A nursing home shouldn’t be just a place to wait for the end, believes Philip Mehl, administrator of Mountainside Residential Care Center in Margaretville. “We get to know each of our residents, what are their dreams, and whether there’s unfinished business to take care of. If we can make something happen, we enjoy the challenge.”
So staff and fellow residents pitched in when John Henry Auran said he’d like to attend a gathering of Jews who had escaped the Holocaust in the Kindertransport, which whisked children out of Germany just before the start of World War II. The reunion was taking place in his hometown of Aschaffenburg in Germany, and Auran, nearing 86, is wheelchair-bound.
Such reunions are held every five years, and the town of Aschaffenburg pays part of the cost of transporting and housing its honored guests. Auran added his savings, but there still was not quite enough money to cover the whole trip for himself and an attending nurse. Mountainside maintains a Sunshine Fund, sustained by fundraising projects and donations from residents and their families. The residents vote on how to spend the money, and they decided to support the cost of Auran’s trip.
Another challenge was getting him a passport. “Some of us are more orderly than others,” observed Mehl, “and John had multiple aliases. We had to find the papers, link them together, and take him to apply for the passport.”
Every step of the trip to Germany had to be planned, and it took several meetings of the professional team, including nurses, dietician, occupational therapist, and physical therapist, to determine what he would have to bring and how he would receive his medications. Nursing aides donated new clothes to supplement the pajamas Auran prefers to wear.
In early November, Auran spent five days in Aschaffenburg, touring the rebuilt town and meeting his former schoolmates. “Some of my old girlfriends were there,” said Auran a few weeks later, sitting at a table in the lobby of the residence on a Friday morning, distributing paychecks to employees when they passed by. He was happy to recount the history of his escape from the Nazis.
“I was raised in Aschaffenburg at a most unfortunate time for a Jewish child,” he began. The town, which is located in Bavaria, near the city of Frankfurt, “was not a hotbed of Nazism. It was a minor group at the beginning. People joined the party for financial reasons. They beat the hell out of me on numerous occasions.”
In 1933, the year Auran was supposed to start school, the Nazis banned Jewish children from the public schools, so the Jewish families in the town organized a separate school for their children. “I had a fabulous teacher, Michael Berlinger,” said Auran. “He was very attentive to me. But after two and a half years, he went to Palestine. After that, I had the worst possible teacher. I was constantly correcting him, which was not a smart idea.”
A group of Hitler Youth had the habit of waiting for Auran on the trail that led to the school. After a few beatings, Auran’s father gave him advice. “He was a short man, but he was feisty. He said, ‘Don’t wait for them to hit you. Hit them first, make their nose bleed, and they’ll back off.’ I became a very mean little kid.”