A double yartzeit: Remembering those whose lives still bring lessons
Jan. 24 was the 18th of Shevat and the yartzeit of date of remembrance of two individuals whose lives continue to bring meaning and lessons for me. They never met, but each one had a profound impact on our world and on our lives. Jan. 24 is the anniversary of the passing of Elie Wiesel’s father of blessed memory, Shlomo ben Eliezer Halevi Wiesel z”l, and my grandmother, Rachel Glicenstein Epstein, z”l.
My teacher and mentor of blessed memory, Professor Elie Wiesel spoke often of the impact of his beloved father, and the experiences they shared in the sweetness of childhood and the darkest of days in Auschwitz. His descriptions of his father in his now classic book, “Night,” are seared into our hearts. The love for his parents was literally enshrined in the magnificent Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University, where I spent many years soaking up words, stories, lessons and kindness from my inspiring teacher and mentor.
Growing up in Stamford, my best friend and mentor was my grandmother. She came to this country in the l920s from East End London and never lost her English accent, or her love for all things British, including fine china and tea parties. She was a brilliant student and was offered a full scholarship to the London School of Economics to study German, but WWI broke out, and she could not attend. Her studies with Max Nordau, historian and the chief rabbi of the British Empire, Rabbi Hertz were tremendous sources of pride.
My grandfather was smitten with her as he trained to be in the Jewish Legion in 1917, stopping in England for training on the way to then Palestine. This highly educated woman left her beloved England with the passionate Jewish soldier who had helped Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, Col. Patterson and others secure Palestine against the Turks in 1917-1918. She arrived in Stamford and helped build the Jewish community.
I’ve always been so proud of my grandmother’s courage. She never drove a car, but managed to be president of countless organizations and helped found the Hebrew Ladies Educational League, which gave interest free loans to poor Jewish immigrants and gave the seed monies to begin schools and organizations, such as the Bi Cultural Day School, which I attended as a child. She was president and Sen. Joe Lieberman’s mother Marcia was treasurer. She worked all her life in her husband’s moving business, then the Stamford courts, and then volunteered for the Red Cross and Hadassah, earning the title Zionist of the Year.
When I hear the anti-Semitic hatred and bias against Zionism I often think of my gracious, brilliant and kind grandmother who helped so many people of all nations and races.
At this time, I remember the two individuals who helped shape my life — Elie Wiesel’s father and my grandmother Rae. Perhaps they are having a discussion over tea in heaven, hopefully not weeping over the state of our politics and bias, but dreaming of better days with hope and faith.
Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray is a resident of Ridgefield. The United Nations General Assembly designated Jan. 27— the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau — as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.