| Magazine Feature |

Say Little, Do Much   

On his first yahrtzeit, 23 Kislev, Albert (Beri) Reichmann’s family remembers the man who moved worlds

Photos: Family archives

BY anybody’s standards, Mr. Reichmann was a wealthy man — at the height of his success, he and his brothers were estimated to possess the fourth-largest family fortune in the world.

Yet his wealth, and even the manner in which it was attained, while always maintaining the strictest adherence to every aspect of halachah, is perhaps the least interesting thing about him. What inspires awe is his attitude toward money. He did not doubt for a moment that his wealth was a gift from Hashem to be used for His purposes.

As such, his financial success left him totally untouched in terms of his self-image. He never viewed himself as anything more or less than another Jew making up the minyan in shul. When a young boy once approached him in shul to show off a fancy new shirt, Mr. Reichmann pointed to his own shirt and said, “I bought it for twelve dollars at Simpsons.”

Someone once complimented him, “Mr. Reichmann, you make everybody feel like a somebody.” He quickly corrected the one offering the praise: “Everyone is a somebody.” Therein lies the secret of how he treated his employees with the same respect and dignity that he showed presidents and prime ministers — no more, no less.

“If you can, you do,” could well have served as the motto of generations of the Reichmann family. “Fortunate and able,” is the way his daughter puts it. If the wealth came from Hashem, it had to be put to the best possible service for the benefit of Klal Yisrael.

Rabbi Eliyahu Essas, one of the first homegrown teachers of Torah in the former Soviet Union, notes, “Not all rich people are like Albert Reichmann, and that is a tragedy for them, not just for the world. They received this gift from G-d, and they did nothing with it.”


A Family Legacy

Reb Yissachar Dov Reichmann, Mr. Albert Reichmann to the world and Beri to the family, was acutely conscious that he was the heir to a family legacy, tracing back through generations. His father, Shmaya Reichmann, demonstrated unusual business acumen from an early age. Still in his thirties, while living in his native Hungary, he was already the largest egg distributor in Europe, having developed innovative solutions to the two major obstacles in the egg business: preservation and distribution. Early on, Shmaya developed a process for preserving eggs from degeneration. That allowed him to buy eggs from farmers in the summer, when they were plentiful, and sell them in the big cities in the winter, when prices were much higher due to scarcity.

Eventually, he moved his family to Vienna, and the Reichmann distribution network expanded to Berlin, Paris, and London. Fortunately for the family, after the Nazis’ rise to power, Shmaya took the precaution of moving most of his assets abroad, which made it easier for the family to flee after the unification of Germany and Austria in the infamous Anschluss.

A notable story in the family lore highlights the incredible kibbud av Reb Shmaya had for his father. The family was all set to celebrate the bar mitzvah of Edward, Beri’s oldest brother, at their home in Vienna when they learned that Reb Shmaya’s father, Reb Dovid Reichmann, had suffered a severe stroke and would be unable to make it. Without hesitation, the family moved the bar mitzvah to Beled, Hungary, where Reb Dovid resided. On the Shabbos following Kristallnacht, the Nazis arrested community leaders in Vienna, intending to take Reb Shmaya as well, but thanks to his kibbud av, he was nowhere to be found.

From Hungary, the family subsequently fled to Paris and from there, via a number of intermediate stops into Spain. At each stage, they remained barely ahead of the rapidly advancing German forces. After a brief time in Spain, the family crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, from Spain into Tangier, Morrocco, where they would remain for more than two decades. (Tangier had long been an international city and remained neutral during the war, though it was occupied by Spain from 1940 until the war’s end.)

Within little more than a year in the city, Shmaya had already established himself as a respected currency trader and private banker, and he prospered in his new profession and environment. He would continue to advise his sons in business until his passing in 1975, and they inherited his fearlessness and love of innovation. The fact that no one had ever done something before or seen the opportunity that they saw meant nothing to them. Beri’s oldest son, Efraim, once offered two conflicting explanations of his grandfather’s, father’s, and uncles’ courage in business: “I think their risk analysis capabilities were either highly advanced or impaired. I don’t understand where they got the strength, the guts, the wisdom to do what they did.”

Renee (Rivka) Reichmann, Beri’s mother, is most frequently described as a “force of nature.” She was even braver than her husband. In 1942, she left behind her family in Tangier to travel across Nazi-occupied Europe to visit her elderly parents in Hungary, relying on her blonde sheitel and an excellent set of documents she had procured to protect her.

Her wartime activities in Tangier are treated at length by the renowned Holocaust historian Dr. David Kranzler in his book, Thy Brother’s Blood. Renee Reichmann, working together with her daughter Maidy, set up a large operation to send food parcels to desperate Jews in Europe, utilizing the repeated assistance she received from the Spanish authorities in both Tangier and Madrid and from the Spanish Red Cross. The latter allowed them to send packages under the Red Cross label, which saved the cost of postage, and to designate the recipients as “prisoners of war,” which greatly increased the chances of the parcels reaching their intended recipients.

The major operation first began in 1942, when Renee cabled her brother Chezky Gestetner in Pressburg, asking for the names of Jews deported to Auschwitz from Pressburg and Prague, and he responded with a list of 1,800 names, mostly young women. The Reichmanns were able to ascertain that the packages reached their intended recipients from postcards the recipients sent.

Initially, Mrs. Reichmann raised the monies for the parcels — usually consisting of compact and nutritious items, such as nuts, raisins, and chocolate — from the local Jewish community. But as the operation expanded, she received funding from the Vaad Hatzalah, through Recha Sternbuch in Switzerland. A local Sephardi merchant provided a large warehouse, and the work of packing and transporting the parcels began everyday around 5 p.m. and continued until late at night. Eventually, they were sending 4,000 parcels a week, and in time, packages of clothing collected locally were added as well.

Even more directly life-saving than the food parcels were the entry visas to Tangier that Mrs. Reichmann obtained for Jewish children in Budapest in mid-1944. Foreign papers, even nothing more than entry visas, afforded some measure of protection to their holders. Mrs. Reichmann went to J. Rives Childs, the charge d’affaires of the American legation, and asked him to request from General Luis Orgaz, the Spanish High Commissioner, entrance visas for all the children on a list of 500 names that she provided. Subsequently, Mrs. Reichmann received another list of 700 children, and again received the necessary entry visas from General Orgaz. These children were all transferred to safe houses in Budapest under the supervision of the Spanish Red Cross.

After the war, Mrs. Reichmann also prodded J. Rives Childs to issue refugees visas to the United States. “Mme. Reichmann,” he told her, “you Jews are all the same. You are never satisfied. But I can’t say no.” It appears that he intended his remark as a compliment.

In a note to her from the same period, Childs wrote, “I do not know of any work which I have done in my whole career which has given me greater personal satisfaction than the efforts made on behalf of these friendless persons.”

After the war, many Jews who had survived in Siberia began to stream into Paris via Poland. Mrs. Reichmann, who was still able to ship under the auspices of the Spanish Red Cross, teamed with the Joint Distribution Committee to send thousands of packages of food to them. In addition, she attended to the needs of those refugees who made it to Tangier, including several family members. In that capacity, she became Tangier’s premier shadchan, as well as wedding caterer. Her son Beri would later recall 30 to 40 weddings made in the Reichmann’s home in Tangier.

He himself was actively involved in his mother’s work, both packing packages and loading trucks, along with his brothers who were in Tangier. He remained extremely close to his mother until her passing in 1990, visiting her every day when he was in Toronto. Rabbi Shlomo Noach Mandel, his righthand man with respect to everything having to do with his activities in Eastern Europe, remembers that many of their meetings were on the porch of the senior Mrs. Reichmann’s home.

The image of his mother’s monumental efforts to save Jews in the war years undoubtedly had a major impact on Beri, her third son, and was ever before him in three plus decades of work to revive Yiddishkeit in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.


Eternal Edifices

According to Albert Reichmann’s biographer, the Reichmann brothers always looked for building projects that would have an impact on their surroundings. Their first skyscraper, First Canadian Place, was the eighth-tallest building in the world at the time it was built, for instance, and helped transform Toronto into the financial capital of Canada.

And so it was in tzedakah — for Beri, at least. He was attracted to new ideas that he felt had a good chance of success and could have a major impact. An example would be Dor Yesharim. One night, he was approached by Rabbi Yosef Ekstein of Brooklyn, who shared his tragic story of losing four children to Tay-Sachs disease. Rabbi Ekstein was seeking to develop genetic testing and a genetic registry to prevent other families from suffering the same tragedy.

