Decades after surviving the Holocaust, ‘hope’ finds enduring friendship

     From left: Joan Leof and Tikva (née Polsky) are shown in their 1960 high school senior year book photos. (Image courtesy of Joan Leof)

    From left: Joan Leof and Tikva (née Polsky) are shown in their 1960 high school senior year book photos. (Image courtesy of Joan Leof)

    After reconnecting with my friend Tikva, I now see that she and her story are a testimony to the best of humanity — the parents who relinquished their child in hopes that she would survive, the Christian family who took her in, the aunt who brought her to Israel, and the relatives in America who adopted and loved her.

    High school reunions were never my thing. Hoopla a few years ago about the 50-year reunion of my suburban Philadelphia high school didn’t change that. But I did pause a moment to study the list of deceased classmates.

    And I did remember my friend Tikva, whose name means “hope” in Hebrew.

    A reunion for two

    Obtaining contact information for her was easy. And she responded quickly to my note. Her voice on my phone machine sounded so rich — excited, gentle, uninhibited, with a Lithuanian accent much thicker than I remembered.

    On my train ride to our reunion for two, I remembered the things that made Tikva special to me five decades prior. She was the first foreign friend I ever had. I hated the lily-white, plastic suburbs where we both lived, and she was the first taste of diversity that would be a lifelong craving for me.

    All I knew was that she came from Lithuania, her parents had been killed in the Holocaust, and she had been adopted by American relatives who lived in our community. She was the first adopted person I knew.

    Most profound for me at the age of 15 when I met her, was the awakening of what I now understand as compassion. I’m sure I didn’t grasp the full meaning of the word back then, but at our reunion Tikva told me, “You always cared about the underdog.”

    She said I never asked questions in high school about what had happened to her. I found it hard to believe, because I’ve been told since childhood that I am sometimes too inquisitive. Was it because her adoptive mother told me she didn’t like to talk about it? Or that absolutely nothing was taught about the Holocaust in my high school to prompt further questioning? Maybe as a troubled teen, I was just too self-absorbed.

    Faith and survival

    I did know that her parents had hidden her in an underground bunker and that they had been killed. However, the series of miracles that conveyed her from the bunker to Philadelphia was unknown to me all these years. Even at our reunion, I heard just the bare bones of the story. In the four years since that reconnection, I have not only learned every detail from Tikva, I’ve also read the book her husband, Sheldon Jeral, wrote about her, “Tikva Means Hope.”

    Knowing that the Nazis were coming to their ghetto to take away all of the children, her parents hid Tikva, their only child, when she was two and a half years old. All of the other children were taken. She survived in the bunker, weakening daily.

    Fearing the Nazis would return, her parents took an enormous risk in asking a total stranger, a Catholic, if she would take Tikva. They knew full well that she could turn them over to the Nazis, but it was a risk they felt they had to take. The woman declined, saying she was afraid it would jeopardize the safety of her own children. But when she went home and told her husband, he said they had to go back and get Tikva as a way to repay Jesus. He reminded his wife that a family had rescued her as a child when she had been abandoned by her parents.

    Tikva’s parents made the Catholic family promise that, when the war was over, they would make the girl’s rescue known, in case her family were searching for her. Indeed, one day after the war ended, a woman appeared and told Tikva that she was her mother, and she took her to Israel. Only after several years there did the woman confess that she was really her mother’s sister and that there was another relative in America who could offer Tikva a lot more than she and her husband could in Israel.

    Hope endures

    After reconnecting with Tikva over these four years, I now see that she and her story are a testimony to the best of humanity — the parents who relinquished their child in hopes that she would survive, the Christian family who took her in, the aunt who brought her to Israel, and the relatives in America who adopted and loved her.

    Fifty years after our friendship had lapsed, I have discovered a humble and courageous woman with a spirit reflecting the meaning of her name. She has survived an underground bunker, bonding with and losing four mothers, and an adult life of integrating those wounds — and creating her own victories. She became a social worker and has two sons and two grandsons.

    I am comforted to be friends again with someone who knew me and my family half a century ago. And I am grateful to have the opportunity to make up for all the questions that I didn’t know how to ask when we were teenagers. Our high school reunion for two was a perfect celebration of that childhood friendship and a toast to our future one. And it has given me a much deeper understanding of the meaning of hope.

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