Remembering with an ambulance

Remembering with an ambulance

Park Ridge woman donates another emergency vehicle to Israel, this one in memory of Holocaust survivor

Donna Calcaterra, left, and Myrna Haas. (Howard Wechsler)
Donna Calcaterra, left, and Myrna Haas. (Howard Wechsler)

They lived on the same street — but Ernie Haas and Donna Fried Calcaterra never crossed paths until a couple of years before Mr. Haas died at 91 in August 2016.

Still, that was long enough for Ms. Calcaterra to learn that they had something else in common. That was their desire to assist the people of Israel.

Last Sunday, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, Ms. Calcaterra dedicated a Magen David Adom ambulance in Mr. Haas’ memory at a ceremony at the Park Ridge Marriott.

It was the 15th ambulance she has donated to MDA through her 613 Foundation — or at least MDA thinks is the 15th. She’s lost count. MDA is Israel’s national emergency medical response organization and official Red Cross agency since 2009.

“Every ambulance has a story,” Ms. Calcaterra said. “This one feels particularly special because it’s honoring Ernie’s last wishes. And his story had to be told.”

She met Mr. Haas through her cousin, Jacob Solomon (Jack) Berger of Mahwah, who translates yizkor books — Holocaust memorial books — into English from Yiddish and Hebrew.

“Ernie happened to attend a talk Jack was giving, and he told Jack how he survived the Riga ghetto and six camps,” Ms. Calcaterra recalled.

Mr. Haas also mentioned that he was one of four people left in a local group of Riga survivors who wanted to donate funds they’d collected over the years to an Israeli cause, possibly to Magen David Adom. Mr. Berger suggested that Mr. Haas call his cousin, who oddly enough happened to live on the same block in Park Ridge.

The newfound neighbors talked for two hours, exploring the amazing coincidence of their geographic and ideological proximity.

“When we found out Donna was our neighbor, we joined her for lunch, and she brought us a miniature ambulance charity box from American Friends of Magen David Adom and gave us literature and told us what her foundation was doing, and we thought it was a wonderful idea,” said Myrna Haas, Ernie’s widow.

Ms. Calcaterra runs the 613 Foundation with her daughter, Jenna, in tribute to her late husband, Salvatore Calcaterra, whose Wall Street brokerage number was 613 — the number of commandments in the Torah. In addition to donating ambulances, Medicycles, mobile intensive care units and bloodmobiles, the fund also helps Israeli soldiers in various other ways.

Ms. Calcaterra, originally a commodities broker, learned how to trade stock options, so she could contribute to the coffers of the 613 Foundation, when she was 60.

“Everything the foundation does helps Israel, particularly the soldiers,” said Ms. Calcaterra, who also has facilitated the donation of ambulances from churches in her voluntary capacity as head of the AFMDA’s interfaith outreach program. The foundation now is raising money toward construction of an underground, sheltered MDA blood center in Ramleh.

Over the course of a few meetings, Ms. Calcaterra learned that Mr. Haas shared her passion for Israel, though in many ways his feelings were the product of his tragic personal story.

In the face of growing anti-Jewish violence in 1938, he, his parents, and his two siblings escaped to Furth from Neumarkt, a Bavarian town in Germany. In November 1941 the family was deported from Furth to a labor camp, Jungfernhof, and then to the Riga ghetto. Thus began nearly four hellish years of slave labor, beatings, cold, and starvation.

His younger brother had been sent out of Germany to the United States on a Kindertransport. In 1943, Mr. Haas’ mother and his older sister, Ilse, were interned in Strasdenhof, a labor camp near Riga. He saw his sister only once after that, in April 1944, through a barbed-wire fence as he passed by on a transport. He received word that August that his mother had been murdered, but he didn’t know what happened to Ilse.

“He told me that what kept him going was the thought that if his sister survived there would be nobody left for her, so he had to stay alive,” Ms. Calcaterra said. “In fact, his sister had been killed, but he didn’t find out till after the war.”

At his liberation on March 11, 1945, Mr. Haas was 20 years old, and he weighed 80 pounds. In July 1946 he sailed to America with $10 from a charitable organization in his pocket. He married Myrna in 1959, and they had three sons. In his forties, Mr. Haas started a highly successful commercial real-estate company.

“My husband was a phenomenal person, coming here penniless, the only survivor of his town, becoming not only a successful businessman but a successful mensch and a parent par excellence,” Ms. Haas said.

She added that she and her husband felt fortunate to meet Ms. Calcaterra and learn about the possibility of donating an ambulance.

“We were very impressed with her philanthropic generosity and her kindness, especially since Israel meant so much to my husband,” Ms. Haas said. “It was a refuge that wasn’t available to him and his family in the 1930s. We’ve always supported Israel but this was something very concrete to help the people of Israel.”

Mr. Haas was battling health problems then, though, and the ambulance purchase was put on hold. When Ms. Calcaterra learned of Mr. Haas’ death from stomach cancer in August 2016, she was recovering from a broken hip.

“Myrna called to tell me he had passed away and I felt horrible,” Ms. Calcaterra, who also has donated two bloodmobiles and a Medicycle, said. “But I knew there was some reason for our meeting one another. I called AFMDA and asked the regional director to pay a shiva call on my behalf and let Myrna know I was donating an ambulance in Ernie’s memory.”

Gary Perl, AFMDA’s director of major projects, said the new ambulance shown off to family and friends of the Haas family last Sunday will be shipped to Israel by freighter. “In approximately two months from now it will arrive at the port of Ashdod and will be incorporated into the Magen David Adom fleet,” he said.

That fleet, which carried approximately 637,000 patients to Israeli hospitals last year, includes 700 white life-support ambulances (which cost $100,000) and 374 yellow mobile intensive care units ($125,000), as well as more than 300 three-wheeled Medicycles ($36,000). Some 100 new ambulances are needed every year as older ones get decommissioned.

“MDA does not receive Israeli government funding, so it relies heavily on the generosity of donors like Donna Calcaterra,” Erik Levis, the director of communications for AFMDA, said.

Ms. Haas said she was extremely touched by the donation.

“As Donna always says, the spirit of the person whose name is on the ambulance lives on,” Ms. Haas said. “When it makes a run to pick up a victim or a sick person or a mother in labor, Ernie’s spirit will be there comforting them, and that’s a comfort in a small way to me.”

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