I never expected to come face to face with history in an airport shuttle bus.
My plane out of JFK was late taking off, causing many passengers, including me, to miss our connections. At 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, a bunch of us wound up marooned in Salt Lake City, trudging through the terminal as airport vendors rolled down security bars to close their shops.
Among the passengers, I had noticed a courtly, distinguished, elderly gentleman with a beard, in a black suit, white shirt, tie, and a black Homburg, accompanied by a younger man wearing a yarmulke. I guessed grandfather and grandson.
Delta rescheduled flights for the next morning and put us stranded travelers up in Comfort Suites for the night. Although I was weary and eager to get home after an exhausting week in NYC, the delay didn’t upset me at all.
Perhaps I felt a premonition that it was meant to be.
The next morning in the hotel lobby, waiting for the shuttle to catch our rescheduled flights, I again saw the elderly man, formally dressed in his suit and Homburg, assisted by the younger man.
I took a seat in the van near the sliding door. The older man climbed up the steps and asked if he could sit beside me. I said, “Of course, I reserved a seat for you.”
He smiled and we started a pleasant conversation about our destinations. He was obviously sharp and intelligent with a twinkling wit. I said I was going home to Montana. He asked how hard the winters were.
“Sometimes twenty below,” I answered.
He shook his head and said that was too cold for him at his age. “I’m ninety.”
“You don’t look a day over sixty-five,” I teased.
He chuckled. “You must get your eyes checked.”
He added, “There are three bad things about getting old. First, you lose your memory. Then…” (long pause) “…I forget what the other two are!” Perfect George Burns comic timing.
He was headed to Spokane. At that point, the younger man with him piped up from the seat behind us:
“You’re sitting next to a celebrity. He’s giving a speech today in front of a thousand people at the convention center.”
“Oh really? What about?”
The older man said he was a Holocaust survivor and would share his experience.
Beside me sat an icon of history. I was blown away.
His voice dropped lower and he grew pensive.
“It is painful to talk about but I must do it so people will learn and never let it happen again.”
He went on to say he’d outlived his wife of more than 50 years and two daughters. His pain was palpable.
I couldn’t imagine how difficult it was to lose your family of origin, then years later, lose the family you’d created.
“It must be hard to be the last one left standing,” I said.
“Yes,” he answered softly.
The shuttle pulled up to the terminal curb. His twinkle returned and he said, “My name is Nissan, like the car.”
“I’m Debbie. It was a privilege to meet you,” I said, my heart swelling.
He sweetly said it was a pleasure and honor to meet me but added, with a glint of mischief, “I still advise you to get your eyes checked.”
I gave him my business card, we shook hands, and said goodbye to find our respective concourses.
When I got home, I googled: “Nissan, Holocaust survivor, Spokane Convention Center” and discovered the following:
His full name is Nissan Krakinowski, from Kaunas, Lithuania. In 1941, as a Jewish teenager, he was sent to concentration camps with his large extended family. He endured several prisons including Dachau.
Before Nissan was separated from his mother, she made him promise to always stay with his brother, Chaim, entreating, “If you’re going to die, die together.”
The young brothers lived on moldy bread and carried bags of concrete as slave laborers. At one point, Nissan was beaten and stomped by a Nazi guard.
He lay on the ground in a pool of blood, certain he would die. But his spirit was stronger than the jackboot.
Near the end of the war, the Nazis planted dynamite to destroy the camp. Chaim was too sick to move.
Other prisoners urged Nissan to leave his brother behind and escape with them but he honored his promise to his mother. He stayed with Chaim even though they would likely die.
But, instead, the camp was liberated.
He later learned the prisoners who escaped had been mistaken for German soldiers and shot by Allied planes. If he had deserted his brother and gone with them, he would have been killed. His promise to his mother saved his life.
Out of more than 100 family members, only Nissan and Chaim survived.
Nissan went on to build a new life in New York, marrying and having two daughters, while establishing a successful hat factory.
“It’s nice to be important,” he says, “but it’s more important to be nice, it’s more important to be kind.”
According to an article in Time magazine, fewer than 100,000 Holocaust survivors were still living in 2016. Two years later, the number has dwindled.
Yet, by a fortunate coincidence of missed flights and a chance shuttle ride, I was granted the opportunity to meet one of the few remaining witnesses to that dark history—Nissan.
