It was a warm and sunny January winter day in Los Angeles. The temperature topped 81 degrees and even the native “Angelinos” were surprised by the unusually balmy mid-winter weather.
I was spending this sunny Shabbos in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood as I was honored by being a scholar in residence for Shabbos Parshas Vaeira at the Link Kollel/Shul. The Shabbos was busy, yet, very fulfilling. I was privileged to deliver many shiurim and meet wonderful people.
Rabbi Asher Brander, the Rav of the LINK Kollel introduced me to a patrician gentleman who appeared simultaneously hoary and at once noble. As we spoke I realized my first impression was not incorrect; I immediately grasped that I was speaking to a majestic nonagenarian. “My name is Yaakov Sendowski, most people call me Jack”, he said in heavily Yiddish accented English. I asked him where he was from, as it was clear that a native Angelino he was not.
“I was born in Pietrokov in 1926. Back then the Rav of the city was the great Rav Meir Shapiro zt”l. He was my Sandek and it was on his lap I laid my head at my bris. By the time of my Bar Mitzvah, the rav of the city was Rav Moshe Chaim Lau, the father of Chief Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau. He spoke at my Bar Mitzvah.”
As overwhelmed I was with all of the responsibilities I had to fulfill that Shabbos, I realized I was in the presence of royalty, a vestige of an extinct world. I was witnessing before my eyes the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah (2:3), “This man is like a burning stick that has been snatched from the fire.” He was a survivor, a remnant of a destroyed world, a cherished relic of a bygone era.
“So you’re from Pietrokov; you know Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau?”
“Rav Yisroel Meir and I were liberated from Buchenwald together, after surviving the nightmare of our lives.”
I take a moment to appreciate the irony of our chance encounter. Physically located in Los Angeles, the world capitol of the entertainment industry, a place where the fantasies of the mind become virtual reality. Mystically, R’ Yaakov and I are 6000 miles away in Pietrokov and the year is 1939, a place where the nightmares of the mind are the reality for the Jews. We are as far away from the debauchery and hedonism of Los Angeles as possible as we tenaciously cling to the spiritual bliss of the shtetyl of Pietrokov. I am mesmerized by his story.
“A few months after my Bar Mitzvah darkness descended over Pietrokov. Pietrokov was the first Jewish Ghetto established by the Nazis in Poland. In an area which held 6000 Jews, the Nazis crammed in over 28,000 Yidden. Each family crowded into a room the size of a walk-in closet.
I was put to work in the Ghetto, helping the German war machine. Finally, after I was more dead than alive, I was transported to Buchenwald where with the help of Hashem, the American Army liberated us on April 11, 1945. Eventually I came to America. My wife’s brother lived in Los Angeles. I have been here since 1950.”
Suddenly someone remarks that it is time for Mincha, R’ Yaakov and I parted. Sunday night, as I am about to leave for the airport, I notice a challah board near my suitcase. Rabbi Brander informs me it is a handmade gift from R’ Yaakov. Although my wife and I are in a rush, we knew we had to make one stop before we reached LAX. I knocked on the door of R’ Yaakov. As I thanked him for the beautiful challah board, he told me that he had spent the entire Motzei Shabbos lovingly cutting and fashioning it as a gift for my family. “R’ Yaakov, where did you ever learn woodcutting, I know you were a businessman all your life?”.
R’ Yaakov answers with tears streaming down his cheeks, “I never knew anything about woodcutting; but to stay alive in the Ghetto you had to have a trade. I taught myself woodcutting. The Nazis were in desperate need of woodcutters and part of our slave labor was to disassemble the wooden structures from the now vacant Jewish homes and to send the wood to the front. I quickly became extremely adept at cutting precise and exact pieces of wood. I promised Hashem, that if He will save me from this Gehinom; one day I will pay Him back and use the woodcutting craft to sanctify His name. Today I fulfilled that promise as I present you with a challah board for your Shabbos table.”
As I held the challah board in one hand and I hugged R’ Yaakov in my other, I could feel the angels – malachim in this “city of angels” singing praises to Hashem as R’ Yaakov had indeed fulfilled his promise. I will cherish this challah board for the rest of my life.
Fast forward to today. This coming Shabbos, Jews world-over will rejoice in the special first Shabbos after Pesach. On this Shabbos, everyone looks forward and craves to consume once again delicious, delectable challah as it’s been quite a while since our last taste of the precious delight. For me personally I also look forward to saying HaMotzi; however, for me it is not the challah which I yearn for; for me it the challah board from Pietrokov which I hunger to embrace.