91-year-old Holocaust survivor, Bill Kaye, celebrates his bar mitzvah with his grandson, Elijah.
Photography by Jerry Zolynsky
Any Jewish boy who’s had a bar mitzvah knows the long road of preparation and the work involved in reaching this time-honored milestone. Ask male family members and friends, and many may reluctantly admit the process was a struggle — mastering the Hebrew, learning the Torah portion, getting the chanting just right and spending hours in study instead of hours at play.
But what if a young man was faced with a different struggle? Not one of mere perceived difficulty, but one of actual life and death? Such was the fate of each Jewish youth during the Second World War among those millions poised on the edge of manhood, most who tragically never reached that plateau. And for the survivors, their bar mitzvahs, normally a time of joy and achievement, went unacknowledged, lost to the reality of simple survival.
Yet, it’s a testament to the resiliency of life when, at 91, William “Bill” Kaye, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, joined his eldest grandson Elijah to finally celebrate his long-deferred bar mitzvah, something Bill promised himself when his grandson was born.
“I said to myself, if I’m around for Elijah’s bar mitzvah, I’ll join him,” said Bill, who lives with wife, Ellie, in the spacious Clinton Township home he designed.
Born Wolf Kornblum in Lodz, Poland, in April 1928, Bill was 11 years old when the war broke out. While others were heading east, his family — father Nathan, mother Tsivia (Sylvia) and older brother Mordechai — decided to stay in Poland. Eventually, they, along with extended family members, were moved into the Lodz Ghetto.
“In the ghetto, we heard about the death camps like Treblinka and the gas chambers,” Bill said in accented English. “But we wanted to ignore the terrible things we heard.”
Many of those incarcerated were forced to work in factories producing armaments for the Germans. Life was nothing short of overwhelming misery as people endured years surrounded by disease, hunger and inhumane treatment under Nazi rule. Although Bill was raised in an Orthodox home, attending cheder as a youngster, his 13th year came and went, the idea of proclaiming his status as an adult in the Jewish community now only an impossible dream.
Surviving the Death Camps
The family remained in the ghetto until 1944, when liquidation forced them to Auschwitz. Bill recalled being a 16-year-old traveling in a grossly overcrowded freight car — still with his family — and nearly suffocating from lack of air.
Upon arrival at the death camp, Bill’s mother was separated from her husband and children and sent to Bergen-Belsen, where she was presumed lost. Bill explained he thought he, too, would perish at Auschwitz. “It was almost a natural conclusion, to think you’d be killed, that you had no choice but to die.”
Then, in January of 1945, Bill, his father and brother were transported to Buchenwald. “My father got sick there and was taken to a hospital, where he was killed,” he recalled, his bright blue eyes dimming with emotion.
While in the camp, Bill was saved by an uncle who was already there by being chosen to work in a labor camp.
“He told me to say I was an electrician so I would be selected for work,” he explained.
The ability to work was how Bill managed to survive, but life in the camp was still unimaginably harsh. He and all the prisoners worked endless hours yet had to subsist on starvation rations. They endured indiscriminate beatings from the Nazi guards. The dead and dying were everywhere.
One of Bill’s most vivid and heart-wrenching memories from his imprisonment arose when he remembered the bone-chilling cold everyone suffered.
“From the crematoria at Buchenwald, flames were shooting into the air day and night from the chimney,” he recalled. “When we were ordered outside, I was so cold, I was always shivering. I put my hands in my pockets for warmth. Sometimes when there was a downdraft, the smoke came down, and I noticed it was warmer where the smoke was. So, I went over to that place, but then thought, ‘I’m warming myself on the flames of my own people.’”
Despite living through horrors like that, fate intervened for Bill once again in April 1945, when he was 17. “There was an announcement on April 5 saying all Jews should gather in the appelplatz (square). A man in the camp told me to go to the kinderblock (children’s barrack), which saved my life. The barrack leader was a Czech gentile, and when we heard the announcement, he said, ‘Children, if someone comes to kill us, they’ll have to come in with guns. We’re not going anyplace.’”
