On Saturday, Aug. 18, I traveled by train out of Windsor to Toronto for the funeral of my 99-year-old cousin Harry Chil Zborowski.
I settled into my seat for the 5:45 evening departure, relieved that I was going to arrive Sunday on time to pay my final respects to the most amazing man I had ever met. Then it hit me.
The instant I heard the methodical clickety-clack of wheels on rails, I had a haunting vision. In that moment, it came rushing back to me that it was a fateful decision made on a train by Harry over seven decades prior that changed the course of his life.
Having just been liberated from the camps, Harry and his fiancée, Bela, were making their way to safety in Czechoslovakia when, despite possessing proper identification, they were arrested by Russian soldiers and forced to board a train for deportation to Siberia.
Having lost so much to the atrocities of the Holocaust, Harry and Bela were willing to risk their lives to avoid what would certainly be another nightmare in Russia.
In her eulogy, my cousin Sylvia described how her parents jumped from that train. “First my mom into the darkness; then an hour later when the guards changed again, my dad jumped. Then they walked alone, along the isolated railway tracks calling each other’s names. It took them a full day to find each other.”
Eventually, Harry and Bela resurrected their lives in Canada, which came to include children Sylvia and Henry, six grandchildren, their spouses and 12 great-grandchildren. Each new addition to the family helped lift the veil of darkness that had accompanied them to their new homeland. Sadly, in 1994, at age 72, Bela succumbed to health issues associated with her debilitating rheumatoid arthritis.
I saw Harry at simchahs, and phone calls during the High Holidays and birthdays warmed my heart when I heard that sweet and gentle Eastern European accent. I’ve never met another human being who gave me so much joy just by the sound of his or her voice. Harry had that profound impact on everyone; whether you knew him for a lifetime or over a brief introduction. Harry survived and thrived. He was an inspiration.
And he spoiled us. He made us believe he would live forever. He actually drove his car to his 99th birthday party a few weeks ago. After the celebration, he suffered congestive heart failure. Weakened, he knew he was at the end of his improbable life and he closed his eyes on Aug. 17, passing peacefully on his terms that he so richly deserved.
While I planned to write about Harry on the train ride home, what I could never have predicted was that the passenger next to me, Maya, a young Muslim woman of Afghan decent, would offer a surreal arc to my narrative. After explaining what had brought me to Toronto, she shared her own family’s story of survival, also of escaping the heavy hand of the Russians.
In the early 1980s, many of Maya’s family members, aided by smugglers, traveled a perilous route by horseback and foot from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Mashaad, Iran, to escape the violence and persecution of the Russian invasion. Despite providing a safe haven, Iran treated her family as second-class citizens. Like Harry and Bela, Canada would eventually provide them with a new beginning.
Maya is studying to become a social worker in London, Ontario; her life’s journey influencing her desire to “help people in despair who face barriers because of social and political injustice.” But it wasn’t until a course she took at the University of Western Ontario that her career path became solidified. It had a life-altering effect on her, one she said that “remains engrained in her head; it doesn’t leave.” In an extraordinary revelation, Maya informed me that the course she had taken was about the Holocaust and the camps at Auschwitz. It seems my train ride and this story had both come full circle.
Happy, healthy new year.
Alan Muskovitz is a writer, voice-over/acting talent, speaker, emcee and an occasional guest host on the Mitch Albom Show on WJR AM 760. Visit his website at laughwithbigal.com.