NEW YORK (JTA) — She may not have the same velocity on her fastball as an MLB pitcher, but Helen Kahan still had plenty to be proud of as she threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees took the field on May 5 — her 100th birthday.
Kahan stood confidently on the Tropicana Field pitcher’s mound with her daughter and son by her side. It didn’t matter that the throw only made it halfway to home plate. The crowd of more than 25,000 gave her a standing ovation as Rays relief pitcher Kevin Kelly, who caught the pitch, congratulated her with a smile and a handshake.
Kahan, of Seminole, Florida, who survived multiple Nazi concentration camps, was triumphant.
“I never could have imagined celebrating a birthday like this, let alone my 100th!” said Kahan. “I’m so grateful that I am here to tell my story and help the world remember why kindness and empathy are so important for us all.”
Born in 1923 in Romania, Kahan was forced into a ghetto as a young adult before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, then Bergen-Belsen and Lippstadt. As the end of the war approached, she escaped from a death march before the camp was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945. In 1967, Kahan fulfilled a lifelong dream when she and her family immigrated to the United States.
Bally Sports Sun, the Rays broadcaster, featured an in-game segment on her inspiring story.
“They heard how I lived… that I have a number from Auschwitz,” Kahan told the Jewish Press, pointing to the Nazi tattoo on her arm that reads 7504.
Many of Kahan’s family members — two children, five grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren — were at Tropicana Field to witness the big moment.
“It was very nice,” Kahan said. “Everybody celebrated; everybody made it bigger than me.”
She said the experience was special because she never got to play sports when growing up, explaining, “I always had to make a penny in the family.”
To prepare, Kahan watched her grandsons and great-grandsons play catch so she could get the pitching motion in her head.
Afterward, Kahan received lots of media attention, including segments on the local news and social media posts from global outlets, including ESPN.
Kahan said she relished the experience and was grateful for the opportunity.
“I love it… I came from a Hitler camp that did not give me anything but numbers,” Kahan said, pointing at her tattooed arm once again.
Kahan’s daughter, Livia Wein, said that watching her mother throw out the pitch was one of the best things she has ever experienced.
“It was probably the coolest thing for our entire family,” Wein said. “Having a lot of our friends in the stands also made it very special.”
Kahan and Wein are both avid Rays fans; however, Kahan prefers to keep her favorite player a secret. She said it was a pleasure to meet several of the players and coaches before the game.
In addition to honoring Kahan, the Rays announced a $10,000 partnership grant with the Florida Holocaust Museum during the pregame festivities. Kahan has been a longtime volunteer educator at the St. Petersburg museum.
Whether it was Kahan’s charisma and courageous spirit or simply great defense and timely hitting, the Rays defeated their rival Yankees by a final score of 5-4.