My name is Eli Rabinowitz. I live in Perth, Australia. My three siblings live in New York, Israel and South Africa. I am married to Jill Reitstein (originally Rotzstejn, from Nasielsk). Our sons are Dean, married to Tami (grandparents from Bialystok), living in Sydney, and Neil, married to Jo, living in New York. We have, therefore, strong ties to Poland.
My story is one of Jewish migration and re-migration and a journey to reconnect with my roots in Poland.
I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1952. My father was the first of his siblings to be born in South Africa. His brothers and mother were born in Palestine. His father was from Orla, Poland (or Russia as it was known then), his maternal grandfather from Lithuania. My mother was born in Latvia.
My journey to Poland began with a simple short message on JewishGen and a unexpected response to it by a non-Jewish Polish researcher, Wojciech Konunczuk.
My family connections with Poland stretch back to the 1500s to my 12thgrandfather, Shaul Wahl Katzenellenbogen, “The King of Poland for a Day”.
Saul Wahl (c. 1542—1622) was a wealthy and politically influential Polish Jew. According to legend, he was king of Poland for a single day August 18, 1587. Wahl had numerous children, including the renowned Polish rabbi, Meir Wahl.
King of Poland for a day
The fact that Saul was king of Poland is not well-supported by historical data, but it gained a firm place in the folk beliefs of the Jewish people.
And from Jewish Encyclopedia:
The version set forth in the Jewish Encyclopedia is as follows:
„At a point in his life, Lithuanian Noble Mikołaj Krzysztof "the Orphan" Radziwiłł (1549–1616) wanted to repent for the numerous sins he committed when he was younger. He commenced a pilgrimage to Rome in order to consult the pope as to the best means for the propitiation of his misdeeds. The pope advised him to dismiss all his servants and to live for a few years as a wandering beggar. When the prescribed period ended, Radziwill was penniless in the city of Padua, Italy. He pleaded for help, but his claims of being a noble fell on deaf ears. Radziwiłł decided to appeal to Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen, the rabbi of Padua. Katzenellenbogen treated him nicely and provided him with means to return to Lithuania. To repay the favor, Katzenellenbogen requested that Radziwiłł find his son Saul, who years before had left to study in a yeshiva in Poland. When he visited Poland, he checked yeshivas until he found Saul in Brest-Litovsk (now Brest, Belarus). Upon meeting and getting to know Saul, Radziwiłł was very impressed with his intellect and offered to provide Saul for boarding in his own castle where Saul can pursue his studies. Radziwill's court personnel were similarly impressed with Saul, and his reputation spread throughout Poland. Stephen Báthory, who was King of Poland died in 1586, and the Poles were split between being ruled by the Zamoyski familyand the Zborowskis. Under Polish law at that time, if electors could not agree upon a king, an outsider should be appointed "rex pro tempore" (temporary king). Radziwill proposed that Saul Wahl be appointed the temporary king and Wahl was elected to this high office to shout of "Long live King Saul!" The length of his reign range from one night to a few days. During the short reign, Wahl passed numerous laws, including laws that eased the conditions for Polish Jews. The name "Wahl" was given him from the German word Wahl (meaning "election")”[1.1].
However, it was my grandfather, Nachum Mendel Rabinowitz, who was born in Orla, Grodno Gubernia near Bialystok on 2 Elul 5647 (22 August 1887), who brought me on this journey back to Poland.
In November 2011, I received an email from Wojciech Konończuk, who wrote me the following:
Dear Eli Rabinowitz,
I found a short piece of information about „Rabinowitz family originally Skarasjewski from Orla near Bialystok” on this website
I research the history of Jews in Orla, preparing a book on this subject, and I'm very interested in any testimonies, photos or other materials concerning this issue. Maybe you will be able to provide me some new information about Jewish people from Orla?
Wojciech Kononczuk (Warsaw)
Research over the next six months was based on our existing family records and not much in terms of new genealogical ones was found. The records for Orla for the period around the turn of the 20thCentury are housed in the Grodno State Archives in Belarus. We eventually found out that the 1906 Bielsk County Voters List including "Skorishevski Abram-Yankel son of Leib", who is also listed in the 1912 Grodno Gubernia Voters List. I also found family records and memoirs of my surviving aunt, Sarah Stepansky.
As a result, I have reconstructed all descendants of Chart of Moshko Skareshevsky of Orla.
After six months of correspondence and research, I met Wojciech on 12 May 2011 in Bialystok. He drove me to the Orla Synagogue, where I met the other members of his team:
The Amazing Story of Uncle Moshe and Paula Lichtzier
My great uncle Moshe Rabinowitz, after whom I am named, was born in Orla and in 1922 moves to South Africa. Paula Lichtzier and her family live in Orla. Moshe proposes to Paula and arranges to bring her out to South Africa in 1928. Moshe is killed in a motor accident six weeks before they are to be married. Paula later marries Joseph Pinn, but Paula remains close to the Rabinowitz family, until she passes away in 1976.
Another researcher sends Polish researcher Wojciech a photo of the Orla Yiddisher Folk School (originally from a family member of Paula's). Wojciech recognises this photo as he has already received a similar one from me. He puts the two in touch and soon I am in turn connected with Paula's daughter.
Soon I am put in touch with Paula’s daughter, Ray Hengy, who lives in Freiburg-im-breisgau in Germany.
More details of the families emerge through two memoirs written, one of which was written by Sylvia Kaspin, niece of Paula Lichtzier (Sylvia from Orla, was the cousin of Ray Hengy), while the second one was authored by Sarah Stepansky, niece of Moshe Rabinowitz and aunt of Eli Rabinowitz. Just completed in November 2011.
Eighty years after Moshe is tragically killed and 35 years after Paula passes away, the two families are reunited through the amazing and fortuitous exchange of photos taken so many years ago in Orla!
Ray still has the engagement ring that Moshe bought Paula for their ill fated marriage.
On 11 May 2012, I meet Ray Hengy in Warsaw.
She is wearing the engagement ring that her mother Paula was given by my great uncle Moshe. Ray, her husband Heinrich, my wife Jill, Wojciech and I visit Treblinka on our way to Orla.
We arrive in Orla (see the picture of the sign, which is in Polish and Belarusian), reflecting the mixed history of the area. In our families’ time, it was part of Russia.
A close up
On Sunday 27 May in London, I meet Paula's relative. She shows me the photo that she had emailed to Wojciech. This photo, together with the one given to me by my aunt in Jerusalem, resulted in our families (who are not related) reconnecting in such a remarkable way.
So by Ray and I meeting in Orla, where it all began nearly 100 years ago, descendants from opposite ends of the world create a happy ending to an ill fated romance.
Click here to view the map of Orla descendants compiled by Eli Rabinowitz.
