“She would have lived to 100, but her mission was to take her brother up to heaven and watch over him,” Jerusalem resident Felicia Mizrachi related about her 94-year-old mother, Sophie Helcman. The Holocaust survivor died last month only days after Sol, the younger brother she saved during the Holocaust. The two siblings were buried in a double funeral in Jerusalem.
The intertwined lives and deaths of Sophie (nee Adler-Fleigel) and Sol took a dramatic turn in their hometown of Radom, Poland, when World War II broke out.
The 17-year-old girl promised her parents, who were later killed along with one of Sophie’s sisters by the Nazis, that she would protect Sol, who was four years younger.
Though she didn’t look typically Jewish and her Polish was perfect, Mizrachi says that nevertheless, her mother had to wear a yellow star. She says that Sophie’s life was saved by a righteous gentile.
Sophie became friends with a Polish girl who worked in her parent’s department store.
She was someone who “didn’t understand why Jews were different and why the Nazis had decided to persecute them,” Mizrachi explains.
SS officers would frequent the store and flirt with the Polish girl. One SS officer fell madly in love and came in daily to see her. One day, she propositioned the officer: “If you really love me,” she said, “there is something I need you to do. I need you to get me Polish papers for a girl my age. No questions asked.”
Sophie knew nothing of her friend’s plan until she received the papers that allowed her to leave the Radom Ghetto to provide necessities for her family inside.
In the ghetto, Sophie fell in love with Eliezer Helcman, nine years older. She decided to trust him and while she would take care of business outside of the ghetto, Eliezer and Sol spent time together inside the ghetto and grew very close.
Eliezer Zev, Felicia’s father, owned a liquor store in Radom, was well connected and was able to bribe a Polish officer to procure a Red Cross uniform for Sophie, which she used to fake a medical evacuation in which Sol was carried out on a stretcher. Mizrachi doesn’t know exactly how her father escaped the ghetto, but notes that he was owed many favors by Poles to whom he sold vodka.
Eliezer, Sophie and Sol hid from the Nazis for six years, splitting the time between Radom and Danzig and the countryside in between. “In trenches, in ditches, in toilets, in barns, in hay,” Mizrachi says.
When the war finally ended and they were liberated, Eliezer and Sophie married in Danzig. Felicia’s older brother Andre was born in Paris after the war, when the three of them came to America, where Felicia was born in Brooklyn.
After settling in Brooklyn, Eliezer and Sophie moved to New Jersey.
Sol stayed in New York (after a year-long foray at a kibbutz), but Mizrachi says that Sol was like an older brother to her and that the family saw Sol all the time. He never married and never had children, something Mizrachi calls a “scar of the war.” Sol, who spoke six languages, became a translator and lived in the same third-floor, walk-up apartment in Manhattan for 50 years.
Sophie and Eliezer helped found the first Orthodox synagogue, Shomrei Torah, in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, which Mizrachi says was massively important in her mother’s life. They were one of the first Orthodox families in Fair Lawn.
“As a Jewish child in the United States, I couldn’t understand why my mother was sending Christmas presents to Poland, with Christmas trees and Santa Claus,” said Mizrachi, recalling her mother’s ongoing contact with her childhood Polish friend, who provided her with the papers decades before. “My mother, every couple of months would send her money. Even if she had nothing.”
Mizrachi married a Sabra – a Golani Brigade soldier she met in Manhattan – and in 1995, after 40 years of feeling that she didn’t fit in New Jersey, made aliya with three children and a sheepdog. Her aliya was the result of her sensing that she has a higher calling and that she would honor her parents and her family killed in the Holocaust by being “living proof that life goes on.”
Some 16 years later, at 89 years old, Sophie made aliya and joiner her daughter, sonin- law, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in Israel.
Mizrachi had tried to persuade her mother to move to Israel earlier, but Sophie had been reluctant to leave Sol.
So how did Mizrachi persuade Sophie to make the move? “I told her, the Messiah doesn’t come to Fair Lawn, New Jersey.”
Like any new olah, Sophie signed up for a Hebrew-language ulpan and lived with her daughter for the first few years. She celebrated her great-grandchildren’s birthdays, cooked delicious holiday dinners, and on Passover made fun of the Egyptians in Yiddish while reading the Haggada. Two years ago, Sophie moved into an assisted living facility.
Last month on a Thursday, Mizrachi got a phone call from her brother in the States, who told her that Sol, who had been diagnosed with Stage-IV lung cancer, was not given much time to live. Sol’s wish was to be buried next to Eliezer, who died in 1982 and is buried on Har Hamenuhot in Jerusalem.
The family had realized that “no one was getting any younger,” and arranged a few years before to buy two plots near Eliezer – one for Sol and one for Sophie.
As Mizrachi was absorbed the news while babysitting her grandchildren later that day, the assisted living facility phoned to say that Sophie was not doing well.
Mizrachi went to the home that night and slept in her mother’s room. The whole night, Sophie fought demons, trying to get out of bed and speaking Yiddish. Mizrachi says that Sophie struggled with the demons because “she felt that her brother was dying,” even though she’d been told nothing of his situation.
Over the next 24 hours Sophie’s condition ranged from feverish and dehydrated to apparently fine, and a doctor placed her under observation that Friday afternoon.
Mizrachi went home for Shabbat, where she received a phone call from her brother telling her that Sol had died.
Sol’s body was to be shipped to Israel for burial, arriving on Monday at 1:30 p.m.
Mizrachi’s brother had not intended to accompany the body, but after Mizrachi let him know that Sophie was ailing, he decided to fly to Israel.
As Mizrachi spent Saturday night with her mother, Sophie began to drift again into sleepless delirium. On Sunday afternoon, an ambulance was called for Sophie, whose condition had deteriorated.
When Mizrachi saw her mother, she realized that she was trying to hold off dying until Sol’s body arrived.
Sophie died Sunday night, just after Sol’s body and her son had arrived in Israel. After the double burial for Sophie and Sol the next day, Mizrachi said, “She vowed to her parents that she would take care of her brother until the end and she kept her vow.”