Shlomo David (Sol) Adler was 13 and his sister Sophie was 17 when they found themselves on their own in the Polish city of Radom in 1939.
Sophie had promised her well-to-do parents, who later were murdered along with another daughter, that she would take good care of Sol. Their older brother already had fled to Russia.
For the next six years, until the end of World War II, the siblings and a 26-year-old neighbor, Eliezer Helcman, kept each other one step ahead of certain death. After the war, Sophie and Eliezer wed.
Though the promise wasn’t necessarily in force after the Nazi nightmare was over, Sophie never stopped watching out for Sol during the many years they lived in America — he in Manhattan and she in Fair Lawn — and even after she moved to Israel, at 89, to be near her daughter, Felicia Mizrachi.
“Sol would call her after 9 p.m. on his rotary phone, because that’s when the rates went down,” Sophie’s son, Andre Helcman of Fair Lawn, said. Sometimes Andre would conference-call his mother and uncle and put his phone on speaker so the siblings could talk to each other across 7,000 miles without worrying about rates.
On the week of April 10, 94-year-old Sophie valiantly fended off the Angel of Death in Jerusalem, finally succumbing on April 17, two days after Sol died of lung cancer in New York. Nobody told Sophie her brother was dying. No one had to.
“She knew a thousand percent,” Andre said.
“All week, my sister kept texting me that mom’s not doing well. At 7 that Friday morning, I got a call that Sol had died.”
Four years earlier, at Sol’s request, Andre and Felicia had arranged to buy him a burial plot next to Eliezer’s grave at Har Hamenuchot Cemetery in Jerusalem. The Sunday after Sol died, Andre accompanied the coffin to Israel, hoping at the same time to see his mother one last time.
“I was traveling with my uncle’s body and praying for my mother to hold on,” he recalled. But it was not to be. His mother died just before he boarded the afternoon flight, though he did not know it until he landed and saw the looks on the faces of his sister and nephew at the airport.
“Basically she was waiting for her kid brother to show up, so they could be buried together on Monday,” Andre said, explaining that in Israel the newly deceased are interred as quickly as possible.
“If she would have passed on Friday, she would have been buried before Shabbos, and if on Saturday she would have been buried Sunday. She held out till Sunday at 10 p.m., waiting for her brother. Thank God she was able to do that for him.”
Felicia told a reporter from the Jerusalem Post: “Her mission was to take her brother up to heaven and watch over him.”
According to Andre, that mission began when the Nazi occupiers seized the Adler house in Radom in 1939.
“My mother and my uncle came from a Gerer chasidic family. When the war broke out, my mother’s father told them that if, God forbid, they were ever split up, they should know that in the basement under a certain brick there was a fake wall. Inside was gold or money,” Andre said.
“Unfortunately, that time came to pass. The Nazis took over the house, and somehow they got back and were able to open the fake wall and take what was left. But now what to do? They needed help because they were only teenagers and the streets were crawling with SS and Gestapo men. My uncle said, ‘There’s an older man down the block, and I think he can be trusted because I see him go to shul every morning.’
“This was my father,” said Andre. “He was going to shul every morning because his mother had died in 1938 and he was saying kaddish that year.”
Andre does not know all the details about how the threesome managed to survive against seemingly impossible odds.
“When we were growing up, they didn’t relate very much,” he said. “But other survivors living in Paterson, Fair Lawn, and Glen Rock used to come for Sunday dinner at our house sometimes, and I’d sit at the table and hear everyone’s stories.”
He and Felicia learned that Sophie, who did not look typically Jewish and spoke fluent German, obtained false papers through an SS officer who was in love with a gentile friend of hers. The papers allowed Sophie to leave the Radom ghetto to buy necessities for Sol and Eliezer and to pay for hiding them.
“It’s amazing that this very chasidish girl morphed into this other person,” Andre said. “My mother, despite being small in stature, was not bashful. She stood up for what she believed in and had great faith. That’s what got her through the Shoah.”
Over the course of their six years on the run in Radom, Danzig, and the countryside in between the two cities, the three often got separated but worked out a system of secret signals and whistles to find one another. They took shelter wherever they could, including in ditches, toilets, and barns. One bitter winter, Eliezer slept in a cemetery and suffered frostbite. He never again regained feeling in the calf of one leg.
Sophie spent some time in a labor camp. “Once every week or two, the Red Cross sent nurses to check on prisoners in the camp, and this one Polish nurse walked over to my mother and said, ‘You should not be here. Go and save yourself.’
“They went into a shed and switched clothing, and my mother walked out wearing a nurse’s outfit.”
The siblings each recall that when they were children, their mother regularly sent money, gifts, and clothing to a woman in Poland. Felicia believes it was the friend who helped Sophie get false papers. Andre thinks it was the nurse. Either way, both these righteous gentile women deserved gratitude.
Nevertheless, Sophie once told her son that most of the Polish people she knew “were as bad or worse than the Nazis; they would turn in a Jew for a kilo of sugar.”
Eliezer and Sophie married in a displaced persons camp after the war. “They were denied entry to the U.S. — having a sponsor didn’t help — so they went to France,” Andre said. He was born in Paris in 1949.
