Theodore Halpern of Whippany, a disabled Holocaust survivor who spoke often about his experiences, died July 1. He was 86.
Graveside funeral services were held July 3 at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Fairview.
“A hero has passed and our hearts are broken,” wrote Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, in an e-mail to NJJN. She said he always tried to honor requests to speak at schools, Jewish organizations, and churches. She added that he was always “the first to ask trenchant questions, the first to laugh at a joke, the first to join in song and prayer.”
When he wasn’t speaking about his experiences during the Holocaust, Halpern was volunteering at the Lester Senior Housing Community, where he was a resident: calling bingo games, preparing monthly newsletters and calendars, singing in the choral group, working in the community’s general store, taking part in the Lester minyan, and arranging a monthly dinner for residents at a local restaurant. He was also an avid knitter.
Halpern was born in 1930 with two clubbed feet, stunted arms, and missing fingers. He came from a secular Jewish family living in pre-war Vienna, and when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, his family sent him to live with his grandmother in Belgium. The two later fled to France. When the rest of his family sought refuge in the United States, he was denied entrance because of his deformed limbs. His parents made what he called the “difficult decision” to leave him behind with his grandmother.
One day, he was separated from his grandmother during a German bombing raid. The young Theodore was discovered by an ambulance crew and taken to what he often called “a local insane asylum.” (He didn’t speak French; when he couldn’t respond to questions, it was assumed he had developmental delays.) Ironically, it was a life-saving error.
After a few months in the asylum, he was transferred to a Catholic orphanage, where he learned to speak French. He stayed for two years. But in 1942, as the nuns were preparing him for his First Communion, he ran away with another Jewish boy. He joined the French underground, acting as a courier, carrying hidden messages in the heel of one of his custom-made shoes. He was 11 years old.
After the war, he joined his parents in New York City, where he learned English and finished high school. He enrolled in City College in 1950, hoping to become an accountant or get a business degree, but the professors refused to work with him because of his deformity. He left after two years without a degree, and got a job with a company manufacturing castanets. He continued to face discrimination as he tried to get a job working for the New York City government in a variety of capacities. With the help of an attorney, he finally secured a job with the New York City Medical Examiner in 1955, and stayed until retiring in 1989. Within a year of starting that job, he met his wife, Stella, and they married in 1956. After his retirement, they moved together to Boca Raton, Fla. He returned to the Northeast in 2007, to live in the Lester community on the Aidekman campus shortly after she passed away after a battle with leukemia.
The Holocaust prevented Halpern from celebrating becoming a bar mitzva when he turned 13. But on July 25, 2009, he finally got a chance to mark the milestone, leading services, presenting a d’var Torah, and being called to the Torah for an aliya at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, at the age of 79.
In 2014, he was the keynote speaker at the City of Newark’s Holocaust Remembrance ceremony, and the day was named in his honor. He spoke at schools, synagogues, and churches all over New Jersey. Earlier this year, Halpern participated in Names Not Numbers with eighth-graders at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. A national project, it enables students to make a documentary film, capturing both survivors’ testimony as well as the intergenerational interaction. As part of the project, the testimony was accepted into several Holocaust survivor archives. He was already in the hospital when Kushner screened the film on June 1.
According to Wind, on his last active day, he was at a school, speaking to children about his experiences. While he was there he suffered a ruptured hernia. He died from complications following surgery.
Halpern is survived by his son, Harold of Randolph, and three grandchildren.