Almost a thousand people packed into a funeral hall in north London to pay their respects to Holocaust survivor Gena Turgel on Sunday, after the 95-year old passed away.
Rabbis said the hall was already “absolutely packed” almost an hour before the funeral, held at Bushey Cemetery, as family and community members – as well as local and national Jewish leaders – flooded in to say goodbye to the iconic educator.
In his eulogy, Adam Tash, Gena’s oldest grandchild, said she was “the queen of our family, a friend and educator of thousands”.
After paying tribute to her work, he said: “Rosh Hashanah will never be the same for the Stanmore community where, for years and years Nana would invite so many people to Kiddush on the first day of Yom Tov.
“It will not be the same, and her apple strudel and cheese cake will be sadly missed, especially as no one could leave the house without having a piece.”
Officiating at the service was Rabbi Mendel Lew of Stanmore and Rabbi Andrew Shaw of Mizrachi, the latter having known Gena for more than 20 years, beginning in the 1990s when he was at the Union of Jewish Students, later at Stanmore, then in Holocaust education work.
“She educated others with a quiet determination,” said Shaw this week. “I’ve heard her speak at the National Union of Students’ conference, in Poland, at Hyde Park, at the Foreign Office, so many places.
“She managed to put over the important testimony but every time her story was told with poise and with real majesty. She was a very majestic woman. I just loved being with her.”
Shaw and Gena’s grandson, Johnny Turgel, have written – and are now performing around the country – a show called ‘Dreams of a Nation,’ and said this week that they would be dedicating future performances to her. “It’s about what we’ve been through as a people,” said Shaw.
“It’s about Jewish survival, Jewish history and Jewish destiny, and for us this is our way of continuing her legacy. Gena’s story is the dreams of a nation.”
Born into a traditional Jewish home in Kraków, Poland, in 1923, Gena was the youngest of nine children, whose parents ran a textile business, and whose father would invite all the town’s beggars to the house every Purim, when he would give them money.
At 14 she went to a Protestant school and learnt German, which turned out to be a great asset in the camps, including Belsen, where she ended up. She was stood for an hour in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. “Fortunately, it didn’t work,” said Tash.