Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

In memory of a special survivor

 


Favel (Philip) Blonder was a close friend of my Saba (Abe Engelstein, a”h). They both grew up in the town later called Auschwitz and spent their teenage years struggling for survival every day in the camps. Favel had remarkable physical strength; he walked miles around my town when he visited, could beat us all at hand-wrestling, and seemed unbreakable. Just like my Saba though, he had one of the most giving hearts and the tightest hugs that made you melt. Favel was set to turn 90 this spring. Truly one of the youngest and most spirited 90-year-olds I’ve ever met!

My Favel was just doing what he loved last Shabbat (Feb. 7) as he walked around his Florida community. Tragically, he was struck by a car (the driver claims the sun was in her eyes) and he immediately went into a coma. He was airlifted to a trauma center and had emergency brain surgery. Post-operatively, the doctors predicted he’d survive a few days at most. As tough as he was, his 90-year-old body could not handle the trauma.

My family has been in tears, not just because he has no other family left to care/cry for him but because he is part of our family. Favel could never replace my Saba, but we just added an honorary branch in our family tree for him instead. And he’s been there for about 10 years now, entwining his heart deeper and deeper with ours.

My mourning process has been strange. I haven’t fully accepted what’s going on yet and so I keep randomly reverting back to reality and breaking down in tears. But at the same time I’m trying to remind myself that this is all part of G-d’s grand plan (I can’t hate the driver; she was simply the messenger). I’ve thought it over countless times and decided that He’s doing this because it’s a less painful way to bring this amazing Holocaust survivor back to heaven. For Himself, us and Favel—it’s easier to watch him depart as the man of steel we knew, rather than watching old age and sickness catch up with him and weather him into nothingness. At the very least he shouldn’t have pain. At the very least he should get to depart with his dignity. And, most importantly, our lasting memory and his legacy should remain as he would have wanted it.

Whether there’s any real truth to that or whether it just helps me cope—I don’t really care. I’m just so happy and thankful that I got to know this incredible man. And that my last memory in speaking with him will remain him softly ending our phone conversation with, “I love you—I hope it’s okay if I say that...”

I am writing this partly to vent, partly to document for myself to keep his memory alive, and partly because I think every Jew should know the story of every amazing Holocaust survivor. These precious people are each an integral part of our present and our history. One of my only regrets is that I didn’t get to learn all of my Saba’s or my Favel’s stories. They survived so much and had so much to tell but I never got to learn it ... and now I never will. Both my Saba and my Favel will always be remembered as “young old men” with unbreakable spirits and big smiles—which is part of the reason why I never learned their stories. The truth is that I wanted to know but I didn’t want to ask. How could I heartlessly ask an old man to recount the horrors that destroyed his hometown and killed his parents? Then again, maybe I just didn’t want to know.

For those of you who have lost all of your grandparents, I’m truly sorry and I feel for you. But for those of you who are still blessed to have 1, 2, 3, 4(!) of your grandparents (or even great-grandparents) with you, I want to remind you to cherish them. Speak to them. Spend time with them. Ask about their stories. Learn from their wisdom. Don’t wait until it’s too late. If not for yourself, do it for your children and B”H your grandchildren. I don’t know about you but I will definitely be sharing my Saba’s and Favel’s stories with my kids, when the time comes. I want them to know how the spirit, love and perseverance triumphed over baseless hatred. I want them to know as much as I know. But I will forever regret that I won’t have more to share with them. That I won’t have more stories to keep the legacies of these amazing survivors alive.

Unfortunately, I won’t get to see Favel smiling again, but I know that he’s standing with my Saba and smiling down on me—and I’m just glad that I got a chance to share a tiny piece of him with all of you. As my Uncle Elly said, “I can only hope that although Saba was watching us from above the last 10 years, Favel is now sitting next to him telling him about the last 10 years first-hand.” He really was such a special person and I’m sorry that you’re only getting to hear about him in light of this unfortunate event. And, despite the tears, I can’t help but smile hoping that my Saba and my Favel are reading along as I write this and are both blushing as they humbly never could have known how much they meant to me, my family or everyone who had the honor of knowing them. On that note, when you each reach 120 - you’re all invited to visit our family reunion and request hugs from these two adorable, little men.

You all would have loved him - and I hope it’s okay if I say that.

Please, if you have a few moments, say a perek of tehillim or commit to one good deed li’elu nishmat my friend, Shraga Faivel ben Betzalel.

Allysa Jeret-Weinberg, grew up in Lawrence, N.Y., and currently resides in Queens.

 

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