This true personal story is about a kvitel, a little prayer note, that connects five generations of my family through the Holocaust and beyond.
My father, Prof. Henry H. (Zvi Meir) Weinberg of blessed memory, passed away in Jerusalem in December 2006, after a long, amazing life that took him (fleeing from the Nazis) from Poland to the Ukraine, Siberia, Uzbekistan, France, Israel, United States, Canada, and then again, some fifteen years ago, to Israel.
Here in Israel, he was elected in 1996 to the Israeli parliament as a representative of Natan Sharanky’s Yisrael Be’Aliyah political party. He lived to see all his children and grandchildren living aside him in Israel.
My father came from a long line of Sanz Hassidic Jews in Krakow, who were pillars of the community going back to the students of Rabbi Yeshaya of Pshedbosh in the early 1800s. His father (my grandfather), Moshe David Weinberg (for whom I am named), fled Poland with his wife and children into Russia just ahead of the Nazis in September 1939. Thus, the family survived World War II (although Moshe David himself died of illness in Fergana, Uzbekistan in 1942). Moshe David’s siblings and their families, however, perished in the Holocaust.
Moshe David’s father (my great-grandfather), Dov Beirish Weinberg, had passed away and was buried in Krakow in 1935. My father, Prof. Henry/Tzvi Weinberg, had searched for, found, and photographed, Dov Beirish’s gravestone in the enormous, overgrown and partly destroyed “new” Jewish cemetery in Krakow.
Here begins the story. Some three months after my father’s passing (in early 2007), my brothers and I were digging through the voluminous papers and books in his Jerusalem apartment. Among the many ancient holy books, I discovered an original, first edition copy of “Pardes Mordechai,” a volume of Torah commentary written by my step-grandfather Rabbi Mordechai Wulliger (published 1928 in Munkatch, Hungary), personally inscribed by Rabbi Wulliger to my father.
Inside the faded book, my father had stashed documents and papers in envelopes, all neatly labeled. Clearly, he wanted us to find these papers. One of the envelopes had a red tab on it, and was labeled: The “New” Cemetery in Krakow.
Inside that envelope I found a photo of Dov Beirish Weinberg’s gravestone in Krakow. I had seen this before, but attached to the photo was a hand-drawn map; a map sketched out by my father with detailed instructions how to find Dov Beirish’s grave inside the old/”new” cemetery. According to this map, Dov Beirish’s plot was adjacent to the gravestone of the well-known Rabbi Shimon Sofer — a Talmudic giant.
At the bottom of the map, my father had written: “Attached is a ‘kvitel.’ Please deliver the kvitel to the grave of my grandfather.” (A kvitel is a prayer note, the type that is often scribbled, folded and tucked by Jews into the crevices of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. There is a tradition to leave such prayer notes also at the graves of ancestors).
I read this out to my brothers. We shuddered. A request from the grave — my father’s grave, sending us on a mission — to the grave of our great grandfather! A last request, so carefully thought out and mapped out by our father, labeled clearly, and left conspicuously behind for us to find.
We peered at the small, square piece of paper that was attached to the map, folded into four. “A kvitel for the grave of Dov Beirish Weinberg” it proclaimed. Hesitantly, we opened it. “Refuah shleima for … and bracha ve-hatzlacha for Zvi Meir Weinberg and his family,” it read — a prayer for a relative’s health, and for the good fortune of our entire family.
Here is the rub. That day — the day I found the book Pardes Mordechai with the photo and map and kvitel and my father’s request – was a mere four days before my eldest daughter, Ariella Rachel, was scheduled to leave with her class on a heritage trip for Poland and Krakow.
Four days! Amazing. Could my father have known? Was this but a coincidence?
I have never believed it was.
Ariella was now on a mission for her grandfather to her great-great-grandfather’s grave. To deliver the kvitel.
It was no happenstance that Ariella was “chosen” for this mission. Ariella was my father’s oldest and favorite grandchild, the apple of his eye; named after his mother, Rachel Weinberg of Krakow. Ariella and her “Zeidy” (Yiddish for grandfather) had a special relationship. Zeidy was now sending Ariella on a posthumous mission to his grandfather’s grave.
Arrangements had to be made, fast. Ariella’s school principal and teacher were quite excited when I told them the story and showed them the kvitel. But they explained to me that breaking away from the class to make a special, personal side trip to the cemetery in Krakow would not be an easy thing. It necessitates advance approval by the Israeli security team that accompanies each Israeli class in Poland, and requires the accompaniment of a teacher and special transportation arrangements. And there wasn’t much time. Nor would they have much time in Krakow to search for the grave. And who knows how long it would take to find the grave, if at all!
To make a long story short… on Sunday morning, 22 Adar 5767 (March 18, 2007) Ariella set out for the cemetery in Krakow to deliver the kvitel.
Using Zeidy’s map, which was extraordinarily accurate, she found the grave of Dov Beirish Weinberg in no time at all, placed the kvitel on the stone, and prayed for the entire family. Then she left photos of our family on the grave, and lit ten candles shaped into the Hebrew word “Chai” (life).
“What should I do if I get to the grave?” Ariella had asked me at Ben-Gurion airport before she left for Poland.
“Well,” I answered, “you deliver the kvitel. Then you can say some Psalms. And then you can say to Dov Beirish: ‘Hi! I’m your great-great-granddaughter! The family survived Hitler, and I live in the sovereign state of the Jewish People, in Israel!”
And so she did.
Upon her return landing at Ben Gurion airport in Israel, Ariella excitedly showed me the photos on her camera from the cemetery in Krakow. “I wish I could show these photos to Zeidy and tell him that I made it to Dov Beirish’s grave with the kvitel,” she said to me.
“Don’t worry,” I replied. “I’m sure that Zeidy already knows…”
This article was originally published in March 2007, and was republished by Aish.com in January 2010.