A man, whose first bar mitzvah was hastily carried out inside a Russian gulag while fleeing the Nazis, last weekend celebrated his third bar mitzvah at the age of 96.
Fiszel Sztokman was born in Bilgoraj, southeast Poland, where his parents had a haberdashery shop.
Shortly after the war commenced, their shtetl, home and shop were bombed in quick succession. Fiszel, his parents, Yosef and Frimet, and his older sister, Sara, were forced to leave with just the clothes on their back and roam the countryside, pleading for food and shelter in neighbouring towns.
At one point during this nomadic journey, Fiszel recalls a German Luftwaffe spotted them and began its descent towards them while opening fire. His father hurriedly beckoned the family into the long grass and instructed them to lie flat and say “Shema Yisrael”, in what looked likely to be their final prayer.
“By the grace of God,” Fiszel says, they survived the night and continued their journey at first light.
Before long, the family had the opportunity to flee to Siberia through a friendship that his old sister Sara, who was eight years his senior, established with a Russian soldier who was being relocated there. That decision to venture towards the unknown likely saved their lives.
The Siberian arctic temperatures were the coldest Fiszel had ever experienced. The family were forced into a Russian gulag which, although not a place anyone would normally voluntarily live, was “not comparable to the German concentration camps”, Fiszel hastened to add.
It was in this gulag under extremely challenging conditions and unrelenting hunger, which led to him suffering from chronic stomach ulcers for decades, that Fiszel would have his first bar mitzvah. In the winter of 1943, bedridden with weakness from emaciation, his father mustered the energy to call out to his family, requesting that they approach him with four small cups of vodka for a “L’Chaim”. The following year, his father died, aged 53.
Fiszel, along with his sister and mother, survived the remainder of the war and in 1946 were evacuated to London. There, Fiszel met his would-be wife Lily in 1955, with whom he had three children, Evelyn, Laurence, and David.
Fiszel became a well-known member of Finchley Synagogue, having spent many years since the mid 1960s as part of its choir. At the age of 83, it was where he celebrated his second bar mitzvah.
Among some Jews, a man who reaches the age of 83 will have a second bar mitzvah, under the logic that in the Torah it says that a normal lifespan is 70 years, and so every subsequent 13 years is marked by a bar mitzvah.
Last weekend, surrounded by 30 of those closest to him, including his seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren, Fiszel celebrated his third bar mitzvah at Stanmore Synagogue.
Fiszel’s son, David, said: “Joy pervaded the day, and unlike my father’s first bar mitzvah, this time there was no reason to have this one in hiding or hurriedly.”
Singing and music have remained Fiszel’s passions for many decades, when he is not avidly reading Jewish religious texts. Faith remains an integral part of his life and philosophy.
When David visits his father almost every day, they embrace, kiss, and without fail, Fiszel will say: “Hodo L’Hashem Ki Tov Ki L’Olam Chasdo”, meaning: “Give thanks to Hashem, His kindness endures forever.”