By Allysa Jeret-Weinberg
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. Just like my Saba, Favel had remarkable physical strength; he walked miles around my town when he visited, could beat us all at arm-wrestling, and seemed unbreakable. He had one of the most giving hearts and the tightest hugs that made you melt. Favel was 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 on Shabbat, February 7, as he walked around his Florida community. Tragically, he was struck by a car, sending him 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 mourn him, but because he is part of our family. Favel could never replace my Saba, but we added an honorary branch in our family tree for him. 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 happened and so I keep breaking down in tears when I revert back to reality. 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. 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 as he withers away. At least he shouldn’t have prolonged pain. At 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 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 of speaking with him is of 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 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 hear it all . . . 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. 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 any or all 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 your grandchildren. I will definitely share 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. As my Uncle Elly said, “I can only hope that although Saba was watching us from above the last ten years, Favel is now sitting next to him telling him about the last ten years firsthand.”
He was such a special person and I’m glad that I got a chance to share a teeny tiny piece of him with all of you, though I’m sorry that you’re only getting to hear about him in light of this unfortunate event. 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 humbly blushing, as they never could have known how much they meant to me, my family, and everyone who had the honor of knowing them. You all would have loved him—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 l’ilui nishmat my friend Shraga Faivel ben Betzalel. v