After hiding for several days, Bill was liberated on April 11, 1945. Sadly, his brother perished the week before American soldiers freed the camp.
Notably, a fellow prisoner who reached freedom with Bill was Elie Wiesel, who had been on the same transport in January. Years later, a proud moment for Bill and his wife occurred when Wiesel was scheduled to speak at Rochester College. Bill’s wife Ellie tried to get tickets, and when she couldn’t, she spoke to the college president and said her husband had been liberated with Wiesel. The president invited the Kayes to a reception where they met Wiesel, and the two men were both honored at the event.
After surviving the horrors of WWII, Bill was elated to learn his mother was alive. She had remarried in the camp, becoming Sylvia Goldstein, and even though she had lied about her age to avoid extermination, Bill saw her name on one of the survivor lists published after the camps were liberated, and they found each other. A relative in New York sponsored Sylvia and her new husband so they could leave Europe for America. After being widowed, Bill’s mother remained in New York, and while vacationing in the Catskills in 1984, she became ill. After she suffered a stroke, Bill moved her to Michigan to recover, but she passed away that year at the age of 87.
Bill had come to the U.S. through the assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and lived with his mother and stepfather in New York. He got a job with Albee Homes in Pennsylvania, selling pre-cut homes (a type of housing kit consisting of pre-cut materials for a home, popular in the first half of the 20th century). He found he had more interest in the actual building than in selling, so he transitioned to becoming a builder.
The company sent him to Michigan in the early 1960s, and he settled in Mount Clemens. It was in 1969 when, attending a dance at the Holiday Inn, he met his wife Ellie, a history teacher in the Warren schools. Their getting married was beshert, according to Ellie: “When I met Bill, he showed me the tattoo on his arm. His number — A19223 — was my home address. I knew we were meant to be together.” The two were engaged six weeks later and were married in 1970.
A Promise Kept
From 1970 to 1975, the Kayes lived in Warren, close to where Ellie worked. They then moved with their young son Michael to Clinton Township in 1975, where Bill built the house where he and Ellie — joined that year by their second son, David — still live today.
The Kayes are true east-siders, proud to be longtime members of the area’s small, tight-knit community of Jewish families who worship together at Congregation Beth Tephilath Moses in Mount Clemens, a short ride from their home, a home which the two still love to take care of.
“Even at 91, you can still find Bill on his tractor-mower,” Ellie said with a smile. “He loves getting out and cutting the lawn. And I do the gardening and planting!”
Taking a break from their active lifestyle by having Shabbat lunch with Michael, his wife, Irit, and their children Elijah, Jonathan, Joseph and Jessica at their Southfield home is a weekly tradition for Bill and Ellie. Elijah said he enjoys spending time with and talking to his grandfather and said it’s an honor to partner with his grandfather for his bar mitzvah.
Elijah, whose Hebrew name is Eliyahu Mordechai, first celebrated with his parents in Israel and, after returning home, was called to the Torah at Young Israel of Southfield on Aug. 24 along with Bill.
“I was so happy to have my tatteleh (the affectionate name he calls Bill) celebrate with me!” said Elijah, who attends school at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. “I feel very respectful of my grandfather. He wasn’t able to have a bar mitzvah because of the war, and I was privileged to be able to celebrate with him.”
Elijah’s father, Michael, said, “I’m also proud to be able to bring this nachas to my father. It’s wonderful to be able to provide for my father this way, and to have a son who’s following in the traditions of Judaism and Torah.”
Added mom, Irit, “Our family had been preparing for this since Eliyahu was born because, of course, we knew about my father-in-law’s promise. Bill could finally have his bar mitzvah, something he couldn’t even think about during the Holocaust, and we’re all so happy for them both.”
David, Elijah’s uncle, who lives in Dallas, echoed the entire family’s sentiments as well.
“My father should have had a bar mitzvah ceremony in 1941, but due to the Nazi invasion of Poland, that never happened,” he said. “I’m so excited my father can finally celebrate after all these years.”
Michael added, “This was not only a gift to my father and my son. It was a gift to the whole family to be able to celebrate together.”
Mazel tov to them both!