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Dying alone, and ‘chessed shel emet’

When you're the community rabbi, you know you may have to bury the occasional 95-year-old stranger; what you don't expect is your connection to him
Rabbi Daniel Epstein officiating at the funeral of Herbert Max Fraenkel, over Facebook Live, on April 27, 2020. (courtesy)
Rabbi Daniel Epstein officiating at the funeral of Herbert Max Fraenkel, over Facebook Live, on April 27, 2020. (courtesy)

On Friday morning, my husband walked through the door in tears. I mean a full-fledged deluge. Was it naive of me to think that this whole COVID-19 thing wouldn’t get to him? We have been the rabbinical couple in our 1,000+ strong North London community for the past six years. In that time, he has had to bury upwards of 250 people. 

And then the pandemic hit. 

During the peak of the outbreak, he was burying between 2-5 people a day. He did his best to give each family the respect and care they deserve. Even though almost every one of these funerals took place over Zoom, he called family members, checked in with each one, and found out what was special and unique in every person who perished. We have held a number of Zoom shivas from our dining room table — better known as Zoom Studio #2 — offering comfort as best we could from a distance. 

How was it not going to get to him? A man who likes to look people in the eye, hear them in their silence, and communicate through nuanced expression? How would he be able to adjust with so many funerals; unable to offer comfort the way he had done so over 250 times before? How was he going to keep his own emotions at bay, when he couldn’t be a comfort to others?

Yet, on Friday, he wasn’t crying for the many lives that had been lost, the dozens of funerals he had done (many of those were accompanied by a Zoom call and virtual attendees), and not for the Zoom shiva with over 160 participants from around the world. He was crying for a man who died alone, whose funeral was conducted on Facebook Live.

Herbert Max Frankel 1924-2020

The case of Herbert Fraenkel has touched us in the most unexpected of ways. Herbert Fraenkel died at the end of January, at the age of 95, alone in his home in Winchmore Hill, here in North London. The neighbors reported to the local council that they hadn’t seen him for a few days. The police broke into the flat to find Herbert had died. The environmental protection officer who came to deal with his body found a menorah in the house. Aside from his name and a menorah, no other relations, family members, friends, or community associations could be found. Herbert died completely alone. 

As the months passed and no one came forward to claim the body, the need to dispose of Herbert’s body became more urgent. Too much time had passed and it was high time to lay the body to rest. Paul, the environmental protection officer, insisted to his colleagues that he felt that the man was Jewish and thus should not be cremated and that Herbert’s parents needed to be found; with the menorah and the man’s circumcision being the only clues that identified Herbert as a Jew. Paul persisted and was in touch with the only Jew he knew in the council, Daniel Anderson, a local Labour councilor for Enfield. Daniel then contacted his rabbi — my husband. 

A small group went to incredible lengths to identify Herbert Fraenkel as a Jew. Between Daniel Anderson, my husband, amateur genealogist Andrew Gilbert and a long-time friend in Israel who also takes his genealogical skills seriously, they combed through records trying to piece together Herbert’s life story and how he came to die alone, estranged from friends and family. 

Martin & Ernestine (Ella) Fraenkel married in 1920 in Berlin and Herbert was born in 1924. In the early 1930s, together with his parents, he emigrated to Britain the family settled in London. They were part of a large family back in Germany but with the rise of the Nazi party and the subsequent atrocities of World War II, the family had become dispersed to all corners of the globe; some settling in South America, the USA, and Israel. Herbert’s uncle even married the daughter of famous Hebrew lexicographer Eliezer Ben Yehudah. But after the war, the parents seemed to lose contact with the extended family and the small family unit of three lived a very solitary life. 

In 1953, Herbert’s father passed away in East London and his mother came to live with him until she passed away in 1981 although the intrepid researchers couldn’t find where they were buried. Herbert became an engineer and an inventor; never marrying or becoming part of the North London Jewish community. 

Last Monday, my husband buried Herbert over Facebook Live with an audience comprised of our community members and people from around the world, who accompanied them both on Herbert’s final journey.

Would this have been possible in our pre-Corona world? Would people the world over have paid their respects to a 95-year-old man who died alone with no family and, apparently friendless? Would he have disappeared into anonymity? We will never know. 

