And the Teacher Teaches the Little Children
—From the Yiddish lullaby, “Oifn Pripetshik”
As intimidating as my great-grandfather, Itshe Meyer Korolnek, could be to adults, especially those with whom he disagreed, children around the world loved him. Oh, I don’t mean to imply that he wasn’t revered by adults, too, because he was. People from all walks of life admired my great-grandfather’s passion for all aspects of Jewish life, his generous philanthropy to individuals and organizations, and his unfailing ethics in his business dealings. But kids, unimpressed by power, wealth, or status, are the final barometers of a person’s true worth, in my opinion. Itshe Meyer had a way of relating to kids that really cemented his status as a mensch.
Today would have been my great-grandfather’s 122nd birthday. Born on April 15, 1885 (oops, not his actual birthday; see update below), he emigrated from Staszow (Stashev), Poland, to Canada in May 1910. Though he was only 25, he was already the father of four. Two of his young children would sadly die of Scarlet Fever before his wife, my great-grandmother Alta Toba, was able to make the trek the following year, with my Uncle Herb and my three-year-old grandfather Sam in tow. The couple would have five more children in Toronto.
Itshe Meyer has become a legendary character in my family as well as in many Jewish circles around the world. I’ve mentioned him several times on this blog and even included an audio clip of him singing one of the Hasidic melodies he recorded in his trademark style. My great-grandfather died in 1971 at the age of 86. I remember him quite well but since I was only 11 when he died, I never really had the opportunity or inclination to sit down with him and ask him questions about his life. Oh, for a few hours with a digital video camera! What I wouldn’t give to hear firsthand tales of his childhood in Poland as a Ger Hasid, his marriage to my great-grandmother when they were just teenagers, his early years in Canada and his huge impact on the Jewish community there, and the very strict but loving way he and Alta Toba raised my grandfather and my six great aunts and uncles.
I am passionately interested in the history of my family, in the generations who lived in the shtetls of Poland and Russia before they uprooted their families and made their way to North America. Today is also Holocaust Remembrance Day, and even though Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba were safely ensconced in the New World during World War II, I want to acknowledge the many members of my extended family who did not survive the Nazi Occupation of Staszow and other cities in Poland. Itshe Meyer did his best to get out as many family members and other Stashevers as he could and many people have credited him with rescuing them from “the Hell of Europe.” His home at 35 Baldwin Street became a stopping point and a refuge for immigrants trying to rebuild their lives.
Among the accolades that poured in following my great-grandfather’s death were tributes from some of the leading Jewish thinkers, writers, and philosophers of the last century. My favorites are the ones that tell personal childhood anecdotes about meeting Itshe Meyer for the first time.
Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba were married in Staszow in 1902. The famous Stashever rabbi, Judah Leib Graubart officiated. Graubart would eventually follow Itshe Meyer to Toronto and the two men were spiritual partners and lifelong friends. Today they are buried next to each other. A surprising number of Judah Leib’s descendents became rabbis, and the Graubart dynasty also includes renowned attorneys, doctors, writers, Broadway producers, and even actors (such as Judy Graubart of “Electric Company” fame).
One of Judah Leib’s sons, Rabbi Dr. David Graubart, recalls his earliest impressions of my great-grandfather.
When I first heard the name of Itshe Meyer Korolnek, I was still a small boy in Staszow. I heard of letters which had arrived from Toronto, a city in faraway Canada, dealing with my father’s possible journey there in order to accept the rabbinic post in that community. The letterheads and stationery bore the name of that fantastic Jew, and I don’t know why, but it seemed to me that he had to be a banker; throughout the weeks and months during which the negotiations proceeded with the almost legendary Max Korolnek—this was his name in English—I kept on thinking that he was a banker. Isn’t he mailing Steamship tickets? Isn’t that the work of a banker?
In the meantime, my father had left for London, England, a member of the Mizrachi delegation to the historic World Zionist Conference. There he delivered an address at the closing session in Albert Hall, where he severely criticized the Polish anti-Semitically oriented government. As a result of the publication of excerpts of his speech in the Polish Press, the mayor of Staszow, Pan Krause, warned my mother to advise my father by way of secret code not to return from Staszow but to proceed directly from London to Toronto. She immediately carried out these instructions. Mother and we, the children, left Staszow shortly thereafter.
