January 9, 2019
Photo by Cyndi Bemel

Michele Rodri is a powerhouse. The 83-year-old French Holocaust and cancer survivor spends her time engaging in philanthropy, connecting teens with survivors, sharing her story and enjoying life.

Her husband of 47 years, Jack, survived Bergen-Belsen.“He and I had one policy,” Rodri told the Journal. “We were not going to be victims. We were going to be survivors. And we lived like survivors.”

When Jack died in 2004, Rodri, who already had been serving her community (she spent 30 years assisting B’nai David-Judea founding Rabbi Philip Schroit and fundraised for the Israeli Cancer Research Fund), amped up her philanthropy efforts. She started speaking about her Holocaust experiences at local schools and at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH).

“I put all of my energies into this with love,” she said, “because to me it’s not work, it’s my heart doing the right thing.”

At LAMOTH, Rodri met then-Museum Director Samara Hutman. The two became good friends. When Hutman went back to work at the Righteous Conversations Project, she asked Rodri to take part there, too. Of all the programs at the Righteous Conversations Projects, Rodri holds a special place for the Remember Us Holocaust B’nai Mitzvah Project. 

“When the [students] have their bar or bat mitzvah, at the end of the service, they take the name that I provide from Yad Vashem (The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel) of a child that was killed,” Rodri said. 

In April 1942, at the age of 7, Rodri was playing in the street with friends when Nazis threw her into a truck and took her to a selection camp. Three months later, her brother, Abel, posing as an SS officer, rescued her and hid her in a convent. She spent 14 months there and another 14 months living with a family on a farm. 

Rodri, her parents and two of her three brothers survived the war. Her youngest brother, Maurice, was killed in Auschwitz when he was 17. 

“I have one philosophy. If I am put against the wall, I cannot back up, so I have to go forward.”

Last year, at his bar mitzvah at Valley Outreach Synagogue, Asher Mehr memorialized Rodri’s brother and asked guests to sponsor a fundraising concert in Maurice’s name. It’s something he plans to do every year. 

“Asher is a very talented young man who is a musician too,” Rodri said. “At his bar mitzvah, he [recalled] my brother. It was very moving.” 

Three years ago, Rodri faced another battle when she was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. “I have one philosophy,” she said. “If I am put against the wall, I cannot back up, so I have to go forward. And this is what I did with my cancer, too.”

Rodri has been cancer-free for 18 months and said she couldn’t have done it without her friends and family. Her son Kurt, daughter-in-law Samantha and 20-year-old grandson, Jacob David, “are my rock.” 

When not volunteering or speaking, Rodri runs errands, goes to theater, movies and classical music performances and reads. On Tuesdays, she attends a French poetry class and plays mah jong once a week. 

“I try to do as much as I can in a day,” she said. “If you stay home, particularly at my age, you become wilted.”

Read more about our 2019 mensches here.

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