Sonia Apfelblum, a Holocaust survivor, became a bat mitzvah at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo on May 12, 2022. (Photo/Miri Ekshtein)
Sonia Apfelblum, a Holocaust survivor, became a bat mitzvah at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo on May 12, 2022. (Photo/Miri Ekshtein)

Two Holocaust survivors celebrate long-delayed b’nai mitzvah in San Mateo

Sonia Apfelblum and David Diamond stood beaming on the bimah, having just chanted Torah for their b’nai mitzvah. Cheering family members and friends threw candies. The rabbis stood by, smiling. There was challah and dancing, there were speeches, there were blessings and a fine catered lunch.

But this was no ordinary b’nai mitzvah ceremony. Apfelblum, 81, and Diamond, 91, came of age long ago. Both are Holocaust survivors who endured harrowing childhoods in war-torn Europe. And both fulfilled long-deferred dreams on May 12 in the sanctuary of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

Reflecting back on the day, Apfelblum called her bat mitzvah “the most beautiful thing I ever did.”

“The reason I felt it was important is that no matter how old you are, what aspirations you have in life, you should not let anybody stop you,” said Apfelblum, who lives in San Carlos. “Don’t wait for anybody to give you approval. To me, this was something no money can buy.”

Associate Rabbi Lisa Kingston, who officiated, said she knew the occasion would be special even before she met either celebrant. “But then meeting David and Sonia, learning their stories about why they wanted to read from Torah, encountering their unique spirits, and ultimately watching them each achieve a long-awaited dream is something hard to describe in words,” she said.

Diamond and Apfelblum met in Café by the Bay, a venerable program run by Jewish Family and Children’s Services, where Holocaust survivors gather weekly to shmooze, offer mutual support and sometimes even laugh.

It was at Café by the Bay that the two also befriended Naama Lugasi, who runs the program’s Peninsula chapter and heads JFCS’ Israel department. Three years ago, Lugasi asked Diamond if he harbored any unfulfilled dreams that her agency might help him achieve. “He immediately told me he wanted a bar mitzvah,” she recalled.

Covid delayed any ceremony, but when Apfelblum mentioned late last year that she, too, wanted to become a bat mitzvah, Lugasi got to work and the JFCS wheels began turning. Aviv Siegel and Eyal Akiva served as tutors, teaching Diamond and Apfelblum their Torah portion, in this case Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17). A small army of some 30 JFCS volunteers signed up to handle catering, driving, music, photography and flowers. Months of planning ensued.

It all came together May 12.

After chanting Torah, Apfelblum, dressed in a bright, vermilion-colored blouse, stood at the podium to deliver a d’var Torah.

“A brachah [blessing] is about potentials,” she said. “You can take classes, explore new cultures and different countries. When Jacob was on his deathbed, he was always giving blessings to his children. I would like to give a brachah to my family members, to my wonderful teachers, my longtime friends and my overwhelming Jewish community. My life is a huge brachah. I’m always grateful for everything I have.”

As a young child, she had little. Sonia Schneider Apfelblum was born in Russia after her parents fled Poland soon after the Nazi invasion of 1939. Her father, Joseph Schneider, ended up in a Siberian munitions factory while her mother stayed behind sewing Soviet army uniforms. But no children were permitted among the women working as seamstresses.

“I was hidden in a cellar with other children for four years,” Apfelblum recalled. “It was a nightmare. I was playing in a crib with dead babies.”

The family reunited in 1944, then spent years in a displaced persons camp in Germany. Though the war had ended, the family’s ordeal was not over. Apfelblum’s mother reached an uncle living in Belgium, where the family hoped to emigrate. The uncle paid a smuggler to sneak the family across the German border, as postwar Belgium was not willing to accept Jewish refugees.

“We were smuggled at night,” Apfelblum recalled. “We were walking cross country. It took us a week of walking.”

The family lived as stateless persons in Belgium for years before their application to immigrate to the United States was approved. In 1954, they made their way to San Francisco, and ever since, life has been good for Apfelblum. Her dad opened a deli and later bought a grocery store. “He died a tycoon,” she said of her father, who passed away in 2005.

Back at Peninsula Temple Beth El, Apfelblum sat down and Diamond answered the call to Torah, standing ramrod straight with a tallit draped across his shoulders. He, too, chanted in a strong voice, and then rather than give a speech, he sat on the bimah opposite his son Todd, who interviewed his father about his childhood.

Diamond had told his two sons little about his wartime experience. Finally, at age 19, Todd asked his dad, “Who are you?” That’s when Diamond fetched something from a drawer: his false identity papers, complete with the swastika of the Third Reich stamped on them.

Diamond was born in Poland into a prosperous, secular Jewish family. After the 1939 invasion, the family was ordered into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. A policeman friend of the family somehow secured that false ID for young David, allowing him to move about the city freely. It turned out to be his ticket to survival. Barely.

“One day I got caught,” Diamond recalled. “They took me to Gestapo headquarters. There were seven lanes of men to be examined and shipped to Germany to work in a shoe factory.”

David Diamond reads from the Torah during his bar mitzvah at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo on May 19, 2022.(Photo/Miri Ekshtein)
David Diamond reads from the Torah during his bar mitzvah at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo on May 12, 2022.
(Photo/Miri Ekshtein)

Each Polish man had to submit to a physical exam. Diamond feared the Germans would discover his Jewishness the minute he was forced to drop his pants. By the time he reached them at the end of a long line, the doctor simply waved him through. His luck held out when, after arriving in Berlin, illness prevented him from going to the shoe factory on the appointed date. He was stuck in the hospital.

That same day, the Brits bombed the factory.

Still keeping his Jewish identity a secret, Diamond found work on a farm. There was no pay, but at least he ate. Then, one day, Russian tanks rolled across the countryside.

“Russia liberated me,” Diamond said. “The tank column came into the little town. I saw a commander jump from the tank. I saw he had a Star of David on his chest.”

His journey from Berlin to California took a long and winding road. He made his way to Warsaw, which had been reduced to rubble, and then returned to Germany, where he was taken in by a Christian family. Soon, Diamond emigrated to Palestine, settling on the northern kibbutz of Ramat Yohanan. Once the 1948 War of Independence engulfed the region, he took up arms to fight for the new State of Israel. In a firefight on his kibbutz, his best friend took a bullet and died in Diamond’s arms.

From there, he made his way to New York, where an uncle was living. He met and married his wife, Flora, and opened a drugstore. After 10 years in New York, he lived in Florida and then, in 1996, relocated to California to be closer to his grandchildren. Now a widower, he lives in San Mateo.

On a trip to Israel in the 1990s, Diamond went to the Kotel with the intention of having his long-delayed bar mitzvah there. But he and his tour group had a bus to catch, so he missed the opportunity. Until now.

“Today is my happiest day in my life,” Diamond said from the bimah, “that I finally came to close the circle. Thank God I’m healthy. I have my sons and my friends.”

And to the yips and yawps of Itzik Lerner’s klezmer clarinet, the ceremony drew to a close, as the two newly minted b’nai mitzvah and their loved ones danced on the bimah.

How does he feel now, several weeks on? “I feel a little older and smarter I guess,” Diamond said. “It feels great my dream finally came true.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.