Survivor of Auschwitz Celebrates Her Birthday With Family of 400

400 descendants of Holocaust survivor Shoshana Ovitz, 104,  at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to fulfill her birthday wish. Source: Twitter.
400 descendants of Holocaust survivor Shoshana Ovitz, 104, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to fulfill her birthday wish. Source: Twitter.

History is full of stories chronicling mankind’s best and worst moments.  Sometimes one of those moments comes hard on the heels of the other.  The Holocaust was the worst, broadest-reaching mass genocide in our history.

Although an exact count of the number of Jewish deaths during that period is impossible, it’s estimated that more than 5.8 million members of the Jewish faith died in concentration camps.

Even those that weren’t put to death were starved and abused.  Despite all of that, some survived the camps and went on to have long and fruitful lives.

The Jerusalem Post recently reported the remarkable birthday of a woman who survived Auschwitz seventy four years ago.  Shoshanna Ovitz decided to celebrate her 104th birthday at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, surrounded by some 400 of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

This venerable woman told her children she only had one wish for her birthday, and that was to gather all her living descendants at the Western Wall to celebrate with her, so she could see them all and pray for them at the holy site.

Main entrance to Auschwitz. By Tulio Bertorini (tbertor1) – CC BY-SA 2.0

Ovitz was only a child at Auschwitz when her mother was taken away and given to Josef Mengele, who was well known for having performed terrible, and often fatal, experiments on people taken from the camps.  Ovitz herself, however, survived.

After the Holocaust, she met and married her husband, Dov, who had also survived the camps although his wife and four daughters did not. After their marriage they moved to Austria and also spent some time searching the US for surviving relatives, but ended up moving to Israel. They had two sons and two daughters.

Auschwitz II gate in 1959 Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1992-101-026A

Those four children married and had children and those children, in turn, did the same, creating a family of impressive size over the generations.

The family worked very hard to make her birthday wish come true, coordinating with family members from countries around the world to make it happen.

Panini Friedman, Ovitz’s eldest granddaughter, estimated the number of relatives, also noting that about 10% of them weren’t able to attend.  Even so, she added that no one really realized how large the group was until somewhere in the middle of the event.

It was a moving event for everyone in the family and a stunning visual reminder of how much just one person has the ability to affect the world.  Countless pictures were taken commemorating the event.

Some were formal, with the men all grouped on one side and the women on the other in front of the Western Wall.  Others were more candid, showing groupings of parts of the enormous family. There was one shot of Ovitz, with one of her small great-grandchildren, both looking incredibly pleased to be together.

It’s no wonder that the pictures of the momentous occasion made their way onto various social media platforms, quickly becoming viral.  Not only is a 104th birthday a remarkable achievement in its own right but, in Ovitz’s case, it’s made even more poignant by her personal and family history.  At one point she stood on a balcony overlooking all of her many progeny.

She had wanted to offer each of them her blessing individually, but family members suggested that would take prohibitively long, given the sheer size of the group so she blessed them collectively, instead.

What must she have been feeling, looking down at everyone grouped below her?  It’s a rare gift to be able to see what she did, not only her family, but a living representation of all the shades of life – joy and celebration, strength, unity, and love.

It must have also been, however, at least somewhat shaded by the darker memories of war and hatred, and of grief for those who didn’t survive.

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Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE