Nika Kohn Fleissig's remarkable Shoah survival story recently took another unexpected detour. At 97 years old, Fleissig's outstanding strength of character and determined personality allowed her to act on impulse and fly from Arizona, USA to Israel, in order to visit Yad Vashem.
Her objective was to see for herself the olive tree that had been planted in honor of Sophia Pozniak, her Polish piano teacher, who was honored in 1979 by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations – the prestigious award given to non-Jews who risked their life to save Jews during the Holocaust.
With every step Nika Fleissig took towards the tree, growing peacefully on the slopes of the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem, her slim and fragile figure masked her mounting excitement and anticipation.
Just a few days earlier, Fleissig's daughter, Rabbi Alicia Magal, spiritual leader of a Jewish community in Sedona, Arizona, had finally left for a long-awaited two-week vacation to Israel with her husband. Little did Alicia know that her vacation plans were to be the catalyst that spurred her elderly mother to follow in her wake. On an apparent whim, within 24 hours of her daughter leaving Nika decided to make a reservation to travel to Israel and informed the family that she would be on the next flight out. She was determined to finally see her rescuer's tree.
Nika had only recently accomplished another important mission, filling out Pages of Testimony to commemorate her beloved family members murdered in the Holocaust. While she did that from the comfort of her home, through the help of Yad Vashem volunteer Cheryl Finkelstein, this mission was one that she had to do on her own.
And so, on a beautiful day in October, Nika, her daughter and her grandson's girlfriend Charlotte stood at Yad Vashem by the olive tree dedicated to Pozniak, tears rolling down their faces. They quietly honored the memory of Pozniak, who through a heroic act of selflessness, gave Fleissig a place to hide, even at the risk of her life – in essence offering the young Nika "the tree of life."
"If it weren't for Sophia, who saved my mother, I wouldn't be here today, and nor would my children and grandchildren," remarked Magal, who wrote a book detailing the story of her mother's survival, entitled From Miracle to Miracle. "If you save one life it's as if you saved the world."
For all of those present at this memorable event, meeting Nika Fleissig was nothing short of an inspiration. Her adventurous spirit, her optimism and her unwavering determination make her a most unforgettable person, from whom much can be learned. Nika shared parts of her personal story, not just to relay the events but also to state that as difficult as circumstances are, one should find ways to embrace life. When asked how she managed to find hope in all those terrible years, Nika simply replied:
"In the darkest of darkness, there is one ray of sunshine. It is up to you to find it."