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Published Thursday, February 4, 2016

At Age 107, Joe Bach is the Oldest Survivor

By Sharon Loveridge

Front row, from left: Irene Bach and Joe Bach; back row, from left: Ina Navazelskis, an oral historian from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Sharon Loveridge.

When you first meet Joe Bach, you immediately notice his warm smile and gentle touch. At the age of 107, Joe – a resident at the Leonard Florence Center for Living in Chelsea – and his wife Irene, who is a young and very beautiful 90 – go for walks, hold hands in the café and enjoy spending time together, after being married for 68 years.

Joe had been living at the Center for about one month when I went in to say hello, as I had done many times before. That day, however, was different. Instead of the usual chat back and forth, he asked me to sit beside him, and began sharing memories, including those from his life during the Holocaust when his entire family were killed by the Nazis. Every single one of them. As I sat, listened and held his hand, tears welled up in my eyes. I had no idea that the man sitting in front of me had gone through so much. In all my years, he was also the first survivor that I had met.

I left his room and didn’t know what to do. I was so touched that he had shared that with me. I also knew that the world needed to hear his story.

Considering his age, I thought that perhaps he could be the oldest living survivor; together with Chelsea Jewish Foundation CEO Barry Berman and the Bach family, we decided to explore this further. I reached out to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and told them Joe’s story. I asked them if Joe could possibly be the oldest living survivor, but because of incomplete record keeping, they could not confirm this fact.

When Steven Vitto, a researcher from the Museum, emailed Joseph’s papers and documentation that showed he had boarded a ship to the U.S. in 1951, I shared them with Joe’s family. Joe’s daughter, Naomi Faymen, was thrilled that the Museum was interested in her parents’ story. Her nephew, Matthew Bloch, had sent videos (of interviews he had done with both of his grandparents back in 2006) to the Museum, but had never heard back. Matthew shared the interviews with me, and I sent them to Washington, D.C., for validation.

The falsified documents from 1942 that saved Irene Bach’s life

A few weeks later, I received a call from Ina Navazelskis, an oral historian at the Museum, telling me that she had “fallen in love” with Joe, that the interviews were validated and that she would like to interview both of them in person.

In December, Ina and her videographer arrived at the Leonard Florence Center and spent the day taping and interviewing Joe and Irene. Several family members were there as well. Irene showed the falsified papers from 1942 that ended up saving her life; the document had her real picture and fingerprints, but her name and religion had been changed by a friend. It was chilling to hold that document in my hands.

Ina confirmed that Joe Bach is the oldest living survivor that the Museum has ever interviewed, and said that the interviews will be available online as well as in the Holocaust Museum.

Although the interviews lasted four hours, Joe and Irene did not seem at all tired. It was an emotional day, but also an important one – Joe and Irene’s story made history.

Sharon Loveridge is the Activity Services Director at Chelsea Jewish Foundation.

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