On August 11, 2017 the world’s oldest man passed away, just a month short of his 114th birthday – making him one of the ten longest-lived men since modern record keeping began. If you knew nothing else about him than this fact, you would be justified in believing that he had led a peaceful life, spared of fear, grief and danger.
How else could such a man live so long?
The actual truth, however, is enlightening. The man in question was Yisrael Kristal, a Holocaust survivor. Born in 1903 Poland, he survived four years in the Lodz ghetto, and was then transported to Auschwitz. His two children died in the ghetto. In Auschwitz, his wife was killed. When Auschwitz was liberated, he was a walking skeleton weighing a mere 82 pounds. He was the only member of his family to survive.
Raised a religious Jew he kept the faith his entire life. When the war concluded and after his entire life was destroyed, he married again, this time to another Holocaust survivor. They had children. They moved to Israel, making “aliyah” it is called which means “the act of going up” which Jews say they accomplish when they move from diaspora lands to Israel.
In Haifa he began again in the confectionary business, as he had done in Poland before the war. He made chocolate and sweets, but he was also an innovator. If you have ever had an Israeli orange peel covered in chocolate, or liqueur chocolates shaped like little bottles covered with silver foil, you enjoyed one of the products he originated.
Those who knew him said he was a man with no bitterness in his soul. He wanted people to taste sweetness.
In 2016 at the age of 113 he celebrated his bar mitzvah, 100 years past the time when most young men (boys) accomplish the feat. When he was only 13 having a bar mitzvah couldn’t occur since his mother was dead and his father was fighting in the First World War.
So during his bar mitzvah service he gathered his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren under his tallit (prayer shawl) and said, “Here’s one person, and look how many people he brought to life. As we’re all standing here under my tallit, I’m thinking of six million people. Imagine the world they would have built.”
His life stands to remind all of us that no matter our age or lot in life, there is always good that we can accomplish. Yisrael Kristal died in the week that in synagogues around the world the portion of the Torah (otherwise known as the Old Testament – the Five Books of Moses) that is read relates to God’s commandment in Deuteronomy to wear teffilin (parchment scrolls in leather boxes bound on the hands and arms during prayer) and to teach Torah to your children “so that you and your children may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors.”
How fitting was that portion for this man’s life event?
Whether or not you’re are Jewish or even religious, I hope that this world’s oldest man’s life story gives you hope for our future and for your personal future.
If you’ve ever spoken to a Holocaust survivor, you probably found as I did that many are among the strongest, life-affirming people that you’ll ever meet. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who survived Auschwitz and wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is another whose work became an affirmation of all things good in life after enduring what can only be described as a living hell.
Too often I listen to retirees lament that their life’s work is complete and that they no longer have much to contribute to society. While it’s true that our society tends to accentuate the young, men such as Yisrael Kristal show us that living so deep into old age that there are none other like you offer opportunities to affirm life and to make a difference.
Once you run out of goals you no longer have a future.
Don’t give up on your goals, no matter what they are or what your age might be.
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© 2017 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.