Holocaust survivor tends graves of soldiers killed on Oct. 7

Yaakov Lubinewski’s entire family was murdered by the Nazis eight decades ago and now he spends his time helping others through their own loss


Yaakov Lubinewski, 99, tends the graves of two Israeli soldiers from his town killed during Hamas's Oct. 7 massacre, March 26, 2024. (Credit: Rina Castelnuovo)

(JNS) Walking cane in hand, A small elderly man hovers over the two fresh graves, gingerly watering the potted plants adorning them. He straightens the pictures of the young men, arranges the stones and mementos and cleans off the tombstones.

“I know what pain is,” Yaakov Lubinewski, 99, whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis eight decades ago, told a freshly-bereaved Israeli father nearly six months ago in the aftermath of Hamas's October 7 massacre. “The pain will not pass, and it will be hard to recover, but remember there is something to live for.”

It was, after all, his own life’s lesson—climbing out of the ashes of despair to build a new life—that he was sharing as he neared his centennial year.

“When I heard about the soldiers who had fallen I couldn’t contain myself and burst into tears,” Lubinewski told JNS during an interview on Tuesday in the village cemetery just east of Netanya where his wife, who passed away two years ago, is also buried. “They were just starting their lives. It touched my heart how these parents would live on.”

Lubinewski pledged to the bereaved father, whom he met the day after his son's funeral, that he would take care of the gravesite for as long as he lived.

Lubinewski, accompanied by his faithful caretaker, Anya, has made the half-hour trek to the cemetery on his scooter every day since, walking stick in one hand and watering can in the other. He first stops at the grave of his wife, Mazal, adorned with a rainbow of colorful plants, and, after recounting to her the latest goings-on, makes the short walk over to the military section of the cemetery and the final resting place of the two soldiers from his town who were killed during Hamas's invasion of southern Israel. If he misses a morning, Lubinewski comes in the evening, but he never skips a day, his caretaker said.

“This is Russo, and this is Shay,” he said, gesturing to the gravesites of IDF Staff Sergeants Ofek Russo and Yaron Uri Shay, both of whom were 21 years old when they were killed. “I feel that they are like my own children,” he added. “I will be with them until I die.”

“This is my task now,” he said. “I feel it is a great privilege.”

Yizhar Shay, Yaron's father and a former Israeli government minister, told JNS, “Yaakov entered our lives at the most difficult and painful moment. From the shrapnel of our crushed happiness, he—who climbed out of his own devastating personal family tragedy and built a new life—made it clear to us that there is something to live for.”

Living—and surviving—was something that as a young teenager in Nazi-occupied Poland Lubinewski was determined to do. Born in 1925 to a traditional Jewish family in a village some 40 miles from Warsaw, he remembers keeping the Jewish holidays and the Sabbath together with his three siblings. When the Germans invaded Poland, his family fled to another town, where there were more Jews, including some relatives, but were soon ordered to relocate to the Warsaw Ghetto. (Eight decades later, he still remembers how they were forced to sell his beloved tailor-made bar mitzvah suit ahead of the journey.)

“I don’t know how we managed to live,” he said. “There was no food; illnesses were rampant.” His uncle died of starvation before his eyes.

Desperate, his family managed to get out of the ghetto before it was entirely sealed off, and made their way via a river to a city about 60 miles from Warsaw.

In the spring of 1941, a German sergeant saved Lubinewski and a childhood friend from the clutches of the Nazis by offering them a job as agricultural workers on his estate. He passed the lads off as Poles in Germany after changing their names. The sergeant, Nickel Otto, was among the first non-Jews to be recognized by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as a Righteous Among the Nations.

Lubinewski, who would often cry out the words of the Jewish prayer "Shema Yisrael" at the German farm, felt pangs of conscience and regret at having left his whole family behind in Poland without a parting word, feelings he would carry with him for the rest of his life. His family had been rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, where they all perished. He alone of his whole extended family would survive the Holocaust, working on the German farm with his fake identity.

After the war, Lubinewski became a forest ranger in Poland and felt he was the only Jew left in the world. Then one day he met the childhood friend with whom he had escaped to Germany, who told him of his plans to sail to the Land of Israel with a youth group.

“I was a forest inspector in Poland but I knew I was Jewish and that I needed to be among the Jews,” said Lubinewski. “I told him 'I'm coming with you to the Land of Israel.'”

Arriving in the midst of the War of Independence, Lubinewski was immediately drafted into the ragtag Israeli army.

“There was food; There was bread, margarine and jelly," he said. “I was happy.”

He would subsequently meet his late wife Mazal, with whom he had five children. He now has nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. “It was my wife who brought me out of the dark well of despair to the light, and brought me back to life,” he said, tears welling in his eyes.

After getting a job with the Israeli Agriculture Ministry in the 1950s by highlighting his experience as a forest ranger, he would later become a beekeeper. He built his home with his own hands the large village home he still lives in together with a cat, a dog and some of his family members.

Lubinewski, his astute mind belying his advanced age, clearly recalls the day he embraced his Jewish brothers and sisters in the group that gathered in the Polish forest before making their way to the new State of Israel.

“What has happened to [the unity of] the Jewish people?” he asked.

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