Mr. Reichmann told him that his proposed project would never work as he had described it. In the closeknit frum community, no family would agree to be labeled as a carrier of the Tay-Sachs gene. So Rabbi Ekstein went back to the drawing board and came up with a system offering anonymous testing of both parties to a proposed shidduch. Only if both of the parties were carriers would either be informed. When he returned to Mr. Reichmann with his revised plan over a year later, the latter was delighted. Not only did he provide all the initial funding required to create Dor Yesharim, he also used his influence with Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem to provide a testing facility for the Israeli branch of Dor Yesharim.

One thing stood out in Rabbi Ekstein’s mind from his first meeting with Beri Reichmann, whom he was not even sure was the Mr. Reichmann he had been advised to turn to: “He listened very closely. He listened to you like a friend.”

The rabbi was not the only one to remark on that quality of attentive listening. Mikhael Gorbachev, secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, with whom Mr. Reichmann met many times, described him on the occasion of his 85th birthday as “someone who is smart, friendly, attentive, and feels sympathy for people whom he works with.”

The possibility of effecting a radical change in Russian Jewry was just the kind of major project, opines Rabbi Shlomo Noach Mandel, to fire Beri Reichmann’s imagination. And to a large degree, he succeeded. “He didn’t speak a lot, but anything that happened to Judaism in Russia was connected to him,” says Rabbi Eliyahu Shteingardt, one of the leading activists among the refuseniks and subsequently the leader of a group of former refuseniks who continued to pursue their Torah studies upon arriving in Israel.

The vast majority of Russian Jews who benefitted from his activity in the Soviet Union have never even heard his name, and that is exactly how he would have wanted it.

Albert Reichmann’s involvement with Russian Jewry began in 1984, when Rabbi Shlomo Noach Mandel, a local mechanech in Toronto, traveled to Russia under the aegis of the Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisrael, headed by Reb Mordechai Neustadt, to teach Torah classes. The experience of meeting so many Jews eager to learn Torah, and willing to risk so much to do so under the ever-watchful eye of the KGB was, in Rabbi Mandel’s words, “transformational.”

Upon his return to Toronto, Rabbi Mandel shared his experience in Moscow with Albert Reichmann, who learned in the same Toronto kollel as he did in the evenings. Almost immediately, the latter agreed to sponsor the visits of five more Torah teachers to the Soviet Union. In time, he became a major supporter of the work of the Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisrael (the Vaad), including purchasing a summer dacha, outside of the jurisdiction of the Moscow KGB, to which Jewish families from all over the Soviet Union could come to study Torah together, albeit often with the windows closed despite the summer heat. And when the first group of Russian-produced bnei Torah came to Israel, Mr. Reichmann purchased an apartment building for them to live. At one point, Rabbi Mandel and Mordechai Neustadt were on the phone seven or eight times a day.

But giving money was the easy part of Mr. Reichmann’s involvement. In 1987, the second stage of his involvement began with his first trip to the Soviet Union. He came on his private jet, still a relative rarity. In the hold of the plane were all the items generally brought by Vaad shlichim — kosher food, seforim, tefillin — but in quantities hitherto unimaginable. On another occasion, he brought a photocopying machine for the yeshivah set up by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz to facilitate the production of seforim. And another time, the plane’s hold was filled with Nikon cameras, which could fetch a huge price on the black market.

Though the ostensible purpose of the trip was to explore business opportunities, Mr. Reichmann’s real purpose was to meet with the refuseniks. And while he was the last person in the world to travel with fanfare and an entourage, in Moscow he did. After meeting with senior Soviet officials, he organized a motorcade of limousines carrying himself in one car and senior Canadian officials in another, and drove ostentatiously through the streets of Moscow to the apartments of several refuseniks.

That very public display was carefully thought out. Once inside their host’s home, he and Mordechai Neustadt explained to their hosts that all the hoopla was for their benefit: “Now you are on the map. America knows about you. The West knows about you. They cannot deal with you without creating an international incident. They cannot just make you disappear.”

