When a large number of human bones mixed in with pages containing Hebrew words were discovered at a building site in the town of Netishyn, Ukraine, the few local Jews turned to the only rabbi they knew for assistance.
It all began with a phone call, says Rabbi Alexander Faingold, the FJC’s representative in Khmelnitsky, Ukraine, who frequently travels throughout the area to help the small Jewish communities there. “They told me that I should come immediately to the city. They were building a mall, and tractors had unearthed a large grave where many bones were found alongside pages of Jewish books.”
Faingold contacted Rabbi Chezki Kalmanovitch of the Israeli organization Atra Kadisha, which specializes in caring for bones that are found in unmarked graves. By the next day the two arrived at the city, to discover that the bones that the workers found were locked up by the local police until they completed their investigation.
The rabbi says that he knew he had a lot of work ahead of him. “Dealing with local authorities is not an easy task, and could make for a very long story.”
He immediately called a local camera crew and set up a meeting with Olga Omelchuk, the city’s mayor. Instead of asking the mayor to assist with the issue, Faingold thanked her for her intervention on behalf of the Jewish community, as the cameras were filming.
“I want to thank you,” Faingold told the mayor, “for all that you do for the Jewish community, and especially for the proper care of the Jewish bones that were just discovered.”
The mayor thanked him, and told him that she would do her best to ensure they would be treated respectfully and would be speedily buried in the manner prescribed by Jewish law.
Within 24 hours matter was taken care of, and the bones were buried in a location donated by the city, with a small monument stating that it is a mass Jewish grave.
Faingold returned home, but toward the end of the week he received a call from community members requesting that he return to spend the Sabbath with them. “The story is making waves throughout the community, which is going through an awakening. Can you come to us for the Sabbath?” he was asked.
Faingold says that he could not refuse, and together with a group of students traveled to the city for the Sabbath, where they held prayer services and enjoyed the traditional Sabbath meals with the community.
Before reading the weekly Torah portion from a scroll he brought with him, the rabbi shared some words of inspiration: “When digging in the ground, you will at some point reach water; but the water could be closer or further away. The question is: How much patience will you have as you continue to dig? The same is true for the individual. If we dig long enough, and remove the dirt that is covering us, we will find our inner self, the Jewish spark within.”
He then compared it to the digging in the city, noting that as the workers removed the earth they had uncovered something meaningful, and the entire Jewish community was inspired.
As he spoke, the rabbi noticed an old man sitting in a corner of the room. The rabbi noticed that every few minutes the old man would remove the headcovering traditionally worn by Jewish men, known as a kippah, and then put it back on shortly afterwards.
Faingold saw the man’s inner turmoil, and walked over to him and asked him if he wanted to be called up to the Torah for an honor. He responded yes, and said that his name was Vasily and that his father’s name was Moshe.
The octogenarian donned a prayer shawl and went up for his honor. At the end, the rabbi turned to him and asked him if he had a Jewish name besides his Russian name. He looked at him with his eyes welling up in tears. “I have another name, Ezriel.”
He then told the congregation the story of how his grandfather, Rabbi Avrum Waldman, was the city’s rabbi. “He had a long white beard, with fiery eyes,” recalled Waldman. “He was a great scholar and leader. Everyone in the community respected him and listened to his wishes.”
The old man said that his last memories of his grandfather were his learning with him in preparation for his thirteenth birthday, when traditionally Jewish men celebrate their entrance into adulthood, known as a bar mitzvah. But, Waldman painfully recalled, “by the 1942 High Holidays it all ended.”
He said that the Nazis gathered the town’s Jews in the synagogue and from there took them to a gated location. “I was there with my parents, brothers, sisters, grandmother, grandfather, my friends and neighbors,” said Waldman. “The entire Jewish community marched after my grandfather.”
He recalled that the entire incident made his body weak, and he felt that that he needed to relieve himself. “I turned to an officer and he let me go to the side. I stood in a field with high bushes, and suddenly I heard screaming. I did not move from fright, and watched how everyone was forced to dig their graves. Then the Nazis murdered them.”
After hiding for three days in the bushes, Waldman returned to the town and sought out a non-Jewish family friend. “He was shocked to see me,” he said, “and he hid me in the basement. He would give me food every day, and every few nights I would go out for some fresh air.”
He says the one thing that the family friend told him was: “Your name is now Vasily. No more Ezriel.”
He says that his grandfather wanted to prepare him to read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah, but he was murdered. “We were all murdered,” said Waldman. “Even Ezriel, standing in the bushes, was also murdered.”
The crowd stood in silence, says Faingold. No one could open their mouths.
“This week your grandfather received a Jewish burial,” said Igor Malkin, one of the students who came for the Sabbath, after a few long minutes. “It was a burial that he did not receive for 70 years, and the first thing he did up in heaven was to take care of his only living grandson. He made sure you came to the prayer service; he made sure you received the honor of being called to the Torah.”
Faingold remained for that Sunday, and the entire community gathered once again, to celebrate the bar mitzvah of Ezriel Waldman.
There Waldman put on tefillin, the ritual boxes worn during morning prayers, recalling the few details he remembered from his grandfather’s lessons. His tears dripped on the tefillin boxes as he kissed them. The entire crowd was emotional, with tears welling up in their eyes, reports Faingold.
“You spoke yesterday about wells,” Waldman told those gathered. “My well was covered with many layers of dirt and corpses. Ezriel was buried deep underneath of the bodies of my family. This Sabbath I was born anew. The tractors removed the physical dirt, and the rabbi removed the dirt covering my soul. Thank you, rabbi!”
By Eli Wolff. Translated and adapted from the Hebrew by Dovid Zaklikowski.