This week a grandson of Yisrael Kristal of Haifa received a message from the Gerontology Research Group, stating that according to their records, he is now the oldest living male in the world, since the death of the Japanese Yasotaru Koida on Jan. 19th. When he was told the news, the 112-year-old Kristal responded humorously “The joys of my old age”.
Kristal indeed has a lot to be joyful about in his old age, but very little to be happy about in the first forty years of his life. He was born in Zharenov, Poland on 15th September 1903, before the Wright brothers had even flown their first primitive airplane, before the Titanic had even been thought of, before the term “world war” had been coined. When he was 10, Yisrael's mother died at the tender age of 29, and the orphaned siblings were separated and given to various uncles to bring them up. Meanwhile World War One broke out and Yisrael's father was taken captive by the Russians. Yisrael didn't see him for the next four years: “I never celebrated my Bar Mitzva and when my father came back home, I didn't even know about it” he says.
Within a year after the war, his father had died as well and the 16-year-old Yisrael decided to set out on his own in the city of Lodz. He began to work in a candy factory, learning the art of preparing succulent candies and this saved his life later during the dark years of the Holocaust.
At the age of 24 Yisrael married his first wife, Faige, who bore him two children. Unfortunately both died in infancy. The couple rented an apartment in Lodz with a store underneath it where they sold home-made chocolate, candies and ice cream. However they were forced to close the store after two years due to pogroms against Jews. Yisrael went to work in a Polish candy factory until the outbreak of World War Two when he was forced to leave his work. However a German named Scheller went into business with him so that he could continue to work under Scheller's name and even hid his valuables.
When the ghetto was built, Yisrael moved in there but his reputation as a master preparer of candies reached the ears of Ghetto commander Biber, head of the Gestapo Weiland and Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat. They ordered him to continue manufacturing candies even though the German Army had forbidden this. Yisrael set up a clandestine factory underground and thus succeeded in evading the transports to Chelmno and Auschwitz. Later on he worked assorted jobs, such as removing rubble and agricultural work. On 23 August 1944 the Nazis liquidated the ghetto and sent all the remaining Jews to death camps. Yisrael and his wife were sent on a grueling 36 hour trip in cattle trains. Yisrael vividly recalls the Kapos screaming: “Everyone remove necklaces, bracelets, watches. Don't try swallowing them because we can see everything!” Yisrael was separated from his wife, who he never saw again.
Yisrael lost all his possessions but managed to hang on to a pair of shoes, which he tore to make them look less attractive to others. The Nazis woke prisoners at five in the morning by pouring urine on them. After three weeks Yisrael was transferred to a German labor camp, where he built bunkers, filled sandbags and worked as a foreman at a logging site. On the 4th of May 1945, Yisrael, who weighed just 34 kilograms, was liberated by Russian soldiers.
After the war, he returned to Lodz where he met his second wife Batsheva (Stefa) Chuda. Within a week of meeting her they were married and then their oldest son Yaakov was born but he too did not survive infancy. In February 1948 their son Chaim, who is now a doctor living in Yesod Ha'Maala, followed by their daughter Shula who was born in 1951. Meantime the family had moved to Israel where Yisrael fulfilled a dream and opened his own candy factory, where he worked until he reached pension age. During the 1960's he was offered a tidy sum to sell his recipes to Elite but refused saying “If I sell my secrets to others, what will be left for me?”. The secret stayed with him and until this day nobody else knows it.
Today Yisrael, who lost his wife twenty years ago, lives in Haifa near his daughter. He is blessed with 9 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren, who frequently visit him, but he still lives in the same house he bought with his wife 30 years ago and doesn't want to think of moving to an old age home. He has a Philippine helper but still puts on his Tefillin himself every morning.
Kristal wrote a book about his experiences in the war and every Holocaust Remembrance Day, his descendants stand at the ceremonies and read parts of the book. His granddaughter Liat(30) adds: “I would have long ago given up if I were in his place. We make a fuss about a minus in the bank, lose our cool when someone irritates us and get frantic when one of the children is sick… look at what this man has gone through, losing his whole family and starting off again, it's simply amazing, unbelievable”.