Leib Reizer wrote this poignant obituary for his older
brother, Nissan, in the “Grodner Opklangen”, Number 16, June
1966, a Yiddish newspaper published in Argentina until 1980. It tells the unusual story of an early
emigrant to the Holy Land
who left later for New
Zealand, seeking safety
for his family in the fearful atmosphere of the Hitler-Stalin alliance.
We thank Nissan Reizer’s daughter, Naomi Barnett of Melbourne, Australia, for sharing
with us her uncle’s tribute, of which she was unaware for many years.
We thank also Leib’s daughter, Betty Broit, for her translation.
© This article
is copyrighted by Leib Reizer and Naomi Barnett.
Reprinting or copying of this
article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders.
A Belated Regret: The Sum Total of
a Grodno Family
by Leib Reizer
I was barely 10 years old when my older brother Nissan, a man of
about 20, was preparing to make aliya to Israel. It was in the year
1920, just after the Polish/Russian war. I can remember my brother standing
in the front of our small house putting together boards and building a crate
for his tools. Long twisted wooden chips fall on the ground and fill the
whole forecourt with a scent of the forest. My brother is confident and sings
In the smithy by
Stands a blacksmith
and he pounds
He blows on iron, sparks are flying
And he sings this
The crate is
finished, my brother packs inside the saws, drills, planes, chisels and other
such carpenter tools. The mother is drying rusks and preparing preserves for
my brother’s long journey. In the home there is a yontevdike
atmosphere, a son is going to Israel to help build the
land and later the whole family will join him there.
And now it is after
Yom Kippur and the father is busying himself by the sukkah. The night
is cold and the moon shines brightly. A heavy wagon arrives to the house,
making a clatter on the cobblestone pavement. Soon a crowd of neighbours
gather around the wagon, each one wishing my brother and each other
“next year in Jerusalem.” The mother
is quietly wiping her eyes and slowly the wagon moves away on the
stony pavement. I sit on top of the wagon and the whole household slowly
follows it as it makes its way in the direction of the train station. Father
had requested that the coachman should drive around the big shul - as
a tribute and mark of respect for an easy journey....
The train station
looked like a ruin after the last battles around Grodno. And here comes the
out of breath train, covering the crowd around it with clouds of steam,
breaking the night stillness with its whistle.
The baggage is
taken onto the train, people are hugging each other and tears are held back.
The train begins to move. The youth cuts through the atmosphere with the
Hatikva... The train vanishes.
Letters began to
arrive from Warsaw and Vienna, Herzl’s
memorial tomb, Franz Joseph’s palaces, from Trieste, from the boat (a
cargo boat - because it was cheaper), and later from the holy land. My
brother wrote often. His letters were interesting -- he had inherited the
writing skills from our mother, who used to write letters for all the women
in the street to their relations in America.
Mother would wait
anxiously every day by the fence for the postman to arrive, having prepared a
coin to give him. My brother’s letters were full of hope, breathing
with sunshine and joy of the land, a land that was awaking to a new life. The
house became full of photos of the Western Wall (kotel hamaaravi), of
Rachel’s tomb, King David’s tower, Mount of Zion, etc. Often my
brother would enclose in the letter an English pound, and then a yontef
would be in the house. My brother would describe with enthusiasm of his walks
in the land, the new orchards, new settlements, new kibbutzim, about the
“gdud haavoda” (work brigades), the first Jewish communes in
Eretz Israel, etc.
Father did his own
thing. He continued looking and searching into the kabbala for certain
meanings and connections, and in the end discovered that the redemption is
close.... He shared his discovery with my brother in a letter to him:
“this is to inform and let you know dear son, that your cheerful
letters confirm the prediction of the redemption. The nation will G’
willing become prosperous. The Almighty will have pity on us and will release
us from our troubles (tzores). But see to it dear son, not to
dishonour the holy land, don’t desecrate the Sabbath, and do not
In one of his
letter my brother had enclosed one Eretz Israel cigarette for the
father. Several of the people in the synagogue held it in their hands with great
pride and emotion, smelling it like connoisseurs. The congregation had put
forward a suggestion that the father should give the cigarette as a present
to the rabbi. The rabbi held it in his hand for a while, straightened his
yarmulke, made a “shechianu” and slowly smoked it, and with great
pleasure murmured “ha, ha a taste of ‘gad eden’”.
