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100-year-old WWII veteran dies of coronavirus a century after the flu pandemic killed his twin brother

By MEAGAN FLYNN | The Washington Post | Published: April 24, 2020

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Before Philip Kahn died of coronavirus on April 17 at 100 years old, he kept thinking about his twin brother, Samuel.

When he told his life story to his grandchildren, friends and neighbors, it always began with Samuel, and now it seemed to be ending that way too.

The twins were born into a world still torn by the flu pandemic in December 1919, in New York. Samuel died of influenza just weeks later. Philip survived.

His life would be shaped by so many historic events in which participated in the years to come — flying planes in World War II, helping to build the World Trade Center — but this loss always seemed to haunt him just as badly as what he saw in Iwo Jima, his grandson said.

"It was always the first thing he brought up before he got into World War II stories, before he got into World Trade Center stories, it was always this," his grandson, Warren Zysman, who is also a twin, told The Washington Post late Thursday. "He really didn't know his twin brother, but it was something that really weighed very heavily on him psychologically — he held this void, this twin brother he never got to experience growing up with."

The two brothers are "pandemic bookends," as Zysman's wife, Corey Karlin-Zysman, put it, bringing two tragedies full circle after the long and wonderful life that Kahn lived in between them. He was laid to rest on Monday, after a brief battle with coronavirus that he fought from his Long Island apartment. The positive test results came back just after his death, Zysman said.

The 39-year-old mental health therapist said he was hurt that he couldn't give his grandfather the huge funeral he had always envisioned, packed with war buddies and all the guys from the local electricians' union he worked with for so many years. Instead, it was a small military service, his casket draped in an American flag, attended by just 10 people due to coronavirus restrictions.

But in the absence of a large celebration, Zysman said what his grandfather really wanted was for his stories to be remembered. His stories and photographs were his most prized possessions, his grandson said.

So on Thursday, Zysman shared them with The Washington Post and others, in hopes of memorializing the events that shaped his grandfather's life.

"This is what he wanted," Zysman said. "For him, it was really more about preserving the history."

Philip Kahn was born on Dec. 15, 1919, in Manhattan, the son of an orphaned immigrant father who came to the United States from Europe around the turn of the century, making a living as a baker.

Even though Kahn was only a baby during the influenza pandemic, he grew up in its shadow, as his parents' grief and the stories they told became his own. Raised during the Great Depression, Kahn later enlisted in the Army's Aviation Cadet Training Program in 1940.

Before long, he was flying B-29 bombers in Japan.

"There was something about him that was very, very special," Sampson Lester Friedman, a veteran who flew planes with Kahn during the war, said during a eulogy at his funeral, in a video provided to The Post. "Aboard our airplane, he was an engineer, and he was the hardest working guy aboard that airplane."

But piloting bombing missions took its toll. In an interview with Newsday for his 98th birthday in 2017, Kahn described how it weighed on him for many years, having witnessed the terror and destruction from hundreds of feet in the air. He witnessed one case from close range too: He was nearly killed by a booby trap that blew up just feet away from him in Iwo Jima.

His soon-to-be wife, Rose, feared he wouldn't make it home alive, he told Newsday. But in 1946, he finally did. They married and were together for 73 years, until her death last summer. They raised two daughters, one being Zysman's mother, Lynn. The other, Joyce Laulicht, died a few years ago, Zysman said.

After a brief stint as a talented roller-rink dancer, Kahn worked all his life as an electrician. One of his proudest memories was helping to build the World Trade Center in the late 1960s. He led a large team of workers as the electrical foreman, and snapped a picture from the top of one of the towers just before the construction was complete — another photograph he liked to share at every opportunity.

It made 9/11 that much harder for him to process, Zysman said.

"His level of sadness and tears was something that many of us could relate to, but it was like a different level," Zysman said. "It was like something he spent so many years creating, his blood, sweat and tears, was no longer there."

His big family helped him get through it. Kahn had six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He was especially thrilled when Zysman and his twin brother were born, Zysman said, as though Kahn were finally getting to experience the bond of twins vicariously through them. "It was always so special to him," Zysman said.

He liked to show off his '50s roller-rink dance moves at all the grandkids' bar mitzvahs, Zysman said, and taught each one how to swim. Zysman said his message to each one of them was to put their whole hearts into everything that they did. "Even at 100 years old, he had mastered the art of making things a perfect circle and a perfect heart with my 7-year-old daughter," Zysman said.

Just a few months after celebrating Kahn's 100th birthday in December, they stopped being able to visit with him once coronavirus began taking its toll.

Zysman said he is not sure how his grandfather ultimately contracted the virus in April, but even before the test, it was clear he had the symptoms. His cough worsened. He slept more and more and had trouble breathing.

Over the phone, Zysman said, he and Kahn talked about what was to come in an uncertain time. He told his grandson he knew this wouldn't blow over soon, warning him that "this is going to change how people live." The stories about his lost twin returned, the memories of the pandemic's enduring impact on his family pouring back to him.

"He kept telling me, 'Warren, my boy, history is repeating itself,'" Zysman remembered. "He said, 'I lived a long time, 100 years, but 100 years is not a long time for history. We could have been better prepared for this.'"

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