MEMOIR: Seeking my grandfather in Jerusalem
My paternal grandfather, who was born in Poland and settled in the U.S. in 1906, was a Hasidic rabbi. In the mid-1930s, when he was in his sixties, he moved to Jerusalem. His desire, like that of many ultra-Orthodox Jews, was to die in the Holy Land.
My grandmother declined to go with him, preferring to remain in this country with their five adult children. Actually, they had been separated for several years before his departure. I do not recall ever meeting my grandfather when I was growing up. My father's relationship with him was a bit strained; my father's level of religious observance was apparently not up to my grandfather's expectations.
Nevertheless, my father was fond of my grandfather and had great respect for him. He would proudly boast of my grandfather's reputation as a great Talmudic scholar. My grandfather was the founder and leader of what was probably the first Hasidic congregation in the U.S. As a boy, hearing stories about his role in the Hasidic community made me curious about this grandfather I did not know and eager to meet him some day.
In late 1945, I was serving in the U.S. Army in India. I had been stationed there for nearly two years, and was awaiting shipment back to the States after the Japanese surrender. I decided to apply for an emergency furlough to visit my grandfather in Palestine while en route home.
If I could get a furlough, I figured it would be easy to get to Palestine. The army's Air Transport Command had a regular route that began near my base in Bengal Province, with stops in Karachi, then still part of India, Tehran, Iran, where U.S. troops were stationed, and Alexandria, Egypt. From Alexandria, the British operated a railroad that went to Palestine.
But before I could apply for a furlough, I needed documentary evidence that I had a grandfather in Palestine. My father sent me his address in Jerusalem, where he lived in a home for the aged. With the help of a Jewish army chaplain, I composed a Yiddish letter to him, explaining that if he could confirm our relationship, I might be able to visit him. He had 12 grandchildren, most of whom he had never known. I enclosed a photo of myself in the letter, and identified myself as the son of his second son.
About a month later, I received a response in Yiddish, accompanied by a broken-English translation, obviously written by some one else. (Both my name and my grandfather's were misspelled.)
The English letter read as follows:
"My dear Mortin [sic]!
"I received your letter which gave me much pleasure. Great thanks for the picture. As I learned from your letter you are returning to America soon. I must ask you something and I hope you won't disappoint me. I am ankious [sic] to see you about some important matters and would be delighted to see you before my death.
"Ask your commander for a permission to pass through Palstine [sic] on your way and stay here for some time. I beg you again to do as I asked, and I hope to see you soon.
"Your grandfather, Samual Richik [sic]"
The Yiddish letter, which my chaplain translated, went into greater detail. My grandfather explained that he had matters of estate to settle and that his death was imminent. Actually, he was penniless and completely dependent on his children back in the U.S. for support. He was shrewd enough, however, to make an impressive argument to support my furlough request. In the Yiddish letter, he began by blessing the U.S. Army, my commanding officer, the chaplain, and--of course--me.
I quickly submitted a formal application for the emergency furlough, attaching the chaplain's translation of my grandfather's letter. I explained that my grandfather was a very old man and that I would be the last close relative that he would ever be able to see.
My application was officially approved and then rescinded several days later before I could arrange transportation. The guerrilla war waged by the Jewish underground militias against the British authorities had reached a critical stage, and the U.S. Army had declared Palestine out of bounds for American troops.
Sadly, I had to write another letter to my grandfather, explaining that I was unable to visit him. I sailed home to the States a month later, in February 1946. My grandfather died about five years after that.