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Death of A Hero

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

There are very few people we come across who profoundly touch our lives -- parents, teachers, friends. Almost all have one aspect in common: They spend copious amounts of time with us.

Then there are the rarities, folks who move us deeply even after just a few meetings. These are people who don't require time to make their presence felt. These people leave their indelible mark simply by being who they are. We are lucky to come into contact with them.

One of these people died this week. His name was Jack Slomovic, and he passed away at age 86 in Los Angeles. I had the honor of helping him write his memoirs over the course of the last month. His loss represents not just a loss for his family or his community, it reminds us that as we lose our eldest generation, we seem to be losing something much deeper -- our sense of individualism, entrepreneurialism and fighting spirit. His life reminds us that we can rebuild all of those elements anew.

Slomovic's story is incredible. He was born in 1925, in a little town in Czechoslovakia called Solotfina. With the outbreak of World War II, the Hungarians took over the town, implementing anti-Jewish laws at the behest of the Nazis. In 1944, the Germans themselves occupied Solotfina and moved all of the Jews into a ghetto. From there, the Jews were shipped to Auschwitz.

Slomovic, along with his father, two uncles and his cousin, Elie Wiesel, was taken off the train and sent to Buna, a labor camp near Auschwitz. His mother and five of his siblings were separated from them and sent to the gas chambers.

Over the next year, Slomovic would be shuttled to several concentration camps, forced on death marches and all the time stealing bits of food to keep his family alive. When he was liberated at Theresienstadt, his father was deathly ill with typhus. Just days later, his father would die in his arms.

Destitute and homeless, Slomovic wandered the streets of Prague. Eventually, he found his way back to the Sudetenland, where he settled in the short term. Meanwhile, he sought an American visa.

By the time he got his visa, war had broken out in the nascent state of Israel. Instead of using his visa to travel to the United States, Slomovic volunteered to be taken to Israel to fight on behalf of the Jewish state. They took him off the boat, gave him two hours of training with a rifle and sent him to the front lines of Latrun, the bloodiest battle of the Independence War. There were 150 men that went into battle along with Slomovic. Fifteen came out in one piece.

Slomovic constantly worked behind enemy lines. And he was good at it. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself met Slomovic and gave him a bottle of vodka before one particularly dangerous mission, which involved sailing behind enemy lines -- a bad move, since Slomovic and his comrades proceeded to drink the bottle while on the high seas. In the end, the group was too seasick and drunk to complete that mission. But there were many more like it, and Slomovic was part of them, Sten gun in hand.

With the end of the war, Slomovic decided to immigrate to the United States to reunite with the remaining members of his family. He had only a sixth grade education, and he worked as a day laborer and night watchman to make ends meet. In order to support his wife, he began working as an apprentice to an electrician. Then he went out on his own, literally walking the streets looking for construction jobs on which to bid. Within a few years, he was running a full electricity store with many employees, each of whom he treated like gold.

Slomovic became a pillar of the Los Angeles Jewish community, supporting local schools and synagogues. He opened an assisted living facility. He became trustee of the Jim Joseph Foundation, a billion-dollar endowment aimed at forwarding Jewish education. He gave tremendous amounts to charity. And in the meantime, he brought up two children and a bevy of grandchildren.

When Slomovic passed away on Sunday, he left behind thousands of people he had touched in some way. His pride in his Judaism and his Americanism never wavered and never waned. His practical optimism -- even though he was dying of cancer, he always thought of the future -- was awe-inspiring.

He was the ultimate American -- a man of few words, hard working and full of unbridled energy. He was absolutely unafraid, having faced down death from both the barrel of a gun and in the smoke of a chimney spewing human ash. He faced poverty and homelessness. Having seen it firsthand, he understood the nature of evil, and he understood the power of good.

The key to life, he said, was simple: "You have to be happy with what you have, but you also have to get satisfaction out of achieving." Slomovic believed in leading by example. He was happy in his life, and he was ambitious to his final breath. The last words of his memoir tell the tale of this Jewish and American hero: "I wish I had more time to do things because there's so much misery, so much poverty, so much to do. I would've liked to have done more."

Some people allow the world to change them. Some people change the world and don't let any obstacle stand in their way. The world needs more Jack Slomovics. I know this much -- I will certainly miss him, even if I only had the privilege of knowing him for a moment.

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