Rest in Peace


His death, like his life, was cold and lonely. There were no friends or family members to sit at his bedside during his final moments, to hold his hand and whisper some last parting words or say a few kapitlach of Tehillim for his soul’s journey. He was alone and abandoned in a cold hospital room as he took his last breath and returned his soul to its Creator.

They didn’t even know his name.

He was brought to Ichilov Hosptial in Tel Aviv without any identification, although a few people recognized him as the lonely man who used to sit at the end of Rechov Neve Shaanan, begging for alms. Paramedics brought him to the hospital after he collapsed one afternoon, but the pockets of his tattered garments didn’t contain a single identifying document or scrap of paper with a name or phone number. Still, he was a Jew who had to be given a Jewish burial, but who didn’t have an acquaintance in the world to provide it for him.

Ichilov contacted Reb Moshe Speigel, the funeral director at Petach Tikvah’s Beilinson Hospital and director of Chevrah Kadisha Shomrei Hadas, to collect the body and prepare it for burial. Speigel, as every hospital in the area knows, is the chesed shel emes address when it comes to burying the abandoned, the homeless, the anonymous. Although no one knew the man’s name in life, Speigel wanted to make sure he’d have some marker of his existence in This World even after death. But who was he? Speigel spoke to everyone on the hospital staff who’d cared for him, hoping to find a hint, and one nurse reported that the man had whispered a name to her before losing consciousness. Perhaps he was trying to identify himself?

Speigel and his team set out with this clue, scanning the phone books for someone with that name. They found several such names, one of them showing a residential address not far from where the niftar regularly begged for charity. Perhaps the apartment would give more clues to this man’s life.

The apartment, it turned out, was little more than a dark, airless hovel exuding a revolting odor and overflowing with garbage, dirty dishes, tattered, filthy rags draped over old, broken pieces of furniture, and infested with mice. At least they knew they were in the right place. Speigel and his team, undeterred by the stench or the filth, were grateful for that. They got down on their knees on the cracked floor tiles, rummaging through the piles of detritus in the hope that they’d find some sort of document that could shed light on the identity of the deceased.

Speigel finally located a single piece of paper: a certificate attesting to a promotion the man had once received in a health facility where he worked.

With the document in his pocket — a single, silent testament to the fact that its owner had once actually lead a normal life, working hard to move forward in the world before he found himself on the street — Speigel headed for the facility in the hopes of making a positive identification, and his efforts paid off. The staff identified the man as a male nurse who had once worked there, and provided Speigel with enough information so that he could now prepare a proper gravestone and contact family members who would sit shivah for him.

Everyone Knew Her

That story happened twenty years ago, but what about this year and the year before? In our post-modern era of saturated communication, where everyone seems to be connected to someone, are there Jews — especially in Eretz Yisrael — who still leave the world all alone?

“If you only knew how many unfortunate or lonely people ended their lives that way, and how many such cases I deal with even today,” he sighs.

Speigel, together with his friend and partner, Reb Chaim Moshe Polovinsky z”l, founded Shomrei Hadas, whose goal is to make sure that the hundreds of people who die alone every year are given a proper burial. Over the years he’s also dealt with bringing the remains of people who were buried in desolate parts of chutz la’aretz, in churchyards or in forests, to proper Jewish burials.

Today, Moshe Speigel is in his sixties, but he was a young bochur in army fatigues when he began doing this chesed shel emes during the 1973 Yom Kippur War as part of his service in the IDF rabbinate. “I was responsible for identifying the bodies of fallen soldiers,” he relates. That meant the gut-wrenching job of climbing aboard scorched tanks that had been brought back from the battlefield and patiently extracting the remains of the crew. Some of their bodies could be identified only by the dog tags hanging around their necks. For many weeks after the war ended, Speigel continued in his efforts to locate the families of the victims who were still unidentifiable.

Long before the Yom Kippur War though, Speigel grew up in a home where this ultimate chesed was one of its foundations. Born in postwar Munkatch, he was a child of parents who had survived the Holocaust, and a grandson and great-grandson of Jews who had been fiercely dedicated to preserving the honor of the deceased. His great-grandfather was the first family member to work for a chevrah kaddisha, and his grandmother ran what was essentially a chevrah kaddisha from her own home.

