It all began with half a sandwich. Food was scarce but Mina was lucky. Her grandparents owned the local general store and so Mina was fortunate to come to school with a whole sandwich. Mina had a classmate Rozka whose lunch box was not so full. Often Mina would give Rozka a half of her sandwich. That is how, on a school bench in 1910, in the small village of Tshchenets’, now in Ukraine, a friendship developed.
Mina and Rozka grew up. Rozka married Michal from the neighboring village of Lacka Wola. Mina married Majer. They each had children. Through their wives, Majer and Michal became friends. Michal even worked in Mina’s grandparents’ general store. In the summer of 1941, the winds of war stormed into their small village. Mina, Majer and their young family were sent to a German work camp in Tshchenets’.
In the early fall of 1942, the Germans decided to liquidate the work camp and send its residents to the extermination factory known as Belzec. On the evening before the liquidation, a voice could be heard outside the barbed wire fence of the work camp singing, “jutro zabierają lala” – tomorrow, they are taking away the dolls.” The voice was the wife of Punio Serwacz, the head of the village who had been appointed by the Germans. Majer had once saved Punio’s life and Punio remembered that favor.
Majer had prepared for this moment of escape. He was a blacksmith in the work camp responsible for making horseshoes for the German cavalry. Using the tools of his trade, he cut open the lock on the door of the barbed wire fence that imprisoned them and sent word of their impending fate to the fellow members of the work camp. Then, Majer and Mina and their children escaped into the local forest. Because it was autumn and many of the leaves had already fallen, no shelter could be found among the barren trees. Where to go? Majer and Mina crossed into the neighboring village of Lacka Wola and knocked on the door of Michal and Rozka’s home. Michal and Rozka Kopacz invited them in.
Majer and Mina Nadel, their children Sara and Tully, who were eight and nine at the time, were hidden by the Kopaczs in their small home. Most of the time was spent in a space beneath the thatched roof too small to be called an attic. When danger was even more fraught, they would move to a hole under the house dug out for the purpose of storing potatoes and other supplies for the long cold winters.
The Nazis came twice to inspect the house and miraculously failed to find the hideaways. The risk was not only external. The Kopaczs had four young sons, who could have, while playing in the fields outside of their home, innocently disclosed the presence of their house guests. Disclosure would have meant certain death for not only the Nadels but for the entire Kopacz family.
For twenty-two months, the Nadel and Kopacz families lived together in this precarious space between life and death.
In July of 1944, the Russians liberated the town of Lacka Wola. Majer, Mina, Sara, Tully and the Kopacz family had survived the war but the life that followed was not simple. It would take the Nadels five years of dangerous border crossings and displaced persons camps until they would find refuge in the United States of America. As the Iron Curtain descended upon Eastern Europe, the Kopacz family was kicked out of their home in Lacka Wola and moved to Communist Poland.
For years, the Kopacz and Nadel families kept in touch. The Nadels would try to provide the Kopacz family with a bit of extra financial resources by sending them scarves to be sold on the Polish black market. There is a letter that still exists in which Mina informed the Kopaczs of the upcoming wedding of her son Tully. Sometime in the 1970s, the Kopacz and Nadel families lost touch but what Michal and Rozka had done for Majer and Mina, Sara and Tully was never forgotten.
Michal and Rozka were transformed from the people who saved Majer and Mina and their family, to the heroes in the stories that Zeydie Tully Nadel would tell his children and grandchildren around the Sabbath table – stories about the miracle of his survival and the life-saving consequences of the sharing of half a sandwich.
At family milestones and at those points when divergent parts of his life would uniquely intersect, Zeydie Tully would be known to say in Yiddish, “Az men lebt, derlebt men zich alts” – “if you live long enough, you will live to see everything.” It is this saying which brings us to this past Sunday.
For the last several years, Tully’s nephew, Sara’s son, Jeffrey Cymbler, was engaged in a herculean effort to bestow upon the Kopacz family the honor of being declared Righteous Among the Nations and to find living descendants who could accept the award. In November of 2022, through much detective work, the direct descendants of Michal and Rozka were found, more than fifty years after the Kopacz and Nadel families had lost touch.
This past Sunday, September 10, 2023, ten direct descendants of the Kopacz family were present at Yad Vashem and accepted the award of Righteous Among the Nations on behalf of Rozka and Michal. Then Tully was invited to the podium.
As he began to speak, in Polish, the language of his youth, all in attendance were transported back to the time when for twenty-two months the fate of the Kopacz and Nadel families were intertwined. When life for one meant life for the other. And as Tully, heavy with emotion, looked out at his more than forty descendants, he said the words that he had been waiting to say to Michal and Rozka Kopacz for nearly eighty years, “Dziękuję” – thank you, because of you I have this family, to you I owe my life.
Later that Sunday a feast of gratitude was held celebrating the pure goodness of Michal and Rozka Kopacz. Tomasz, their great-grandson, pulled out his violin and sat down on a piano bench next to Yitzchak, Majer and Mina’s great-grandson, who was wearing his IDF uniform.
What emerged from this shared bench of the descendants of Mina and Rozka were two songs spontaneously played, Hatikva – the Hope and Ani Ma’amin – I Believe. No doubt, in the heavens above the angels, Michal and Rozka, and Mina and Majer were tapping their feet together and looking down in awe at the vision of their two families once again merged under one roof. This time together in blessing.
In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we sing the refrain, HaYom Harat Olam, today the world was born. Rosh HaShanah is the universal celebration of the birth of mankind and a reminder of the responsibility engendered by the image of G-d that was placed within each of us. It is no coincidence that a story begun more than one hundred and ten years ago on a school bench in Tshchenets’ has a chapter being written this week, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, in the land of Israel. It is a reminder of how one small act of kindness, a shared half of a sandwich, can save a world.