It was Erev Yom Kippur when we detrained at Toronto’s Union Station on Front Street, where we were met by father and Reb Itshe Meyer Korolnek. The small boy looked at the long-awaited Mr. Korolnek. Somehow he did not look like the banker in his imagination! Before him stood a Hasidic Jew of the type of the Jews of Staszow.
Reb Itshe Meyer had evidently read my thoughts, and with his familiar smile turned to me and my brother Philip, addressing us thus: “I see that you are surprised! Is this Mr. Korolnek? Yes, yes, it’s I, a heimisher Yid, an old-fashioned Jew, your Stashever landsman, and let me tell you right now that Toronto is but a collection of many Stashevs, and that one can observe Yiddishkeit here just as meticulously as in Staszow!”
Rabbi Graubart tells another story that says a lot about Itshe Meyer’s character.
A poor man approached Reb Itshe Meyer for a loan of $200.00. The man came from a small town in Ontario, and told him that with this amount he could open a store and make his livelihood.
Reb Itshe Meyer had no extra cash, and $200.00 was then an immense sum of money. But can one refuse a man’s plea when a livelihood is involved? And so, Reb Itshe Meyer hastened to the bank and took out a loan, giving the money to the man with a prayer for success in his endeavor.
A man who stood by, witnessing the transaction, whispered in his ear: “I want to talk to you.” Reb Itshe Meyer grew angry, “You’ll talk to me later; can’t you see that the man is waiting for his money?”
“Wait a minute,” retorted the man, “on what kind of surety do you lend this man the money—he’ll never return it.”
Reb Itshe Meyer replied, “Such stupidity! To whom shall I lend money, if not to a poor man? The rich do not come to me; they know where to borrow money.”
Another renowned rabbi from Toronto, Rabbi Ochs, recounts his own introduction to Itshe Meyer.
I still vividly recall the occasion of my first meeting with Reb Itshe Meyer, in the late 1940s. My father had just been elected Rav of the Eitz Chaim Kehilla. As he brought the rest of the family over from England, many Baalei Batim met us at Union Station and led us to a reception in the Talmud Torah Hall. I was still a lad at the time.
The mounds of snow everywhere visible, the bearded Jews with fur hats, presented to me a picture of how I had imagined a Polish shtetl. The central figure, a dynamo of energy, with a glint in his eyes, obviously the Rosh Hakohol, was Reb Itshe Meyer Korolnek.
He personified some of the finest Jewish virtues. He was ruggedly honest in all his dealings. In fact, his decision to leave his town of Stashev was taken when he realized that he could no longer subsist there unless he cheated against the local customs regulations. Whilst others leaving for “treif America” would flee in the dark of night, he invited all friends to a farewell party, and assured them he would remain fully observant and loyal to Torah.
Even during the most difficult Depression times, he refused to accept any renumeration for his melodious, heartfelt rendition of High Holy Day Tefilos. These were his personal offerings to G-d as the emissary of his congregation.
His personal acts of kindness were legion, combining concern for his fellows’ material and spiritual needs. When an observant Jew came over from Europe, he immediately took him to his bank, personally guaranteed a loan to enable the man to purchase a horse so that he could become a peddler, his own boss, and not be constrained to desecrate the Shabbos. When a visitor or newcomer came to the synagogue, he was always the first to proffer hospitality, provide lodging, and give support.
Rabbi Samuel Cooper, civil rights leader and stalwart of the Jewish community of Charleston, West Virginia, tells another story of my great-grandfather’s generosity of spirit.
Itshe Meyer could be stern and severe, at times harsh in judgment, strong in language. But with it all he was a warm-hearted, compassionate man. Many were the people he helped with his means, co-signing their notes in the bank, tiding them over a rough period, giving them a start.