“My grandmother would get up every day at 3 a.m. to sew shrouds,” he recalls. “She would perform taharos for women who had passed away, and she would arrange their funerals, all without taking a penny in exchange.”

In Munkatch under the post-war Communist regime, the only shul in the area was located in Speigel’s parents’ home. The seven-room house, which was occupied by the grandparents, parents, and children, also had a daily minyan, organized kosher shechitah every Sunday, and even hosted brissim and weddings. “There was no one in Munkatch who didn’t know her,” says Reb Moshe. “Our home had everything in it, from brissim to chasunos to food for the needy — and it was all for free.

“There was a woman who used to collect charity, and my grandmother made sure to prepare an envelope with money for her children every week,” Reb Moshe continues. “Then one day, people came and told her that they had seen this woman buying chocolate with the money intended for her children. My grandmother was unfazed; after that, she began preparing two envelopes for the woman, one with money for chocolate and the other for her children.”

After most of her relatives perished in Auschwitz, his grandmother returned to Munkatch after the war, trying to rebuilding from scratch everything that had been lost. There was no kosher food, and she saw to it that kosher shechitah would be conducted in her home.

Speigel’s entire family lived with their grandparents. His father worked during the week delivering bread, but was often called to handle funerals. “He used to pay a non-Jewish coworker to cover for him on the days when there were levayos, and he would personally make the burial arrangements.” With no cheder available, Speiegel’s parents arranged for a local Jewish tutor to come to their home and teach their son aleph beis and Chumash.

“One day a few years back, I was looking through the obituary column, as I always do, when I was surprised to find a familiar name,” Speigel relates. “I couldn’t believe my eyes: It was my own rebbi from Munkatch. I was horrified to discover that he was scheduled to be buried in a section of the cemetery that is not designated specifically for observant Jews. I immediately launched into a campaign of phone calls until I finally managed to have him transferred to the shomer Shabbos section, as was befitting him.”

Everyone Has a Name

Speigel’s singular dedication to his mission actually began in 1978 with a phone call from the police — with whom he’d maintained contact following his service in the military rabbinate — asking him to arrange the burial of a religious woman with no known family members or acquaintances.

“The woman in question — chareidi from all outward appearances — had come to a religious nursing home on the previous day and asked to register as a resident. She told them that her name was Sarah Schneider, but before they could get any more details, she collapsed on the spot. She passed away in the hospital shortly thereafter, but there were no papers or documents to confirm her identity among the few belongings that she had with her, so they called me to arrange her burial.”

Speigel’s first mission was to verify her identity and notify any relatives. It was a few days after the Knesset elections, so Speigel made his way to the Agudas Yisrael offices in Tel Aviv where they still had their printout list of every adult in the Tel Aviv area with an Israeli ID number. As could be expected, he discovered that there were many women named Sarah Schneider — but all of them were alive and had relatives who could confirm that fact. The nifteres, then, wasn’t named Sarah Schneider, but who was she?

For days, Speigel’s men scoured every chareidi community, seeking someone who knew the nifteres and could identify her, but they came up blank. Then someone remembered an unfortunate man named Chaim Goldstein, a Yerushalmi beggar who was known to hit children who provoked him. In the neighborhood they called him “Chaim Shmeiser (Chaim the smacker)” and he had a mentally disturbed wife who had disappeared. Was “Sarah Schneider” that woman?

Speigel found a woman who had known “Mrs. Schmeiser,” and brought her to the hospital to identify the nifteres. The woman confirmed that the mysterious “Sarah Schneider” was indeed Fruma Goldstein, the wife of Chaim Shmeiser.

“After an additional witness confirmation, we arranged all the relevant documents and prepared a kever for her,” Speigel recalls. “We were on our way to the cemetery in Cholon to bury her, when our beepers suddenly went off — it seemed that Chaim Shmeiser’s wife had been found in Jerusalem alive and well. We had no choice but to stop the levayah and bring the aron back to the hospital. But we were feeling pretty hopeless. We didn’t have a clue as to the woman’s identity.”

Meanwhile, the police were pressuring Speigel to bury the woman already, but he was unwilling to give in yet. There was one other person who might be able to help, but it was a long shot — an righteous, elderly man Speigel was acquainted with who traveled around the country and seemed to know everyone. After tracking him down, Speigel showed him the photograph. “He scrutinized the picture for a long time,”Speigel remembers. “Finally, he said that he thought he knew who she was, but the woman he had in mind always wore dark glasses and two kerchiefs on her head. He thought we might be able to identify her at one of the hachnassas orchim houses she frequented.”