Our encounter had been too brief for me. I emailed the rabbi who’d arranged the speech in Spokane and asked him to please relay a message to Nissan.
Almost immediately, I received an email from Emily Sinensky who considers Nissan her “grandfather.” A short time later, a text arrived from Sam Blau, the younger man who’d accompanied Nissan on the trip. Nissan and Sam have adopted each other as “father” and “son.”
Since Nissan doesn’t have email, Sam and Emily have been kind enough to act as intermediaries, reading my messages to him and sending his responses.
I am reassured that, even though his family is gone, Nissan is loved and cherished by Emily and Sam, plus a host of other concerned, dedicated friends. Their relationship may not be blood but I believe there’s DNA that connects hearts.
In one message, Nissan reminded me: “My advice to you is please go check your eyes.”
No, Nissan, I see you just fine—a wise, kind, funny man of incredible strength who relives the agony of the past to teach others. In my eyes, that’s truly beautiful.
Staying behind with Chiam is one of the most amazing stories I’ve heard! Touched me in a way that Sophie’s Choice touched me. Putting real faces to history does so much more than an academic history book can. Thanks for telling your story and this man’s heroic tale.
Thank you, Karen. Nissan was amazing and his spirit lives on.
Thank you for sharing your encounter with Uncle Nissan Krakinowski (RIP). On September 20th, 2018 Nissan Krakinowski departed life. Nissan ‘s remaining family of grand and great grand nieces and nephews will gather at his brother-in law Joesph Ceder (better known as Papa Joe) home in Far Rockaway (NY) to sit in remembrance, as still other family members living in Israel, Australia mourn Nissan’s passing. Nissan Krakinowski spirit Shone as a beacon of light, illuminating all he came in contact with.
Rest peacefully Uncle Nissan.
Thank you for letting me know. May I offer a prayer in Nissan’s memory? This prayer was written by the late Alan Fine, formerly the rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco. Friends sent this to me because they knew how heartbroken I was about Nissan’s death. It was a comfort.
Life Is A Journey
Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
But life is a journey.
A going, a growing from stage to stage:
From childhood to maturity and youth to old age.
From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion and then perhaps, to wisdom.
From weakness to strength or strength to weakness and often back again.
From health to sickness and back we pray, to health again.
From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion.
From grief to understanding, from fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead:
We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
But life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage,
Made stage by stage…To life everlasting.
Sadly our beloved papa (my adopted Zaydie) was killed when he was hit by a car on September 20th, 2018. We are absolutely devastated by his loss.
Thank you for this article Debbie which so eloquently describes papa.
I am sorry to report that Nissan died last night. My wife and I were lucky and blessed to have known him, and his two daughters (Pessie OBM, and Shayndee OBM). His death us the world’s loss.
A moving, important story (and reminder) well told. I’ve visited Dachau during my Army assignment in Germany after the First Gulf War. Once you’ve been there, one simply doesn’t forget. I understand the same can be said about the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. What is really remarkable and valuable is the lesson Nissan demonstrated for us all – despite adversity, one can move on to be a better person and made a difference in the world. Thank you for sharing this encounter.
Thank you, Larry. To actually visit Dachau must be an unforgettable experience. I can’t even imagine. Nissan spreads kindness and goodwill to whomever he meets. What a testament.
What a touching story, Debbie. Thanks for sharing.
Truly my pleasure, Joanne. What an inspiring man.
Thank you for sharing this, Debbie. God bless Nissan, Emily, and Sam.
You’re welcome, Priscilla, it was my privilege.
Nissan and Emily are very fortunate to have found each other. We benefit from adding your expert voice and sharing their story with your reading public.
Thank you, Sara. Both Nissan and Emily live richer lives from knowing each other. The more people who know Nissan, the better off the world will be.
Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this,Debbie.I have shared it with our family and friends.Never forget!
Thank you, Mary Ellen! Meeting Nissan was an incredible honor I will always remember.
As a religious Jew, this story means a lot to me. The greatest crime we can commit to Holocaust survivors is to forget. Thank you, Debbie, for sharing this story.
How right you are, Eli. Meeting a human being who lived through the Holocaust is much different from reading about it in a book or watching a documentary.