A farewell to my father, Naphtali Lau-Lavie

“It is good to thank God and sing praise to Your name most high. To tell of Your kindness in the morning and Your faithfulness at night.”

Eighty-eight years of life plus another half year.

When my father said he missed his home, his thoughts wound their way to Krakow. There, in the home of my grandparents, at number 3 Jozefinska Street, he was surrounded by dozens of cousins. All of them revolved around my great grandfather, Rabbi Simcha Frankel-Teomim, Head of the Rabbinical Court of Krakow. A huge clan in a multi-storied square building, with an internal courtyard for games. An island of happiness.

When he was called to the Torah for his Bar Mitzvah in Krakow’s Rema Synagogue, on the Shabbat when the portion of Balak was read in the year 5699 (June 1939), that was the last family event celebrated by the expanded version of his family. Some 70 people were there that Shabbat, solely from the inner circle of his family. Grandmother, grandfather, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. After Shabbat, they went on vacation in the Tatra Mountains and when they returned for school on the first of September the war broke out. Thus ended the idyllic chapter of my father’s life.

Of all the people who were at the Bar Mitzvah celebration, five cousins survived the war, including my father and his brother. The connection between those two brothers was documented by my Uncle, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, in his book Out of the Depths, or, as it is known in Hebrew, Do Not Raise a Hand against the Lad. It is impossible to describe to you how we trembled at the sight of my father being informed that his brother Lulek, the boy he saved, had been chosen to become Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel.

My father’s heroism during the years of the war has been told and will be told to many generations, thanks to my uncle. As children, we did not hear a word of it. There were signs and there were comments, but there was no story.

There were no stories, but there were flashes:

We knew about my father’s work in the Hortensia factory, where, as a young boy, he used to carry sacks of soda that weighed 75 kilogram each. When my son Shai returned home from his tryout for the IDF’s elite Shaked unit, and the skin of his back and shoulders was ripped right through, my father opened up a small window in his past and dryly told us about his forced labor.

When my father took me to the hitchhiking station when I set off for my own officer’s course, there was a tear in the corner of his eye. It was the first time in my life that I saw my father with tears in his eyes. It was only when I read the memoir that he wrote, some 15 years later, that I heard the story of his separation from his own father. Suddenly, I saw the following two images, each the photographic negative of the other:

  • November 1942: My grandfather is standing opposite my father. One being sent to death, the other to enslavement.
  • Thirty-nine years later the father, who survived, is standing before his son. The father is about to depart for the United States, to serve as a senior official in the Foreign Service of the State of Israel: the Consul General in New York. Standing before him is his son, adorned in his Israeli army uniform, a weapon in his hands.

It was only when I read the book that I realized that the tear that I saw at the hitchhiking station was a tear of pride. This is what redemption looks like.

My father never skipped a day of putting on tefillin, no matter where he traveled or what he did. We always tried to extract insights about matters of faith from him. He hardly ever cooperated. We knew that he was not prepared to say the Tachanun personal supplication under any circumstances. But we did not know the nature of his relationship with the Master of the Universe. That was his inner fortress. It was only a few years ago that he opened a small crack in that bunker for me. He told me about the weeks he spent recovering in France before immigrating to Israel.

The liberation from Buchenwald caught him at a crossroads. A young man, 19 years old, without parents, and tied to an 8 year-old boy. During his weeks of recuperation in a village in Normandy, the world opened before him.

For two weeks, my father swung between worlds. For two weeks he did not put on tefillin and did not participate in communal prayers. He chose to suspend his relationship with the Master of the Universe. One morning, he received a note in Hebrew that said:

You must say Kaddish because your mother is no longer alive. She died in Ravensbrück.

That is the moment when my father made the decision. No matter what may be going through your head, you do not abandon the tradition of your mother and father’s home.

That is how this great man found the strength of spirit to put an end to the painful deliberations of his transition period and to strive to reach a Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

Two years ago, when we were busy closing up my mother and father’s old home, amidst my father’s thousands of documents, I found an article from a newspaper called Digleinu (Our Banner) – the Journal of Agudath Yisrael Youth. The article was dated Adar 5706 (1946). The author’s name: Naphtali Lau. His name was followed by parentheses with his place of residence: (Kfar Saba, formerly of Buchenwald Camp). I read the article and could not believe my eyes. In a few hundred words, my father expressed the humiliation he experienced when he immigrated to Israel. He describes the struggle for Jewish identity in the renewed Jewish society. He writes:

We saw with our own eyes heretics and apostates who screamed “Shma Yisrael – Hear O Israel” in their last moments, together with Torah-observant Jews. We remember our separation from our holy, beloved parents, and we will remember their last instructions: “Children, never forget to put on tefillin.” We will remember everything forever.

My father was a man filled with longing for his parents’ home and was steadfast in his decision to be sovereign, as an individual and as a nation. He was not prepared to take on the status of a minority or marginal group in Israeli society. He was not willing to be branded as “other.” He found his place in the very center of the vibrant activity of Israeli society, which brazenly turned its back on its past.

Thus, he found himself striving for a decade (in the 1960s) to integrate into Israel’s media aristocracy, as a journalist and as a member of the editorial board of Haaretz.

Thus, he found himself striding for another decade (in the 1970s), hand in hand with the very image of the sabra hero: Moshe Dayan.

Thus, he found himself becoming a diplomat and senior representative of the State of Israel in the diplomatic corps for a third decade (the 1980s).

My father stood as a central figure in the main intersections of the State of Israel. As a trusted adviser to the country’s leaders, he influenced dramatic political moves. The “wise man,” as Moshe Dayan called him, knew how to navigate complex security and political processes with wisdom and sensitivity. We saw that in the Yom Kippur War, Operation Entebbe, Sebastia, and much more.

