By Megan Diskin – Ventura County Star
While forming a friendship with a Holocaust survivor he met through school, a Westlake Village, California teen raised about $15,000 to send the man to Israel to meet his last living relative.
It all started with a bracelet that Drew Principe, 17, gave to Henry Oster, 89, after a January assembly at Viewpoint High School in Calabasas. The Florence & Laurence Spungen Family Foundation, which focuses on health and Jewish causes and partly works out of Santa Barbara, met Oster and brought him to the school to share his experience.
Principe said he was so intrigued by the Woodland Hills man’s story that he attended a question-and-answer session after the talk to learn more. He discovered that Oster had never been to Israel, which surprised him, so Principe decided to wait until the room cleared to give Oster a bracelet the teen had bought on a trip to Israel a few years ago.
“Something inside of me felt compelled to give him the bracelet,” Principe said, adding that this way, Oster would have a piece of Israel with him.
The bracelet has The Shema, a Jewish prayer, inscribed on it.
In 1941 Oster and his family were deported by Nazis from their home in Cologne, Germany, a few weeks before he was supposed to celebrate his bar mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony generally held at 13. They were taken to a ghetto in Poland before he was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He was sent to a few different camps before being liberated at 17.
Oster was sent to an orphanage in France and at 18, an uncle in Los Angeles found him after seeing his name among a published list of Holocaust survivors. He ended up in California, where he eventually became an optometrist, Oster said.
When Principe gave him the bracelet from his wrist, Oster said, it had a profound impact on him.
“It really is a gesture that cannot be measured,” Oster said. “I don’t wear jewelry, but I have not taken this off except for the shower.”
Principe had to go back to class, so the pair were not able to discuss the emotion behind the act of kindness.
Oster reached out to the school’s headmaster so he could contact the teen and thank him properly. Oster, Principe and the teen’s mother met for lunch soon after, and a “life-changing” friendship grew from there, the teen said.
Principe said he believes their meeting was a sign. The teen had started searching for purpose and fulfillment in his young life about a year before meeting Oster. He had some ideas as to what could provide him that feeling, but none of them had panned out.
“My mom told me to look for the signs,” Principe said.
Funnily enough, the bracelet Principe gave Oster had been missing for quite some time, but he found it before he left for school on the day of the assembly.
“All the signs, I guess, started stacking up that I just had to send this man to Israel,” Principe said.
Through a series of lunches and family gatherings, Principe learned that Oster had a cousin in Tel Aviv who he had never met and was his last living relative. It was also discovered that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, listed Oster as a victim and not a survivor.
Principe wrote a letter telling Oster’s story and of his wish to send him to Israel to meet his relative. He sent the letter to friends and family members. The fundraiser took off from there. The teen’s friends and family sent it to people they knew, and before he knew it, they had raised close to $15,000, Principe said.
“It kind of brought the community together,” Principe said. “It was incredible to watch.”
Oster said that when he found out Principe was doing this for him, it was difficult to accept. He was even reluctant to take the bracelet.
“It’s a very emotional experience,” Oster said.
On Monday, Oster and his wife along with Principe and his family will head to Israel, where Oster will meet his cousin the day they arrive, the teen said. Later, Oster will be formally recognized by the Israeli Holocaust memorial as a survivor.
While there, Oster will finally celebrate the bar mitzvah he never had. He’s received many offers over the years to do it, but since he does not read or speak Hebrew, he felt like he could not participate. The Principe family said they could work around that by having the rabbi read from the Torah. Oster will just need to say two prayers.
Ultimately, Oster said, he decided to accept the offer and have the ceremony in memory of those who died and will never have the chance to perform the Jewish ceremony.
“I decided to honor my father and my parents and … the desecrated Torah and all the victims who never had a chance,” Oster said.
Principe said he has found what he was seeking. And the next time he has an idea to do something nice, like gifting a bracelet, he’s going to roll with it. He encourages others to do the same.