Remembering Holocaust Survivors and Jewish Community Leaders Claimed by the Coronavirus

European victims of the COVID-19 pandemic include prominent Jews from Britain, Italy and France

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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A woman wearing a face mask walks through the Jewish district in central Rome, Italy, March 24, 2020.
A woman wearing a face mask walks through the Jewish district in central Rome, Italy, March 24, 2020.Credit: AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

An immigrant to pre-state Israel who arrived on the “Exodus”; a woman who had made her way to the country with a group of more than 800 Polish Jewish refugee children via Iran; and a Jew who had found refuge during World War II in Budapest under the aegis of the Swedish crown: Among the tens of thousands that the coronavirus has killed, it has exacted its toll among Jews in Israel and abroad.

Some survived the Holocaust, living into their 90s. Jewish victims also include prominent figures in a number of European Jewish communities. 

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Aryeh Even

The first Israeli victim of the virus, Aryeh Even of Jerusalem, was 88 at the time of his death on Friday of last week. He was born in Budapest in 1932 as Georg Steiner, the eldest son of Franz and Magda.

During World War II, the members of the affluent family were separated. The father was deported to a Hungarian labor camp and later to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Aryeh, his mother and younger brother found refuge in a house under the auspices of the Swiss legation and later received the protection of the Swedish embassy.

In testimony that he gave to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Authority, Even said his mother’s resourcefulness had saved his life. She smuggled him and his brother from place to place until they found refuge in a cellar, before being liberated by the Russians. To his dying day, he had sympathy for Russia for that reason. 

His maternal grandfather, Marton Neiman, was shot to death, his body thrown into the Danube.

Aryeh Even came to Israel in 1949 aboard the ship the “Atzmaut” as part of the Habonim Zionist youth movement. He lived in Ein Zeitim in the Upper Galilee and later at Kibbutz Ma’agan. “He paved roads, although as an opera lover, he was the antithesis of that kind of work,” his daughter remarked. 

Even enlisted in the Israeli army in 1952 and served as an airplane mechanic. He participated in the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the 1967 Six-Day War. After meeting his future wife, Yona, a scion of the famous Rivlin family, he wandered the globe with her, by virtue of her career in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He is survived by four children, 18 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Moshe Orenstein

Another Israeli victim of the coronavirus was Moshe Orenstein, also a resident of Jerusalem, who died at age 87. He was born in Romania in 1933 and initially arrived in British-ruled Palestine in 1947 aboard the “Exodus,” the flagship of the effort to break the British blockade against Jewish immigration at the time. 

Thanks to the Leon Uris book “Exodus” and the film adaptation starring Paul Newman, the ship became a symbol of that period. Orenstein was one of the 4,500 Jews, including many Holocaust survivors, who sailed from France to Palestine on the vessel before being deported by the British to displaced persons’ camps in Germany, only to reach Israel later. 

He is survived by two daughters, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. 

Roza Krochmalnek

A victim of the coronavirus in Berlin, Roza Krochmalnek died in the German capital at the age of 92. She was born in 1928 as Roza Lerman in Tomaszow Lubelski, Poland. During World War II, she fled the Nazis with her parents, Shlomo and Malka, along with three sisters and a brother.

They headed east, first to Lvov, from where they were deported to Siberia in 1940. They later reached Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, where her mother died of typhus and where her brother was murdered. She moved from place to place for three years, covering thousands of kilometers before arriving in Palestine in 1943 with the Tehran Children – a group of Polish-Jewish youngsters who came to pre-state Israel via the Iranian capital.

In the course of her long journey, as a trained nurse despite her young age, she helped look after children in the group, which made its way to Palestine under the auspices of Polish Gen. Wadyslaw Anders. Krochmalnek initially went to Kibbutz Givat Brenner, but returned to Europe in 1951, this time to Munich, where she met her future husband.

Michele Sciama

In Italy, which has suffered more deaths due to the coronavirus than even China, one of its victims was the 79-year-old former secretary general of the Milan Jewish community, Michele Sciama. Born in Cairo in 1941, he studied engineering in London and then in Milan, where he headed the Jewish community between 1993 and 2007. He is survived by a wife and two daughters.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral in Jerusalem's Mount of Olives cemetery, March 25, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral in Jerusalem's Mount of Olives cemetery, March 25, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Rabbi Ze’ev Willy Stern

In London, the coronavirus has taken the life of Rabbi Ze’ev Willy Stern, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor. Stern was born in Budapest in 1935 and was deported to Bergen-Belsen in 1944. His family survived the Holocaust and emigrated to New York in 1952, where he studied at Yeshiva University and later at Harvard. 

In 1960, after he married, he moved to London, where he set up a Jewish student center. In 2010, as a result of business interests that he had in Lithuania, he set up a Jewish center in Kaunas that has helped Israeli students there maintain their Jewish identities during their studies abroad.

Rabbi Yehuda Yaakov Refson

A British victim of the coronavirus in the city of Leeds was Rabbi Yehuda Yaakov Refson, who died at the age of 73. Refson, who was born in Sunderland in northern England, was the Chabad representative in Leeds and a rabbinical judge there. 

Fraida Feldman

In London, Fraida Feldman, 97, was another victim of COVID-19.

Andre Touboul

The coronavirus took the life of Andre Touboul, 64, in Paris. He was the principal of a Chabad-affiliated high school for girls, Beit Chana. Touboul was born in Marseille and studied math before becoming an influential educator. He is survived by his wife and nine children.

The Zaka organization also reported that it buried an 88-year-old Jewish victim of the coronavirus in Barcelona, Spain.

Avraham 'Romi' Cohn

A 91-year-old New York Rabbi Avraham “Romi” Cohn saved the lives of 56 families as a young partisan during the Holocaust, according to his testimony.

Earlier this year he delivered the opening prayer at the U.S. House ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation. Born in 1929 in Bratislava (nowadays the capital of Slovakia), Cohn join the underground in 1944. As a young partisan, he was instrumental in saving the lives of 56 families during the Holocaust. 

Cohn’s mother, two sisters, and two brothers perished in a concentration camp. When he left Europe in 1950, he traveled through Canada to Brooklyn, where he became a businessman and developer in Staten Island’s construction industry and a mohel.

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