Friday, July 31, 2015
Wish of a Lifetime Reunites Cousins
Jewish Home resident Ernie Braunstein, age 91, was born in Germany. Many of his childhood memories include his cousin, Lilly. During World War II, Ernie was sent to a labor camp before being moved to a concentration camp. In 1945 when World War II ended, Ernie began to search for Lilly. He found her in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had been liberated by the British. The two would then go their separate ways: Lilly to Israel, where she still lives today, and Ernie to Los Angeles, where his brother lived. They would each go on to marry, have children, and live meaningful lives. The cousins saw each other several times over the years. The last visit was when Lilly flew to the US for the joyous occasion of the bar mitzvah of Ernie's grandson. Since then, Ernie had been hoping they would be able to see each other again.
Enter Wish of a Lifetime (WOL), a non-profit organization that grants wishes for senior citizens. Elderly men and women often have something in their life they have always wanted to do or see, but for many different reasons they are unable to live out those dreams. The WOL foundation wish fulfillment program aims to change that by creating opportunities to ensure each of these very special wishes can come true.
Ernie's daughter, Gilda Evans, learned about WOL and contacted them with her father's wish: to see his cousin Lilly again. The organization was very receptive and initially offered to make his wish come true by bringing Lilly to Los Angeles. It turned out that Ernie's wish was the 1,000th to be granted.
When Ernie learned Lilly was unable to travel, he was heartbroken; WOL was undaunted. Instead, they offered to fly Ernie and Gilda to Israel via El Al to reunite with Lilly. "El Al knew I was coming," exclaims Ernie. "There was a photographer there at the airport, waiting to take my picture." Once on board, the special treatment continued. "The flight attendants couldn't do enough for me," says Ernie. "Every two hours they got me up to take a walk on the plane." Upon arrival, they were once again greeted with photographers as well as a TV crew. Ernie, now with Lilly by his side, was interviewed by a Russian station. That night, the family watched the interview together on TV.
During Ernie's time in Israel, WOL made sure he had everything he needed: a beautiful hotel (two doors down from Lilly's home), wonderful meals, a tour of Jerusalem, a trip to Tel Aviv. One night Ernie, Gilda and Lilly were dinner guests at the home of the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. Many meals were shared at Lilly's home so she could make Ernie all of his favorite foods. The two spent hours catching up and sharing family stories and memories.
When the family visited the Western Wall, a kind stranger offered to take Ernie to the men's section. He got a chair for Ernie so he could sit and be comfortable. People were handing their kvitels (prayers or requests written on small pieces of paper) to Ernie to place in the Wall. "This gentleman took one of my kvitels and placed it high up on the Wall, closer to God," Ernie recalls. (It turns out this kind stranger is a makeup artist in Hollywood, and put Gilda in touch with someone at the Jerusalem Post. The reporter wrote a wonderful article about WOL and Ernie's visit.) Another stranger was praying and took Ernie's hand to pray with him. On his way out, Ernie stopped to give charity to a rabbi.
Sooner than anyone could believe, it was time for Ernie and Gilda to return home. "I've been to Israel a few times, but I can't explain this trip," says Ernie. "To see my cousin again was my greatest wish. And to see what was once a desert is now a beautiful town…it's amazing! I can't express the feeling!"
Shortly after his return, Ernie received a call from WOL inviting him to speak at their annual gala in Denver. Once again, Ernie and Gilda were jetting away, this time to share their story with people who had helped make Ernie's wish come true. "Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for letting me have my wish come true," Ernie said to the crowd. "In my religion, when we have a special occasion we tell each other you should live to be 120. I wish you health, I wish you wealth, and I wish you live to 120." Afterwards people were lining up to take a photo with Ernie, and ladies of all ages were filling up his dance card.
In Ernie's words, "It was an amazing experience."
He has shared his Survivor story with many and currently leads the Home's Survivor Group at Eisenberg Village. Mazal tov to Ernie on the granting of his wish of a lifetime…a wonderful gift for a true mensch.