On one visit to my late father, then confined to the hospital, Itshe Meyer, who had just returned from Israel, was telling of his trip. Another gentleman in the room, excited about his own forthcoming trip to Israel, asked Itshe Meyer to give him the benefit of his experiences. “Itshe Meyer, vos zoll ich teen in Eretz Yisroel—what should I do when I get to Israel?” Itshe Meyer’s answer astonished both the man and me. “There is one thing you must do—pitz die shich—shine your shoes.”
At this odd reply, the man and I looked at each other with questioning glances, not knowing what to make of Itshe Meyer’s puzzling answer. Somewhat angrily, the man said to Itshe Meyer, “Are you poking fun at me? I ask a simple question and you give me such a wild answer.” Itshe Meyer assured the man and me that he was in earnest and then proceeded to explain. “One day as I was walking in Jerusalem, I saw an old bearded man sitting on a shoeshine box and swaying over a book. I asked him to shine my shoes, ‘pits die shich.’ When the man was through, I rewarded him handsomely. A few steps away, I saw another elderly shoeshine man. I went over, put my foot on his box, and said ‘pits die shich.’ The man looked at me and said, ‘Your shoes don’t need a shine. I just saw you getting a shine over there.’ I said to the man, ‘Don’t ask questions. I say, pits die shoch, so shine the shoes.’ The man shrugged his shoulders, gave my shoes a quick going-over and, him, too, I rewarded handsomely. Wherever I went, if I saw an elderly shoeshine man, no matter how often, I had him shine my shoes.” Directing now his words to the other visitor, Itshe Meyer said with gusto, “What should you do in Israel? Pits die shich!”
Cooper also relates one of my all-time favorite stories about Itshe Meyer.
On a visit to a school, he was invited to join the children at lunch. At his table, a child was refused a second slice of bread. Not one to conceal his feelings or his compassion, Itshe Meyer sought out the official in charge and protested as only he could and would, “A hingerig kind bate noch a shtikel broit in men git es nisht—a hungry child asks for another slice of bread and is refused? Men darf doch hoben dos hartz fin a gazlen—only one with the heart of a robber could be so cruel!” When the official blamed the denial to the child on the insufficiency of funds, Itshe Meyer immediately volunteered to supply the school’s annual cost of bread from then on, on condition that thenceforth, no child be refused bread. As far as I know, Itshe Meyer fulfilled this pledge.
Dr. Leon D. Stitskin, author, translator, and professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University, had a future-altering encounter with Itshe Meyer as a child:
In glaring contrast to most contemporary leaders who think of duty as an obligation to ease a troubled conscience, Itshe Meyer was that rare radiant personality to whom duty was a privilege. To help and give with one’s heart, in a spirit of utmost self-abandonment and sacrifice was the very essence of his life.
But despite the high position he led in our community, he was one of us. Even as children we felt always at home with him. My first experience with Itshe Meyer was when at the annual Talmud Torah outdoor festivities he picked me up in the Talmud Torah courtyard and placed me on a soda box taken from his yard to deliver an address on behalf of our school. With a voice of admonition, but a glowing countenance, he told me:
“Speak loudly and fear no one.” These words helped to set me off into the career of the rabbinate and always stood me in good stead. It is difficult to forget the special kind of grace and charm that accompanied his otherwise strong words of admonition.
I wish my great-grandfather had placed me on a wooden crate and repeated those words since they’re great ones to hear at an impressionable age. “Speak loudly and fear no one.” In fact, they’re good words to hear at any age!
One of Itshe Meyer’s greatest personal accomplishments was the founding of the Eitz Chaim Schools in Toronto. Beginning in the summer of 1915 with several other immigrant Jews from Poland, he began his lifelong commitment to Jewish education.
The educator and scholar Rabbi Norman Frimer might not have continued his own education were it not for the intervention of Itshe Meyer.
