10/30/2008 11:00PM

'A different life' that touched many


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Barry Abrams is having his best year as a Thoroughbred trainer. He also lost his best friend.

Lev Abrams, Barry's larger-than-life father, was as much a part of the Southern California scene as the mountains above Santa Anita or the ocean at Del Mar. At the track he was everyone's kindly uncle. Every usher and most horseplayers knew him by sight.

"Since he retired 15 years ago, he came out about every day, up until the last four or five months," Abrams said. "He was everybody's friend. He had a sandwich, he'd give everybody a piece, making sure they had something to eat. People would ask him if my horses had a chance, and he liked that. He was a character. He lived a different life."

He lived a different life. I don't keep track, but this will rank high as the understatement of the year. Lev Abrams lived a different life all right, a life that should not have made it past his 16th year.

Born Lev Abramovski in the eastern Polish town of Mir (now in Belarus), the elder Abrams was caught up in the German invasion of his country, as the Nazis marched headlong toward Russia. Known for its yeshiva, a rabbinical school of classic Judaism, Mir was home to a poor but vigorous Jewish community. In the winter of 1941, the 16-year-old Lev and his family were rounded up with hundreds of their neighbors, told to dig their own graves, then machine-gunned.

"His mother, his father, and eight brothers and sisters were killed right in front of him," Abrams, 54, said. "It was December, and my father froze before the machine guns got to him. He fell into the grave, bodies fell on top of him, and that's how he survived.

"He ended up in the forest and did what he could to survive," Abrams went on. "Whatever food he found he'd hide under a tree so he'd know where to find it. He lived that way for months until the partisans, the Polish underground, found him. He fought the Germans with them until the end of the war."

In the redrawn map of post-war Europe, eastern Poland ended up in Russia. Lev Abramovski, a miraculous survivor, embarked upon a trade as a butcher and started a family. They moved back to Poland, on to Israel, and finally to the United States in 1963, where his children came face to face with the anti-Russian sentiments nurtured by the Cold War.

"The first day in school for me and my brother, they called my mother and explained to her that we needed to change our name to Abrams, otherwise they'd think we were Communists," Barry recalled.

These days, the Abrams clan is about as fully integrated into the American culture as you can get, right down to Barry bleeding L.A. Lakers purple and gold. Madeleine Auerbach, Abrams's principal patron, named a filly America's Friend in honor of her trainer. In August, she won the Solana Beach Handicap at Del Mar.

On Sunday, at Hollywood Park, Abrams will send out Spenditallbaby in the $65,000 feature at Hollywood Park. Named for 1978 co-champion 2-year-old filly It's in the Air, the 1 1/16-mile main-track event will showcase the Brazilian Oaks winner Eissoai, already a winner in the U.S., and the Giant's Causeway filly Model, who would have won both the Spinster Stakes and the Clement Hirsch this year if it hadn't been for Carriage Trail and Zenyatta.

Spenditallbaby and the other three Cal-breds in the field will be running for an extra $19,500 in state incentive funds. Abrams and his owners have raked in a stack of such bonus cash this year, primarily through the efforts of runners by Unusual Heat, California's leading stallion. Besides taking the B. Thoughtful Stakes at Hollywood last April with Spenditallbaby, Abrams won major stakes with two other daughters of Unusual Heat - Lethal Heat and Bel Air Sizzle - on his way to 2008 purse earnings of $2.8 million from just 233 starters through Thursday's racing.

None of that mattered, though, when Abrams laid his father to rest last week alongside his mother at El Camino Memorial Park in Sorrento Valley, not far from Del Mar. Lev Abramovski, a man who led a very different life, was 83 when he died on the evening of Oct. 17.

"You know, he testified at the last war crimes trial of the 20th century," Abrams said. "They found a guy in England who was involved in the village where my father grew up. Scotland Yard detectives came over here several times, showed him pictures, and he told them the story."

With the help of the elder Abrams, the accused, a Mir policeman, was brought before the court, but eventually was deemed too mentally unstable to stand trial.

"It wasn't a pleasant thing for my father," Barry said, "and I didn't want him to go and relive all that. It was a bad experience, but he did it.

"I miss him," Abrams added. "The first few days after he was gone I still came out of the track, going to where he always was, and I'd stop. 'Where am I going?' You only have one mother and one father. Everyone else is . . . well, you know."