Growing up, my father always used to tell me that I had to learn to take care of myself. If I was ever in trouble, he explained, no one would help me. His attitude wasn’t a surprise: my late father survived Dachau. Known to all as Zeidi Leo, he was kind, stubborn and loved me to death.
As an only child, I spent a lot of time with him. When he wasn’t working, my father could be found on our front porch, saying Tehillim (Psalms) or listening to famous chazzanim. Always wearing his notorious royal blue sweater, that I cherish still today, he would impart his words of wisdom. They usually included learning how to take care of myself, and always making sure I had cash in my wallet, because you never knew what could happen.
From the time that I was 10 years old, until my father Leo Bleier passed away six years ago at the age of 93, never a week went by that I didn’t get a sermon of some kind from him. The concern and love I felt from him was powerful, although annoying at times, but never more pertinent than my recent experience in Berlin. On a return business trip from Germany, his words rang in my mind, over and over again, as I found myself in a helpless predicament.
While I waited for a connecting flight at a Starbucks in Tegel Airport in Berlin, I was pickpocketed. My money, my credit cards and my passport were all stolen. I admit; it was partially my fault. I had been working on my laptop with, my bag on the chair next to me. Yes, I know I should have been more careful, I know I shouldn’t have left my bag on the chair next to me, and I know that my passport and money should have been in a safe place, preferably on my person. Hindsight is 20/20 as the saying goes.Globe-trotter Phyllis Koegel confers with a potential client.
My first reaction? Panic. I frantically began to ask the people around me if they’d seen anyone near my bag. They all looked at me blankly. Physically shaking and hyperventilating I envisioned becoming the next Tom Hanks in the “The Terminal,” where he lives stranded in the airport, homeless and country-less. I ran to the nearest information counter and was told to go to the police station in the airport to file a claim. That day had been a boon for pickpockets; there were at least four people standing in the police station in the same dire situation as I was. My brain raced as I tried to remember which credit cards I had brought with me, while at the same time praying that it was all a mistake and any second someone would walk in with my wallet, or at the very least my passport.
I’m one of those people who curse their smartphone. Most days I wish I could just throw it in the ocean for its unending beeps and reminders of all the things I have to attend to. But not today! Today, I was thankful for technology and the Internet. While the police took my statement and offered very little hope—no let me correct that, offered no hope whatsoever—I was told that I would have to travel into Berlin to the U.S. Embassy and apply for an emergency, temporary passport. I found the local number for the U.S. Embassy. The woman explained that the U.S. Embassy was only open from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Whhhhhhhhhaaaaaattttt? I exclaimed, only two hours in the morning? It was now 11 :00 a.m. and my flight was scheduled to depart at 1:00 p.m. I explained that this was an emergency and I couldn’t wait until morning, only to be told that she was extremely sorry but there was nothing they could do.
At this point I realized that I was in trouble. My father’s words echoed through my mind.
I called one of my colleagues who lives in Belgium. You see, I work in the marketing and sales department for OU Kosher. Having been in Germany to attend Anuga, an international food trade show, I at least knew one person in Europe. I know, I know, Europe is a big continent, but I wasn’t thinking so clearly.Leo Bleier as a young man.
Rabbi Yisroel Hollander and I attended the food show together, where we met with hundreds of potential new clients for OU Kosher as well as many existing OU companies. He answered his phone right away, I asked him where he was. Holland, he answered, performing inspections for OU clients there. He quickly understood my situation: stranded in a foreign country with no money, no credit cards and no passport. He told me he would start calling all our European colleagues to see if anyone was nearby to help me.
What a network I had at my fingertips! I may survive this after all, I thought to myself! I next called my friend at work, knowing that it was 5:00 a.m. and I was sure to wake her. She took charge on her end and my network was enlarged by the second. I notified my children who tried to locate anyone they could think of with political connections. As everyone I knew was searching for help, one thing was certain: I was not getting on the 1:00 p.m. flight. I would be staying overnight, somewhere hopefully with a bed, and would have to figure out how to get to the U.S. Embassy by 8:30 a.m. the next morning.