“Any townspeople from Radom who survived lived with my parents in Paris, six or eight people at a time, and my father was the only breadwinner in the household,” he continued. “One of his sisters survived, and my parents were able to make a wedding for her in France when I was about a year old.”
Andre recalls his father as a quiet doer, raised in a well-heeled Jewish family. As a teenager in Radom, he told his son, he had physically defended fellow yeshiva boys from beatings at the hands of ruffians.
When his father died in 1982 at just 68 years old, a woman the Helcman family did not know asked to speak at the funeral, which was held in Louis Suburban Chapel in Fair Lawn. She told the mourners that when she was 13, in a DP camp with her younger brother, Eliezer came over to see why the little boy was crying. “He’s upset that we have no place to go and no money and we don’t know anybody and we’re going to die here,” the girl told Eliezer.
“My father asked about family, and she said there were relatives in Queens. To get out of a DP camp you needed money, so my father took out a gold coin, gave it to the girl, and said, ‘This will get you and your brother to America.’ She said, ‘But what are you going to do?’ And my father said, ‘Listen, I’ll be able to take care of myself, but you need to get to Queens.’ To this day I don’t know how she found out about my father’s funeral.”
The Helcmans and Sol Adler also made it to America eventually, and Felicia was born in Brooklyn. The Helcmans moved to Paterson around 1963 and then to Fair Lawn in 1972.
This was just three years after Yeshiva University sent a young rabbi named Benjamin Yudin and his wife, Shevi, to Fair Lawn to develop an Orthodox synagogue there.
“My mother took to them right away,” Andre said. With full confidence in their abilities, she prodded the few dozen founding families to open their pocketbooks to buy a property on which to build a proper shul building.
Shevi Yudin gets choked up when she talks about Sophie. “We were a very small congregation then, and our members were nervous about raising funds for a building,” she said. “I can still hear Sophie’s voice; she said, ‘I don’t understand you people! You have an opportunity in a free country to build a synagogue and you’re hesitating? If you have the faith to vote for this, God will help us do it.’ Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.”
Ms. Yudin described Sophie as “the most incredible person, and an unbelievably committed Jewess. It was an honor for me to sit next to her in shul every Saturday morning. She loved everything about her religion. She used to come to classes all the time, and she would be there for every big thing we did, encouraging us to build a mikvah, build a shul, raise charity for someone in need. She helped us get wherever we needed to go. She really believed in God after the Holocaust and was thankful that she was saved and felt that because of that, she had a responsibility to do her part.”
“My mother was not only a big believer but was driven by doing good things and never saying anything bad about people,” Andre added.
Eliezer, who owned a shoe store, also encouraged the men to step up in support of Shomrei Torah, “but more behind the scenes,” his son said.
And of course the couple remained close with Sol, who spoke six languages and worked as a translator. “I liked hanging out with him when I was in high school and college because he was part of the intelligentsia in Manhattan,” Andre said. “He and other well-read survivors used to hang out and talk in a bagel shop, and I enjoyed being with them.”
Felicia married an Israeli she met in New York, and they made aliyah with their three children in 1995. Andre was surprised that it took his mother 16 years to follow her.
“Knowing that the messiah will come first to Jerusalem, she felt there was an imperative that everybody has to live in Israel,” he said. “Yet for years she had excuses. For one thing, she worried about me and about Sol.”
A little more than five years ago, as her physical health began failing, Sophie agreed to go live with Felicia, though it was hard for her to leave her son and brother in America.
After a couple of years she moved to an assisted-living apartment in Neve AMIT in Jerusalem. “She was mobile and had all her faculties to the end,” said Andre, who sent her tulips on her 94th birthday in March.
“Every morning she would pray before eating breakfast. When she got to Neve AMIT, she didn’t care when breakfast was served; she’d always daven first. So they made sure she had food no matter when she finished davening. Sometimes she was the only one in the dining room at 11 in the morning.”
Longevity apparently runs in the Adler family. Sophie and Sol’s older brother, who had fled to Russia before the war and later raised a family in Brooklyn, died less than two years ago. He was about 100 years old. Andre and his first cousin Aryeh took the responsibility of keeping an eye on Sol; “Aryeh more than me,” Andre insists.
“My uncle was fit going into his 90s,” he continued. “He read the New York Times front to back every day and never wanted to visit a doctor. He would say, ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ And then about a year ago, I saw the age beginning to creep up.”
Sol was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer only about a month before his death. “To the end, I would sit with him and ask if he was in pain and he’d say no,” Andre said. “He and my mother were never complainers. My mother had two heart attacks in Israel and insisted she was fine. I could only tell how she felt by the strength of her voice.”
Andre acknowledges that it is difficult to adjust to the sudden absence of these two towering personalities. “I take my mother’s line and try to power through it,” he said.
“My mother was one of the most righteous women I have ever met, embodying faith and charity and goodness, and always so positive. If you showed my mother a gentleman of the same generation and said he was a Nazi, I would bet a million dollars she’d say, ‘He was a young boy and he didn’t know what he was doing.’ She found the good in everyone.”
And she was a woman of her word, Felicia said. “She vowed to her parents that she would take care of her brother until the end.
“She kept her vow.”