Eddie Ford was a Holocaust survivor, and he was dying of cancer. At the end of his life, the 85-year-old did not have any close family members or friends left. He was alone.
In a hospital in Toronto, Ford requested a rabbi visit him because he wanted to connect to his Jewish faith, even though he had not been practicing his religion. Ford had spent years of his childhood in Budapest raised by a Christian family who hid him during the war.
So Rabbi Zale Newman, who visits hospital patients on Fridays, started dropping by Ford’s hospital room. At Ford’s urging, He taught him simple Jewish blessings and songs. Over the eight months the men got to know each other, Newman grew fond of Ford and promised him a Jewish burial.
Newman, a volunteer rabbi with The Village Shul and the Jewish Volunteer Services in Toronto, found a funeral home an hour’s drive away that would bury Ford at no charge.
But when Ford died Jan. 29, Newman had a problem: He needed a “minyan” — 10 men — the minimum number of men required to make a Jewish funeral official. He didn’t know who to ask.
Newman put a request on Facebook at almost 11 p.m. Jan 30, asking for volunteers to attend the graveside funeral the following day at noon. He knew it was a long shot.
“Can you come escort a Hero of the Holocaust for his final journey,” Newman wrote. He added: “please dress warmly.” The temperature in Toronto would be negative-16 degrees.
Three people responded and said they would be there.
“I said, 'Okay, there would be four of us,’ ” Newman said in an interview with The Washington Post.
The following morning, when he arrived at the cemetery, he saw a long line of cars.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, there’s another funeral,” he said. “I don’t know where it is. I don’t know where Eddie’s plot is.”
He stopped some people and asked whose funeral they were attending. They said, “Mr. Ford.”
Newman realized the traffic jam was for his friend, the one he thought might be buried almost alone. He had to drive far down the road to find a parking spot.
“By the time I walked up there, I found 200 people waiting there in a circle,” he said.
It was so cold that everyone had hats and hoods and scarves covering their faces. Newman could hardly make out people’s faces as he eulogized Ford and gave him a proper Jewish burial.
“All I saw was hundreds of pair of eyes,” he said. But he did spot telltale signs of who were behind the coats and scarves.
“I saw some beards, so I knew there were religious people, and I saw some nose rings, so I knew there were some cool people,” said Newman, 63.
Newman, a hedge fund manager, said he was overwhelmed by the collective gesture.
“There was so much purity,” Newman said. “There was no recognition, no way to get paid back. I’m not a mushy guy, but I went home and cried for an hour.”
He posted on Facebook again, telling the story of the day:
“I am in tears just thinking about how humbling and awesome it is to be part of the Jewish People who on very short notice; would drop everything, leave whatever they were planning on doing, drive a long distance, to stand outside in an open field, on a super freezing, blowing, windy day to escort a sweet, little Jew from Budapest, who was unknown to almost all them, on his final journey.”
He said two of Ford’s relatives were there, a nephew and a brother. Newman said he did not know much about either man. He added that as people advance in age, many have already buried most of their friends.
“Eddie was 85; he was the last man standing,” Newman said.
Newman said Ford told him his life story during their Friday visits: Ford was 6 when the war broke out in Hungary. He was taken from his parents in Budapest and put in hiding with a family who kept him until the war was over. Because the family was Christian, he did not learn Jewish rituals and customs. Ford’s father perished.
After the war, Ford reconnected with his mother and brother he barely knew, and they moved to Toronto when Ford was 16. He worked as a handyman and performed singing and comedy acts in nightclubs. He was married and divorced.
Ford lovingly cared for his mother when she became sick and died years ago, Newman said, adding that Ford never mentioned he had a brother who was still alive.
Newman said Ford had a big personality and loved to sing and tell stories. He said he always looked forward to his weekly visits with Ford.
“No one should die alone,” Newman said. “No one should be alone while they’re alive. We have to find the elderly and visit them.”
He said this experience has reinforced his idea that “one act of goodness leads to another.”
“This is the best of humanity,” he said.