The next hour I called every credit card company and blocked all my cards. My son texted me to tell me that he found a friend with connections at the U.S. Embassy, only to be told that there was nothing that could be done from the States. I would just have to wait until morning. Perhaps the pickpocket was after cash and might have thrown my wallet and passport in a nearby garbage bin, my son suggested. The next half hour, I walked inside and outside of Terminal A in Berlin’s Tegel Airport, peering into garbage cans. No luck!
By now it was 7:00 a.m. in New York and I called my best friend to vent. She asked me if I had gotten my luggage back. I had totally forgotten about my luggage! She told me that airlines always remove luggage for security reasons if a passenger does not show up. Next task, track down my luggage. I was directed to another terminal, about a ten-minute walk away and told to wait. An hour later, I was told they had located my luggage and brought it to me. Okay, I thought, if I get stuck here indefinitely, at least I’ll have a change of clothes.
My phone rang and I looked at the caller ID to see that Rabbi Hollander was calling. With a shaky voice I answered, hoping for good news. Rabbi Hollander told me that Rabbi Avraham Schwarz, one of our European rabbis from England, was not available as he was in Denmark, but he managed to track down Rabbi Yitzchak Sterling, who was in Hamburg. Germany is a big country. Hamburg to Berlin is like Boston to New York. But Rabbi Sterling was happy to be my knight in shining armor. Rabbi Hollander told me he would give Rabbi Sterling my number and have him call me. I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. You see Tatti, I thought, sometimes people will help you.
Five minutes later my phone rang. A lovely voice introduced himself as Rabbi Sterling. He explained that he would finish up two inspections in Hamburg and then head to Berlin. His navigation system estimated he would arrive at around 6:30 p.m., and he reassured me that he would not leave until I was safe and on my way back to New York. At that point I was emotionally drained and sat down on the floor of the airport to shed tears of relief.
Offers of Help
Phone calls and texts started pouring in from concerned colleagues who had heard through the office grapevine what had happened. Offers of credit card usage, money wires and anything else I could possibly need were pouring in. Overwhelmed with emotion, I thanked all of them and apprised them that Rabbi Sterling was coming to save me. I wasn’t helpless anymore, I would be fine.
I parked my luggage and my very tired self, next to an outlet so at least I could charge my phone and to wait for my savior. Rabbi Sterling had a bit of trouble finding me, but find me he did. I was greeted by a gentle, smiling soul who was so happy to have reached me. I’m not sure who was happier, me or him? All I knew was that this remarkable man had driven four hours to help another Jew and colleague. Having not eaten all day, we checked into separate rooms at the Ramada Hotel in Berlin for the night and Rabbi Sterling, who travels with kosher food, offered to share everything he had with me. Words cannot express how delicious a piece of bread and a slice of cheese can taste after the kind of day I had.
Rabbi Sterling and I agreed to meet at 7:30 the next morning so I could get to the U.S. Embassy as soon as it opened. By 10:00 a.m. I was the proud owner of a temporary United States passport. We headed for the airport and as I got out to leave, Rabbi Sterling handed me enough Euros and U.S. dollars to ensure I would get home. After thanking him, he handed me another dollar bill as shaliach mitzvah, money given to charity while traveling. With tears in my eyes, I headed into the terminal to get on Air Berlin Flight 7248 to NYC-JFK Airport.
As I write this article, I am sitting comfortably on the plane halfway home. Mi k’amcha Yisrael, Who can be compared to the Jewish nation! Where in the world could I possibly find a kinder, more selfless group of people, anywhere around the globe than those I am lucky to work with at the Orthodox Union. Guess what, Tatti. I want to tell my father, who I’m sure is watching me from Olam Haba, the World to Come, of the people who will come to your rescue. I am all the richer for being lucky enough, and privileged enough, to work with many of them.