My father, who passed away recently at the age of 82, shared with me a truly amazing story about his childhood.

My father, Bernard (Baruch) Zeldman, was born in the town of Simferopol, Russia in 1934. He was nine years old when Russia entered World War Two to fight against the Nazi threat. His childhood mostly consisted of him, his 15-year-old sister, their mother and grandmother fleeing eastward as the Nazis pushed further into Russia. They lived in bombed out buildings, basement shelters, overflowing refugee centers and sometimes open fields where, after days of traveling by foot, they’d just dropped from exhaustion. Nourishment often consisted of furtively digging potatoes out of the frozen ground of local farmers in the middle of the night.

My father and mother

The Russian government, trying to protect their citizens, sent hundreds of them, including my father and his family, on a large barge that traveled east down the river. They would stop at neighboring villages and ask locals to take in families. The response in most places was, “We’ll take anybody but Jews.”

As the days wore on and rations were running low, my father, at this point seven or eight years old, was getting quite sick and weak. At every stop, they were desperately hoping for a salvation. Finally, a young, non-Jewish Russian woman came to the port and said, “I want to take in a Jewish family.” Her name was Mavra and my father and his family lived with her for many months. She saved their lives. Throughout the long, cold Russian winter she fed them, gave them shelter and taught them how to milk the cows, harvest the crops and fix machinery.

But as the Nazis grew ever closer, father and his family had to pick up and leave. He vividly remembers a conversation that took place as they were saying goodbye to Mavra. “You saved our lives and there’s no way we can repay you. You’re not Jewish. Why did you specifically ask to take in a Jewish family?”

At my wedding with my father


Mavra replied, “Years ago when I was young, my parents were imprisoned by the Russians for anti-communist activity. I was alone, and the government sent me to Siberia for two years. After a train ride that lasted days, I arrived late one night at the station in Siberia. I didn’t know a soul, I had no money, and it was absolutely freezing outside. I had no idea how I was going to survive the night, never mind two years!

“And then, out of nowhere, a man appeared and offered to take me into his home. They didn’t have much but they made me a part of their family. They clothed me, fed me and saved my life. But there were a few things that were strange about them. They were always deeply immersed in these big books written in a funny language that reads right to left. The wife always had her hair covered. They had a special ceremonial meal every Friday night and strange holidays and customs. When my exile to Siberia was over and I was getting ready to depart, the father took me aside and said, ‘Mavra, you don’t owe us a thing. We did this purely from our hearts. There’s only one thing I ask. If one day you ever come across Jews that are in trouble or need help, pass on this favor to them.’”

69-Year-Old Bar Mitzvah Boy

My father and his sister lived through the war. In 1945 he came to Canada by boat as a 13-year-old boy. He never had a bar mitzvah. I don’t think he even knew what it was. And he was never able to track down Mavra after the war. He married my mother and sent his three children to Jewish day school, and witnessed over time how one after the other, we all became observant, got married, and had our own kids.

At age 68, my father announced that it was time to make himself a bar mitzvah! He contacted our local Rabbi, cracked his teeth over the Hebrew, the Torah reading and blessings, the whole shebang. For his 69th birthday, he invited the extended family, all his old friends that helped him settle in Canada, and singlehandedly cooked the food for 80-person Shabbat lunch (he loved to cook).

During his bar mitzvah speech, he said in not so many words, “My wife and I have three kids that have become observant, and all of our grandchildren are observant. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

My parents, me and my siblings

My parents made their home kosher, began observing Shabbat and going to shul regularly. He lived for 13 years after his bar mitzvah.

Think about the impact that one act of kindness can make. It began with the kindness from an unknown Jewish family in Siberia that led to another act of kindness by a young non-Jewish woman to a Jewish family, that led to giving life to my father, his children, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, not to mention the impact each of us is making in our own lives. One act triggered never-ending reverberations that are still being felt today.