During all those decades, my father was different from the other figures in the group of Palmach members who shaped the State of Israel. Even without a kipah on his head, wherever he went, his religious observance was meticulous. Shabbat, the laws of kashrut, prayer—he did not take any shortcuts. He never externalized his internal world, the one that was intimately tied to his mother and father in Galicia. His message was Israeli, but what flowed beneath the surface was deeply-rooted and Jewish.

And then came old age. Jerusalem warmly embraced my father and mother. The first years were wonderful. His older brother, Shiko, of blessed memory, also moved into the neighborhood, with my good, dear, beloved aunt. Suddenly, the deep, ancient ties between the brothers and sisters-in-law were renewed. What an experience it was to see my father and Shiko sitting in their minyan at the Shtiblach and ranking the various prayer leaders, using codes known only to them. Their sharp, Galician humor left both of them with the scent of their old home. My father enjoyed quizzing the young Hasidic men to see if they knew anything about their origins. They, in turn, were astonished by this old, clean-shaven Jew who was able to swim freestyle in the secrets and mysteries of Hasidism, with all its roots and branches.

*   *   *

Autumn leaves have their own pace.

It started with driving. The first time my father, the ultimate navigator, took a wrong turn, my mother noticed it immediately.

On his 80th birthday, my father handed over his car keys to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, and began his process of turning inwards. When we asked him what he wished himself, he replied, with his characteristic cynicism: “That I don’t fall into your hands.”

His mobility gradually declined. Each time, his range became smaller. The landmarks were clear. My father went to classes with me by car. On the way home, I would always drop him off at the Shtiblach for the 10:00 p.m. evening prayers. At first, we would take leave of each other there, and each of us would go our own way. Later on, I would drive him further, to the corner of HaChish and Mechalkei Hamayim, some 50 meters from his home. After that, we would continue until the corner of HaChim and Mechalkei Hamayim, a distance of 10 meters. Next, I would reverse and pull up in front of the entrance of the building, where I could see him get into the building safely. Then we moved over to my supporting him physically as he entered his home, and then to a wheelchair. At first, there were still nighttime chats, with memories released into the intimate space of the car. Then the silences began.

But his gaze stayed strong until the very end. A keen eye, a living eye, an eye that is deep and discerning. An eye that does not miss a thing. The curiosity of a boy in a body that betrays him.

“For He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.”

In recent years, when my father’s body betrayed him, he had legions of angels who accompanied him in all his ways.

The last letter that he wrote by hand is addressed to Shmuel, from the Feuerstein Institute, who came to help my father stave off his decline. This is what my father wrote on the 23rd of Elul, 5768 (2008):

It turns out, that in every case of bad luck, there is a redemptive solution to the problem. That’s what happened to me. After months of seclusion in my home with nothing to do, and this after years of intense activity in many areas of life, I met you, like an angel from heaven—an emissary of my longstanding friend, Rabbi Reuven Feuerstein—and you gave me a new spirit.

God has many emissaries. Three and a half years ago, Daphne, my father’s caregiver, entered our world, straight from the airport.

Daphne was the light in my father’s world. She found the sun in the clouds. Daphne was part of my father’s life. He loved you so much, Daphne. On Friday morning you told him that you will be leaving Israel on Monday to visit your family. He responded with a kiss and wished to see you soon. We love you Daphne. You will be part of us forever.

So many people were looking for a way in which to break into my father’s secret world. Jews and non-Jews, young and old, they came to interview him, to talk to him, to draw out another spark of life. My father answered everyone patiently, avoiding embarrassing pitfalls, with infinite wisdom, as he dealt with the disabilities imposed upon him.

A group of worshipers from the Ramban Synagogue, coordinated by Sylvie Lasowsky, took turns coming over every morning to put on tefillin with my father. Others helped him when he entered and left the synagogue; still others assisted him when he tried to get up from his chair to stand for the Amida prayer or for Kedusha.

My father was surrounded by people who appreciated him, admired him, and were full of the desire to give. But just like the constellations of stars in space, so too my father’s army of angels has a large sun that radiates its force on all its surroundings. My mother will not forgive me if I say too much about this. My parents had 58 (ח”ן – Chen, grace) years of life together. My mother is my father’s great angel. Try as I might to write what is going through my head, I cannot. My mother is the person who gave us the privilege of seeing our father as the image of God until his soul departed.

The time to take leave has come; the time to digest not yet. I look at what you left behind you, and believe that a tree stump is capable of generating a forest of renewal. How proud you were to see your grandsons and granddaughters building homes that combine Israeli and Jewish life. How moving it was to sit with you on the bleachers at the IDF Officer’s School as we watched another grandson or granddaughter added to the chain of leadership of our beloved country.

On Shabbat before dawn your soul departed. In our synagogues, the weekly Torah portion told of Jacob, who crossed the Jordan with his staff and split his camp into two camps. I imagine your walking stick as a flagstaff for waving a banner. An entire generation of Israelis, from all colors and stripes of society, is being raised on your story. You have become a standard and an example. As Natan Alterman said, “On the road, a tree was felled, and it became a flagstaff.” Go in peace my beloved father. Rest in peace in the bosom of your mother and your father, whom you missed so much. We will mix the ashes from Ravensbrück and Treblinka with the soil of Jerusalem, in accordance with your will, and we will find comfort in the comfort of Zion and in the building of Jerusalem.

For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace.
The mountains and the hills shall break out before you in song,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Translated by Shira Pasternak Be’eri

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin “Benny” Lau is the rabbi of Jerusalem's Ramban Synagogue and the Director of the 929 Tanakh B'Yachad daily Bible study initiative.