Unveiling for a lonely man

Unveiling for a lonely man

Max Schein tells the story of how he and Charles Hoffman escaped Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust, while from left, Barry Wien, Frank Patti, and Rabbi Aryeh Gotlieb, listen at Tuesday’s unveiling of Hoffman’s gravestone. PhotoS by Josh Lipowsky

Lola Kaufman never met Charles Hoffman, but she felt it important to make the trip from New City, N.Y., to Paramus on Tuesday for the unveiling of his gravestone.

Kaufman was a member of Hidden Children of Rockland, a Holocaust survivors group that has members from New York and New Jersey. When she heard about Hoffman, she and three other group members decided they did not want his unveiling to be as lonely as his funeral had been.

In the Jan. 12 issue of The Jewish Standard, funeral director Barry Wien wrote a Last Word column about a man whose entire family had been killed in the Holocaust. Hoffman died at the age of 89 at New York’s Roosevelt Hospital on Oct. 18, 2005, and lay in a morgue before New York’s public administrator called upon Wien, who is a resource for her agency.

Wien quickly arranged for a funeral at Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus, where Hoffman owned a plot. Held Oct. 31, 2005, the funeral drew only four people: Wien, Rabbi Aryeh Gotlieb, who conducted the service, Hoffman’s social worker, and a man named Max Schein. It was Schein – called “Frank” in Wien’s piece – who would explain to the others just who Charles Hoffman was and where he came from.

Schein and Hoffman met in 1940 aboard a small boat leaving Czechoslovakia, to escape the Nazis. Crowded with more than 500 Jews, the boat sailed down the Danube River looking for a safe port. It finally landed in Crete, where the Jewish community provided much-needed supplies but the government would not give the Jews permission to disembark. By this time, the boat’s engine had corroded from the salt water used to keep it running when fresh water supplies ran out. The refugees used linens from Crete to convert the ship into a sailboat and made their way to Italy where they were finally able to find a haven.

Charles Hoffman, who escaped Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust, died Oct. 18, 2005, drawing only four people to his funeral but eliciting a community response at his unveiling Tuesday.

Hoffman, Schein told the mourners, had written a song in Czech about the ordeal, which he called “My Beautiful Boat.”

Unlike Hoffman’s funeral, which passed without much notice, more than 25 people showed up at Cedar Park Tuesday for his grave’s unveiling. Some were old acquaintances who had lost touch with him. Others, like the Hidden Children of Rockland, just felt drawn there.

“When we read it, we felt we’re all from the same boat – no pun intended,” said Kaufman. “It’s a mitzvah to pay our respects to him. We all know what it’s like to be alone.”

Gideon and Ruth Dohan of Teaneck were surprised to read Hoffman’s story. Gideon’s aunt, uncle, and cousin had been on the same boat with Hoffman and Schein. When his wife told him of Wien’s piece, he knew he had to be there on Tuesday.

“I was stunned to hear how small the world is,” Gideon Dohan said. His uncle, aunt, and cousin are dead, but he thought attending Hoffman’s unveiling would help memorialize them.

“I did it for the honor of this person and the memory of my uncle,” he said.

Ellen Baumkirchner of Mahwah knew Hoffman from a travel business where the two had worked 35 years ago. He was in his late 40s and she was in her early 20s. He introduced her to Czech restaurants in New York and they enjoyed seeing foreign films together. Their friendship never became romantic, but Baumkirchner remembered one time she brought Hoffman home with her for Rosh HaShanah and her parents thought she had become involved with an older man. After that travel business closed, Baumkirchner lost touch with Hoffman.

“I’m curious how he spent his later years,” she said. According to Wien and the New York City agency’s report, Hoffman was not married and had no children. Baumkirchner said she remembered that when she walked through Central Park with him, he would point out all the women and say they didn’t want him because he was a poor man.

“A man like that is not only a survivor but a lost soul,” Gotlieb said at Hoffman’s grave. “The fact you had faith in life is a miracle,” he said, addressing the crowd’s Holocaust survivors who began new families. “I don’t think this man came out unscathed. The sadness overwhelmed him.”

The world was silent during the Holocaust, Gotlieb said, just as it was silent when Hoffman died. “All you need is one response.”

“They’re not here for Charles Hoffman, but all the people Charles Hoffman represents,” Gotlieb said of those who came because of Wien’s article. “The many who read it and did nothing, they’re the ones who bother me. You’re the ones who are bothered by it.”

Charles Hoffman is a symbol of what it means to be human: to see an injustice and do something about it, Gotlieb said. “He was a lonely man, a survivor. Nobody knew of his death. I hope you will go out to your friends and say, ‘You should have been there too.'”

At the end of the ceremony, fliers were handed out so that everybody would know when to mark Hoffman’s yahrzeit.

Wien said he had received about 100 calls from people who wanted to attend but could not.

“The outpouring from the community for an unknown man was not to believe,” he said. “It was phenomenal.”

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