On another occasion, Grisha Wasserman — today Rabbi Zvi Wasserman, with an Internet following of thousands of talmidim — was invited to meet Albert Reichmann in the latter’s hotel room. He was terrified. “I would as soon have marched into the local police station and burned the Soviet flag,” he says. Seeing his discomfiture, Mr. Reichmann assured him that the association would protect him: “Putting you on my radar will only help you.”

Upon his return from that first trip, Albert Reichmann made a parlor meeting in his home for the Vaad. But when he got up to speak about those whom he had met, he was so overcome with emotion that he could not speak through the tears. Those tears were more powerful than any speech, and brought many new donors to the Vaad.

Nor was being overcome with emotion a one-time experience for Mr. Reichmann. At a convention of Agudath Israel of America, he spoke of the huge matzah baking operation operating in Kiev — an operation he had played a major role in establishing — and asked the audience to contemplate the fact that there was now a demand for a million pounds of matzah in the Soviet Union. But he was so moved by his own suggestion that again he was reduced to tears.

On his third trip to the Soviet Union he met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time. Gorbachev, who had been fully apprised of his earlier visits, had been in power long enough to recognize that the Soviet economy was in shambles, and his country was incapable of competing with the West. Everything about Soviet life then was drab and depressing, and the population went around with a perpetual look of defeat on their faces, at least when not drinking themselves into a vodka-induced stupor. Mr. Reichmann suggested to Gorbachev that if the country spent less on armaments, there would be more money left for bread and butter.

Gorbachev was eager to enlist the assistance of foreign businessmen, and the Reichmann family members were, at that point in time, among the most prominent businessmen in the world. Among the joint projects that Gorbachev discussed with Albert Reichmann was one involving a Reichmann family-controlled natural resource company and a Soviet oil company, which required an infusion of expertise to increase the recovery from previously pumped wells. Another involved the introduction of modern technology into a pulp and paper mill.

In time, Mr. Reichmann created the Soviet-Canadian Business Council, which he chaired, and in that capacity, he brought some of the most prominent names in the Canadian business world to the Soviet Union. Once, he came together with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. On that occasion, he took the prime minister to visit Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Mekor Chaim Yeshiva, which had been constantly harassed by the local authorities. After Mulroney’s visit, the harassment stopped.

The Soviets valued Albert Reichmann not only for his own business experiences and his contacts. They also viewed him as wielding a great deal of political influence. They knew, for instance, that he was often debriefed by the US State Department and the Canadian Foreign Ministry after meeting with Gorbachev. And the truth is, he did believe that Gorbachev intended to take the Soviet Union in a new direction and that the West should aid him in doing so. Gorbachev appreciated Mr. Reichmann’s advocacy on his behalf with President George H.W. Bush, while at the same time, chiding the Soviet leader to implement his reforms. Gorbachev recalled Mr. Reichmann repeating the Chofetz Chaim’s mashal that one who misses a train by a minute misses it forever.

Upon exiting the Oval Office on one occasion, he saw the Soviet ambassador to the US waiting to speak to the president. He was delighted that the ambassador knew of his long conversation with the president, as that would surely be reported back to the Kremlin and could only add to his influence within the Soviet Union.

On at least one occasion, it was Albert Reichmann’s human sensitivity that added to his luster in Gorbachev’s eyes. At the end of a private conversation, Albert mentioned that he had read that Gorbachev’s wife Raisa was seriously ill, and he had brought with him a bag filled with all the latest medications for the disease. At least one of those hovering in the background thought he saw a tear form in Gorbachev’s eye in response to that kindness.

Many people no doubt read of Raisa Gorbachev’s illness. But how many took the time to even think about whether there was anything they could do?

Albert Reichmann parlayed the image that the Soviet leadership had of him as both uniquely connected and powerful into an ability to win concessions on behalf of the Jewish community and individual Jews that no one else could have. He made it clear that he wanted something in return for his economic and political assistance: Better treatment of Russia’s Jewish population, including the right to learn Torah and to emigrate. He emphasized to Gorbachev that it was in his interest to demonstrate a new face of the Soviet Union, one that showed a healthy regard for human rights.

He knew, as well, that it was crucial not only to enjoy the good will of the senior leadership, but also of lower-level bureaucrats. Thus it was important that the latter be aware of the deference shown him by their bosses, and recognize that it was in their interest to show a similar respect.

