THE WEEKLY BLAB
Volume 11, Issue 7–November 2, 2016
As many of you have heard, my mother Simona Szafran passed away last week, on October 23, 2016 at 3:00 AM Pacific Time in Las Vegas, Nevada. This issue of the BLAB is dedicated to telling her life story, and we’ll return to the more usual contents next week.
She passed away at the Nathan Adelson Hospice, receiving wonderful care from my father and from the Hospice’s dedicated staff. She died peacefully and without pain. My father, Daniel, had been giving her loving 24-7 care for more than the past year, and had brought her back from death’s door more than once. On October 23, her time to rejoin her parents came.
My mother was born on May 3, 1935, in Bucharest, Romania. She was the oldest daughter of Bernard Dulzer, a well-known singer of Romanian folk songs (under his stage name of Bela Chitaristul—Bela the Guitarist) and Clara (Lupu) Dulzer.
My grandfather’s recording of Nunta Tiganeasca, a Romanian song
She is survived by her older brother, Reuven Avihai and her two younger sisters, Shulamit Ronen and Dina Rubin, as well as by husband Daniel, children Zvi and Drorit, and grandson Mark.
As a girl, Simona was an excellent student in many subjects, but she always especially loved languages. It was an almost impossible time to be a student—she was four years old when World War II began. Soon thereafter, King Carol II abdicated and the country came under the rule of Ion Antonescu and the anti-Semitic Iron Guard. The family was caught up in the whirlwind of the Holocaust. There was hardly any food, the family had to go into hiding at times, her father Bernard was forced to become a slave laborer (which he barely survived). Her mother Clara kept the family together in a small unheated flat where they often had to subsist on soup and grain made from lobodiza, a local thistle/weed.
She attended the Tarbut School in Bucharest, which was where she learned Hebrew. At the height of the war, the school had to go underground. When the children wanted to quit school due to the hardships and danger, Clara would have none of it—she insisted that they keep studying. When the children said “We may die tomorrow”, Clara said “Then you’ll die educated.” Even in these most horrible of times, my mother told us of the goodness of strangers—while there were some who closed their eyes to the suffering of those around them, there was a also a family that hid them when things were at there worst, and there was a woman—a stranger—who bought her a winter coat when she saw her shivering in the winter cold.
After the war, she did well enough on an entrance exam to win a scholarship to the Chemical Technical High School in Bucharest, where her older brother Reuven had previously gone (Reuven went on to become a chemist as a profession). When I first started studying chemistry many years later, my mother would sit down with me and tell me what she remembered from what she had learned so many years earlier, and what the various chemical terms and names were in Romanian.
The communists took over the Romanian government after the war, but a few years later, allowed Jews to leave the country. Her family took the opportunity to emigrate to Israel in 1950. Simona lived on a kibbutz for two years, and in 1953, while at a small party, met Daniel Szafran, my father. Daniel was a Auschwitz survivor who had immigrated to Palestine after World War II, who had joined the underground army and fought in Israel’s War of Independence. He asked her out on a date, but while she was reluctant since she knew Daniel would be leaving the country in a few months, she agreed. After a whirlwind courtship, three months later on August 9, they were married. They were the most loving couple ever, in a romance that lasted 63 years.
They went to Germany (where my father studied heavy machinery mechanics and his brother Nathan, also an Auschwitz survivor, was part of the American military occupation force) for two years. When my mother got pregnant, they traveled by train and boat to Israel in the summer of 1955 to give birth to me.
My mother holding me, at 4 weeks old
Two years later, my sister Drorit was born in 1957.
L-R: back: My uncle Yosef Ronen, Daniel, my aunt Shulamit, Simona. Front: my cousin Aviram, me, and standing, my sister Drorit.
In 1959, our family moved to Syracuse, NY so that my father could be together with his brother Nathan, who had settled there.
We lived in apartments on Clarendon Street and then on Judson Street in Syracuse before my parents bought the house they still own on Hazelwood Avenue, where we grew up. Nathan lived two houses down with his family—my aunt Shirley and their two children Karen and Barry. It was more like one big family—we literally did everything together, seeing each other multiple times every day.
Visiting New York City: (L-R) Me, Drorit, my mother, and our cousin Charles Meltzer
As we grew up, Simona was primarily a mother and a housewife, but when I became a teenager, she returned to school, earning an Associates Degree from Onondaga Community College. I remember quizzing her as she was taking a class in Botany and trying to memorize the various phyla and genera of plants. After graduating, she continued her education, taking a bus from Syracuse to Cortland early each morning to take her classes, and taking the bus back in the afternoon so she could be back as we returned from school. She earned her Bachelors Degree (cum laude) in Modern Languages from SUNY Cortland in 1969, and then her Masters Degree in Secondary Education from Cortland in 1971. I remember how proud I was at each of her graduations.
