(This is a slightly edited version of the notes I used for the talk given at the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue, Sept. 10 2014.)
Thanks to Shlomo for asking me to speak tonight in memory of my father, whose yahrzteit is tonight and tomorrow. Its four years. Time passes fast.
My father was born Aba Warszawczyk in Kutno, in 1918. He lived on the outskirts of town, my grandfather had a neighborhood minyan in his home, and kept a sefer torah there. Dad was active in the Beitar youth movement. He was part of a youth mission that set out for Birobidhzhan, but was turned back by the Soviets. As a youth activist, he met Menachem Begin, who encouraged him to do what he could to get to Palestine. Dad encountered anti-Semitism in dental school in Warsaw and convinced his family to let him go to Pisa to continue his studies. But when he got to Italy, perhaps remembering Begin’s advice, he never got to school, and instead became involved with illegal immigration from the Adriatic coast to Palestine, and eventually made his way to Tel Aviv; he never completed his dental studies. He was not able to convince his family to send any of his siblings to Palestine. Only he, two cousins who previously moved to Israel and an uncle who had moved to America survived.
In Palestine he became active in Herut and Etzel. During the war he and many of his friends were part of a group of Palestinian Soldiers enlisted in the British Army. He saw action escorting Haille Selaisse from Egypt to Ethiopia, and fought in Greece, but spent much of the War in POW camps. I grew up with Hanukkah celebrated using some of the tunes Jewish soldiers from Palestine sang at a Christmas party arranged for them, with the berachot, and hopes to return home, sung in Hebrew to the melodies of well-known Christmas carols and hymns.
After the war, Dad returned to Palestine. Active in the Irgun, he was captured and imprisoned in Akko. Was he involved in bombing the King David Hotel? My brother and I like to think he was, but Dad never confirmed but also never really denied any of his activities with the Irgun. Dad says that a guard in Acco who knew that he was a fellow British Army veteran facilitated his escape, and he made his way the US in 1947.
After Dad died, my Mom reminded me several times that Dad could not speak much about his family until after I was born, his kaddishl. It was like him to emphasize establishing the future first before remembering the past. He worked hard to help secure Israel and strengthen youth and family activities, much more than for Holocaust remembrance.
Growing up, Dad helped me with Hebrew, and made sure that I and all my siblings had trips to Israel early on: I went in 1966. He also took my mother to see where he grew up in Poland. I am grateful that he was able to show me Warsaw and Kutno in 2008.
Dad was a local leader in the Zionist Organization of America. He worked hard to organize and especially to get people to attend and support events and fundraisers. I suspect his favorite event though was one he helped organize in which participants received a tea bag and instructions to brew a pot of tea, sit back in a favorite chair, and enjoy not having to go out to listen to speeches.
Dad was always able to bring people along to work with him. This trait was helpful in the ZOA, but he was able to bring along people in most things he was involved in. Dad enjoyed building things–from very tiny things, already working for a dentist when he was in gymnasium in Kutno–to very large things, such as a set for the Synagogue Youth Department Musical, or the floats for the Israel Day Parade in New York City. He built a deluxe grogger for the megillah reading, and an outdoor highly visible electric menorah, this last well before Chabad promoted the idea of outdoor menorahs. He was particularly successful in getting people who had come to help build sets or floats to actually wield a hammer. One day the synagogue’s Rabbi asked Dad whether he could use these skills to help people who wanted to learn how to build a sukkah. Working with lumber yards, Dad developed a modular design so that participants could simply order a certain number of panels. Back in the 1970s, relatively few individuals built sukkot in their homes and there were no sukkah kits. Dad gave sukkah classes for about thirty years, to people from Westchester, Connecticut, Long Island and elsewhere–and he sent plans to congregations too far away. His kit was described and circulated by the United Synagogue to member congregations–so you could say he helped thousands of people build sukkahs.
At home, our Shabbat evening dinner ritual included a portion of the prayer for the State of Israel and the defenders of our holy land.
In addition to providing for his wife and family, he was always concerned for the community, for youth, for Jewish continuity; he contributed to observance and identity through the sukkah program and the ZOA, and promoted pride in Israel and commitment to Israel’s security.
In our parasha, we have the famous text: ארמי אובד אבי Arami Oved Avi, understood in the Haggadah “as my father was persecuted…”–or the term oved is translated as “wandering.” Dad described the first part of his life in something of the same terms: for the first three decades, there was war and destruction and wandering from place to place. But he was grateful for over sixty years in which he could say, as the passage continues: שמחתי בכל הטוב אשר נתן לי ה’ ולביתי : “I have rejoiced in all the goodness that the Deity has given me and my family.” Moreover, the the Parasha continues with a prayer that captures his deepest hopes:—השקיפה ממעון קדשך מן השמים וברך את עמך את ישראל ואת האדמה “Look down from Your Holy heavenly abode, and bless your People Israel, and the Land.”
I am grateful for his love and devotion for almost six decades, and miss him greatly.