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Yahrzeit – a Time to Remember

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

This week I observed the yahrzeit of my saintly father, HaRav HaGaon HaTzaddik Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, ztl. Many years have passed since my father was called to the beis medrash shel ma’alah – the Torah study hall above. And yet to me it seems like it was only yesterday. His image is forever etched in my heart mind and soul. I see him. I see his holy face. I see his bright, beautiful eyes brimming with Torah and love. I hear his words laden with wisdom guidance and hope. Those words never leave me.

In my father’s eyes I could do no wrong. If I did do something that was not acceptable he would call me to his side, clasp my hands to his and simply say in Yiddish, “Mein lichtige kind es past nisht far deer – my precious light, this is not appropriate for you.” You are a princess, he would say. The grandchild of saintly grandfathers and grandmothers. You are a child of Hashem.

Those words were more powerful than any admonishment or scolding. I never heard my father raise his voice. I never saw him angry. Sad, perhaps, but never mad. His sweet, gentle and kind words spoke to us and they were much louder than the mean shouts that afflict so many homes today.

I look at my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. How I wish that they could have known Zaida. How I wish they could have felt his gentle hands upon their heads. Hear his berachos. Feel his kisses. I wish that they could have sat on his knees. Heard his stories. I wish….I wish….I wish.

I’m keenly aware of my responsibilities. I must tell my grandchildren and great-grandchildren Zaida’s story so that they remember and tell it to their children and grandchildren. I must tell the story while I still can. Life is but a fleeting moment and suddenly one day you ask yourself, Where did the years go? Why didn’t I tell the story when I was able to do so?

On yahrzeits we go to the beis hachaim – the cemetery. We light the yahrzeit licht – the memorial candle. We say Kaddish. But can that suffice? Does that tell the story? Does that reach the hearts of our grandchildren? Does that bring Zaida to life for them?

So on yahrzeits our family gathers and we all relate stories. My two brothers share this awesome responsibility with me. This year on the night of the yahrzeit we all came together in my daughter’s home. My children, their babies, their toddlers, their teenagers and their young marrieds were there, and the same was true for my brothers. They were all there. Cousins reconnected. I said to myself, This is what Zaida and Mamma always wanted – that the family should be united. The room was filled to capacity. We opened the megillah that was written and choreographed by Zaida and Mamma. Their words, their deeds, are all recorded there. To be sure, Mamma Rebbetzin Miriam Jungreis, ah, has her own megillah that reflects the story of her saintly life that we read on the night of her yahrzeit. But how can we separate the two? If we speak of Zaida, how can we recall his life without speaking of Mamma?

My tatte had a magnificent voice that had the power to pierce the most hardened heart. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur he davened for the congregation and it seemed the very walls trembled and cried.

On the night of the yahrzeit my brothers, my sons and my sons-in-law ask one another, “Do you remember Usaneh Tokef?; do you remember Zaida’s Ya’aleh?” (All prayers from the High Holiday services). And even as they ask one another, they start singing. Their voices rise in a crescendo. The songs take us back to Zaida’s shul. To daven there was a life-changing experience. When my children were in school I would send them to Zaida and Mamma for the High Holidays. They stood at Zaida’s side. They saw his tears. They heard his voice beseeching Hashem, begging for mercy for all of Am Yisrael. I want my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to remember those songs – Zaida’s nusach that had the power to open the Heavenly Gates.

When the war was over my father was the ben yachid – the only surviving son of the glorious royal rabbinic house of my grandfather, HaRav HaGaon HaTzaddik Yisroel HaLevi Jungreis, HyD. Prior to the Holocaust we had nearly ninety rabbis and roshei yeshiva in Hungary and now my father was the ben yachid. Think about it and think about it again.

At every yahrzeit we relate the story. It’s so easy for the next generation to forget but we are determined that it should never, G-d forbid, happen in our family. On these occasions, we not only speak of the past – of the tzaddik as a person, of what he stood for, of what his life was all about. We always speak to Zaida as well. We invite him to join us, his descendants. Not long ago there was no one left and now, Baruch Hashem, the voices of children – big ones, little ones, babies – fill the house. Tatte, Tatte, I cry out. This is the gift we offer you. Baruch Hashem, your kinderlech are all bnei Torah.

I vividly recall the day of our liberation. My parents searched for their families. My father would ask in a trembling voice, “Did anyone see my father, the tzaddik, my mother, the tzaddekes?” My father contacted every DP camp and the answer was always no. But he would not give up. He kept searching and one day he met a man from the shtetl where my grandfather had been the rebbe. And then the answer came.

“Yes, we did see your parents.”

“Where?” my father whispered in a trembling voice.

The man just shook his head and his tears told the story. But my father wanted to know and the man whispered, “At the gates of the gas chambers.”

I will never forget that day. I will never forget the sound of my father’s weeping. I will never forget the endless tears that kept flowing from his eyes. And I will never forget my father summoning all his strength and calling out to Hashem: “Ribbono Shel Olam, I plead only one thing. Only one thing. I beseech you, I beg you, that all my descendants should remain with Torah.”

I recall those words at every yahrzeit. I tell all the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that it’s their mission to fulfill this tefillah of Zaida’s and to transmit it to their children – their descendants for all time. And they all understand.

No one called my father “Rebbe” and no one called my mother “Rebbetzin.” My parents were “Zaida” and “Mamma,” not just their family but to everyone. The reason was simple. They embraced everyone like a Zaida and a Mamma would – with love, kindness, understanding, and the teachings of our Torah.

To be continued

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