Julian Miller grew up in a kosher home in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., and over the decades has attended many bar mitzvah celebrations of family and friends. But just last month, Miller had the opportunity to attend what he calls the most moving celebration of his life: The bar mitzvah of his own father, Holocaust survivor Mordechai (Murray) Miller, who passed away yesterday, at 88.

As a 13-year-old running and hiding in Poland during World War II 75 years ago, Mordechai Miller, wasn’t able to have a bar mitzvah celebration, and in recent years had traveled to numerous schools and colleges in recent years to talk about the Holocaust. He became a sought-after speaker, motivated by the desire to make sure everyone possible knew the truth about what happened during the war, according to his son, who noted that clips of his father’s talks are preserved at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, N.Y.

“A lot of miracles happened that brought him to his bar mitzvah,” said Julian Miller.

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On his big day, the elder Miller was lifted up on a chair at Chabad of Mid-Suffolk in Commack, N.Y., amid dancing and celebration after being called to the Torah, surrounded by family and friends as they marked the occasion. “I will never forget that face, when we danced around with him,” said Julian Miller. “I was down below holding him, so when I looked up all I could see was his teeth—he was smiling ear to ear.”

Miller, left, with his brother in pre-war Poland.
Miller, left, with his brother in pre-war Poland.

For the bar mitzvah, Julian Miller said relatives came from near and far. His sister came in from Florida, cousins came, friends. “Everybody had a tear in their eye. It was a great day,” he told Chabad.org. The service was followed by a kiddush and festive meal.

Rabbi Mendel Teldon, director of Chabad of Mid Suffolk, said the bar mitzvah plan was hatched when his father, Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, was putting on tefillin with Miller. In honor of the 75th anniversary of his turning 13, which brings a young man to an age of majority in the Jewish community regardless of how it’s marked, they decided to celebrate.

About 20 guests were in attendance, including local government officials and representation from the school district. “He was hiding in the forest during the war; he didn’t know the dates, they had no calendar, so he couldn’t formally mark his bar mitzvah because they didn’t know when it was,” said Rabbi Mendel Teldon.

‘There Wasn’t a Moment He Lost His Faith’

Despite never getting past first grade, Miller spoke seven languages and was recently honored with a diploma from a local high school.
Despite never getting past first grade, Miller spoke seven languages and was recently honored with a diploma from a local high school.

Miller’s family was forced from their home in Poland into a ghetto in 1939, and then into hiding when the ghetto was eliminated. They hid multiple places, including in the forest, before being discovered by a German soldier who gave them work, not knowing they were Jewish. A neighbor turned them in, and they narrowly escaped execution before being liberated by the Russians.

After the war, Miller wound up in a displaced persons camp. His family later went to Israel, where he fought in the War of Independence. He then came to America, where he married and started a family.

Keeping kosher and keeping Shabbat stayed relevant and powerful to him, even during the Holocaust, as he shared with those he spoke to, noted Teldon. “His message has always been the commitment to Judaism and to G‑d, even at the most difficult times,” said Teldon. “There wasn’t a moment he lost his faith.”

Miller, left with his sons Joshua, center, Baruch, and a baby granddaughter.
Miller, left with his sons Joshua, center, Baruch, and a baby granddaughter.

The community was touched to take part in the celebration, added Teldon. Though many of them knew Miller from the community, they didn’t know his history or childhood experiences. “He’s a real-life Jewish hero who’s living with us, and who’s able to put a period at the end of the sentence at his bar mitzvah and finally have that celebration that all the years he felt he was lacking.”

Julian Miller said his father provided him and his three siblings with a “great childhood, and an amazing story and lesson of living through the Holocaust.”

Murray’s wife, Nerma, affirmed that the bar mitzvah was a memorable day, primarily because it brought her husband so much joy.

“He always said he wanted one,” she said. “When they threw the candies at him after he went up to the Torah, he was big on the smiles then, so it was really nice. It was just such a happy time for him.”

Miller, left, with fellow soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces in the early 1950s.
Miller, left, with fellow soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces in the early 1950s.
In recent years, Miller was a popular speaker, describing his experiences during the Holocaust.
In recent years, Miller was a popular speaker, describing his experiences during the Holocaust.