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|Visions of Greatness
A Collection of Inspirational Stories
Rabbi Yosef Weiss
A Brother's Call
R' Dovid Hoffman, a heroic survivor of the Holocaust, resettled in America, where he successfully replanted a Torah-true family. As a child, Shmuel Hoffman often heard his father speak wistfully about his hometown of Sonislau, Romania. His father especially cherished the memory of his saintly brother, Yonason Binyomin, who had passed away before the war began at the tender age of seventeen.
"An illui" he would tell his children. "He was destined to be a great sage. Everybody said so. His character traits were outstanding and his fear of G-d? Not to be matched.
"My mother sat by his bedside day and night the week that he was so sick. And he knew when it was his time to go. You know what he said to my mother? He told her he heard someone knocking on the door. My mother didn't hear any knocking, but she listened to him she went to go see. And by the time she came back, he had already passed on. He didn't want my mother to see him die."
Then R' Dovid would shake his head and sigh regretfully. "It always bothers me that I can't remember the date of his yahrtzeit."
After R' Shmuel grew up, married and started his own family, he continued to be intrigued by his father's description of life in Sonislau. So the next time his father began to his favorite topic, R' Shmuel came up with what he thought was a wonderful idea.
"Why don't you go back to Sonislau for a visit?" he suggested. R' Dovid shook his head. "I would love to go back, but there are too many memories there," he said quietly. "I can't go through with it."
No matter how often he urged his father to make the trip, R' continued to refuse. Finally, R' Shmuel took matters into own hands. After all, his father was getting older. It was now or never.
Together with his brother-in-law R' Yehuda Rosenberg, R' Shmuel hired R' Leibel Gross, an expert at locating graves, to renovate the tombstones of his father's grandparents. He also erected a fence around the entire cemetery to protect the graves.
Then R' Shmuel purchased airline tickets, one for himself and one for his father.
It was a few days before Pesach when the tickets arrived.
R' Shmuel called his father. "I've arranged a trip for us to Romania."
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then a sigh, "I can't go," R' Dovid said, his voice cracking. "I just can't go back there."
"Tatty, think about it. There are a lot of good memories there , too you always tell us such wonderful stories from when you were young. And, you can go to your parents' graves...Look, I bought the tickets already. You decide. Either you'll get on the plane or you won't. It's your choice."
News of the impending trip spread among the extended Hoffman family. By the time Pesach was over, the group had grown to eight male members. The idea grew on R' Dovid, too, as he mentally prepared himself for the trip. A few days before takeoff, R' Shmuel decided to take his oldest son Motti along. Now there were nine men in all.
It was early evening when the small group stepped off the airplane in Hungary, where they were met by their guide, R' Leibel Gross.
"Welcome, welcome!" he greeted them warmly.
R' Shmuel stepped forward as the group's spokesman. "Shalom aleicheml Thank you for meeting us here. Tell me, what's on our schedule?"
"The trip to Sonislau takes about eight hours," R' Leibel explained. "I thought it would be too difficult to go all the way there in one night." He began to lead the group in the direction of the baggage claims. "There's a minibus waiting for us outside. We'll stay in Debrecen overnight."
As the members of the Hoffman family took their positions around the carousel to retrieve their luggage, R' Leibel spoke privately to R' Shmuel. "Actually, tomorrow morning I have some business to take care of. The minibus will take you to Sonislau, and I'll meet you there around noon."
Early the next morning, the Hoffman family, minus their guide, boarded the minibus. The road to Sonislau was flanked by rolling fields and endless farms. Several times, they passed signs with many familiar city names.
"Grosvardan," R' Dovid read one sign a few hours into their trip. "I used to live there. And you, Shmueli, and your older brother Yossi were born there!"
"Really?" R' Shmuel was excited. "Let's go find your old house and the shul."
The driver acquiesced, and the minibus pulled to a stop in the center of the small town. R' Dovid let his mind wander back to the days of his childhood. He led his descendants to the home of his ancestors. They explored the old shul and talked about the old days.
"Oy vey\" R' Shmuel exclaimed, as he checked the time on is wristwatch. "We're way behind schedule. We were supposed to meet R' Leibel in Sonislau at noon. Now we won't have a minyan at the cemetery!"
The Hoffmans piled back into the minibus to complete the trip to Sonislau. It was three o'clock by the time they got to the city. As they pulled up to the cemetery gates, another car arrived right behind them.
