(Haaretz) — Alice Herz-Sommer, the Jewish pianist from London and survivor of Theresienstadt, died Sunday at the age of 110. After the passing of Sommer, whom the media described as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, the unofficial title passes to Yisrael Kristal, an Israeli confectioner from Haifa, who celebrated his 110th birthday last September.
Yisrael Kristal’s story may be as extraordinary as that of Sommer, but their world views are different. The birthday cards Kristal received for his hundredth birthday - ten years ago - decorate the walls of his Haifa home. “We’re not counting his great-grandchildren, but there are more than twenty,” said Oren, one of Kristal’s nine grandchildren.
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Kristal, who was born in 1903, remembers it from childhood. He saw Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, the symbol of 19th-century Europe, with his own eyes. “I saw him in 1914, when I was a boy. There was a war then. He passed through our town in his car and we threw candy,” Kristal told Haaretz in an interview at his home last year.
Kristal’s mother died before World War I broke out. His father was captured by the Russian army and died soon after. In 1920, the 17-year-old orphan moved to Lodz, Poland to start over. After a stint as a metalworker, he began working in the family business: a candy factory in a nearby town. “It was hard physical labor. I dragged sacks of sugar that weighed 25 kilograms [55 pounds],” he recalls. It was in the factory that he learned the profession that stayed with him for the rest of his life - and that, one could say, saved him.
The Lodz Ghetto was established in 1940. Kristal, who was already a renowned expert in candy-making, continued his work, at times in secret and at times with semi-official encouragement from those in charge of the ghetto with Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat, first among them.
In August 1944, he and his wife were deported to Auschwitz, where he performed forced labor and his wife was murdered.
“Two books could be written about a single day there,” he said. After liberation, he was taken to a hospital under the protection of the Russian army. There he was allowed to return to his profession, and he prepared sweets for Russian soldiers.