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Photo c/o Nancy Stone for the Chicago Tribune
Photo c/o Nancy Stone for the Chicago Tribune

Jewish war survivors who haven’t been able to celebrate coming of age ceremonies in their faith are finally getting a chance to do so.

In Jewish culture, a bar and bat mitzvah is a coming of age celebration for boys and girls to transition into adulthood. These celebrations are typically large and elaborate, with the average bar or bat mitzvah budget across the nation between $15,000 to $30,000. However, many Jewish survivors of World War II did not get the chance to partake in this incredibly important religious and cultural ceremony in their native countries.

That is, until now.

Harold Katz lives in the North Side of Chicago and has quite the life story to tell. Now 89-years-old, he emigrated to the United States after fleeing from the Holocaust. After being rounded up by Nazis in his hometown of Tarn, Czechoslovakia, he lived on the streets of Poland with his family until a Hungarian woman smuggled him to Budapest. During the war Katz was taken prisoner three different times while his parents, three brothers, and four sisters were all murdered at Auschwitz. Katz was only 13 when his family died; only one brother survived.

Throughout all this sadness and devastation, Katz’s scheduled bar mitzvah came and went. He eventually found a previously-emigrated family in the Chicago area, moved with his brother, and found a stable job in the construction industry. He started his own family, but he still never got the bar mitzvah he wanted.

Last year, Katz’s family threw him a big birthday party after he had just come home from a trip to Hungary with his daughter Lila. It was the first time he returned to Europe since the war and was inspired to get something back that was taken away from him with no regard.

So Katz decided to finally have his bar mitzvah, which happened in the North Side area the weekend of Memorial Day. The celebration went off as planned with a reading from a completed Torah scroll, but he added something a little different. In typical bar mitzvahs, the ceremony ends with the newly anointed man or woman writing letters for loved ones.

Instead, Katz wrote in memory of all the people who made it possible for him to stand in Chicago, at 89, finally getting his bar mitzvah. Who did he include in his letters? His murdered parents and siblings who gave up their place and allowed him to be smuggled into Budapest, the woman who sheltered him in Hungary, members of the Hungarian underground who forged the papers that helped him escape to the U.S., the Holocaust survivor who delivered his ad to the paper that got his aunt and uncle’s attention in Chicago, and his family who sponsored his trip to come start a new life in America.

In the case of Harold Katz, while his bar mitzvah may be 76 years late, it is evidently true that the best things come to those who wait.