I received a call from the public administrator of the city of New York, Commissioner Ethel Griffin. She occasionally calls upon me to bury a Jewish person who has no family, no will, and most often no friends.
She told me that a man named Charles Hoffman had died at Roosevelt Hospital on Oct. 18, ‘005, and had been lying in the morgue for weeks.
I went to her office to get the necessary paperwork. Reading the report left me with a very empty feeling. It read: Charles Hoffman, born in Czechoslovakia, 89 years old, retired travel agent, never married, no progeny; parents, brothers, and rest of family killed in Holocaust.
What he had was a plot at Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus.
He also had had a social worker, the commissioner told me. She suggested that we call the social worker, who might want to come to the cemetery.
The social worker, Cary Goldberg, did indeed want to attend the funeral, and asked to be notified about when it would be held.
We set the time for a graveside service, and I asked Rabbi Aryeh Gotlieb, rabbi emeritus of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus to officiate at no cost. Besides Rabbi Gotlieb, myself, and Ms. Goldberg, the social worker, an elderly man named Frank attended the service.
As the rabbi had not known Charles Hoffman, he asked if anyone would like to say something about him. Ms. Goldberg proceeded to tell that he was a quiet, handsome, dapper man who liked to sing but remained reclusive,
Frank proceeded to tell a story that touched us all deeply as it unraveled, and that I will never forget.
He said he met Charles on a boat in 1940 in Czechoslovakia. The boat was the size of a New York City tugboat. There were over 500 Jews crowded aboard, 1’5 of whom were children. The boat left Czechoslovakia on the Danube River, to escape the Nazis. The refugees went from country to country looking for shelter, and were not allowed to disembark. When they arrived in one port, a government official said it was their lucky day: He would normally escort the boat to the middle of the river with all aboard and sink the boat. They were lucky, he said, because "you either go on the Danube or you go in the Danube."
They kept going, finally getting to Turkey. They had no food or water left, and the Turks would not even give the hungry and thirsty children a drop of water. The boat kept going, but they had to use salt water in the engine, as that was all the water they had.
Finally, they arrived in Crete and were welcomed with provisions by the Jewish community there, but were told they must leave in a short time. But the engine of the boat would no longer work, as the salt water had caused corrosion.
Frank explained that Crete’s major industry was making linens, towels, sheets, and the like. Using these materials, the refugees converted the boat into a sailboat and went on their way until they arrived somewhere in Italy and found a haven there.
Amazingly, none of the 500 plus passengers died on the boat. Charles wrote a song in Czech, Frank said, that he sang all the time. Its name, in English, is "My Beautiful Boat."
We all embraced, and hugged Frank, as we left the graveside. Rabbi Gotlieb and I and Commissioner Griffin made sure that a monument would be erected on Charles Hoffman’s grave.
In my career of conducting thousands and thousands of funerals since 1967, like my father, uncle, and grandfather before me, I’ve found that every one is unique. The Charles Hoffman story is one of the many that make us proud to be Jews. Rabbi Gotlieb and I are planning to have an unveiling on Tuesday, Jan. 30. If anyone would like to attend and honor this heroic man, please call me at Wien & Son Funeral Directors, (800) 719-7910.
Barry Wien, a third-generation Jewish funeral director, sold Wien & Wien and Gutterman Musicant to Service Corporation International of Texas. He is now at Wien & Son Funeral Directors Inc., of New York and New Jersey.