelines.

Credit: Haaretz

This week, Haaretz got in touch with several families who had lost loved ones during the pandemic. Most victims were elderly – the average age is 80.3. Most had underlying conditions, but would have likely lived many more years had they not been infected with the virus.

Kolodetsky was apparently infected in the United States, at a Purim party in Brooklyn. He was in New York as part of his work as a fundraiser for religious institutions in Israel. “He always smiling, always worried about everyone, secretly gave charity to the needy. He was a special person, he was always hugging us,” says his son Menachem in a broken voice.

He says that during the week the family manages to hold themselves together, “but when Shabbat arrives, we fall apart. I dream about him a lot, that he’s dancing and hugging us. He told my brother in a dream that he’s doing OK up there, he was a righteous man and a saint.”

Kolodetsky is survived by his wife, ten children and over 50 grandchildren.

Sick after going on holiday

Like Rabbi Kolodetsky, Yigal Yaakobi, who died at the beginning of last week, was 69. Two and a half years ago he recovered from cancer and walked and exercised regularly since then.

“He was a healthy man,” his son Roy Yaakobi says. He was diagnosed with the coronavirus only two weeks before he died, a few days after he returned from vacation in northern Israel.”

On his return, his temperature rose and he didn’t feel well. After testing positive for the virus and a week of isolation, his condition deteriorated and he was hospitalized. A week later he died. “The evening before he died he was still sending me messages on Whatsapp,” says Eitan Ashtar, his close friend. They had known each other since nursery school, he said.

Natasha Segev, who died at 71 from the coronavirus.Credit: Courtesy of the family

Ashtar says Yaakobi, a father to four children, was surrounded by people – a loving family, clients, suppliers and employees. He was well-known in his home town of Hadera as the owner of the Opera restaurant, which had become famous for its Yemenite cuisine. Yaakobi’s family founded the restaurant in 1974, with Yigal’s mother as the cook while he and his brother managed it. Over the years the family also opened a successful pastry factory that exports overseas. “He was born in Hadera, grew up in Hadera and didn’t leave it for a moment,” says Ashtar.

The family is still sitting shivah and his good friend still hasn’t come to terms with the loss. “We traveled around half of the world together – from Brazil to Thailand,” says Ashtar. “I don’t know how I’ll travel now because I’m used to doing it all with him.”

Diagnosed just before being released

Natasha Segev, 71, was diagnosed with the coronavirus on the very day she was supposed to be released from Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva after recovering from a lung infection. “The absurdity is that she could have still been alive, but got infected in the hospital,” says her daughter, Esty Gilron.

At around the same time, Gilron discovered that she and her husband also had the virus, so she couldn’t visit her mother. Throughout this time, her mother was suffering from depression. “We told the medical staff that the best medicine would be to let me see her,” says Gilron.

After recovering, Gilron resumed visiting her mother in the hospital. But two days after her last visit, the two said their goodbyes over the phone. “When she died, even the nurse came to me and said, ‘What a mother you have; she always acted kindly and generously.’”

The late Haj Adnan Saidi, from Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz neighborhood.Credit: Courtesy of the family

Before immigrating to Israel in 1985, Segev and her husband were Zionist activists in the Soviet Union. She tried to help get Prisoners of Zion released from jail while her husband gave secret Hebrew lessons.

After moving to Israel, Segev worked for the Foreign Ministry and eventually spent six years as an envoy to Russia. Upon retiring, she took numerous classes – “astrology, numerology, Spanish, English,” her daughter recounts.

After her mother died on August 5, Gilron wrote a Facebook post in Russian that garnered a flood of responses from people that Segev had helped in Russia. In normal times, Gilron said, her funeral would have been crowded. With the current situation, even Segev’s daughter, who lives abroad, had to participate via Zoom.

‘He had all the signs’

Haj Adnan Saidi, from Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz neighborhood, was just 61 when he died. He had heart problems, but until the lockdown began, he was still working as a taxi driver and felt fine.

His family doesn’t know how he got infected or by whom, but they know roughly when it happened: He began feeling sick in early August.

The late David Ganzfried, a Belzer Hassidic man from Jerusalem.

“He had all the signs of the coronavirus – fever, breathing problems. And after many days at home, he was too weak, so they called an ambulance,” his son Mohand says. “He walked to the ambulance on foot.”

He was hospitalized at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital at Ein Kerem, but his situation deteriorated. First he wore an oxygen mask, but after the virus caused severe pneumonia, the doctors induced a coma. Nevertheless, his condition did not improve, and after about a week, all his bodily systems began to fail.

Saidi died last week, leaving behind his wife, four children and six grandchildren. “He was a very gentle man, good with all kinds of people,” says Mohand. “He treated them according to their own personalities.”

'He said the blessing. The next morning his heart stopped'

When the pandemic broke out, David Ganzfried, a Belzer Hasid from Jerusalem, was very cautious. He would keep his distance from people and make sure to wear a mask. At his age, 92, it was much more than a matter of guidelines. “He was so saddened by the distancing, but we never imagined he would become infected,” says his daughter Feyge.

“On the eve of Tisha B’Av [July 29], he suddenly couldn’t move, he had no strength,” she recounts.

Yigal Yaakobi, who died at 69.Credit: Courtesy of the family

Ganzfried was taken to Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Eight days later, his daughter came for a final visit.

“My dad asked to eat some bread,” she says. “He washed his hands, said a blessing and then ate. Afterward he asked for a last bit of water, washed his hands and recited the blessing for after the meal. Afterward he asked to say the Shema [prayer] and said, ‘Shema Yisrael.’ The following morning his heart stopped beating.”

The hand washing reminded Feyge of a story her father had told her from his youth. During the Holocaust, when he was 16, he was sent to Auschwitz. Dr. Mengele had selected him for the left side – in other words, the gas chamber.

“He swapped his bread for a little water to wash his hands so he could be clean before he went to sleep, he made a confession and went to sleep very calmly, returning his soul to the Almighty,” she says.

“During the night he awoke and saw his mother, who had already been killed in the gas chamber,” says Feyge. “He heard a group of young men planning to escape from their block. He ran with them and that’s how he was saved. He spent an entire year in Auschwitz and promised the Almighty: ‘If I survive this, I promise I will sit and study for my entire life.’ He kept his promise. He would awaken at two in the morning to study and at eight he went to work.”

Ganzfried is survived by 10 children and hundreds of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. “He was a man who defied description,” Feyge says. “What strength he had, with so much goodness and so much faith.”

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