“When Albert Reichman wanted things to happen, things happened,” comments Eliyahu Shteingardt. He should know. The Reichmanns’ daughter joined her father on one of his trips, and while there, taught a class outside Moscow and became friendly with the Shteingardts’ daughter Channah. When Breindy got engaged in 1988, she sent Channah an invitation to her wedding. But Channah was refused a visa on the grounds that she was only 16, and thus too young to leave the country unescorted.

Albert’s response was to invite her parents as well. But inasmuch Eliyahu had long been denied permission to leave on the grounds that he was one of the country’s foremost satellite engineers, the chances of that visa being granted were close to nil. Albert called the Canadian Foreign Ministry and asked them to relay to their Soviet counterparts a simple message from Albert Reichmann: “If the Shteingardts are not on the plane, I’m never coming back to Russia.”

That message was conveyed on Erev Shabbos. On Motzaei Shabbos, the Shteingardts received a call from a frantic government official demanding to know where they had been all day. He told them where to go on Sunday to receive their visas. But when they showed up, the guard reminded them that it was Revolution Day, a national holiday, and all offices were closed. But a government official soon rushed out of the nearby building to resolve the visa issue on the spot.

Flaunting his wealth and power in such a manner went completely against Albert Reichmann’s grain. Yet just as Yaakov Avinu, whose middah was emes, deceived his father Yitzchak to gain his blessing, and thereby assure the spiritual survival of Klal Yisrael, so Albert Reichmann employed his wealth and influence openly in order to save Jews and Torah in the Soviet Union.

At no time was this clearer than when Zev Raiz, the longest-standing refusenik in the Soviet Union, was given permission to leave after 18 years, during which period not only did he and his wife lose their jobs, but were forced to live in separate cities. Mr. and Mrs. Reichmann flew all the way from Toronto to Moscow to ensure that the Soviets would not put up any last-minute stumbling blocks and sent a message to Raiz to meet them at the Moscow airport with a minyan so Albert could recite Kaddish for his mother.

Even so, the authorities seized Carmela Raiz’s violin. (A concert violinist, Carmela had proceeded her husband to Israel.) Rabbi Shlomo Noach Mandel, who had flown with Mr. Reichmann, arranged with the authorities that they would provide a receipt for the violin and Mr. Reichmann could claim it on his next trip to Russia, which he did.

When Mr. Reichmann’s plane landed in Israel, he let Zev Raiz and his son Shaul exit by themselves, while he remained on board. “It was important that they see me in Moscow,” he later explained. “It was not important that anyone see me in Israel.”

And one did not need to be a baal teshuvah or a refusenik to merit Mr. Reichmann’s help. Simply being a Jew was enough. Many of his 16-hour days, on his trips to Russia approximately every six weeks, were devoted to simply listening to people’s problems.

One of those was a 40-year-old professor named George Sinitsky, both of whose kidneys had shut down and who had been told he would soon die. In a brief conversation with Mr. Reichmann, the latter promised to see what he could do. Mrs. Reichmann, who accompanied her husband on all his trips, told Sinitsky, “If my husband says he will do something, he will do it.”

That night on the way to the airport to fly back to Toronto, the Reichmann’s guide, probably a KGB agent, pointed to a building they were passing and said it was the office of immigration. Mr. Reichmann told the driver to turn around and drive up to the building.

He went in and asked to speak to whomever was in charge of the division. That person was in a meeting at the Kremlin, so he presented his request on Sinitsky’s behalf to his deputy. He offered the deputy a simple, but ironclad argument: “He’s dying. So why should you care whether he dies here or there. Let him go.”

The deputy said he lacked the authority to grant the request, but two days later Mr. Reichmann learned that visa had been granted. He then arranged for Sinitsky to be flown to a world-class hospital in St. Louis, where he was initially put on dialysis and subsequently had a kidney transplant. Had Albert Reichmann not acted with such alacrity, Sinitsky could not have survived even a few more days.

The case of George Sinitsky is but one example of Mr. Reichmann’s willingness to move heaven and earth to help a fellow Jew. The story of Dimitri Berman, a Jew hailing from a small city in the Ukraine, is another one. When a Soviet soldier was found murdered, the authorities had to find a perpetrator, and they lit upon the unfortunate Berman, who was beaten in prison and given psychotropic drugs to coerce a confession. He was tried and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, a sentence later slightly reduced by an appeals court, in light of the coerced nature of the confession.

