Father, grandfather, righteous man. Born May 24, 1922, in Biala Podlaska, Poland. Died Oct. 28, 2011, in Toronto of cancer, aged 89.
A week after his grandson’s birth two years ago, Elias Gefen was running errands close to his home in his electric wheelchair when a car struck him. He fell into a coma, a grim injury for an 87-year-old stroke survivor.
Yet Eli was no ordinary survivor. When he was 17, the Germans corralled the Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw into a ghetto designed to expedite their extermination. Eli crawled out from under the wall and made his way by train to Russia, where he was arrested on false charges of espionage and sent to a Soviet gulag near the Arctic Circle.
After a brutal year of slave labour, Eli was released. He wandered Eurasia until he crumpled up in Turkmenistan to die of typhoid fever – only to be taken in by a Jewish doctor who nursed him through a three-week delirium.
When Eli gave his testimonial at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial in 2004, there were moments when he wept over what he had lived. His mother had died when he was 13 of septicemia, innocent of all that was to come, including the slaughter of her husband and three of her six children along with 200 members of the larger Gefen family. He cried when he recounted that, upon his return to Poland right after the war to visit her grave, he discovered the entire Jewish cemetery had been obliterated.
Eli also wept when he recounted that the world-renowned surgeon who treated his son Edward for polio, Dr. William Mustard, refused to take payment when he found out Eli was a refugee newly arrived in Canada and struggling to build a new life. Eli had little experience of gentiles treating Jews with compassion.
Through his 67 years of marriage to Henia, Eli showed his three sons, Harvey, Edward and Harry, what it is to be a gentle and devoted husband. He was enormously proud to see his three grandchildren, Ashley, Logan and Jacob, embark on free and safe lives, filled with opportunity, in Canada.
Eli worked relentlessly to support his young family in jobs as diverse as roofer, store owner and landlord. Harry routinely watched as Eli, having settled a business deal, would throw in an extra value to the other side, showing the practical and moral virtue of generosity of spirit.
Eli never wavered in his Jewish faith. Daily prayer was a constant in his life, and he followed the ancient practice of laying on phylacteries until, at 83, a stroke rendered the task impossible.
He recovered from the car accident at 87. But days before his release from hospital, he learned he had lymphoma. Over the past two years, as his grandchild Jacob was learning to walk and speak, Eli was losing those capabilities. He found deep solace at the end of his life by daily watching Jacob embrace with exuberance the coil that he was casting off; a renewal of lives stolen – and lived.
By Susan G. Drummond, Harry Gefen’s wife.