The POSTman Knocks Twice: Truth really is stranger than fiction

Ministers who reveal security secrets for political gain. A minister who deals with emissions from bulls. Rabbis who hate other Jews.

Israeli flag and Temple Mount  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israeli flag and Temple Mount
There are so many bad things to write about.
Ministers who reveal security secrets for political gain. A minister who deals with emissions from bulls. Rabbis who hate other Jews.
But what is the point of writing about that too often. It hurts me. It hurts you. If you agree with me, it hurts you and if you disagree, it hurts you.
And there is too much hurt and anger in our society already. So it’s time for a tale. If I had included such an incident in a novel, it would be met by disbelief: “Oh, come off it, coincidences like that don’t happen.”
Well it did, two years ago.
In the executive lounge of a Jerusalem hotel. I was visiting a genuine World War II hero. Jacques Graubart ferried Jewish families on skis up through the French Alps to haven in Switzerland; family after family, until he was betrayed by a Swiss farmer.
He was taken to a concentration camp. An SS officer struck him across the face. Jacques Graubart struck him back. “He hit me. I hit him back.”
The Nazi grabbed him and began systematically banging his head on the ground. Now into his 90s, Jacques still has trouble hearing over the constant ringing in his ears.
There we were, and I had asked Jacques about his family in Poland, their hometown, and how come a nice Jewish boy in Galicia had learned to ski. In return, he asked where my parents came from. I began, speaking loudly, “My family came from Poland from a village near Kielce, called Lagow....”
A tall man with a small mustache and inquisitive intelligent eyes was walking by my chair at that very moment, returning from the buffet.
“Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing – did you say Lagow? My grandparents were also from Lagow.”
Now there were fewer than a thousand Jews in Lagow when his grandparents immigrated to Chicago, and about 1,200 when my parents moved to Toronto 20 years later.
So what, you may ask? Well, this is the story of almost all immigrant Jews, from Winnipeg to Buenos Aires, and from Johannesburg to Melbourne.
Millions of Jews poured out of Eastern Europe. It is also the story of Chaim Weizmann, the great Zionist leader and first president of Israel, who came from a similar shtetl called Motele.
Not all, of course since there were Jews who had moved to large industrial cities like Lodz, or cultural and business centers like Vienna or Berlin.
In Lagow, there were slightly more Jews than Poles. (Jews may have had Polish citizenship, but Poland between the wars was so anti-Semitic that very few if any Jews considered themselves Poles.) To return to that serendipitous meeting with another Lagow descendant. We had cousins in common, and assumed we were related. After all, the entire community consisted of perhaps 200 families; over the generations, marriage between second or even first cousins would be the norm.
And even if we were not related, the Holocaust had made us survivors of the shtetl once removed, and our friendship was also tacitly based on that.
This new cousin is Rabbi Daniel Zemel, whom we met together with his wife, Louise. They now live in Washington where he is the spiritual leader of Temple Micah. Last week, joined by another two Lagover cousins who now live in Israel – Pamela Lazarus from Chicago and Sybil Levine from Toronto – we met for a three-hour lunch.
Immediately our joint origin going back a century nonetheless linked us.
Zionism and love of Israel was another bond.
Next year will mark 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, in which for the first time in almost 1,900 years a great power spoke out in favor of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
When the news of the British declaration reached war-ravaged Lagow, where Russian and German forces had seesawed across the area, the girls put on blue-and-white dresses and there was singing and dancing in the muddy streets lined by Jewish homes. So my late mother told me, and even sang the few Yiddish words which marked the historic occasion: “Freit freit Palestiner freit” – “Rejoice in Palestine!” Palestine was the Land of Israel in those innocent days. And Great Britain recognized it as a “national home” and the Jews as “the Jewish people.”
In 1924, Lagow was predominantly Zionist and religiously observant. Of the eight board members of the community, five were Zionists, and three from the anti-Zionist Agudat Yisrael.
Among the Zionists, three were Mizrachi (Zionist Orthodox). On the board I had two recognizable cousins.
Probably no Jewish shops were open on Shabbat.
There was one exception. Bakers would allow cholent to be placed in their ovens to keep cooking from Friday late afternoon till the Shabbat midday meal. Interesting, both Rabbi Zemel’s grandfather and mine were bakers. One can imagine that these bakeries were centers of news and gossip as the Jewish housewives gathered to pick up the hot cholent pot.
The bars too were closed. But Jews could come to the door of the beer makers (like my uncle) and take home cold beer from their beer cellars. There was no exchange of money, of course, till the three stars ended the Sabbath.
Lagow was not Fiddler on the Roof shmaltz and piety. Secularization had already penetrated the shtetl, in no small measure due to the competing ideologies attracting the young. These were Communism, Bundism – Yiddishist Socialists, and Zionism ranging from the leftist Hashomer Hatza’ir to the less revolutionary movements.
THUS WE sat and chatted, as though we had known one another for years.
There was a quiet delight in the reunion bridging a hundred years.
Unspoken was the ineffable sadness at what we lost – our murdered families who stayed in Lagow. Lagow, a shtetl like the one your people may very well have come from.
Tell your children your family’s story, regardless of whether they came from Europe, Africa or Asia, whether Yiddish-speaking or speaking in a multitude of other languages.
Tell them, lest you forget. And then they will never know.
Avraham Avi-hai is a Jerusalem writer, former academic and senior civil servant. He was for a decade a member of the World Zionist and Jewish Agency Executive. Born in Toronto, he arrived in Israel in 1952.