High School was just behind me but the prospect of higher education seemed remote for a child of the Jewish ghetto. I continued to study Torah privately with both Rabbis Graubart and Kelman but without any expectation of continuing on at the University. Suddenly word came from distant Chicago that a scholarship had been extended to me by the Yeshiva where simultaneous with my Torah studies I would be able to get my college education. The subtle hand of Mr. Korolnek was deep in this conspiracy. Only years later was this secret disclosed. In fact he even escorted me across the border for it was my first international trip which he dovetailed with a visit to his Chicago sons. He also arranged for my first American breakfast and did not leave me until I was registered at the Yeshiva and then securely ensconced in a private room with a landsman. He never left a job undone.
Rabbi Frimer remembers Itshe Meyer’s relationship with young children.
I recall him as a strong man, strong in his gentleness and strong in his anger. In the presence of young children learning Torah, I see his weather-beaten face grow soft, a tender smile wreathing his lips, and his eyes sparkling twinklingly. But against the “enemy” however, those who dared threaten the sanctities of his espoused cause, his face grew hard, his brow beatled, his eyes burned, and the same voice which could plaintively move a prayerful congregation to petition the Heavenly Court itself, now roared out a sense of pained outrage and defiance that any man would presume to serve the impious and the unjust.
In my continuing family research, I just discovered a cache of newly digitized manifests that had to be filled out every time Itshe Meyer and his family members crossed the border into the United States. Here is one from March 4, 1920. I can’t tell you how excited I was to find this 87-year-old primary source document! I can just see the official standing there with 36-year-old Itshe Meyer asking him these questions and I’m fascinated by the information that can be gleaned from the card. Itshe Meyer was still calling himself a merchant—in subsequent years he’d change this to “bottle dealer.” He listed his height as 5 feet 5 and 1/2 inches. From all accounts, Itshe Meyer was anything but a vain man, but I wonder what caused him to mention that extra half an inch! Blue eyes, fair complexion, and he still had the blazing red hair and beard that I’ve heard so much about (it had turned white by the time I was born). There is his famous address, 35 Baldwin Street, for decades the heart and soul of Toronto’s Jewish community (now a high-end Thai restaurant). The document also raises a few questions. Who was this “friend” Frank Washington that Itshe Meyer was going to visit in Utica, New York? What was the $150 fee that was refunded to him on April 8th? Was this really Itshe Meyer’s very first entry into the U.S.?
There are still many stories to be heard and recorded about my great-grandfather and I hope to hear more of them from relatives and others whose lives he touched. There’s an expression in Yiddish that I used to hear my older relatives say when I was growing up: “Biz hundert und tsvantsig,” short for “May you live to be 120!” I’m not sure why Jews (and other cultures) focus on that specific number when they’re wishing someone a long life. I believe there is something in Genesis about God setting that as the maximum age of humankind (even though Abraham and Isaac lived much longer). But by any account, now that 122 years have passed since Itshe Meyer Korolnek’s birth, the impact that he’s had on thousands of lives has clearly exceeded this blessing. My own life couldn’t be more different from my great-grandfather’s, and I know that he’d be stupefied by some of my choices, but as long as I live I will aspire to reflect some of his character traits and I will be grateful for the blood of this “heimisher Yid” that courses through my veins.
A freylekhn geburtstog!
Update: Well, so much for the accuracy of government documents. Despite the border crossing manifests that list Itshe Meyer’s birthday as April 15, 1885, I’ve learned that the actual date is March 6, 1884! That actually makes more sense when you look at the 1920 manifest above and see that he was 36 years old—he made the trip two days after his birthday. My cousin Minda in Israel read my post to her mother, my 92-year-old Auntie Anne, Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba’s daughter (third from the right in the photo above). I certainly trust my aunt’s memories of her father more than the random recordings of some disinterested border guard. Here is a document (click to enlarge) that shows my Aunt Anne Wolff’s crossing in January 1932 when she was 16 years old and still Annie Korolnek. She was on her way to Chicago to visit her aunt, Mrs. Annie Handelsman, who I believe is our Aunt Gittel Chana, Alta Toba’s sister. It says that Anne was going to Chicago for 6 weeks. In January? What about school? Hey, Minda, what’s the deal?
Our older relatives are a priceless resource and it’s so important to get these stories down. I wonder if future generations will consider this blog as a primary source and accept all my ravings and speculations as fact. Now that’s a scary thought!