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.