EIGHTY-ONE years after Milan Bierenkrant was forced to leave cheder because the Nazis had invaded Czechoslovakia, he finally celebrated his bar mitzvah last Shabbat, on the occasion of his 90th birthday.
Recalling the impact of the war which saw him sent to Hungary by his parents who thought he would be safe there, the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen survivor told The AJN this week, “I tried to continue my Jewish education, but I wasn’t able to have a bar mitzvah.”
Almost two decades ago, aged 73, Bierenkrant decided he still had time to celebrate the simcha, and set his sights on his 93rd birthday.
“As I got older my 93rd birthday seemed further and further away,” he said.
“I was scared I wouldn’t have a bar mitzvah, so I decided to celebrate on my 90th birthday and now I have.”
Bierenkrant said the ceremony at the Yeshivah Centre was very emotional, and he constantly thought about the bar mitzvah of his older brother David who died during the Shoah.
Bierenkrant, who was twice selected to be murdered but survived, told the packed congregation that David was facing certain death alone in Bergen-Belsen’s typhus block.
“I remembered my promise in Budapest that we would never be separated,” he said.
“I decided to join my brother despite the fact that I was free of the disease and fabricated a temperature so I could join him there.
“He passed away and I survived. My consolation was that he didn’t die alone; he knew he had his little brother by his side.”
Saying he was humbled by all those who attended, Bierenkrant said, “I have been overwhelmed with all your good wishes not because of my age but because of who I am.”
His son Ron reflected on his father’s life, and how his bar mitzvah differed from the usual journey from childhood to adulthood.
“Dad never had the opportunity or the luxury of this orderly transition,” he said.
“He was thrust into manhood by his circumstances and it was through his and his brother’s strength and street smarts that Dad was able to survive and be with us today to celebrate his 90th birthday and his very belated bar mitzvah.”
Ron also noted how incredible it is to see so many people walk up to his father and engage with him every week walking to and from shule.
He added, “Dad, you can tell by looking around here today across this unprecedented and packed crowd just how far reaching you are across your friends and across the whole community, who are all here to show their love and respect for you on this great occasion.”