When he learned of Berman’s case, Mr. Reichmann took the unusual step of approaching Gorbachev for his release. Yet that was not the end of Berman’s ordeal. After he was released from prison, he applied to emigrate to Israel, and that application was granted. But before he could leave with his family, all his exit papers and identification documents were taken. Worse, he learned that higher authorities had ordered a new investigation of the original murder charge and that he might be subjected to a psychiatric exam.

Not knowing what to do, he traveled from Kiev to Moscow, despite it being a grave crime in the Soviet Union to travel without identity documents, and sought asylum at the American and Norwegian embassies, both of which denied him entry. Mr. Reichmann arranged, however, for him to be allowed asylum in the Canadian Embassy, where he remained for many months.

During that period, Albert Reichmann wrote letters to numerous world leaders and senior government figures. To Gorbachev, he appealed to the latter’s “firm commitment to principles of human rights and fairness in the administration of justice,” and urged him to investigate the matter and return Mr. Berman’s papers to him. In the meantime, he also raised the issue with President Bush, and suggested that the president put Berman’s case on the agenda in discussions with Gorbachev at the upcoming conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In explanation of his enormous efforts on Berman’s behalf, Mr. Reichmann offered little more than, “I could help, so I did.” To which he added an important aspect of his philosophy of getting involved: “When you put up a fight for one Jew,  you are fighting for others as well.”

Albert Reichmann was a superb problem solver. He had, says his son Efraim, the ability to minimize problems and thus make them easier to tackle. In 1990, the Soviet Union would not allow flights directly to Israel, forcing those exiting the country to fly through transit points. One of the main transit points was Hungary. But then, Malev, Hungary’s national carrier, announced that it would no longer fly to Israel.

Israeli foreign minister Moshe Arens called Mr. Reichmann to find out if he could do anything to have the flights renewed. Mr. Reichmann flew to Budapest with a Hungarian-born friend from Toronto. He soon discovered that the decision to cease flights had nothing to do with the government, but rather that the head of the airline’s daughter had been threatened by Palestinian students. Mr. Reichmann arranged for Israel’s Mossad to provide the daughter with protection, and the flights immediately resumed.

Today, the Shema Yisrael network of schools that he established in Eastern Europe — 12 in the FSU, one in Zagreb, and one in Budapest, into which the Reichmanns poured millions of dollars to create — continue to thrive. Mr. Reichmann always sought partners in his endeavors, and when the Reichmann family financial fortunes declined, those partners — including Ronald Lauder, Zev Wolfson, Reuven Dessler, and Edmond J. Safra — were eager to step into the breach and continue the work of one whom they so admired.

Another group that took over a big role in sustaining communal institutions were the Russian oligarchs who became fantastically wealthy after the fall of the Soviet Union. For them, Mr. Reichmann was usually the first person from abroad at their level of wealth. And his devotion to creating and supporting communal institutions became the example that they sought to emulate.


Passion and Pride

Albert Reichmann was a man of few words and much action. He was a man who never thought of himself as different from anyone while always carrying himself with dignity. That is how he always conducted himself — with poise, but without any sense of entitlement. Whenever a storeowner offered to move him to the front of the line, he refused, and if someone pushed in front of him, he remained silent.

He was a friendly presence at the local bakeries and grocery stores, offering to help if someone was carrying several packages. When driving to work he would often stop to give a lift to someone waiting at the bus stop. And if he was low on fuel, he would pump it himself.

When Efraim was studying in yeshivah in Yerushalayim, he and his father once went to the Shabbos morning kiddush at Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s residence. At some point, Efraim looked around for his father and saw him removing used plates and cups from one of the tables and tidying up. It was not mechubadig for the prime minister to be greeting people in such a mess, he felt. In general, he liked surroundings that were organized and dignified, and, he took care of that himself.

The Reichmanns lived, vacationed, and celebrated with joy, graciousness, generosity and beauty, without undue fanfare and focus. Albert drove a Cadillac, and the family stayed in nice hotels on their summer vacations. He wore a high-quality suit, but always the same one, purchased from the same tailor. His son Duddy remembers that his own bar mitzvah suit was polyester. Albert and his wife Egosah did not want the children to focus on luxury, or think that money was primarily to satisfy material desires, rather than to help others.

