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From the Jungle to Avenue J

Zehava Kaner

Chana Kunkel was born in the steamy jungles of the African Congo. Since then, she moved to United States, where she married and established a home. Throughout her life, she's been caring for others, and she merited to assist Rebbezin Chana Ethel Miller, a”h, widow of Rav Avigdor Miller, ztz”l, in her last years. In this riveting interview, Chana shares with Family First snapshots of her colorful life.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

During an interminable wait at a doctor's office with my daughter, I noticed an elderly woman in a wheelchair accompanied by a caretaker. I was struck by the refinement in the caretaker's face and manner, by the warmth and attentiveness that she was showering upon the elderly woman.

Caring for others with boundless devotion is what Mrs. Chana Kunkel has done since she was a young girl growing up in the jungles of Belgian Congo, Africa. Chana's innate refinement and sense of mission in caring for the elderly led her up close to the illustrious Rebbetzin Etel Chana Miller, a”h, rebbetzin of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, ztz'l.

Chana's selflessness comes naturally, one of the gifts bequeathed by her illustrious ancestors, the Codrons. Centuries ago, the Codron family escaped Spain during the time of the Inquisition. They settled in Rhodes, Greece where they were highly respected and involved in communal affairs for generations. Their stringency in halachah was widely known and admired.

“My great-grandfather was a rabbi in Rhodes,” Chana relates. “He and my great-grandmother were extremely religious. He eventually made his way to Israel with Rav Avraham Abuchatzeira, where he settled in Tiveria. He is buried near Rav Abuchatzeira in a very old cemetery there.” 

Seeking His Fortune

In the 1920s, Chana's father, Yaakov (Jacques) Codron left Rhodes, as many Jewish young men did at the time.

“Times were hard. Young men needed a way to make a living and there were few opportunities in Rhodes. People heard there were precious minerals to be found in Africa; gold, silver, and diamonds. They heard that it was just like America; that you could pick riches up on the streets. So my father joined a group of other Jewish young men, and sailed to the Congo to seek his fortune.”

Before he left, however, the young Jacques Codron arranged another important matter, his marriage to Chana's mother, Mazal Tov. As was common at the time, boys and girls were often related even before they became husband and wife. Mazal Tov, Jacques's future wife, was also his niece.

It was a good thing that Jacques became engaged to his wife before sailing away into the sunset, since many others wanted to marry her as well.

“My mother was beautiful and vivacious, and she got many offers of marriage from wealthy families, even though she herself was from a poor family. But she rejected them all; even though she wasn't sure she'd ever see my father again.”

Chana shows me black-and-white photos. Dressed in the long dresses and curled hair of the 1930s, Mazal Tov's smile radiates charm and personality.

In the days before cell phones, e-mails, and texting, Mazal Tov and Jacques kept in touch the old fashioned way; by sending each other letters and photographs. Eight years after sailing away from Greece, Jacques sent word that he was finally able to support a wife. With a group of relatives escorting her (some of whom were off to follow Jacques Codron's example), Mazal Tov set sail for Africa.

“My grandparents weren't able to attend the wedding,” Chana remarks pensively in her soft, mellifluous French accent. “Travel was so difficult.” To her great sorrow, Mazal Tov never saw her parents again. 


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