One of the greatest joys I have as a collector and Judaica researcher – which I endeavor to emphasize in my Jewish Press articles – is investigating and exploring the contextual background underlying my material and discovering information about famous people, often unexpected and unusual, that is not widely known. This week’s column provides a great example of a correspondence, seemingly simple on its face, which yielded a remarkable backstory.
At a time when I was conducting research on both the mayors and chief rabbis of Jerusalem, I was delighted to find the following letter that ties them together. In the June 3, 1970 certified document (complete with official red ribbon) shown with this column, Teddy Kollek writes on his Mayor of Jerusalem letterhead:
I the undersigned, Teddy Kollek, Mayor of Jerusalem, hereby certify that the Reverend Rabbi Eliyahu Pardess [sic] is the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, and is at present holding this office.
I do not know for what purpose, or to whom, it was necessary for Kollek to certify the status of Rav Pardes as chief rabbi, and I have been unable to come up with even a working theory that seems to make sense. (If any Jewish Press readers have any thoughts on this question, I would certainly welcome your comments.)
Rav Pardes (1893-1972), who was born in Jerusalem into a family of prominent Sephardic rabbis, worked as an educator, emphasized the use of Hebrew in daily life, played an active role in the leadership of the Mizrachi movement, and served as a respected member of the Jerusalem court. He was elected chief rabbi of Ramat Gan in 1953 and then of Jerusalem in 1961, in which capacity he focused his efforts on the unification of diverse religious, political, and ethnic groups within Eretz Yisrael.
Though the charismatic Kollek’s life (1911-2007) parallels the birth and development of Israel, and even with his roles in building one of the first kibbutzim in Eretz Yisrael, safeguarding Jews during World War II, and helping to create the state of Israel, he is best known for his 28 years (1965-1993) as mayor of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem owes much of its modern face to Kollek. He was also founder of the Israel Museum; directed the rebuilding of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City; and was awarded the Israel Prize for his special contribution to Israel.
But while studying our exhibit, I happened to notice that it was certified by Yitzchak Ganon, a name I did not recognize. Though I assumed he was just another notary, I nonetheless decided on a whim to see if I could find out anything interesting about him – and therein lies a truly remarkable, almost unbelievable, tale.
The story begins in 2009, when the 85-year old Ganon returned from a morning walk and, uncharacteristically complaining about feeling tired, said he needed to rest. Asked by his daughter, Iris, if he was ill, he replied that he was just a little drained. But when he woke up from a nap and said he was still extremely fatigued, his concerned family urged him to see a doctor, which he adamantly, even defiantly, refused to do.
When things had taken a turn for the worse the next morning, Iris and Ganon’s wife, Ahuva, who had always been puzzled by Ganon’s lifelong resolute refusal to ever see a doctor – he had never been seen by a medical professional in 64 years, even when he was ill – decided the immediate situation warranted calling a doctor against his wishes. The physician, who suggested Ganon might have a viral infection, directed that he be taken to the hospital.
Though he resisted, Ganon finally realized his life was in danger and reported to the hospital in Petach Tikva, where he lost consciousness in the waiting room. Dr. Eli Lev, who diagnosed a heart attack, cleared several blood clots, inserted five stents, and saved his life, commented after the open-heart surgery that the medical team had had serious concerns about Ganon’s surviving the operation given that he had only one kidney – something no one had previously known.
It was then that the reason for Ganon’s mistrust of doctors was revealed. When he awoke from the anesthetic and was informed that he had only one kidney, he responded, “I know. The last time I saw the other one, it was pulsating in the hand of a man called Josef Mengele. He was a doctor too.”
(The pulsating” comment was obviously hyperbole, as this is not medically possible.)
On March 25, 1944, Ganon’s family, Jews from Arta (a small city in northern Greece) had just lit the Shabbat candles when the SS burst into their home. The family was deported to Auschwitz. Ganon’s father died en route, and his mother and five siblings were all gassed within hours of their arrival at the death camp. Ganon, however, was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau hospital, where he was hand-selected by Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death,” for various “medical experiments.”
Mengele strapped Ganon to an operating table, cut him open without administering any narcotics, and pulled out his kidney: “I saw the kidney pulsing in his hand and cried like a crazy man.”
Expecting – and, because of the unimaginable pain, hoping – to die, Ganon recited what he thought would be his final Shema but Mengele, who was apparently finished with him, sent him straight out to work without any painkillers…and with a missing kidney. Among other monstrous tasks, Ganon was assigned responsibility for cleaning Mengele’s bloody medical instruments.
About six months later, Mengele again summoned him and immersed him into a tub of freezing water and then, with Ganon’s body no longer of any use to him, Mengele selected Ganon for gassing. However, as it turned out, he was the 201st person sent to the gas chambers that morning, but the crematoria could only hold 200. He was sent back to the camp to await the next round of executions, but he was liberated by Soviet troops soon thereafter, on January 27, 1945, having somehow miraculously survived six and a half months as Mengele’s “patient.”
Returning to Greece after his liberation, he reunited with a brother and sister who had survived the Nazi roundups and then he emigrated to Eretz Yisrael where, so many years later, doctors saved him after his heart attack.
“I guess I cheated death a second time,” he said. “But this time it was doctors helping me instead of the other way around.”