A Catholic Chaplain Helps A Holocaust Survivor

Chaplain Elaine Chan

More than a year ago, I was making my rounds on the telemetry unit when a social worker referred me to a hospice patient. His wife was by his bedside and inquired about funeral arrangements for her husband. I explained that once he died, the staff would notify the hevra kaddisha, a volunteer burial society that is trained to prepare the body. “You are a better Jew than I am,” exclaimed the wife. I chuckled since I am not Jewish, but rather the Catholic chaplain.
As I was speaking to the wife, I noticed that the man’s arm was tattooed with numbers – the markings of a Holocaust survivor. I commented on this and his wife told me that he had been the sole survivor of his family. She briefly told me about the horrific fate of his family. I felt great sorrow for him, his family and all the other victims. I felt a need to stay with the wife and her husband.
Later on, as we sat next to the bedside of her husband, whose breathing was labored and assisted by oxygen, the wife asked again about arrangements. I noted that during the day it was easier to get the hevra kaddisha than in the evening, weekends, the Sabbath or holidays. I explained to her that her husband’s body would be treated with care and dignity.
The wife then noticed that her husband was no longer breathing. I summoned the staff and they confirmed that he had died. I realized afterwards that he had heard me speaking about the hevra kaddisha and wondered if he thought that this would be a good time to let go, since I would see to the care of his body and stay with his wife.
I stayed with the wife as she waited for her son to come. She was concerned that she might be keeping me from other duties. I told her my job was to stay with her. Shortly thereafter the hevra kaddisha came and they asked her about the funeral home. Jews are to bury their dead within twenty-four hours, so I offered to get the funeral home on the telephone for her. She said that her son would get a minyan (a group of ten men) as well as a rabbi to pray for her husband at the graveside.
Presently the son arrived. He was grief stricken. He asked to see his father. I waited with his mother while he went in to see his father and then said my good-bye and departed.
After they left I reflected on the death. The Jewish religion prescribes specific rituals for the care of the dead and burial. During the Holocaust, it would have been unlikely that any of this patient’s family members were given a proper burial. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to assist in a small way to make sure that this patient’s body was properly prepared. In my mind’s eye I could see the minyan praying at the cemetery not only for him, but also for his ancestors, all those who had gone before.
A year after the death, yahrzeit is observed (according to the Hebrew calendar). A candle is lit for twenty-four hours and prayers are said. As I said my evening prayers that night, I too remembered that hospice patient and his family.
Chaplain Elaine Chan was a Clinical Pastoral Education student at HealthCare Chaplaincy in 2001 and 2003 has been a full-time chaplain at Beth Israel Kings Highway, Brooklyn, NY, for over six years. Since 2006, Elaine has been certified with the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. Elaine has an M.Div. from New York Theological Seminary. She previously worked for almost 20 years in community development on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She also worked briefly for a city-wide nutrition program as well as for a women’s foundation.
This story originally appeared in the June 3, 2009 issue of PlainViews®, an e-newsletter for chaplains and other spiritual care providers published by HealthCare Chaplaincy.