Prominent Colchester Holocaust survivor dies in Tuesday crash
Colchester — In the months leading up to the Tuesday crash that claimed the life of prominent Holocaust survivor Henny M. Simon, the charismatic 91-year-old showed no signs of slowing down.
In December, she embarked on a trip to her hometown of Hanover, Lower Saxony, Germany, where she helped the city commemorate the 75th anniversary of the rounding up of its Jewish citizens, including Simon and her mother. Of the six survivors invited, Simon was the only one who could make it.
Upon her return, she continued her days filled with appointments, social meet-ups and time devoted to Ben Cooper, a World War II medic from whom she was nearly inseparable.
As was typical for Simon, forthcoming speaking engagements dotted her calendar, too — she told her story so others could learn a lesson from the past.
Next up? An April 19th event at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
“The greatest thing about Henny Simon,” said longtime friend Jerry Fischer, “is she never stopped living until she died.”
- - -
According to police, Simon was driving her 2010 Ford Fusion H west on Parum Road, not far from her 384 Parum Road home, when for unknown reasons she veered into the eastbound lane, off the eastbound shoulder and head-on into a large tree. The crash happened about 2:50 p.m. Tuesday.
Crews took Simon to The William W. Backus Hospital, where she later was pronounced dead.
Speaking by phone Wednesday, Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, recalled the time he spent with Simon during their recent trek to Hanover.
As she had done countless times for people elsewhere, Simon recounted her story for students there — the awful things the tabloids wrote about Jews, the day the Nazis evicted her and her mother from their home, the shooting death of her mother at the hands of the SS, her liberation.
Although it wasn’t her first time back to Hanover, the trip brought a new kind of closure. While officials in the past treated her with respect and importance, this time they received her like a visiting queen.
“Henny knew it was her last trip,” Fischer said. “At one point she said to me, ‘I feel like I can be at home again in Hanover.’”
And the people of Hanover?
“After I sent them an email,” Fischer said, “they wrote back and said, ‘We’re all weeping.’”
- - -
A woman many thought could live to be 100, Simon was enduring. While in Hanover, she not only spoke to students but also spoke to adults, attended elaborate receptions and concerts thrown in her honor and made it a point to visit a Jewish cemetery where some of her family members are buried.
Prior to their arrival, Fischer bashfully admitted, Simon handled a “ridiculously long” layover at a small and boring airport in France “better than all of us.”
Years ago, on a trip to Israel with Fischer, Simon fell on the first day and landed herself in a wheelchair.
“The second day, she insisted on taking us through the Israel Holocaust museum,” he said. “Our tour guide cried because he had never toured with a survivor.”
By the third day of that excursion, she was walking again.
“The word I would use is indomitable,” Fischer said. “Nothing could stop her. If you told her no, she would only do it with even more determination.”
Chutzpah with a touch of stubbornness characterized Simon, too. Even nine decades into her life, she insisted on living alone (though she welcomed frequent visitors and was quick to offer coffee or baked goods).
Stuck to the side of the refrigerator at her Parum Road farmhouse, a sticky note demonstrated her humor: “Never forget the 6 P’s,” it read. “Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”
Simon, Fischer was quick to note, had a “tremendous capacity to love.”
She loved first her husband Abram Markiewicz, who died suddenly in 1976, then her husband Robert Simon, who died in 2001, and most recently Ben Cooper, who joined her during many of her speaking engagements to tell the story from the viewpoint of a soldier.
Simon surrounded herself with friends, too, and spent much of her time volunteering for Meals on Wheels and American Red Cross Bloodmobiles, as well as dedicating time as a life member of Hadassah, the Sisterhood of the Congregation Ahavath Achim and the Board of the Strochlitz Holocaust Research Center in New London.
“She survived because she had friends during the war and they supported each other,” Fischer said. “I think Henny got through her old age because she had friends and they supported each other. I think she got through life because she had friends and they supported each other.”
Simon began captivating audiences with her story in the late 1980s, and Fischer got to know her around the same time. In the years that followed, she developed close ties with the Coast Guard Academy, at one point receiving a model of the barque Eagle from a commandant there. She visited schools, churches and other venues across the state, country and world. Plaques lining the walls of her home show how attendees appreciated her efforts.
Of all the times Fischer has seen her speak, one at Xavier High School in Middletown stands out the most.
“She told the story in front of the entire school, and she broke down and cried,” he said. “She told me afterward, she said, ‘I can’t do this again, but I know I have to do it again.’”
It was her goal, he said, to address the problem of people bullying those who are different from them. He believes she achieved it.
“We’re all fortunate to have known her,” Fischer said. “She was a light in the world. And she lit other lights, so the flame is going to burn on.”
Funeral services will be observed at 1 p.m. Friday in the Sanctuary of Congregation Ahavath Achim at 84 Lebanon Ave. in Colchester. Burial will follow in Ahavath Achim Memorial Park on Taintor Hill Road in Colchester.
Stories that may interest you
While researching “A Rebellious Woman,” my new historical novel, I learned some amazing facts about what it was like to be a “lady” in 1860s America.
The 290th birthday of what some historians consider to be the true first leader of the fledgling United States of America was noted in a wreath-laying ceremony in Norwich.
He’s vivacious, enjoys sunshine from his multi-story cat condo, and doesn’t mind if a human lets him lick the plate.