The Shoah exposed humanity at its worst and best. From 1942 to the end of the war, a Christian family living in a home protected by the Swiss government hid a little boy, named Joseph Ambrus, and his maternal grandmother. Joseph was from Hungary. His mother had died of typhoid fever. His father was conscripted into the Hungarian Labor Battalions and was killed during deportation.
After the war, Joseph lived in an orphanage and visited his grandmother on weekends. His grandmother was killed in an automobile accident. He was a young teen and he moved into her home and lived alone. He went to school, became a canoer, and faced years of one challenge after another until a kindhearted Canadian Consul in Rome provided him with a Canadian visa that allowed him to immigrated to Canada.
Fast forward to the end of Joseph’s life. He died indigent and alone in San Francisco in June 2019. He was divorced, had no children and no next of kin.
I had the privilege of officiating at Joseph’s funeral. I composed the eulogy from information received caregivers and his webpage at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Sinai Memorial Chapel provided mortuary services, a casket, funeral, grave, burial and later they will provide a headstone.
I want to tell you that it was not for nothing and not for free. It is not for nothing that Jewish funeral homes provide for, and bury, the indigent. It is our responsibility as a Jewish community. And it is certainly not free. In fact, it is very costly, and it is paid for by philanthropists and ordinary people like you and me who, together, help underwrite our vibrant Jewish community and its institutions and publications.
After the funeral, Joseph’s friends approached Sinai’s Executive Director Sam Salkin. They thanked Sam for greeting them and welcoming them when they first arrived. Joseph’s non-Jewish friends spoke about how they did not know what to expect, never having been to a Jewish funeral, and they felt welcomed like family and community.
Joseph died alone, but he did not live in isolation. His caregivers reached his former business partner who, in turn, invited his friends. We were joined by members of Congregations B’nai Emunah and Ner Tamid who came to pay their respects to someone they had never met in order to help ensure that we had a minyan to say Kaddish.
Rabbi Shana Chandler-Leon and I were in a meeting together when Sam Salkin phoned to ask me to review the obituary. I told Rabbi Shana about Joseph and Ner Tamid’s Administrator Adele Schafer placed a note in their newsletter asking members to attend the funeral to help make minyan
At the end of Joseph’s funeral, a man approached me with a mezuzah on necklace. I asked him how he knew Joseph. His voice crackled with emotion as he said that he and Joe were friends for 50 years. Joseph’s friend of 50 years learned about his death and his funeral from the note in the Ner Tamid newsletter.
We, at Congregation B’nai Emunah, will keep Joseph in our prayers for the next eleven months; he is now a part of us as we remember him.
Joseph had a Jewish funeral and burial because of his physician, Dr. Anna Chodos. After Joseph died, Dr. Chodos learned that there was no one to bury him. She knew he was a Holocaust survivor, so she looked on the internet, picked up the phone and called us because we are a synagogue founded by Holocaust survivors.
We stopped seven times between the road to the grave, which is our tradition, and we gathered as a sevenfold community, including: Joseph’s caregivers from San Francisco General Hospital, UCSF and the Department of Public Health; his former business partner and co-workers from the printing business; his canoeing friends; his friends with whom he played poker and ordered in take out; the members of Congregation Ner Tamid and Congregation B’nai Emunah who attended the funeral of a man they never met in order to help make minyan and recite Kaddish; the staff of Sinai Memorial Chapel and Eternal Home who handled his funeral and burial; and the staff of the J who lovingly and caringly laid out and published Joseph’s obituary, pressing us to find a photo to go with it.
I want to give a special shout out to Joseph’s former business partner, Kim Lee, who located and provided the photo of his friend Joseph; and to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who staff bring dignity and longevity to the stories and memories of victims and survivors by publishing online stories and photo.
There will come a time in the not-too-distant-future when Holocaust survivors will be a poignant part of our past, gone from the present. In the meantime, let us remember to cherish every word of every story and every memory even when we feel that we already know it by heart. And with equal love, let us also remember to cherish the stories of our Sephardi and Mizrahi friends who lived through – or whose ancestors lived through – the Farhud and the horrors and expulsions in the Middle East and North Africa.
Whether helping to make minyan at the funeral of a Holocaust survivor who was the last living member of his family, or joining interfaith friends to help the homeless or working for peace, we are all enriched by our Jewish heritage that teaches us to live by the words of Rabbi Tarfon, who said, “it is not incumbent upon us to complete the task, but neither are we free to abstain from it.”
 (Pirkei Avot 2:20)