Speigel’s next stop was a graphic artist’s studio, where he had the morgue photograph doctored according to the man’s description — including sunglasses and tichels — and then he was off to the shelter the man had named. The housemother recognized her immediately. “She used to sleep here sometimes,” she told Speigel. “I think she lived in Yerushalayim.”

Zooming back to Jerusalem, Speigel took the doctored photo to another acquaintance, the head of the local chevrah kaddisha who knew just about everyone in the city, under and above ground. The man looked at the picture and identified the woman immediately. “Her husband is collecting tzedakah right now on the corner of Bar Ilan and Yirmiyahu,” he said.

Speigel hurried to the spot and found an elderly man dressed in rags. “I don’t recognize her, and I don’t want to!” he screamed when Speigel tried to show him the photograph. Finally, after persuasion and a few threats thrown in for good measure, the beggar gave in and led Speigel to his small home in one of the city’s alleys. The house was filled with hundreds of cloth pouches bulging with ten-agorot coins, the donations accumulated after days of begging. He rummaged through the piles of bags until he finally found what he was seeking: an Israeli identification card bearing the name Bertha Waxman, the name of the deceased woman.

That very day, Bertha Waxman was buried in a proper Jewish funeral. A handful of men attended the levayah, with Speigel among them. She had been alone in life and in death, but she was no longer anonymous. Now she had a name.

Back to the Graveyard

Moshe Speigel hasn’t limited his work to making sure every niftar in Eretz Yisrael is buried with dignity. He also wants to make sure Jews who never merited kever Yisrael can finally find eternal rest.

“I’ve managed to get the remains of many Jews exhumed from burial grounds of churches and monasteries,” he says. “I came across stories that were shocking, bizarre — stories of Jewish people who ended up in all sorts of remote places, who were buried in forests far from civilization. And behind every case I’ve dealt with is a family who could never properly mourn, a niftar waiting to be brought to kever Yisrael, and a sad personal account. I remember every one of them.”

Speigel shares the story of two brothers who contacted him for help in the early 90s. “They had lived in the Ukraine, near the town of Belz, before the Holocaust,” he relates. “They were quite wealthy, and after the war broke out, they were able to hide — the parents and the two little boys — in the home of a non-Jewish neighbor who agreed to give them his attic in exchange for their fortune. A short time after they arrived, however, a group of Ukrainian soldiers took over the house and turned it into a makeshift command center. The soldiers were in the house practically all the time, except when they would go on a murder rampage and looting spree in the nearby villages. When the soldiers left, the owner of the house would sneak some food and water to the fugitives hiding in the attic. The rest of the time though, they had to maintain absolute silence in order to avoid being discovered.”

During the time the family spent hidden in that house, the father died of starvation. But burial was impossible, as the soldiers weren’t budging from the premises. Then after several days, when they set out for a late-night raid on a nearby town, the family decided to act: That night the mother and her two sons left their hiding place to bury their father in the huge field surrounding the house. In silence and fear, they dug a pit in the expansive meadow, lowered in their father’s body, and covered him with sand. Carefully covering their footprints, the family sneaked back to the attic where the boys recited a silent Kaddish for their father, not daring even to whisper.

“A few weeks later the family had to flee again, and through a series of miracles managed to survive the war intact. The war ended,” Speigel continues, “years went by, and the mother and her two sons moved to Los Angeles. The boys grew up and became successful businessmen. Decades later, as their mother lay on her deathbed, she made her sons promise that they would bring their father’s remains to Eretz Yisrael for burial. And so they contacted me.”

But how could anyone locate the grave of a man who was buried somewhere in a huge field in the dark of night with no marker or any identifying signs? Even to Speigel it seemed to be an improbable task, yet with the blessing of the Ribnitzer Rebbe ztz”l, Speigel traveled with the two sons back to the site of their father’s death, hoping to locate the house where they took refuge during the war.

