A Borehamwood batmitzvah girl and her family turned her simchah into a moving memorial to a 10-year-old Holocaust victim.
Yavneh College pupil Leah Stepsky had asked her teachers to replicate an Israeli scheme which links bar- and batmitzvah students with young Holocaust victims through birth dates.
When teachers contacted the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, they were told that no victim had a birthday matching Leah’s. Instead, staff suggested using her first name and her mother’s maiden name to pair her with Polish girl Leah Fishman, who was murdered in October 1942.
While browsing the museum’s archives, Leah’s mother, Avril, discovered a page of testimony from Leah Fishman’s brother, Eli, who moved to America after surviving Auschwitz.
“It said he lived in New Jersey,” Mrs Stepsky said. “So I searched online and found a shul in the town where he lives. I looked at their website and found he had been the rabbi there but had retired in 1997.
“I was completely focused on making contact with the family. Eventually I found a birth announcement for his granddaughter, who was named after Leah and another sister who was killed, Hannah.”
Through the synagogue, Mrs Stepsky was put in touch with the rabbi’s wife, Eileen, who explained how he had been separated from his sisters, brother and parents after they were deported to Nazi camps.
After the war, he worked as an assistant to the Chief Rabbi of the American zone in West Germany before moving to the US in the 1950s.
At her barmitzvah this month, Leah Stepsky used her dvar Torah to tell the story of Leah Fishman’s life before lighting a candle in her memory. Other members of the Stepsky family lit candles in honour of Fishman family members.
In a message read out at the service, Rabbi Fishman said: “We feel a bottomless depth of emotion upon hearing, for the first time, their names and their lives memorialised in such a fashion.
“It somehow alleviates the sense of total loss to know that they are remembered and honoured for their lives.”
Eileen Fishman said the episode had brought back painful memories for her husband, but “after thinking it through, we began to realise that Leah’s batmitzvah and the memorialisation of our Leah and other members of the family is a way of celebrating our Leah’s life, rather than only mourning her untimely death.
“Our children, who feel the depth of the loss of an entire family they could never know, were very moved and appreciative. In a very strange way, it gives some solace.”
Leah Stepsky said she felt “really lucky to have been batmitzvah on behalf of Leah Fishman. It’s really sad to hear about what happened to her and her family and their feelings about it. I hope that as I grow up, I can keep her name and her family’s name in the minds of generations to come.”