Simona taught French in the Syracuse public schools at Blodgett Junior High School for a year, and then taught Hebrew at various schools for many years. The longest tenure was at the Syracuse Hebrew Day School teaching 1st and 2nd grade, where she taught from 1975 to 2001, when she retired. I remember visiting her beautifully decorated classroom dozens of times over the years, listening to her describe what she was doing in her classes and telling me how much she loved each and every one of her students. Whenever I would visit Syracuse, I’d always run into several people who told me she was their teacher when they were little. She leaves a legacy of more than 1000 students who adored her.
Over the years, Simona’s greatest pride came from seeing her children complete their educations and start their careers. She was so proud when Drorit became a social worker and devoted her life to helping others. When I completed my doctorate in 1981, she was certainly proud of the chemistry work I had done, but even prouder when I was able to pass the foreign language requirement in French on the first try, since languages were her forte, not mine. She spoke English, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Romanian, French, Spanish, and Russian, and could also understand Italian and some Polish. When we were growing up, whenever my parents wanted to keep something private from us, all they had to do was speak in German or Yiddish. When I started to teach at colleges, earned tenure, and rose up the ranks and became a dean and then a vice president, we would always talk about teaching strategies and she would want to be sure that I was providing support for my faculty.
Simona’s only grandchild, my son Mark, was born in 1984. She and my father came to Salem, NH to see us a few days after the birth. From the minute she and Mark looked at each other, it was a mutual love at first sight. Mark would always call her ‘my Mona’.
We always took our vacations together, going all over the U.S., Canada, and Israel on trips.
When Mark, who is developmentally challenged, was studying for his Bar Mitzvah, she helped teach him the Hebrew alphabet so that he could read the prayers. I remember we were driving on vacation in Maine and Nova Scotia, with my parents in one car and us in the other, and Mark insisted on riding in their car. It was Mona who taught him the blessings over the Torah on a single morning as were driving toward Halifax through the power of pure love. When he successfully completed his Bar Mitzvah ceremony and realized he was finished, it was Mona that he immediately ran to first—to kiss and hug her. There wasn’t a dry eye in the synagogue.
After retirement, my parents lived in Las Vegas during the winter months and Syracuse as the weather got warmer. Each spring, they would drive from Las Vegas to Houston to see Drorit, then to Marietta, GA to see my family, and then to Syracuse to spend the summer with their friends. Every October, they’d do the reverse drive. When I became President at SUNY Canton, they came up from Syracuse to help me move in, planning to stay for two weeks. They wound up staying until December, because they enjoyed it so much. We bought a house together in Canton which had a wing for them with their own bedroom and bathroom. They were in Canton for my inauguration. When the post-inauguration party ended with me playing the guitar with three colleagues in a college band we had formed to play at Open House events, she came over after we finished, and said I had reminded her of her father when he played the guitar.
Simona loved to dance with my father. Over the years, they would dance at every ceremony and event they were at. When we went on a cruise together, they danced every night. They were so good at it, people would stop their own dancing to watch them, and people all over the ship were talking about them. At my inauguration, the local newspapers published a picture of them dancing together. The plan was for my parents to spend the cold months in Las Vegas and the warm months in Canton and we did that for two years, but Simona’s health failed her then and she could no longer travel.
The hardest part about my mother’s decline was her almost total memory loss. She could remember some of the past, but not what had happened even one minute earlier. As memories faded, the last things she remembered were that she had been a teacher for a long time, her appreciation for languages and music, and her love for my father. She would only let my father take care of her, but fortunately, she would often mistake me for him so she was willing to go places with me and to let me help her. I flew out to Las Vegas to see her as the end approached. I still could see the endless love between my parents as my father cared for her. In a final blessing, she had some lucid moments during the visit when she told me (in Hebrew) how she had loved being a teacher. We were even able to speak a little French to each other.
I will always remember her as the vibrant, loving, and brilliant woman she was, who gave me my love of chemistry, music, education, and teaching. She’s reunited with her parents in heaven now, and I can see her listening and dancing while her father sings, waiting patiently and watching over us until it’s our time to join her. Rest In Peace, Ima.
Last Time’s Trivia Contest
Last time’s contest dealt with word that begin with the letter “O”. Our fastest five responders with all five correct were Christina Lesyk, Mary Rishe, Doug Scheidt, DianeMarie Hollins, and Jennifer McCluskey. Just come to my office on the 6th floor of MacArthur Hall to get your prizes—a duplicate CD from the vast Szafran repository. Others getting all five right included Patrick Hanss, Megan Warren, Carmela Young, Robin Palm, and Kevin Elliott. Here are the correct answers:
- President of the United States. Barack Obama
- TV show where the host gave everyone a car. Oprah.
- Newspaper listing about someone who died. Obituary.
- Japanese art of paper-folding. Origami.
- Ancient Greek epic poem attributed to Homer—it’s the sequel to the Iliad. The Odyssey.
This Time’s Trivia Challenge
The trivia contest will return next week.