I t’s a warm “winter day” in Los Angeles. The temperature has topped 81 degrees and even the native Angelenos are surprised by the unusually balmy weather.

Rabbi Asher Brander, the rav of the LINK Kollel, introduces me to a patrician gentleman who appears simultaneously noble and hoary.

I ask him where he’s from — a native Angeleno, he’s clearly not. And I soon realize I am speaking to a unique nonagenarian.

“I was born in Pietrokov in 1926,” he tells me. “Back then the rav of the city was the great Rav Meir Shapiro ztz”l. He was my sandek who held me at my bris. By the time of my bar mitzvah, the rav of the city was Rav Moshe Chaim Lau, the father of Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. He spoke at my bar mitzvah.”

As if roused from spiritual slumber, I realize I am in the presence of royalty, a vestige of an extinct world. I am witnessing before my eyes the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah (3:2), “This man is like a burning stick that has been snatched from the fire.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, “what is your name again?”

“My name is Yaakov Sendowski. Most people call me Jack.”

“So you’re from Pietrokov? And you know Rav Yisrael Meir Lau?”

He nods. “Rav Yisrael Meir and I were liberated from Buchenwald together, after surviving the nightmare of our lives.”

I am mesmerized by his story. As he speaks, I’m reminded that although we are physically located in the capital of the entertainment industry, in 2018, spiritually, Reb Yaakov and I are 6,000 miles away in Pietrokov, and the year is 1939.

“A few months after my bar mitzvah, darkness descended on Pietrokov. It became the first Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis in Poland. In an area that originally held 6,000 Jews, the Nazis crammed over 28,000 Yidden, each family crowded into a room the size of a walk-in closet.

“I was put to work in the ghetto, helping the German war machine. Finally, after I was more dead than alive, I was transported to Buchenwald, where, with the help of Hashem, the American army liberated us on April 11, 1945.

“Eventually I came to America. My wife’s brother lived in Los Angeles. I have been here since 1950.”

As if awakening from a dream, I hear someone say it is time for Minchah. Reb Yaakov and I part.

Sunday night, as I am about to leave for the airport, I notice a challah board next to my suitcase. When I ask, Rabbi Brander informs me it is a handmade gift from Reb Yaakov Sendowski.

My wife and I know we have to make one stop before we head for LAX.

I knock on the door of Reb Yaakov, where I discover he has spent Motzaei Shabbos lovingly cutting and fashioning a beautiful challah board as a gift.

“Reb Yaakov, where did you learn woodcutting? I know you were a businessman all your life.”

With tears streaming down his cheeks, Reb Yaakov says, “To stay alive in the ghetto you had to have a trade, so I taught myself woodworking. I promised Hashem that if He saved me from this Gehinnom, one day I would pay Him back. I would use my woodworking craft to sanctify His name. Today I fulfilled that promise, as I presented you with a challah board for your Shabbos table.”

As I hold the challah board in one arm and hug Reb Yaakov with my other, I can feel the malachim in this “city of angels” singing praises to Hashem.

This week as Jews the world over observe the Shabbos after Pesach, everyone looks forward to eating challah.

For me, however, it’s not the challah I’m looking forward to. It’s the challah board from Pietrokov I yearn to embrace once again. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 705)