CLAREMONT WYNBERG bulletin (NUMBER 548, 23/24 NOVEMBER 2012 - 10 KISLEV 5773) writes about Eli Rabinowitz’s grandfather in this week's Claremont Synagogue bulletin:
A few years ago I stumbled upon a family tree on the internet that contained my name. Intrigued, I began to follow the many branches going back generations and in the process I discovered ‘new’ relatives, some of whom are congregants of the shul! I also recognised some names, but had no idea that they were related to me albeit very distantly. I was able to make contact with the author of the family tree, one Eli Rabinowitz, originally from Cape Town, now living in Perth, Australia. Eli and I are fourth cousins, once removed, as is Philip Hirschsohn, another relative I discovered on the tree. After contacting Philip by email he told me that his great-great-grandfather, Isaiah Hirschsohn, and my great-great-great-grandfather, Isaiah Grusd, who were first cousins, were in business together at the turn of the century as the founders of the American Swiss Watch Company. Their grandparents, Yitzchak Yaakov and Sarah Rivkah Hirschsohn, migrated to Israel in the 1860s and both their fathers, Yuda and Azer, were rabbis. The name Hirschsohn reminded me of Judah and Rachel Herison, who were congregants at the Schoonder Street Shul when I was the rabbi there. Mrs Herison had told me that she and I were related and that her husband was also her first cousin. She also told me, following a visit to blow the shofar for her (she was immobile), that although my shofar blowing was good, it did not come close to that of her late father’s who could blow the shofar “as if it were a musical instrument.” Unfortunately both Herisons have since passed away so I was unable to obtain further information from them. However, now that I had an expert on the family, I once again contacted Eli Rabinowitz to ask him more about the Herisons and, in particular, Mrs Herison’s late father. Eli confirmed that the Herisons were first cousins and that Rachel had been a Rabinowitz. In fact, she and Eli’s father were siblings. He then sent me a chapter from the autobiography of his surviving aunt, Sarah Stepansky (Rachel's younger sister), who is over 80 and lives in Bayit Vegan, Israel. The excerpt, entitled “My Father, the Lamdan, the Man of Chessed” concerns Eli’s grandfather (Rachel’s father). His name was Nachum Mendel Rabinowitz and, by all accounts, he was a righteous man. Here is a short outline of his history and character. He was born in Orla, near Bialystok in White Russia in 1887. At the tender age of nine he was sent to study in the great Lomzhe Yeshiva. After being there for two years, he continued learning as a yeshiva bochur for many years at the Brisk Yeshiva, before coming to Israel. He married in 1905 and studied in Yeshivat Torat Chaim, not far from Sha'ar Shechem in the Moslem Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem which currently houses Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim. He learned with the first Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Kook, and with many other well-known rabbis. As a result of the terrible famine in Jerusalem prior to the First World War, Nachum Mendel, his wife and their two little sons immigrated to South Africa. There were members of the family who remained in Palestine and Nachum Mendel faithfully sent money regularly, helping his sister to support her family. The author recalls how her mother had to make do with her old coat in order to permit her husband to continue his aid to those in greater need. Such was his chessed, always thinking how to do for and give to others. Mrs Stepansky records: “My father was a man of all trades in the realm of being a kli Kodesh (clergyman), in his service to the Jewish community. He knew how to bea chazzan, a mohel and a shochet. He was the chazzan and baal koreh at Cape Town Orthodox Hebrew Congregation for thirty years, from 1920 till 1950. His chazanut and his leining were perfect, and when he blew the shofar, not a heart in the congregation could be.” I had already heard of Rev. Rabinowitz’s outstanding shofar blowing, but I had not heard about his kindness, some of which his daughter describes: “When my father became the secretary of the Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick) Society in Cape Town, he saw to it that a kosher kitchen was installed in the biggest hospital in Cape Town, Groote Schuur Hospital, where the first heart transplant was to be performed almost half a century later by Dr Christiaan Barnard. My father insisted that every Jewish patient, regardless if he was or wasn't a Torah observant Jew, who was shomer mitzvoth, would be given food from thekosher kitchen. Every Jew would be entitled to have the possibility of observing the mitzvah of kashrut. Not onlydid he ensure that the food was of the highest standard of kashrut, he made sure that it was tasty, too. The foodfrom the kosher kitchen was so good that even the goyishe patients would come up to my father and ask,"Reverend Rabinowitz, could we also get food from your kitchen?" In addition to taking care of the patients' physical needs, he tried to alleviate their spiritual needs, procuring for them good reading material of Jewish content and nature. Despite the fact that my father