He escaped the Holocaust but not COVID-19: ‘There were things he still wanted to do,’ says his son

Josh & David Orzech
Josh Orzech shows a picture of his father, David.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

In his youth, Germany native David Orzech escaped the specter of death multiple times, including the grip of Nazism. But at age 91, mourning the recent loss of his wife, he met his match with COVID-19.

Early on in the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, David Orzech saw COVID-19 coming for him.

He told his son Josh, “This is what’s going to take me out.”

His dad’s attitude, remembered Josh, was not a surrender to the virus, but a kind of wary respect for it. He was anything but reckless about it — isolating from friends and loved ones, keeping the window in his room open even when it was cold outside and the heater was running. “He was always conscious of it,” said Josh.

Faces of COVID

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But in the end — the very end, as it turned out — David turned out, tragically, to be right. On Jan. 8, just a week or two before he would have been able to receive the vaccine, David Orzech died of complications from COVID-19 at the age of 91.

It had already been a painful year for the Orzech family. Six years ago, David and his wife Judy left their long-time home in San Francisco to move closer to their son in Santa Cruz County.

Six months ago, in the midst of the pandemic, Judy died (unrelated to COVID-19, said Josh). David, who had spent a career in academia in the field of rehabilitation counseling, was his wife’s primary caretaker. Without her and in the throes of self-isolation, he struggled to adapt to life as a widower. But Josh had plans, post-pandemic, to make his father’s life more enjoyable.

“There were things he still wanted to do,” said Josh, “and I was looking forward to at least going up to (San Francisco) with him more often, seeing his friends, maybe traveling to see my sister in Israel.”

But shortly before New Year’s, he tested positive for the virus. His symptoms were mild at first, but they persisted. He and his family thought he was going to be fine. Then, his condition worsened dramatically. And finally, his premonition came to pass.

From an early age, David had had uncomfortably close experiences with the specter of death. He almost died as a baby with a bout of pneumonia. “Following an old Jewish tradition,” Josh wrote in an obituary salute to his father, “my grandparents gave him two extra middle names while he was in the hospital, in order to confuse the angel of death.”

David Orzech looks over wife Judy in Hospice Care in June.
(Courtesy Orzech family)

And as a child, he averted one of history’s most notorious genocides.
He was born in Germany in 1929, just as the Nazi Party was rising to power. Anticipating the worst, David’s father, a tailor, arranged to get his family out of Germany under the guise of a weekend vacation. The family fled to British-ruled Palestine, leaving behind most of their possessions.

As a boy, David was, and for many years later continued to be, an avid stamp collector. “The main thing he was upset about was that he didn’t get to bring his stamps with him,” said Josh, “because they couldn’t bring anything that made it look like they were going away for longer than a weekend.”

David eventually settled in San Francisco where he married and raised a family. He landed a faculty position at San Francisco State University training graduate students in rehab counseling. He developed a deep and abiding love for both his adopted city and the wide network of young counselors that he trained over the years.

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“He loved the urban environment,” said Josh, “and the intellectual rigors of being among different cultures and different cuisines.”

When his wife’s health began to decline, David agreed to move to Santa Cruz to be closer to Josh and his family. Josh feels that, even after his mother’s death, there were still horizons left for his father to explore.

“You just felt like there were things to do to finish the circle before the end,” he said. “I’ve always felt like there was a destiny, a fate. Maybe that’s a superstition with me. But COVID feels like something that came in and reshuffled that deck. We’re all dealt the cards we’re dealt, but all of a sudden, this thing comes to reshuffle the cards, fairly or unfairly.”

David and Judy
(Courtesy Orzech family)