Speigel became close to the Rebbe when he was a bochur, during the few years the Rebbe lived in Jerusalem before moving to the US. “In general, I would never set out on a mission without the Rebbe’s brachah. If the Rebbe had told me that it would be impossible to find the grave, I would have given up and told the family that I couldn’t accept the task, no matter how much they were willing to pay for it,” he says. This time though, the Rebbe gave the green light.

The brothers managed to locate the non-Jew who had given them protection early on in the war — he was still alive and living in the same house. Speigel flew with the brothers to Ukraine, but when they arrived at the estate, his heart sank. “The field was the size of Bnei Brak,” he says. “It looked like an impossible task, even for me.”

What does a person do in such a situation? “You daven,” Speigel says. “We knew we had to find the remains after coming this far. We couldn’t simply go home empty handed. So I davened from the depths of my heart — a sincere and desperate prayer for us to find this man and bring him to his final rest.

“But where to start? I first questioned the brothers — did they remember how close they had been to the house, which direction they decided to go? Were there any markers they used to find their way in the darkness? Then we noticed a small mound in the field, and we decided to begin digging there. At that point it all seemed arbitrary.”

After digging around the spot for hours, they were on the verge of moving on to a different part of the property when Speigel suddenly discovered what looked like a human bone protruding from the earth. With shaking hands, he continued digging and discovered more bones, until he had uncovered the entire grave.

“I sifted through the earth for two days, pulling one bone after another out of the soft sand,” he relates. “When we returned to Budapest with a small chest containing their father’s remains, the clerk at the hotel offered to store it for them in a secure room, but they refused. They kept the chest in their own hotel room, tearful and vigilant, while they waited for our return flight. Today, their father is buried on Har Hamenuchos.”

Final Rest

How many Jews around the world, having died without family or friends to advocate for a Jewish burial, will never get to kever Yisrael? Speigel says it’s a sad statistic, but sometimes there’s a ray of light that offers promise and hope. He mentions a burial that took place 12 years ago in Eretz Yisrael after a series of Providential events. A young Jewish woman — an only child with no known relativesn — had been severely injured in a car accident and had remained comatose for many years. During that time her parents passed away and as there was no longer anyone to fund her stay in a private hospital, the government had her transferred to a Christian facility, where she lay unconscious and forgotten. She eventually passed away and was buried, like all the other patients who died in that hospital and had no family to claim their bodies, in the nearby churchyard.

The woman had a distant relative who had lost touch with the family years earlier and wasn’t even aware of her existence. When he decided to reinitiate contact with his relatives, he was shocked to learn that his cousin— the woman’s mother — had passed away with her husband, that they had left behind a daughter, and that she was now buried in the graveyard of a church. He had neither the money nor the connections to deal with the situation, but he was determined not to leave her there. Someone referred him to Moshe Speigel, who immediately began the complex and protracted process of bringing her to Eretz Yisrael for burial. “After years of exile, her soul finally came to rest,” says Speigel.

It’s not only anonymous, broken souls that Speigel has had the merit to bury. He’s also been involved in bringing to Eretz Yisrael the remains of many rabbanim, including Rav Shmuel Mohilever, a leader of the Chovevei Tzion movement and a founder of the religious Zionist Mizrachi movement, who served as the rav of the city of Bialystok in Poland where he passed away in 1898. The operation was carried out in total secrecy, due to the objections of the Polish authorities. The Polish government didn’t permit the remains of tzaddikim to be removed from the country, believing that the influence of these holy men ensured good luck to their surroundings. In a complex, clandestine operation, Speigel and his team brought the Rav’s remains to Eretz Yisrael. He was reinterred in Mazkeret Batya, a town near Rechovot which Rav Mohilever helped establish and fund in 1883, and which tenaciously held onto the ideals of yishuv Eretz Yisrael according to halachah for which he pleaded. Those first settlers of Mazkeret Bayta (originally called Ekron) observed the shemittah year under threat of imprisonment and starvation.

This past 7 Adar, the day that chevrah kadisha members generally fast and offer special prayers for Divine assistance in their holy work, Reb Moshe Speigel made his own annual cheshbon nefesh. Has he done his best to protect the dignity of the lonely and indigent with a last act of chesed before their transition to the Next World? “As much as I can do, there’s still so much suffering out there, so much loneliness and pain. If I’ve been able to alleviate a little of that, to bring one more Jew to kever Yisrael with kavod, then I’ve accomplished something.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 608)

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