Chance encounter reunites old friends

Chance encounter reunites old friends

Some people have a knack for making shidduchim," matches, Ridgewood resident Debbie Corwin told The Jewish Standard. "I seem to have a talent for finding the people my mother went to school with."

So far, Corwin, marketing director of the Classic Residence by Hyatt in Teaneck, has reunited her 8′-year-old mother with two former classmates from the Hebrew Gymnasium in Munkacz (also, Mukachevo, Mukachiv, Mukachevo, Munkatsch), a city now belonging to Ukraine but formerly controlled by Czechoslovakia and, before that, by Hungary.

"The Gymnasium was a very prestigious private school, founded by parents," said Corwin’s mother, Lili Grunfeld, who was in the school’s last graduating class. "I graduated in 1943," she said. "The class of 1944 didn’t get to graduate because we were all taken away to Auschwitz."

Julie Klein, left, and Lili Grunfeld reminisce about old friends at the Gymnasium in Munkacs. Photo by Debbie Corwin

Grunfeld, who attended the school for 1′ years, said it was a small, actively Zionist institution where everyone knew one another. After the war, the few who survived went mainly to the United States or Israel, she noted, adding that in 1993 she attended a 50th anniversary celebration in Herzliya for the survivors of her graduating class. "There were about 60 people," she said, "but that included friends and relatives from Munkacz, too."

Grunfeld came to the United States in the late 1940s and met her husband, Max, in New Jersey. Corwin was raised in Teaneck.

Last week, thanks to her daughter, Grunfeld was reunited with Julie Klein, a fellow Gymnasium student now living at the Classic Residence. Corwin, overhearing Klein speak with a fellow resident, immediately recognized her accent. Establishing that Klein was Hungarian, Corwin mentioned that her mother was from Munkacz. When Klein responded that she, too, was from Munkacz, Corwin ventured further and said her mother had attended the Gymnasium.

Klein, excited, offered that she too had spent several years at the Gymnasium, and plans for a reunion were set immediately. "It was great," said Corwin. "When I told my mother about Julie and asked if she would recognize her, she said she remembered that she was short. She is." As it happened, Klein and Grunfeld had shared many school friends in common and remembered each other fondly.

"Isn’t it something?" said Grunfeld. "I cannot really describe how I felt. We never saw each other after the Holocaust. My daughter is unbelievable."

"The reunion was great," said Corwin. "They hugged and kissed and started to play the ‘name game.’"

"We kept asking ‘Do you remember this one, do you remember that one?’ We’re going to get together again soon to continue the conversation," said Grunfeld.

This is not the first time Corwin has identified one of her mother’s former classmates. Last year, at a film festival in northern California, an almost identical incident occurred, with Corwin overhearing the conversation of a woman standing in line and recognizing the distinct accent shared by her mother and her friends.

"The conversation was almost the same as with Julie. ‘Are you Hungarian? My mother lived in Munkacz.’ And that time she turned out to be one of my mother’s oldest and closest friends."

Grunfeld, who now plans to move to Teaneck, is in touch with about a dozen old friends from Munkacz. "No one who remains is under 80," she said.

Corwin recently had another surprise for her mother. Finding a Website for Gymnasium graduates that offered student transcripts, she obtained her mother’s grades and had them bound for her birthday.

"We see reunions at Classic Residence all the time," said Corwin. "Just this morning two residents realized they are from the same town in Germany. This all happened by chance because [the woman] was carrying a book about the town and he happened to notice it. They started talking and lo and behold…. The subject would never have come up it had not been for her carrying the book. I just love the connections."

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