Friday night, I attended a Shabbat service at the Birmingham Temple of
Farmington Hills, Michigan that would have been inspirational at any time,
but for the three-hundred-plus who attended in the aftermath of the events
of Sept. 11, 2001, three days before, it was an incredible experience.
Rabbi Sherwin Wine began by stating that the evening had two purposes.
The first was to mourn the victims of the terrorist attack, including
the son of a beloved Temple member, killed in the World Trade Center.
The second was to thwart the terrorists desire to demoralize us
by continuing to celebrate life cycle events in this case a Bar
At our Humanistic Judaism temple, now in its 38th year, it is the custom
of bar mitzvah boys and girls to spend the year prior to their 13th birthday
researching the life of a Jewish hero or heroine and apply lessons from
their hero's actions to their own life. Tonight, the Rabbi stated, Jackson
Klein would be our teacher.
Jackson climbed the step to the podium and faced the congregation. He
announced that he would share the life story of Solly Ganor. The Bar Mitzvah
boy had read his book, Light One Candle, about how, as a 12-year-old boy
in Germany, Solly had endured unspeakable hardships to keep himself and
his family alive during the Nazi regime. Amazingly, Jackson had located
Solly, now a 74-year-old living in Israel, and had begun a year-long e-mail
He told us how Solly, as a 12-year-old like himself, enjoyed sports and
hanging out with friends, when suddenly he was no longer free and he was
in danger because of his Jewish identity. He told us how Solly's family
missed a chance to leave the country, and after they were forced from
their home, hid briefly with five other families in a barn. In the middle
of the night, Solly's father woke them and led them out of the barn, just
as soldiers arrived. The family watched in horror as everyone in hiding
was forced out, forced to dig their own grave, and shot, one by one.
Jackson shared stories about how the Ganor family lived for a period
in a ghetto, where Solly endured hunger and cold. Solly was bravely able
to retrieve food thrown over the ghetto wall by a boy who had been a friend
before the war, each risking his life to make a midnight run to the barbed-wire
fence when the guards were not looking. Boredom was another hardship,
as the Germans banned one of the Jews last remaining pleasures by
ordering the collection of all books. Knowing he risked his life, Solly
and a friend hid books in a forbidden part of the ghetto. Solly grieved
when his former math teacher was found with a book and shot. Solly attributes
his ability to stay alive in the ghetto to his friendships with two other
teens, both of whom later died in concentration camps.
Solly's family was sent from the ghetto to a work camp, and then to a
concentration camp. It was here that he was separated from his mother,
and promised that he would keep his father alive. The Bar Mitzvah boy
told us about Solly's heart-wrenching experiences at the Dachau work camp,
but also told us how Solly used his wits to keep himself and his father
fed and clothed.
Finally, the Germans sent Solly and his father along with thousands of
others on a death march through miles of snow-covered roads south of Munich.
Here Solly, in his fatigue, lost track of his father. Eventually Solly
collapsed beside a tree, and believing he was about to die, fell asleep.
But in the morning, four men of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion drove
by, and a Japanese American soldier lifted him out of the snow, and told
him he was free. Solly was later reunited with his father, who had been
taken to a hospital.
In the spring of 1992 Solly was reunited with the soldier who rescued
him, Clarence Matusumura, in Israel. This reunion brought back many memories
that Solly had long suppressed, and that was when he began to write his
book. Jackson stated that he has committed himself to the telling of Solly's
story of courage. At this point, the entire congregation stood and loudly
applauded the very moving presentation.
As the clapping finally slowed, Jackson announced he had one more part
to his bar mitzvah. He stated that, "due to the closing of the airports
this week, none of the out-of-towners had been able to come in for this
night, except for one. That person is . . . Solly Ganor!" A gasp
went through the entire room. Jackson continued, "Since Mr. Ganor
was not able to celebrate his bar mitzvah, I invite him to join me now."
A gray-haired man in the front row stood and walked to the podium. Everyone
stood and applauded, many shedding tears. For several minutes, Mr. Ganor
stood with a hand over his eyes, struggling to regain his composure. Then,
they read together, first in Hebrew, then in English.
Mr. Ganor stated he never expected his actions would one day be an inspiration
to a 13-year-old boy. He was glad he had been able to make the journey
from Israel and meet his e-mail pen pal.
Mr. Ganor's story reminded us that evil in the world is not new, but
that the human spirit and will to survive is strong. At a time when many
of us are asking how we can bear the sadness of these last few days, we
are reminded of those who suffered during the years of Nazi cruelty and
of people who live in places where terrorism is a way of life. We were
reminded by a13-year-old that we must indeed continue to celebrate life.
Our evening ended by standing together and singing "Ayfo Oree."
The words, translated from Hebrew, are as follows:
Where is my light? My light is in me.
Jackson Klein's 11-year-old sisterthen read this poem.