didn't have a car and would travel by bus, quite a distance from where we lived, to a different neighbourhood, he used to bring all sorts of Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers, like the Forwards and the Morgen Journal, arriving from America, and the HaDoar, which was a Hebrew paper from Eretz Yisroel, for the patients. Years afterwards, people would come up to him in the street in town and would hug him, thanking him for his kindness. Half of the time, he couldn't even remember their names, because he had been visiting the sick for so many years, and couldn't remember everyone. But they never forgot him. His chessed knew no bounds. Not only did he seek out the welfare of the physically ill, he also sought out those who were shunned by society, visiting the Jewish patients in the asylum for the mentally ill. In the manner he went about doing his kindness, he taught us a very important lesson. The Bikur Cholim Society got to know about people who were in need. My father used to prepare packages of food and clothing to bring to the homes of the poor at night, leaving it on their porch, so as not to have them see it being delivered. In such a way, when they woke up in the morning, they had the necessary clothes and food without the added embarrassment and loss of their self esteem, which accompany the receiving of tzedaka. “ I have read many biographies of great Jewish leaders and rabbinic personalities who lived in Europe, Israel and America, but I had no idea that right here in South Africa lived a distant relative who was a Torah scholar, an accomplished chazzan and a man of incredible kindness. When I received the excerpt from the book it was the week of Parshat Vayeitzei and I was moved by a verse in the Haftorah that seemed to describe Nachum Mendel Rabinowitz so perfectly. The Prophet Hosheah states in the name of G-d (chapter 14:5): “I shall heal their rebelliousness; I shall love them willingly, for My wrath will be withdrawn from them.” The phrase “I shall love them willingly” in Hebrew is ohaveim nedava, which can be rendered as “I will love them for no reason.” The commentators (see Rashi and Metzudot David) explain that Hashem informed the prophet that He will love the Jewish people even though they are undeserving of His love due to their betrayal of Him and His Torah. However, because they commit to repent and confess their sins (see verses 2-3), Hashem will love them for no reason other than “out of the goodness of His heart.” (See commentary of Radak.) We are commanded to emulate G-d (see Devarim 26:17 and Sefer HaChinuch #611) and therefore just as He loves people gratuitously, so too should we engender within ourselves ahavat chinam, baseless love, for our fellow man. By all accounts Rev. Rabinowitz was such a person. His commitment to the mitzvoth of bikur cholim, chessed and tzedakkah clearly indicate that he loved his fellow man regardless of his level of observance or status in the community. In stark contrast to gratuitous love is the concept of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) notes that the spiritual reason for the destruction of the First Temple was the proliferation of the three cardinal sins amongst the populace: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. “However”, continues the Talmud, “in the era of the Second Temple, when the populace engaged in the study of Torah, the fulfilment of mitzvoth and the performance of kind deeds, the Temple was destroyed because of the sin of baseless hatred. This teaches that baseless hatred is equal to the three cardinal sins combined.” The people may have been ‘religious’ and even kind (to those they liked), but they were mired in arguments, bickering and hatred. Baseless hatred can have terrible consequences on the personal level too, as is clear from the following passage (Tractate Shabbat 32b): “Rabbi Nehemiah said, ‘As a result of the sin of baseless hatred, arguments become prevalent in one’s home, one’s wife might miscarry and one’s children might die when they are young.” But what is baseless hatred? How can one hate for no reason? And, furthermore, the word ‘baseless’ implies that sometimes there is cause to hate someone. Rashi explains (ad loc): “Baseless hatred is when one does not see one’s fellow commit any sin for which he is entitled to hate him and yet he still hates him.” This is not to say that the person did nothing wrong, but he did not do anything for which he deserves to be hated. In other words, he is hated for a petty, inconsequential reason. Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, the famed Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva (Sichot Mussar, Maamar 10) explains that baseless hatred is “the lack of peace, friendship and love between one man and his fellow.” When these elements exist people are willing to forgive trespasses made against them. But when these elements are not present, people will inevitably fixate on every petty issue and will blow them out of proportion with tragic consequences. Only if one can arouse a feeling of baseless love for his fellow man, as Rev. Rabinowitz did, will he be saved from the terrible effects of sinat chinam. Shabbat Shalom
- [1.1] For more details: https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Wahl_Shaul