This past Shabbat, 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Eugenia Unger became a bat mitzvah at the Herzliya Jewish community center and temple in Buenos Aires. She called the event “the culmination of my whole life.”
Unger, née Rotsztejn, was born in Warsaw in 1926. She survived the Warsaw Ghetto, Majdanek, and Auschwitz as a teenager; her parents, two brothers, and sister were killed during the Holocaust. After Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army, she traveled to Italy, where she stayed in a refugee camp for two years and met David Unger, who would eventually become her husband. In 1949, the couple immigrated to Argentina, where she has lived ever since.
A few years ago, Unger recorded a Spanish-language oral history for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and she has been very active in Holocaust remembrance and education in the Buenos Aires area specifically. She frequently speaks to Argentine school groups about the Shoah and co-founded the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires, Latin America’s first Holocaust museum, in 2000. Located in Recoleta, a residential neighborhood in downtown Buenos Aires, the museum features temporary exhibits as well as a permanent collection that documents the history of the Holocaust alongside a timeline of Jewish persecution in Argentina.
Unger was called to the Torah, and became a bat mitzvah, nearly 80 years past the traditional age for the coming-of-age celebration. Today, many young Jewish women become a bat mitzvah at the age of twelve or thirteen. This has not always been the case; the tradition of girls being called to the Torah is less than a century old, with the first public bat mitzvah held in 1922 in New York City. Thus, many Jewish women choose to celebrate their bat mitzvahs as older adults. Many Jews who lived through the Holocaust, regardless of gender, were unable to mark this important moment of transition to Jewish adulthood, and chose to do so later in life; in September, the world’s oldest man, Israel Kristal, a Holocaust survivor, celebrated his bar mitzvah at the age of 113.