I Had a Box of Colors
In these days of tragedy, sorrow and sadness, we all need
to be comforted by our fellow men.
One of the people in the congregation, Carolyn Trapp, wrote
a description of the event that has now been widely circulated on the
Internet. I wish to thank Carolyn for her moving description of that memorable
evening at the Birmingham Temple. Since I played in it a certain role,
her article that describes so beautifully the bar mitzvah service particularly
It took place on September 14, three days after the calamity
in Manhattan. All of us who attended the service were still in shock,
many close to tears.
Those of you who read the article, the lady describes a
"white-haired man," who thirteen year old Jackson called to
the podium. I was the "white- haired man" and it was the
story of my life that Jackson had chosen for his bar mitzvah speech.
How did I get there and what was my connection to Jackson's bar mitzvah?
They say that sometimes life is stranger than fiction. It
certainly is in my case.
During World War II, like Anna Frank, I kept a diary which
fifty years later was published in New York under the title "Light
One Candle." It was later translated into German and Japanese.
About a year ago, I received an e-mail letter from Jackson
Klein who told me that he was very moved by my book and decided to make
my life story the subject for his bar mitzvah speech. We started to exchange
e-mail letters. In his e-mail letters he asked many questions and by the
questions I realized that he is an exceptionally bright boy.
After many letters, he very graciously invited me to come
to his bar mitzvah. I am 73-year-old man who went through the Holocaust
and participated in five wars against the Arabs in Israel.
As you can imagine, these difficult years left its marks
on me. Coming to Detroit would not be an easy matter. I was about to refuse
his invitation, when I remembered an incident in my life that made me
change my mind.
It was on Hanukah, December 1939. I was eleven years old.
World War Two had started a few months earlier and the Nazis had occupied
Poland. Lithuania was still an independent country at that time, and thousands
of Jewish refugees came swarming into Lithuania telling us of the atrocities
the Germans committed against the Jews.
During that time a Japanese consul, by the name of Chiune
Sugihara, came to Lithuania and moved in to a house not far from where
we lived. Soon afterwards, I met him at my aunt's gourmet shop where he
was purchasing some chocolates for his children.
I had come to collect from my aunt my Hanukah money and
saw this elegant dressed gentleman with strange slanted eyes. I stared
at him and he laughed and there was kindness in his laughter. I immediately
took to him. He spoke perfect Russian, and my aunt explained to him the
Jewish custom of Hanukah money given by family members to the children.
He immediately offered me some coins.
I wanted the money, but told him that I couldn't take it
because he was not family. He just smiled and told me that for this Hanukah
he is going to be my uncle.
"You can consider me your uncle, he said." I took
the coin and the Sugiharas became my family to this day.
There is an old Jewish saying, "life and death is on
the tip of your tongue."
To this day I don't know what made me say it, but I blurted
out, "If you are my uncle why don't you come to our Hanukah party
on Saturday?" This invitation by an eleven-year-old boy resulted
in a strange friendship between the Japanese consul and me. He accepted
my invitation and actually came with his wife Yokiko to our Hanukah party.
Our families became good friends and I would often go to the consulate
to get cookies from his wife Yokiko. He would also give me an envelope
filled with Japanese stamps for my collection. Six months later we found
out what a humanitarian Chiune Sugihara was, when he issued thousands
of visas to Jewish refugees saving their lives. There are over forty thousand
survivors and their descendents today in the world, simply because of
one man, Sempo, Chiune Sugihara.
In her book, "Visas For Life," recently translated
into English, his wife Yokiko Sugihara wrote: "The decision to issue
visas to the Jewish refugees may have been influenced by a young boy named
If that is true, then my life has not been in vain.
That was one of the reasons why I accepted Jackson's invitation
to his bar mitzvah. The memory of that great Japanese humanitarian is
always with me. I thought that if the Japanese consul could accept an
invitation of an eleven year old boy to come to a Hanukah party, I should
accept the gracious invitation by a Jewish boy named Jackson Klein of
Detroit, who depended on me for the success of his bar mitzvah ceremony.
What I didn't reckon with was the disaster in New York.
My wife Pola and I were booked to fly from San Diego, California to Detroit,
on September 11.
The San Diego airport was immediately closed to all traffic
and there was no way I could get to Detroit in time. It was then that
I decided no matter what, I had to get to Jackson's bar mitzvah. Many
feared to fly after September 11, and my friends thought I was crazy to
go to a bar mitzvah, especially when the boy wasn't even family. But I
persisted. Somehow I felt that I couldn't let Jackson down. And I didn't.
As Jackson said, I was perhaps the only guest who arrived of all those
who were supposed to fly in.
All I can add is that I do not regret it. The heart warming
Perhaps we all needed a good cry in the wake of the terrible
tragedy in Manhattan that touched the hearts of all peoples of the civilized
What has to be done now? What we have been doing in Israel
for over half a century; Bury our dead and go after the Ben Ladins of
the world who pollute this planet.