The only titles or accolades to which Albert ever aspired were son, husband, father, and grandfather. His devotion to his wife of 65 years, Egosah, was legendary. Even in the last years of her life when she was very unwell, her well-being and comfort were his paramount concern. He always tried to be home for Shabbos and until she took ill, they always traveled together. In the last few years of her life, he rarely traveled, and if he did it was only for a short trip, because he felt he couldn’t leave her.

Once, on a trip to Budapest, he and Egosah invited a newly married couple to join them for dinner in a restaurant. The invitation itself to dine alone with the great benefactor of the local community was a shock to the young couple. But what struck the young kallah more than anything was the respect that Mr. Reichmann showed for his wife. She could not help thinking, This is how I hope my husband will treat me 50 years from now. And when his children described him at the levayah, all his listeners felt the same way.

His devotion to his wife didn’t go unnoticed by his children. As they had seen him treat his wife, their own mother, as well as his own mother in her older age, so his children honored him.

His family was his highest priority. Even in times when he was traveling a great deal, he was always home for Shabbos by Thursday evening. Friday was not a travel day, even when he was invited to meet the pope. And during the week, when he was in Toronto, the dinner hours were consecrated to his wife and four children — Efraim, Duddy, Breindy, and Libby. Even when he was away during the week, Duddy remarks, it always seemed like he was present at the dinner table.

In his later years, his greatest pleasure was the four generations gathered for Shabbos kiddush around the large dining room table. During Chanukah, he loved sitting at the small, round table with his grandchildren to spin the dreidel.

Albert relished the simplest of household tasks, and the beneficiaries felt the love that went into them. He made his children sandwiches and packed their school lunches. His son Duddy remembers the hot cup of coffee and Danish that awaited him in the morning. On Fridays, he would go to several bakeries to purchase specialties for Shabbos. One had the family’s preferred challah, another their signature jelly cookies, and the third kokosh cake. And he took charge of purchasing and arranging the flowers before Shabbos.

Before his death, he requested that only family members — sons, sons-in-law, and grandsons — deliver hespedim at his levayah. He had no desire to have his accomplishments celebrated. And the love and admiration of the maspidim, whether direct descendants or their spouses thereof, was evident.

His influence on his children and grandchildren was primarily by example, not by admonition or packaged “life lessons.” In his later years, he partnered with some of his grandsons in their businesses. But whether there was a formal business relationship or not, the grandsons eagerly sought his advice and the calm analytical manner in which he offered it.

He was not a worrier. As he once told Rabbi Mandel, “I don’t worry much about the future. For one thing, the bad thing may never happen. And if it does, I’ll deal with it then.” And even when adversity struck, in the form of financial reversals or otherwise, he always faced it with equanimity. “Baruch Hashem, I have enough for myself, my children, and grandchildren. My only regret is that I do not have more to give.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Essas, who lived on the same floor as Albert’s grandson Shlomo, without even realizing he was a Reichmann, once commented, “Others invest in buildings. But buildings have no soul, they are finite. He invested in people, in family — an everlasting legacy.”

It filled him with pride that his children and grandchildren were very involved in the community, and that many of them took a role in continuing some of the projects closest to his heart.

Albert Reichmann shunned publicity his entire life, and needed no accolades from others. He preserved no records of his efforts in the FSU and did not keep a diary. Yet while it was quite out of character, he was persuaded by his children and grandchildren in his last years to allow a biography to be written. The book, Albert Reichman: Builder of Jewish Communities in the Former Soviet Union, was never available for sale, and distributed just to family and friends.

In a letter to his descendants, he explained why he allowed the book to be written: He wanted them to carry on the family legacy of devotion to Klal Yisrael. “From the comfort of our homes far away it is too easy to accept the condition of others as hopeless, and to find other good deeds to pursue. I was challenged by this myself.

“There are times in life… when you are challenged to step up to a cause or purpose that you will find difficult, even risky, but one that you know to be important. When this happens, I hope you will carefully take stock of your unique capabilities and strengths, assess the risks and opportunities, and do the right thing.”

He hoped the stories in the book of how the generations before faced similar challenges and how they responded would serve as an inspiration and guide for all his descendants to come.

And may those stories similarly inspire all of us.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 989)

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