As a boy, Victor Vital lived in cellars and hid in the forests of Greece with little food and no fire for warmth as Nazis invaded the country.
Vital and his family hid for two years to survive the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of 81 percent of Greece’s Jewish population — 60,000 to 70,000 people — according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
He immigrated to St. Paul in 1967 with his wife and the first two of his three children and quietly began a long career as an accountant. It wasn’t until years later that, at the urging of his youngest child and fellow Holocaust survivors, he began publicly sharing his story.
“His life was testament to the coldness and cruelty of humanity and the meaningless of suffering, yet his life spoke to opposite truths and he told stories that would warm countless souls,” said Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker of Mount Zion Temple, where Vital worshiped. “He brought smiles to so many people of all ages.”
Vital, 86, died Jan. 20 of natural causes.
Those who knew him said he was active in the local Jewish and Greek communities and showed compassion to those in need.
“He befriended all of the employees and he made friends with a lot of customers … so people would come in looking for him,” said Loma Monahan, manager of Bread and Chocolate bakery in St. Paul, where Vital was a regular. “He cared about everybody.”
Vital was born in Patras, Greece, the youngest of three children. His parents sold fabric and embroidery, but the family and his sister’s husband and his parents all went into hiding when the Nazis began deporting Greek Jews to concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Vital was 12 when they took refuge. In the book, “Witnesses to the Holocaust,” a compilation of several survivors’ stories, he recalled that the family foraged for food and was unable to light fires because it would alert the Germans.
“We were always cold and hungry,” Vital said in the book. “The suffering was beyond belief.”
His youngest child, Demetrios Vital, said the kindness of others, including a Christian friend who gave them a small bag of wheat and warned them of a reward the Germans had placed on the family, influenced the rest of his life.
“That was central to their survival,” Demetrios Vital said of the wheat. “His experiences … were central to his self-examination and his relationship to the world around him.”
After the war, Vital began a family in Greece until political unrest prompted them to flee to St. Paul, where his sister had previously settled. Vital said in the book that he initially didn’t consider himself a survivor because he hadn’t spent time in a concentration camp. But local Jewish leaders said his story is important to understanding the Holocaust, and that such firsthand accounts are growing more rare as aging survivors pass away. Vital was the fourth Holocaust survivor at Mount Zion to die within a year.
Vital spoke at classes and from the pulpit a few times at Mount Zion. Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said Vital also gave talks to community groups as part of the organization’s speakers bureau.
“He was always a very popular speaker because he conveyed his family’s very difficult story, but he always spoke with love for all people,” Hunegs said. “He was the type of person — people gravitated toward him because of his warm and embracing personality.”
Vital was preceded in death by his parents, his brother and sister, and his ex-wife, Algaia Vital. He is survived by sons Joseph and Demetrios; daughter Rachel Vital Davis, and three grandchildren. Services have been held.