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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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At 104, life and Jewish identity are still appreciated

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MONTREAL –– Halina Eichenbaum can barely hear, she uses a wheelchair, and she spends a fair amount of time simply observing the goings-on around her on the fifth floor of the Jewish Eldercare Centre where she lives.

Halina Eichenbaum

But don’t be fooled. Eichenbaum, at an amazing 104 years old, is still as sharp as a tack, lucid, speaks frankly, eats heartily, lights (electric) Shabbat candles each week, and receives periodic visits from Lubavitch girls as part of a bikur cholim project (although Eichenbaum isn’t ill).

“I don’t consider myself special,” said Eichenbaum, who spent decades in Montreal as a practising lawyer and continues to follow the goings-on in the world around her, a world that has changed drastically since she was born Halina Rosenboim on May 21, 1906.

It was not always an easy life, to be sure. Born in a “very, very small” town near Lublin, Poland, Eichenbaum, who still speaks flawless Yiddish, grew up with two brothers and always had a strong Jewish identity in Poland, even while attending a Catholic-oriented public elementary school.

“I told them I was Jewish and would not work on Shabbat or the holidays,” she recalled.

Her determination to always affirm her Jewish identity also affected life at her high school, an institution she adored but whose teachers were not exactly enamoured by Jews.

“They used to say that ‘Jewish’ was not a language and were not happy with Jewish students,” Eichenbaum said.

Already in her early thirties by the time World War II began, Eichenbaum spent the war years in hiding and in perpetual fear. “I was never ‘young,’” she said.

She then attended the University of Warsaw and studied to become a “general lawyer,” motivated, she said, by the desire to “help others who are not properly treated. I always wanted to tell the truth.” Eichenbaum also married her late husband, Simcha Mayer, an agriculturalist, and the couple visited Paris in 1946 before eventually moving to Montreal in the late 1940s.

“I wanted to move to Israel, but it was too hot there. My two brothers moved there,” Eichenbaum said. “I became a Canadian citizen.”

In Montreal, she established her law practice, and although she and her husband never had children and Eichenbaum was to become a widow – she still seems to carry a torch for Simcha and “never considered” marrying again – she seemed to find great fulfilment in her work and life.

While Eichenbaum can come across as someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, “I always considered that everyone has their own feelings” that need to be respected, Eichenbaum said. “I like people.”

That may be one of the reasons that at Eichenbaum’s birthday party a couple of months ago, she was feted by several visitors, including Lubavitch girls who find her a constant source of delight. Eichenbaum still receives regular calls from a niece in Israel, Shayna Rosenboim, and she remembered her own birthday party as a “special” event.

As other residents in the Eldercare joined a sing-a-long in the floor’s dining room, Eichenbaum made it clear why lighting the candles every Friday evening has meant so much to her.

“I am Jewish and will be to the last day of my life,” she said.

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