November 20, 2018

My Inspiring Encounter with L.A. Holocaust Survivor Joshua Kaufman

“Orit Arfa?” I heard my name on the stairs leading up to Chabad in Berlin near Alexanderplatz. I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone I knew on my first Friday night in Berlin.

But then I spot Rachel and Alexandra Kaufman, sisters of my former YULA high school classmate, Malkie, and former co-star in YULA plays, Judy. They are just as pretty as I (and my mom) remember with their bright eyes. They were with their father, Joshua “Yehoshua” Kaufman, whom I remember from Shabbat dinner at their Hancock Park home when I was in 9th grade. He’s hard to forget – a tall, quiet yet imposing, strong presence. Some locals may have seen his well-known plumbing truck cruising the streets of LA. At 88, he still works.

“What are you doing here?” We asked simultaneously. I explained how I moved to Berlin for the summer for a change and writing opportunities, and then Rachel told me why they were in Berlin – although she didn’t have to: “It’s a crazy story. It’s all over the news.”

After Shabbat, I Googled “Joshua Kaufman” and his name is, indeed, all over German and American press outlets, like NBC News.

Just that day Yehoshua was denied the opportunity to testify at a Nazi war criminal trial against a former Nazi SS guard. The judge’s refusal, citing lack of necessity for the testimony, was an emotional and physical slap. Yehoshua had hurt his knee a few weeks earlier but decided he must travel to Germany to seek justice. He had prepared his words, how he had lugged dead bodies out of Auschwitz gas chambers, pulling them apart as they stuck together during their murder. He was 15 at the time, and volunteering for such gruesome work helped keep him alive.

“It was a way for me to stay alive and to see what was going on around the camp,” Yehoshua related at the Chabad table. Born in Hungary, he eventually made it to Israel, where he served in the IDF. He got married at age 47, which accounts for his daughters being around my age; my paternal grandparents are Auschwitz survivors.

But he seemed more interested in discussing other subjects, like why I wasn’t married. To my surprise, Yehoshua has followed my journalism work, remembering me from Shabbat dinner so many years back. He enthused how pleased he was to see me, and how glad they decided to go to Chabad in the end, despite physical and emotional exhaustion from long train rides and legal roller coasters. He looked proudly around the room of Jews singing Shabbat hymns.

Yehoshua did not dwell on the injustice of the day – or of the past. He’s dwelling on the present and future, like when I and his remaining single daughters will get married.

Sometimes when you make a decision in life, you have doubts as to whether it was the right one. For me, taking the unexpected step to move to Berlin was fraught with doubt. But Yehoshua appearing at my first Shabbat dinner in Berlin, giving me an opportunity to experience and tell his story, was a telltale sign that I’m where I need to be.

Now when he reads my work, he’ll read about what a warm, courageous, and wonderful man he is, and how his beautiful Jewish daughters so lovingly looked after him. He has raised a beautiful family – his pride– and that spirit of always looking for the good in every situation makes him a heroic survivor.

As Rachel wrote on Facebook: “He was disappointed and shocked that he was not able to speak in court, but he always looks for the positive and lives his life learning how to adapt to situations that don’t always go as planned. He doesn’t hate anyone and doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. He is grateful for this once in a lifetime opportunity. He entered the court proudly with his daughters by his side, self-confident knowing that Israel is our country and we are no longer homeless or hopeless. He was called on a mission and he went wholeheartedly. Yes, it didn’t go the way he expected, but sometimes in life you gain more from those experiences then you could have ever imagined.”

And I am a grateful beneficiary of that experience.

“Do you approve of my living in Germany?” I asked, as if I needed the sanction, especially following negative reactions I’ve received from the “I’ll-never-step-in-Germany” people who were somehow vindicated by the judge’s decision.

“I approve,” he said, but adding that he wants me to marry a Jewish man, the sooner the better.