Yad Vashem honors Passaic woman for saving ‘an entire world’
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Yad Vashem honors Passaic woman for saving ‘an entire world’

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Assemblyman Gary Schaer, left, and Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton- Passaic’s executive director, Edward Schey, flank friends and family of Luba Saj-Cholhan, seated, center, at Monday’s ceremony. At her left is her husband, Myron Colhan. At right is the consul general of Israel, Asaf Shariv. Inset: Asaf Selinger, information officer at the Israeli Consulate, presents Saj-Colhan with a medal from Yad Vashem. Photos by Jerry Szubin

In a moving ceremony at the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic on Monday, the consul general of Israel in New York bestowed the Righteous Among the Nations medal on a petite, soft-spoken, 91-year-old great-grandmother from Passaic. Luba Saj-Cholhan, a native of Ukraine who immigrated to the United States in 1949 and was naturalized five years later, thus became one of a handful of American citizens to receive the highest honor awarded to non-Jews by the State of Israel through Yad Vashem.

In 1943, Saj-Cholhan put her life and that of her 4-year-old son George at risk by hiding her longtime Jewish friend Mina Shulster from the Nazis and then forging documents that enabled her to escape their native Ternopol disguised as a Ukrainian peasant.

Inscribed “They who have saved a single life, it is as if they have saved an entire world,” the medal was accompanied by a certificate of honor, also presented by Consul General Asaf Shariv. To date, Yad Vashem – Israel’s national Holocaust memorial – has recognized more than 20,000 non-Jews who actively “risked their lives or their liberty to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

After years of reluctance on her part, Saj-Cholhan was nominated for the honor by Mina Shulster-Berkowitz’s two daughters, Barbara Berkowitz and Ann Bar-Neder, who live in Israel and were unable to attend the ceremony. Visibly touched, Saj-Cholhan listened as Shariv quoted from a recent letter to her from Barbara Berkowitz that is included in the official citation: “I have told you in the past that if you would not have been courageous enough to save … our mother, Ann and I would not be here today. You have saved a world … our world … our families and children.”

Among some 70 guests invited to the closed ceremony at the federation in Clifton and the luncheon that followed were New Jersey Assemblymen Gary Schaer and Deputy Speaker Fred Scalera, Clifton Mayor James Anzaldi and Valerie Sharfman, director of the Holocaust Resource Center at the federation. The ceremony was arranged by Edward W. Schey, the federation’s executive director, and Asaf Selinger, information officer for the Israel Consulate in New York. Schey moderated the program.

But the spirit of the occasion was embodied by the presence of Saj-Cholhan’s son, a retired surgeon, and his wife Marta, their four children, and their families – including five great-grandchildren. Two of them – cousins Lily Farrell, 2, and Sofia Saj, 5 – carried flowers to their great-grandmother, who was also accompanied by her second husband, Myron Cholhan. (Her first husband, Dr. Thaddeus Saj, was exiled to Russia when George was an infant and his mother a little more than 22 years old. Like so many other doctors, lawyers, and engineers the Russians wanted to keep from the approaching Germans, he was never heard from again.)

Although the Righteous Among the Nations honor has been awarded to many posthumously, Shariv noted that “as time passes, we get less and less of these letters from Yad Vashem. Physical time takes its toll.”

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Luba Saj-Cholhan, with her son Dr. George Saj, displays the certificate presented to her by the consul general of Israel.

In the case of Saj-Cholhan, he said, Yad Vashem’s special committee charged with checking protocol summarized her story in three courageous acts that illustrated the basic criteria – risking life or liberty – governing the award:

“¢ the act of providing shelter;

“¢ the act of forgery;

“¢ her trip to Austria to visit her friend who felt she couldn’t take it anymore.

“When I called Barbara in Israel,” Shariv continued, “she told me they referred to Luba as their ‘mother in America.’ What was done was done out of deep love and friendship that has been transferred to her family.”

In another letter, Bar-Neder wrote of Saj-Cholhan’s visit to Israel after their mother’s death in 1998: “For a few days,” she said, “I had my mother back. I heard her accented voice calling out caring words to me; her soft hand stroked and calmed me…. I love you as only a daughter can love a mother.'”

Looking at the diminutive figure seated to his right, Shariv said, “On behalf of the government of Israel and the people of Israel, I thank you.”

More thanks came from the federation’s Ed Schey as he introduced the guest of honor. “Thank you, Luba,” he said, “for being you.”

Holding the remarks she had labored over in her hands, Saj-Cholhan, who walks steadily and quickly despite using a cane, opted to forgo the step up to the podium. After thanking the consul general and guests assembled on chairs in the federation lobby, she said, “It is truly a great honor to be awarded the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations.’ What I did was done out of deep love for my friend, Mina Shulster. Our friendship lasted from our childhood and continued throughout our lives. Today that love and friendship has been transferred to both her daughters … and their families. Today, Ann and Barbara’s love brings me happiness and pleasure. It is a real treasure,” she added. “It cannot be bought or sold.”

After quoting from Bar-Neder’s letter, she went on, “So, I accept this award because of Ann and Barbara and would like to share this great honor with other people who saved Jewish lives but remain unknown.” In conclusion,” she said, “please accept my thanks and appreciation. I only wish that people could have enough love, courage, and good will in their hearts to continue helping each other. This world and this life are wonderful; only some folks make it horrible. Think on this: Only love, goodness, honesty, and understanding make life worthwhile.”

Earlier in the ceremony, Jacky Grindrod, district director for Rep. William Pascrell (D-Dist. 8) who was occupied with health-care legislation in Washington, read a Letter of Special Congressional Recognition issued directly to Saj-Cholhan by the congressman.

“Your brave actions helped to save the life of your best friend from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis. You embody the idea that one person can make a difference, and on behalf of the entire 8th Congressional District, I salute you.” Pascrell wrote. “Your actions in service to Mina Berkowitz were also in service to humanity,” he continued, “for it was by those actions, and by similar actions undertaken by decent people of faith and goodwill everywhere, that our common humanity survived the terrible twisted philosophy of the Nazis…. You shall never be forgotten.”

In addition to the medal and citation, recipients of the Righteous Among the Nations are inscribed for posterity on the Wall of Honor in the Hall of Memory at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The newest inscription will read “Luba Saj-Cholhan.”

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