Soon after two more
sons left to build Eretz Israel. The family was full
of hope, as ot ot -- but here a tragedy happened. The younger son, while
bathing in the sea by Haifa, drowned. Like
thunder,r the news hit the whole house. Mother didn’t stop crying
“such a young victim, barely 21 years old taken by the sea in the prime
of his life.” This all the more pulled her to travel to the Holy Land - at least to look
at the tombstone of her son...
In the meantime the
situation in Eretz Israel worsened. The
letters arriving told of crisis and unemployment and of workers not being
paid. It was a risk now to bring over the family. The sparks of hope were
being extinguished in the house. The mother did not stop the mourning. But
here a new casualty appeared: her youngest son was incarcerated for political
reasons. When on the second day after his arrest she arrived to bring him
food and found him in the investigation room all beaten up she fainted.
During the following couple of years that he was in the prison she would
stand every day for hours by the prison gate, did not sleep the nights and
continued crying all the time because of the hunger strikes in the prison.
The violent screams that were coming out of the prison walls enveloped the
town in fear and caused my mother and other such mothers enormous pain and
suffering. Until one night she breathed her last painful breath. Father with
dried tears in his eyes threw a few handfuls of soil in the grave and quietly
murmured “G’ gave and G’ takes” (Adonai natan
Several years after
mother’s death, father walked around like a shadow and continuously
reminded the now released son that he should remember to say Kaddish for his
mother. Until he too died, and with him died also the hope of the remaining
family of making aliya to Eretz Israel.
The terrible days
of the Nazi occupation drew closer. Poland was already divided
in two between the “partners” of Hitler and Stalin... Once a
creased letter arrived for the family from Eretz Israel. The older brother
wrote “the Nazis are threatening the world. Danger is spreading out. I
have therefore decided to leave with my family to a far away country that is
called New Zealand, which is a
neighbour of Australia.”
Once again years
passed. Years of fire and smoke, blood and total destruction. My remaining
family was killed together with the rest of Grodno Jewry. I, the youngest, by
a miracle survived and found myself after the war in an Austrian DP camp (Trofaiach).
Around the camp were brother graves of murdered Jews. The earth was split
open. Torn prayer books and talaisim were scattered among the rubbish
and around the camp. Happy Austrians were strolling, hoping to do business
with the Jews. Young Austrian women were shamelessly offering their bodies
for cigarettes and coffee...
I received a letter
from my older brother in far away New Zealand that I should try by
all means available to get to Eretz Israel. The English Foreign
Minister - Bevan - however did
everything he could to make sure that the surviving Jews did not reach Israel... Without a choice,
I made my way to my brother in the far away land.
After a separation of
28 years the two brothers met. I looked older than my brother. I was gray,
with a wrinkled face and the fear in my eyes had not yet vanished. It was
winter time when I arrived in the far away country. And there I found that
the trees were green, flowers bloomed, the sun with its gentle rays was
caressing my gray head and aged face. I inhaled the fresh air, looked at the
green fields with its abundant white sheep and after the destruction of Europe I found myself
enveloped in a happy contentment.
My brother all
these years tried to keep in his home the spirit of Eretz Israel. The children
besides speaking English also spoke a good Hebrew. As a prior chalutz who
gave his young strength to Eretz Israel his abilities and
ambitions were not to become an “alrightnik”. He worked hard and
quietly in his heart he carried a longing for the Jewish state. And when the
state was established his yearning grew. He put away shilling to shilling,
hoping with the small savings to be able to return to Haifa which he left 10
years ago. But from hard work and conscience anguish he became weak till one
beautiful July day he was struck by a blood stroke in the brain. He lay in
the hospital for a long time with vacant eyes. When he was able he leafed
through Israeli journals and absorbed with his eyes the picture of the Jewish
flag that fluttered so freely.... His thoughts took him back to where he
spent his youth, the second twenty years of his life. Tears were running down
his face. He was continuously wiping his eyes with his left mobile hand (the
right side of his body was paralyzed). With questioning eyes he looked at the
doctors wanting to read from their faces the condition of his situation. The
words of comfort from his friends he took with tears. Yes, not so did he visualize
his future and the future of his children, which sooner or later will be
swallowed by assimilation.
He felt like a
broken branch that was carried far from its roots and whose leaves will
wither and fade. He turned his head away from his friends who were standing
around him as though he wanted himself to take account of his life and finish
with the pain and the belated regret. But the account was already done - his
destiny was sealed: the burst blood vessel in the head atrophied the
remainder of the tissues in the brain in which to his last breath the belated
Wellington, New Zealand, 1966
Copyright © 2006 Belarus
SIG , Leib Reizer and Naomi Barnett