The first pitch at Tropicana Field carried no meaning at Friday night’s game; however, that didn’t detract from its overwhelming symbolism for a sizable contingent there to celebrate an unlikely centennial.
Helen Kahan was born May 5, 1923, in Rozavlea, Romania. She arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp on her 20th birthday.
History.com states that 85% of those sent to Auschwitz died at the complex. Kahan is the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust, and she has dedicated her long life to sharing that story and spreading empathy and joy.
While she doesn’t participate in many speaking engagements these days, Kahan had quite the public 100th birthday celebration. Dozens of friends and family – and thousands of baseball fans awaiting a matchup between the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees – watched as she threw out the first pitch.
“It cannot be a better thing,” Kahan said from her suite. “It cannot be. I am here on my birthday, and I have such happiness.
“This was more than I ever expected.”
Kahan’s daughter, Livia Wein, noted her mother’s English proficiency has recently declined. However, Kahan said she “absolutely” practiced her throw over the last few weeks.
She thanked the Rays and encouraged the players to keep fighting, something familiar to Kahan. When asked to reconcile what she overcame growing up with celebrating a centennial – in unique fashion – Kahan pulled up her sleeve to show her prisoner identification tattoo.
She said it represented years of promoting peace and unity and credited prayer for her success and longevity.
“I have a God,” she said. “And he helps us.”
Friday night was also the Florida Holocaust Museum’s (FHM) annual Rays Up! event, with ticket proceeds benefitting the St. Petersburg institution. The Rays Baseball Foundation presented the museum – where Kahan has volunteered for decades – with another $10,000 donation.
Mike Igel, chair of the FHM’s board, grew up around Kahan. His grandparents, also Holocaust survivors, quickly became good friends and shared a devotion to sharing their stories of sadness and triumph.
“It’s just this compulsion to make sure that this will not happen again,” Igel added.
While people often focus on Holocaust tragedies, he said the stories of perseverance and victory are equally important. That is a critical aspect of FHM’s programming, particularly through its Dimension in Testimony exhibit.
Kahan shared her story with new generations through Dimensions, which utilizes technology that allows viewers to ask survivors questions in real time. “As we always teach, it was the worst in humanity – but it was the best in humanity, at the same time,” Igel said.
He said Friday night was not a typical celebration because “you’re surrounded by people that you know shouldn’t be here.” Kahan married a fellow Holocaust survivor, had a son and a daughter, and is now “bubbi” to five grandchildren and 12 great-grandkids.
Bubbi is Yiddish for “grandma” and was heard frequently throughout the night.
“At celebrations like this, my grandfather would turn to somebody and say, ‘Hitler would be so angry if he saw this,’” Igel relayed. “The revenge is in the survival. You say, ‘I’m going to survive, and I’m going to thrive.’ And that’s what we’ve done.”
Wein called her mother’s celebration an “unbelievable experience” for their family. She noted their affinity for the museum and the Rays, and said it was a unique opportunity to champion two organizations they believe in and support.
Wein’s children grew up playing baseball in the Seminole Youth Athletic Association. Despite not learning to drive until she was 62, Kahan frequently offered to take them to practice.
“I’m not sure she understood the game totally then – or now – but she cheered because they were her grandkids, and it didn’t matter,” said Wein with a laugh. “She would always say, ‘Well, don’t you have a meeting? I’ll take the kids.'”
She relayed her mother’s remorse for being the family’s sole survivor. Kahan often tells Wein that her parents would have also lived to see 100, due to their health and happiness, before the Holocaust.
Kahan returned home to Romania in search of her parents after the Allies liberated Nazi concentration camps, to no avail. Life wasn’t easy in the post-war, Soviet-occupied central European country, and Wein said, “You had to be a king to own a car” during that time.
Kahan fulfilled a lifelong dream when she packed up her two kids and immigrated to America in 1967, during the height of the Cold War. Despite leaving without her parents and sisters, Wein said Kahan deeply appreciates her second chapter in the U.S. and the 17 grand and great-grandchildren that followed.
“She’s said that a few times,” Wein added. “That it’s a big honor for her to have overcome that hardship of coming to America.”
Holocaust Museum officials repeatedly mentioned Kahan’s enduring happiness and optimistic outlook. Igel elaborated and said, “It is almost illogical to go through hell and have your entire family murdered because of who they are” yet maintain “such a sunny disposition.”
While the Rays would go on to beat the Yankees 5-4, Igel said, “She’s what victory looks like.”