Would we spend the rest of our lives wondering why we hadn’t contacted the myriad of magical figures living in our midst? Would we ever be able to document those last memories of life in the prewar years?
There is nothing I can say or do
to make things change
Time has a way of passing by so fast
Like a fleeting shadow no one will recall
The faces of the past
—“Memories,” composed by Abie Rotenberg
t was during the height of the coronavirus that despondent messages began to cross the Atlantic, between our respective locations of New York and Beit Shemesh. Had we missed our last opportunity?
As close friends for nearly 15 years with a shared fascination for Jewish history, we’ve made it our business to meet great roshei yeshivah and their rebbetzins, prestigious rabbanim, and important lay leaders who’ve played an outsized and even heroic role in Jewish life. But COVID halted our progress on a different kind of project.
We had been seeking those last people who could still recall the glory and challenges of prewar Jewish life. Now, with borders closed, flights halted, human contact off-limits, and an unending chain of losses, we wondered if we were at the end of the road.
Would we spend the rest of our lives wondering why we’d hadn’t contacted the myriad of magical figures living in our midst? Would we ever be able to document those last memories of life in the prewar years?
Then the world began to open up ever slightly — and we agreed to seize the moment and follow every single lead we’d filed away.
Rabi Yehudah Hanasi attributed his incisiveness to the fact that he “saw Rabi Meir from behind” — i.e., he sat behind him as a student. Had he seen him from the front, he would have been even more incisive (Eiruvin 13b). Seeing a teacher’s face increases one’s understanding and sharpens one’s mind.
Noted historian Rabbi Berel Wein draws a parallel to the postwar generation. We saw the “back” of a thousand years of the glory of European Jewry. Many of our own accomplishments can be attributed to the presence of those who served as a bridge to that lost world — giving us a sense of connection, and rooting us in our glorious past.
As a trilingual historian who has worked for Yad Vashem’s Survivor Project, interviewing dozens of survivors across Israel for the last few years, Yehuda saw this principle in action:
I had the privilege of interviewing a 102-year-old Polish Jew in his Bayit Vegan home in Jerusalem. With perfect recall he recounted anecdotes from his youth, and shared an encounter with an elderly Jew from his hometown, a small shtetl on the outskirts of Warsaw. As a young child his father had insisted that he meet this elderly fellow, because the sandek at his bris had been no less than Rav Menachem Mendel Morgenstern — the Kotzker himself.
Listening to his account, I literally began to tremble. Until that moment the Kotzker was as distant as Abaye and Rava — so far from our world that he seemed unrelatable and almost mythical. And yet here was someone sitting opposite me, who had seen and spoken to someone who was held on the lap of the heilege Kotzker. Suddenly the world of the Kotzker didn’t seem so far away anymore.
The monumental losses that Klal Yisrael has experienced over the past year portend the close of an era. While we are privileged to have survivors still among us, there remains just a handful who can recall the glory of the prewar era.
What follows is a sampling of profiles of venerable individuals still among us, each of whom graciously shared their recollections of personal encounters with towering personalities from years gone by. Listen to their stories, and you just might share the privileged view of those eyes that saw angels
With thanks to Rabbi Efrem and Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg, Rabbi Shimon Finkelman, Moishe Tabak, Ari Giver, Moshe Benoliel, Moishe Schindler of Mint Media, Feivel Schneider, Jacob Djmal, Shlomo Reichmann, Rabbis Avishai Taharani and Yehuda Attieh
Do you have a candidate for a future segment of “Eyes That Saw Angels”? Email us at Fortherecord@mishpacha.com
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