‘Most wonderful feeling’: Holocaust survivor observes her 95th birthday in Wayne
WAYNE — Reva Bernstein once wore a yellow star on her chest.
It was a badge that represented hatred and extreme prejudice, in a time when Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were segregated in ghettos and stripped of their dignity. But on Tuesday, several decades after her family was murdered in the Holocaust, she had on something much different.
A tiara glistened atop her head, and a smile beamed across her face.
“I have no words to express how happy I am,” Bernstein said at her 95th birthday party. “It’s the most wonderful feeling.”
The celebration was at The Bristal at Wayne, an assisted-living facility where Bernstein has been a resident for two months.
Bernstein, who goes by “Rickie,” was pampered like a queen by staff at the facility, who arranged for children at a Jewish day school in West Orange to sing for her.
As if perched on a throne, Bernstein sat in front of a large TV screen in an entertainment room. About 22 miles away, the eyes of more than a dozen pre-K students were glued to a monitor at Golda Och Academy.
The students’ performance could be seen and heard because the TV was hooked up to Zoom, a livestreaming platform. The classroom monitor was linked to the same feed, so that the 4- and 5-year-old children could witness Bernstein’s reaction.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Bernstein called out to the young chorus.
They sang “Happy Birthday to You” at least twice more, both in English and Hebrew. Bernstein, who can speak five foreign languages, said the students’ renditions were “very delightful.”
Bernstein was joined by her daughter, Judy Winfield and her husband, Steven, as well as her son, Mark Bernstein and his wife, Shari. Another son could not attend. She also has five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. Her husband, Milton Bernstein, died in December 1995.
Rabbi Meirav Kallush, director of Israel education at the academy, said the pre-K class is too young to grasp the history of the Holocaust. But she said, there is still a lesson to be learned by honoring a survivor.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account
“They are part of a larger community,” the rabbi said.
Oscar Farnacio, executive director of The Bristal, said his staff was thrilled to celebrate Bernstein’s birthday and that she has exhibited a consistently “positive attitude” since moving in.
The afternoon’s festivities, in a facility offering daily housekeeping and personal laundry service, were in stark contrast to the suffering Bernstein had to endure as a child in war-torn Lithuania.
Bernstein was born on April 27, 1928, in a tiny village called Troškūnai. Her family had no electricity or indoor plumbing. But her father, an Orthodox rabbi, was later promoted to a larger shul in a bigger city near the capital of Kaunas.
The family’s stability lasted just five years until Nazis began invading nations in eastern and northern Europe. Lithuania was sacked in June 1941.
They were forced to the ghetto by German sentries. All Jewish shops were shuttered. Schools closed, and women’s fur coats, jewelry and other valuables were stolen. Her father’s library was torched, as he watched at gunpoint.
The ghetto was eventually turned into a concentration camp before it, too, was burned and Jews sent on cattle cars to other camps: first, Dachau in southern Germany; then, Stutthof in northern Poland.
Bernstein and her sister, the late Rachel Ben-Eliezer, were the family’s only survivors.
In October 1947, they emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Wheeling, West Virginia, with their aunt and uncle.
Less than two years later, “Rickie” was a missus: She and Mr. Bernstein were wed at a ceremony in the Bronx. They raised their family on Greenrale Avenue, where she lived until moving to the Hamburg Turnpike facility in February.
Bernstein’s survival story was published in a 56-page memoir, titled “I Won,” by David Kligman in November 2014.
Remarkably, she said on Tuesday that she wishes to put out a second book.
“I can walk, and I can talk, and I can think,” Bernstein said. “And I hope to God I stay well and that I can celebrate my next birthday.”
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