Last Wednesday, Mordechai Greenstein attended his first Mimouna, the celebration held by North African Jewish communities at the end of the Pesach festival, tasting the traditional mufletas for the first time in his life. For Mordechai, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor from Ma’alot Tarshiha, religious celebrations don’t come easy.

Mordechai was born in the city of Lodz in Poland in 1932. He grew up in a religious family and was seven years old when the Germans invaded the country. A few weeks after the invasion, Mordechai’s father had the foresight to escape and took his family to Warsaw. From there they fled by foot to the border with the Soviet Union and ended up in Bialystock, which was under Soviet control. In Bialystock, they stayed at a refugee camp for a few weeks until Stalin announced that he was allowing all the Jews who fled from Poland to immigrate to Russia and relocate to wherever they wanted in the country.

  “My father chose to relocate to Medyakovskii which was located in the southern Ural region,” Mordechai recounted. “We spent three weeks on a train to get there. I studied there in school for six years as my father worked. After the war, we were able to return to Poland and we went back to Lodz. That was the time when the Poles were killing many Jews who came back to reclaim their homes and their possessions. Jews simply wanted to come back to their homes and paid for it with their lives.” Mordechai said that his family moved to Czechoslovakia and then to the U.S.-occupied area of Germany. From there he immigrated to Israel where he volunteered to join the newly forming IDF and fought in the War of Independence while the rest of his family stayed in a refugee camp in Germany that was set up by UNRWA. “Six months after I was in Israel, my family joined me. I was thrilled.”

While he was in Germany, Mordechai studied how to be a metalworker. After the War of Independence, he got a job as a metalworker in Israel and worked in that field for two years before he switched careers and began a career polishing diamonds, which he continued for the next thirty years. After he retired in 1999, he moved north to the town of Ma’alot. His children moved to other towns and one of his sons became religious. Mordechai, who grew up religious, now has strong beliefs against religion and when his son became religious it created a divide between them.

Mordechai Greenstein left and Yosef Azrad lighting Chanukah candles 766x1024 1
Mordechai Greenstein (left) and Yosef Azrad lighting Chanukah candles

Mordechai has other children, but they all live far away. He lives alone and had no one to visit him until Yosef Azrad, a United Hatzalah volunteer EMT began visiting him every week a few years ago as part of the Ten Kavod (‘Ten Kavod’ is Hebrew for ‘Giving Honor’) project. The project arranges weekly visits by medically-trained volunteers to senior citizens who live on their own in order to provide regular medical checkups and alleviate their sense of loneliness. Last week, Yosef who has built up a strong relationship with Mordechai over the years, invited Mordechai over to his house for Mimouna celebrations. “We talked about the future redemption until midnight,” said Yosef. “It was very special, especially as Mordechai doesn’t usually like religious ceremonies.”

“Yosef and I talk a lot,” said Mordechai. “We argue a lot about philosophy and about religion. Yosef came back to religion and part of me has had enough of people who have returned to religion, more than I can bear, but I really respect him. While we argue a lot, there really isn’t any point as neither of us will really convince the other. We kind of just enjoy it. He has also helped me out in a lot of instances, especially with medical issues over the past two years. He is a person with a lot of good qualities.”

Yosef explained, “In the summer of 2021, Mordechai caught Covid, quickly deteriorated, and was hooked up to a ventilator. On Chanukah of that year, he came home after making a full recovery. He had a medical ordeal that could have killed him, and in my opinion, this was another Chanukah miracle that he made it back home alive and well, having made a full recovery from Covid after suffering from a major heart condition just a few months earlier. I am thankful he is here and that we can continue our visits. Most people would not have made it through what Mordechai has lived through. Not the Holocaust, not returning to Poland only to face violence and death after the war, fighting in the IDF, making a life in Israel, and then of course his battle against Covid. His will to live is like nothing I have ever seen before and I am learning so much from that.”

Yosef concluded by saying, “We as a society need to do more to protect the elderly and especially those who lived through the Holocaust who are still with us. We need to be there for them and support them, not just on memorial days, but throughout the year as well. We need to do this as individuals and as a society.”

To support the Ten Kavod project, please click here.

About United Hatzalah’s Ten Kavod project:

United Hatzalah established the Ten Kavod project in 2012 in response to the many incidents of neglect of the elderly reported by our volunteer EMTs. The program’s mission is to provide a safety net for Israel’s at-risk Holocaust survivors and the elderly population living alone in our own communities. Through weekly home visits by trained EMS personnel, the program provides free medical supervision and ensures that their day-to-day needs are met by assisting with the maximization of benefits that the elderly can receive. In addition, the weekly visits improve the mental and emotional state of the elderly by alleviating loneliness.

While various social welfare organizations provide home visits to at-risk elderly, Ten Kavod is the only project that combines social and medical aspects of care, providing cost-free holistic preventative support to the program’s participants. The Ten Kavod project safeguards the health and wellness of more than 700 vulnerable elderly citizens of Israel, about 100 of whom are Holocaust survivors.