Yet our team of amateur researchers was relentless. Even once Herbert was buried and his identity as a Jew confirmed, they kept on searching; trying to piece together the mystery of this man. 

On Friday morning, what had set off the waterworks for my husband, Daniel, is that the researchers had connected Daniel’s family to the deceased Herbert Fraenkel.

In July of 1940, over 2,500 enemy aliens were sent from Britain to Australia, they embarked on the infamous ship called the Dunera. Over 2,000 of the men on the ship were Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany. The ship held twice its capacity. During its perilous 57 day journey to Australia, the inmates were treated deplorably by the British officers, often beaten, undernourished and their possessions taken from them. The inmates spent most of the voyage below deck, aside from 10 minutes of exercise above deck daily under heavy guard. It is said that some of the guards would smash beer bottles on the deck for inmates to walk on. When the ship finally arrived in Sydney, the first Australians on board were medical officers who were appalled by the condition of the inmates. In contrast to the behavior of the Army personnel, the ship’s crew and officers showed genuine kindness to the internees, and some later testified at the soldiers’ courts-martial.

Onboard the Dunera were many people who rose to prominence later in life. Sigmund Freud’s grandson was on the ship, as was the 17-year-old Herbert with his father, Martin. 

And along with these men was my husband’s grandfather; Josef Heimann.

My husband never knew his grandfather, Josef died in 1969, three years before Daniel was born. What Daniel does know is patchy. Josef was born in Schildberg, Germany (now Ostrzeszów in Poland) on December 25th, 1903 but eventually settled in Berlin. He made his way to England, but on June 21, 1940, he was detained in London. On July 10, 1940, along with 2,541 other detainees, all classified as “enemy aliens,” were embarked aboard Dunera at Liverpool.

Joseph had worked as a tailor and cutter in Berlin and he was married and had a child. In the 1930s as anti-Semitism rose in Germany the first Jews taken to concentration camps were men. Joseph was detained in Buchenwald in 1938, after his release the family thought it best that he escape to Britain while he still could and that his wife and young child would be safe from the atrocities to come. 

Upon arriving in Britain, Josef was interned as an enemy alien and subsequently sent to Australia aboard the Dunera along with Herbert Frankel and his father, Martin. Josef’s wife Else and daughter Erna were rounded up in May 1942. They were deported to Lublin, Poland, and murdered, most probably in Majdanek concentration camp, Elsa was 33, and Erna was 7. 

After returning to the UK in 1941 from Australia, Josef remarried another Berlin native Lotte Mailich in 1947 who had also found shelter in Britain (a story for another time). The family later moved to Brighton and opened up a tailor shop. They had two daughters; one of them was my husband’s mother. 

Lotte & Joseph Heimann

Aside from the very thin framework that I have outlined, my husband has never known much about the man he is named after. Aside from the bare facts. 

Any kindness done for the dead in Judaism is called in Hebrew a “chessed shel emet” – a true act of kindness; one that can never be repaid. The emotion, when it came to Daniel, felt like a gift, a kindness from God, after burying so many – Daniel felt he was being gifted a piece of his own identity. Being able to place 17-year-old Herbert Fraenkel and 36-year-old Josef Heimann on the Dunera together and then subsequently in internment camps in Hay and Tatura, Australia felt to my husband like a gift, giving what he does not just meaning, but now slotting an additional piece into the puzzle of his own identity. 

I don’t think we will ever look back at this period with joy, but we will find moments to be grateful for. The times we learned something new about ourselves, our loved ones, and the mysteries of the universe. 

This blog post is dedicated to the memories of:

Herbert Fraenkel 1924-2020

Josef Heimann 1903-1969

About the Author
Ilana has collected many experiences over the last few decades, from interior designer to international educator, qualifying as a pastry chef and working as a journalist for a number of publications. Ilana has lived in New York, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, and Israel and settled in London six years ago with her husband Rabbi Daniel Epstein and their four children. Ilana is the Rebbetzen of Cockfosters and N Southgate United Synagogue, the Jewish Futures Director of Projects and the founder and director of Ta’am.
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