Not too long ago I found myself in Zichron Yaakov on business with a few coworkers. I hadn’t been there since the summer of 2002 when Zahava and I visited this charming little winery town (the Carmel Mizrahi winery is its cornerstone), and I had nearly forgotten about this picturesque community overlooking the Mediterranean.
My colleagues were anxious to try out one of the trendy little restaurants in the center of Zichron for lunch but I wasn’t particularly hungry… so I opted to wander around and look in the shops instead.
After I had exhausted the full range of arty boutiques that seem to populate every ‘wine region’ in the world, I wandered over to Zichron’s 19th century synagogue, hoping to say hello to the old caretaker who Zahava and I had met on our previous visit. But he was nowhere to be found.
As I wandered around the old synagogue, I started to worry that perhaps the caretaker had passed on. After all, he had to have been in his late 80’s when we first met him in 2002.
As I was passing the wall full of memorial plaques on my way out, I decided that even without the few details he might have been able to provide, I wanted to write down the story he had told us about himself. And even though it’s really not my story, I feel it is a story very much in need of telling… and remembering:
This caretaker, originally from Slovakia, had lost his entire family in the Holocaust and had spent the final months of the war as a laborer in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.
Each night in the camp he had shared a wooden bunk with another man of about the same age named Jacob Katz who had been taken from his wife and daughter by the Nazis. While Jacob was fairly certain that his wife had been killed, he stubbornly refused to believe that his teenage daughter ‘Magda’ was also dead. Each night before going to sleep, Jacob took a picture of his daughter from its hiding place and kissed her goodnight.
After some time, Jacob Katz and his bunkmate created a ritual whereby they would both kiss the picture and say goodnight to Jacob’s beautiful blonde daughter, Magda.
As the allied troops advanced towards the camp during the final weeks of the war, the guards began making preparations to move the inmates, and decided to kill the ones who were too sick to walk. Unfortunately Jacob fell into this category, and he was led away to be shot… all the time thinking that he was being taken to the infirmary. His longtime bunkmate heard the shots that waited for Jacob at the end of this terrible ruse.
Jacob’s bunkmate survived the war and made his way to Israel where he raised a family on a Moshav not far from Zichron Yaakov. In his retirement years, he became the caretaker and unofficial tour guide for the old synagogue in Zichron, and was happy to do the countless small tasks that came with those roles.
One day while the caretaker was puttering around the small lobby of the synagogue and making adjustments to the memorial plaques on the wall, he noticed three women standing nearby. There was an elderly gray-haired woman, a middle aged woman, and a pretty teenaged girl with shining blonde hair. It was this teenager… the very image from that long-lost photograph… that completely took the caretaker’s breath away.
He went over to the small group and interrupted the three women to ask the oldest of the three if her name was Magda. When she said yes, he asked her if she was the daughter of Jacob Katz. She blinked in astonishment and answered yes, but wanted to know how the caretaker could possibly know who she was… she couldn’t remember having met him before.
Through his tears the caretaker quickly explained the story of how, though they had never met, he had kissed her goodnight countless times when she was a young girl.
It turns out that Magda had also come to Israel after the war but had never found out what became of her father. She explained that he had been taken away by the Nazis and she had assumed he had been killed… but she never knew the time or place of his death. That afternoon she finally learned the date of her father’s ‘Yahrzeit’, and that his thoughts were with her up until the very last moments of his life.
By the sheerest coincidence that day, Magda, along with her daughter and granddaughter, got to meet a living link to Jacob Katz… a man who, during the darkest days of his life, had helped her father give her countless kisses goodnight.
As I said, this was really not my story to tell, but walking around the quiet synagogue in Zichron Yaakov (which fittingly means ‘the memory of Jacob’), I was suddenly afraid that the person from whom I had heard the story might no longer be around to tell it.
I really hope I’m wrong about that… and that he was simply taking a much-deserved afternoon off. But if not, you now know one of the millions of stories that exist in this tiny country of mine… stories that too frequently are left untold as the last of the ‘holocaust generation’ takes its leave to ask the important questions of the only One who can possible provide the answers.
David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003 David has been working in Israel’s defense industry on International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog (www.treppenwitz.com) and is an amateur beekeeper.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.