"R' Leibel!" R' Shmuel called to him joyously. "You were supposed to be here hours ago! It's a good thing we just got here ourselves. Now we can have our minyan."
The group somberly entered the cemetery. Most of the graves were overgrown and had been untended for years, They proceeded to the burial plots of R' Dovid's grandparents, there the gravestones were erect and the land tended thanks to R' Shmuel's foresight and planning. There they recited several chapters of Tehillim.
R' Dovid looked around when they were finished. Memories of his old town were still sharp. "I remember how these rows were laid out," he murmured to himself.
He walked quickly past a number of rows, paused to make a sharp right and headed straight for a few yards. There he stopped. His eyes roamed an unmarked patch of grass in front of him, as the rest of the group gathered behind him.
R' Dovid spoke with slow certainty. "My father and brother were buried right here."
"Are you sure?" R' Shmuel asked. "It doesn't look like anything was ever here."
"I'm sure," R' Dovid said firmly.
R' Leibel stepped to the fore. He held a rod in his hands, which was designed to detect foundations beneath the soil. As R' Leibel waved the rod over the area, it started beeping incessantly.
"Ah," R' Leibel breathed. "There is definitely a foundation here for a gravestone."
As the group resumed their quiet recital of Tehillim, R' Dovid's quiet murmur quickly changed to sobs. His sobs grew into wails as he recited kaddish at the graves of his father and his revered brother.
It took some time for R' Dovid to regain his composure; the group waited patiently until he was ready to make his way out of the cemetery.
There they found an unexpected welcoming committee. The mayor of the town had heard that an American contingent had arrived, and he was at the gate waiting to greet the Hoffmans.
"Welcome to our town!" he announced as the group drew closer. He shook R' Shmuel's hand, then the elderly R' Dovid's. "Are you a former citizen of this city?"
R' Dovid nodded in the affirmative.
"We are delighted to have you return for a visit. I hope you have found everything you needed here. Please, come with me to the city hall. I would like you to meet some of our council members."
The council members assembled around a small conference table. "This is Dovid Hoffman," the mayor introduced his guest. "He is an old citizen of Sonislau." R' Dovid shook hands all around and was seated prestigiously at the head of the table.
Tripping over his rusty Romanian, R' Dovid shared some of his memories as a Jew in Sonislau sixty years before. "You know," he suddenly recalled, "I had a non-Jewish friend named Gergosh before the war." The man to R' Dovid's right drew in his breath sharply. "We played together all the time and he was nice to all the Jews. Does anybody know him?"
"Gergosh was my father!" the man exclaimed. "He also used to speak so fondly of his days growing up here in Sonislau. Listening to you was almost like hearing him all over again." He sighed. "He passed away three years ago."
The men exchanged some details and discovered that they were definitely talking about the same person. "I'm so glad to meet his son, an upstanding citizen of our hometown." R' Dovid complimented the man. Then he thanked all the councilmen for their audience, and all shook hands in parting.
When Shmuel grasped the mayor's hand, he was hit with an idea. "Do you retain old birth and death records here?" R' Shmuel asked.
"We have records that are two hundred years old!" the mayor answered proudly. "How can I help you?"
"Do you remember when your brother Yonason Binyomin was born?" R' Shmuel said, turning toward his father.
Dovid was unsure where his resourceful son was heading, "Well, he was just a few years younger than me, so it must have been 1917."
The mayor retrieved a heavy, beautifully bound logbook for the year 1917. It didn't take long to read through the entries. Yonason Binyomin Hoffman, born February 7, died May 10,1934.
Shmuel couldn't contain his excitement. "When we go back home we can look up the date on a two-hundred year calendar. We'll finally know when your brother's yahrtzeit is!"
The following week, R' Shmuel Hoffman was seated at his kitchen table in Cleveland, Ohio, leafing through a two hundred-year calendar.
His index finger moved to a small square on the current page. 23 lyar 5694. May10th 1934. So this was the date of his uncle's yahrtzeit.
Struck by a sudden thought, R' Shmuel looked up at the
current calendar, hanging on the refrigerator. They had been in the cemetery
last Tuesday. And that date was...
Last Tuesday, he had stood with his father, R' Dovid Hoffman, among a minyan of men in the cemetery in Sonislau, Romania. There they had davened and said kaddish at the grave of Yonason Binyomin Hoffman ... on 23 lyar: the exact date of his yahrtzeit.
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