Prof. Avi Rivkind is Hadassah’s world-famous trauma surgeon. Today, April 20, 2017, he is in Poland, for the honoring of the Righteous Gentile who saved his mother. This is the remarkable story he told at the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, where this special ceremony took place.
I have come to Poland from Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel.
Thank you for inviting me.
This is an emotional journey for me.
I am 67 years old, born in Israel, the only child of two survivors, Polish Jews who emerged from the Holocaust with the help of righteous gentiles, while most of their families perished.
I want to tell you about my mother Lucia Epstein.
She and her sister grew up in the city of Grodno. The two girls went to public school, and acquired fluency in Polish, even though they spoke Yiddish at home. There were prayers in school, so the girls had a familiarity with Catholic liturgy and practice, although they remained faithful Jews. In November 1941, Jews were forced into a ghetto.
Their father was a linen merchant, and a leader in the community. He was offered a chance to leave the ghetto but refused unless everyone was let go. In response, he was captured, made to walk through town with a pot of excrement on his head and then slaughtered.
My mother was a brilliant student. She was close to one of her teachers, Zofia Modzelewska, who offered to save her and her family.
The plan was set. My mother left the ghetto first, making her way to the teacher’s house. On the following night, her sister and mother were supposed to leave. It was exactly the middle of the month and the full moon illuminated the streets. Dogs attacked them and tore them to pieces.
The teacher comforted my mother. She washed her and killed the lice that covered her head and body, lice carrying typhus. Zofia saved my mother’s life.
My mother, pretty with dark hair and light eyes pretended to be a Christian for the rest of the war. She wore a cross and went to Church. Her school experience was important. After the war she went to Vilna and then Lodz, where she met my father.
Not long ago, the Israel Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem held an exhibit about teachers in the Holocaust.
Said the curator, “During the Holocaust most people abandoned their Jewish neighbors, turned a blind eye or even participated in the persecution of the Jews. Among them were teachers, who watched as their students were marked, harassed, discriminated against and finally murdered. Only some felt that it was their duty not only to educate and instill values in the classroom, but to live by those ideals, even at the risk of their lives.”
Yad Vashem has recognized those teachers as Righteous Among the Nations.
Today we are adding the name of Zofia Modzelewska.
After marrying, my parents moved to Israel so that we would be part of the Jewish people. My father’s uncle was already living there, farming the land. He had moved there against the family wishes, but by the time my father and mother came all had understood what a wise move it was.
My parents were proud when I went into the Israel Defense Forces. As part of my duties, I had to conduct investigations, which led me to consult with doctors. I realized I wanted to be a doctor too.
I succeeded in becoming a trauma surgeon. In that capacity, I have saved thousands of lives together with my team at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Among those I’ve saved are Jews, Christians and Moslems -and yes-both terror survivors and terrorists.
Every decision I make is informed by my core belief that every patient wants to live. That is what I learned from my family.
Sometimes this credo forces me to try so-called heroic surgery when everything seems lost.
For example, in October 2000, Shimon Ohana, an 18-year-old border police officer, was declared dead in the field. But I asked the ambulance driver to bring him to the hospital. Some decisions are hard to make in the field. I uncovered him, we opened his chest cavity and began to work. He came back to life but remained in a coma for 17 days.
At last, he woke up.
Today, he is a fully functioning young man, a father of two. When I see him, I can’t resist hugging him: He’s my continued reminder that we can’t give up hope.
The lines of ambulances, inevitably, bring a fair percentage of Arab patients to Hadassah Hospital.
We can’t tell whether they are perpetrators or victims. Even if we could, it wouldn’t matter: Everyone who enters the Hadassah Hospital courtyard is treated equally.
And yes, I have operated on terrorists.
Once, I was awakened at 2 a.m. on the Sabbath to do emergency surgery on a terrorist who had been injured while he was being apprehended. I had seen the grisly results of his bus bombings.
More than any other question, friends and visitors and even patients want to know how I feel using my medical training to save the lives of these mass murderers.
Because I’m a doctor, a believing Jew, a human being, I would never allow a patient to die whom I could save. But this saving of life is more than my medical requirements: It’s a mission.
By fixing the holes in their chests and bellies, I’m making a statement that I’m not like those forces of darkness that want to engulf us in blood.
Do they understand? I haven’t the slightest doubt that they do. They thank me. They look at me differently. I and my people are no longer the demons of their ugly propaganda. The Hadassah motto is taken from the prophet Jeremiah who cried for the “healing of my people.”
The healing of all peoples is the only way to rescue the future of this region.
When I began the search for my mother’s rescuer, it was hard to communicate by phone. One of the surgeons I’ve mentored helped me. He was born in Grodno and speaks Russian.
I got to Zofia’s grandson. Little did I know that he had already told his grandmother’s story to an Israeli businessman who had brought it to Yad Vashem.
I wish I could take credit for being the one who first asked to give credit to Sofia as a Righteous Among the Nations.
We live at a time when life is often considered cheap. We witness horrible events: beheadings, and gassing of civilians and murders for no reason at all. For those of us who have devoted our lives to saving others, who value the sanctity of life, this is very disturbing.
We have to fight for our values. I am never afraid to take up that fight.
My great great grandfather, the Rabbi from Kotsk was known for his wise sayings. Perhaps the most famous is
“Where is God to be found? In the place where He is given entry”.
Let Him enter our hearts and inspire our deeds. He was certainly in the heart of Zofia Modzelewska.
I thank her in heaven, and I thank her descendants on earth.
I thank her in the name of my mother, in my own name and those of my children.
Whenever I am privileged to save a life, I know she is watching from above with pleasure.
Prof. Avi Rivkind
Photo above: Prof. Avi Rivkind was surprised by a friend of his mother who attended the ceremony