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A secret deed may be key to a life well lived
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A secret deed may be key to a life well lived

My great-grandmother Surah 
Hennah’s gravestone in Bardejov. 
Photo by Eric Meth
My great-grandmother Surah Hennah’s gravestone in Bardejov. Photo by Eric Meth

My maternal grandfather, Herman (Chaim) Morser — to us grandchildren, Poppy — was a family patriarch who fully earned the deep love and wide respect he received throughout his life. When I was growing up, though my American-born parents had largely left behind the “Old World” constraints of Jewish law, Poppy adhered resolutely to the mitzvot — he would have said “mitzvos” — and traditions of the faith. He davened daily, observed Shabbat and kashrut, and served as gabbai (for 65 years!) in an Orthodox synagogue in Passaic.

He was esteemed as a devout Jew, a successful businessman — he was a jeweler who had supplied many a precious bauble to the young fiancees and grandes dames of the area — an unstinting benefactor of the Jewish community and Israel, and a loving and generous husband, father, and grandfather (later, great-grandfather).

He was also perennially affable and gentle; we never saw a crack in the surface of his calm temperament.

Poppy was not born in the United States. He left Czechoslovakia in 1910 at age 15, came alone to New York, then settled in Passaic. His father and two older sisters had preceded him. His mother was to have followed with Chaim, but there were obstacles, she became sick, and there was no way out. His father stayed in America, obtained a get, and remarried. Poppy told us with sad resignation that he never saw his mother again.

When we understood the reality of this sorrowful piece of family lore — that our great-grandmother, Surah Hennah, had been left behind, alone, abandoned by her husband and children, we asked Poppy how he, as a young teen, had mustered the will to leave her and embark on the long voyage to America.

He dismissed the question — “There was no future for a Jewish boy there” — but the regret and even guilt he must have suffered was made evident later in his life. After my grandmother Esther died in 1976, he established a routine he carried on well into his 80s. Every spring, he would stay in Israel for several weeks, seeing the sights and visiting relatives, mostly survivors he had helped support after the war.

But first he would go to Europe, crossing the Iron Curtain to go to the Jewish cemetery in his Slovakian hometown of Bardejov, where he would stand and pray at his mother’s grave (worded sparsely, the headstone included little more than the day of her death, Yom Kippur 5692, with no mention that she had been a mother. Perhaps her only luck was dying in 1931, thus preventing a torturous end in the Nazi maelstrom.)

In 1998, about 10 years after Poppy’s death, my brother, Eric, was preparing for a “roots” journey to Slovakia. He was put in touch with a distant relative, a rabbi in Brooklyn who had written a genealogical history of Poppy’s mother’s branch of the family, along with remembrances from aging family members, among them Poppy, right before his death.

The rabbi offered to send my brother the manuscript, but not before alerting him to a disturbing piece of information it contained, something one of the other elderly immigrants from Bardejov had related.

It seems that one day, some gypsies were taunting Chaim. He picked up a stone and threw it as a scare. But it hit a baby one of them was holding, injuring, maybe even causing the death of, the child. The gypsies wanted to kill the Jewish boy in retaliation — and so he fled.

We can’t be sure the story is true — it was related after my grandfather’s death, so could not be confirmed — but it made all the pieces of a tragic puzzle fall into place. Poppy had not abandoned his mother; he had left her to save himself and spare her the worse pain of losing him through an act of brutal vengeance.

Perhaps it was harboring such a secret that led to his commitment to a life of chesed, tzedakah, and observance of the mitzvot. His life in America was a performance of teshuvah to atone for a childhood deed of reckless violence that may have cost a life.

Only years later, when the episode had long been forgotten in Bardejov, was he able to complete his penance, reciting Kaddish at the grave of the mother he had last seen some seven decades before.

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