By Zeev Galili
Translated by Leah Keshet
For years, I have been walking in the footsteps of my grandfather who was killed in the disaster at Meron one hundred years ago* I interviewed tens of family members and historians of the period * I dug through memoirs and books of historical research and discovered only part of the pieces of an ancient puzzle * And suddenly there appeared an unknown great-grand-daughter from Canada and the diary of her grandmother describing the whole period, and the picture emerged * Following this discovery – a reunion with family members of my uncle, who had emigrated from our land 103 years ago * A story about family from the land of Israel and a story about personal rediscovery.
A few weeks ago, I turned on my computer in the morning, and the first email that flashed on the screen leapt at me like a bolt of lightning.
An unknown lady wrote that she had read an article I had written on the internet some dozen years earlier, about my grandfather Moshe Rosenthal, who had been killed in the disaster on Lag Ba’Omer, 1911 in Meron.
The writer, who knew that she was the great-grand-daughter of Moshe Rosenthal, wanted to find out how we were related. She added that she had in her possession a copy of memoirs, the handwritten diary of her grandmother, Yocheved Segal Z”L
I almost fell off my chair in surprise and excitement. Yocheved Segal was the youngest sister of my mother, and a beloved aunt. I had no idea that she had a granddaughter in Canada – a mathematics professor, Leah Edelstein-Keshet
That was only the first in a sequence of exciting events. As an after-thought, my aunt’s “new” grand-daughter told me that she had found the grave of my grand-father in Safed during her two-week visit in Israel. This grave had disappeared years ago and I had looked for it with no success for over 20 years.
After a short time, Leah Keshet sent me the biography and I read it in a single breath. This “diary” consists of some hundred pages of clear handwriting
After a short time, Leah Keshet sent me the biography and I read it in a single breath. (This “diary” consists of some hundred pages of clear handwriting.) At first reading, I already realized that the diary is a treasure of knowledge about the family and the historical period. A few days afterwards, I made a pilgrimage to the grave of my grandfather with my wife and daughter, to say hello and to read the Tehilim to the grandfather whom I had never had the privilege of meeting.
A research dead end
Many years previously, I had decided to write a book about my family, with my grandfather as a central figure. About the reasons that brought me to this decision, I already wrote in an article that led Leah Keshet to contact me. During these years, I systematically interviewed and recorded every branch and generation of my family, at every opportunity – in days of celebration and in days of mourning. I dug through archives, memoirs, and research books. I interviews tens of family members and researchers.
In contrast to plentiful material that I collected about my father’s family (Toister, a family numbering thousands of second, third, and fourth order cousins), nothing remained from Grandfather Rosenthal. No brothers nor sisters, no cousins, and no distant relations. Nothing. Everything I knew about him came from my mother’s stories alone.
I knew that the family had come from somewhere in a sailboat, which, I had determined, was around 1740-1760. According to family legend, en route to Eretz Yisrael, the boat anchored near an island. The passengers disembarked to wait for the wind to renew. In their haste to re-embark, it later turned out that one of the children had been left behind on the island.
The material I had collected with great pains over many years had been, until a month ago, like pieces of a gigantic puzzle with many missing central parts.
Who was my grandfather
The image of my grandfather has been etched in my mind ever since I can remember and keeps me restless. You could say that I drank in the story of his life and death with my mother’s milk.
He was born in Safed in 1858. He married my grandmother when they were both 18, studied for five years in a Yeshiva, and then decided to do something that would revolutionize his life, the life of a citizen of the old settlement of Safed.
As described by David Tadhar in the Encyclopedia of the Pioneers and Builders of the Settlements (Yeshuvim), he was “among the students of the old Yeshiva of Safed who was brought to the lands of Rosh Pina to remove the stones and till the soil”.
In Rosh Pina, he started a new life, completely different from the life in Safed where he was born and where his parents and parents’ parents were born. He brought forth two sons and four daughters into the world: Israel, Shmuel, Rivkah, Pnina, Shoshana, and Yocheved.
My mother, Shoshana, the fifth of his children, was born 14 or 15 years after his arrival in Rosh Pina.
From my mother I learned that my grandfather had gone through a spiritual and intellectual transformation in his move from Safed to Rosh Pina. Despite the exhausting work, the hunger, the diseases, the machinations of the Turkish regime and of the surrounding Arabs, he succeeded to broaden his education beyond the knowledge of the Talmud that he had gained at the Yeshiva.
One of his students, Amram Schneider, from Nathania, told me in my childhood (this was in 1945) that my grandfather had thoroughly mastered French, science, and Hebrew.
In Rosh Pina, he had started with exhausting manual labour, later to became a manager-clerk in the Baron Rotchild’s silk factory, where he worked for eight years. After the factory closed in 1905, he became a teacher in Rosh Pina, Mishmar Hayarden, and Metula. In 1911 he was killed in the disaster at Meron, when he was but 53 years old, leaving a widow and four daughters.
His oldest son, Israel, had emigrated about two years earlier, and disappeared. His second son, Shmuel, had come down with yellow fever in Mishmar Hayarden, and eventually died in Safed a few months before the death of his father.
The death of the father, brought to an end 29 years of life that had been – despite physical difficulties – a life of happiness and honor. A life surrounded by nature, with a livelihood of honest work. A life made up partly of manual labour, thousands of light years from the life in Safed of which his sons and daughters knew not. All of them had been born in Rosh Pina, and knew only the new world of that period, the world of the Baron’s settlements.
The disaster in Meron
Exactly one hundred years ago, in Lag Ba’Omer a huge tragedy befell Meron. The handrail on the balcony where hundreds of celebrators had crowded to see the traditional bonfire lighting, collapsed. Tens of pilgrims were killed and injured.
[IMAGE OF NEWSPAPER ARTICLE IN “HA-OR” 18.5.1911]
In the “Hapoel Hazair”, published about a month and a half later, the disaster was described as follows:
“.. The rabbi went up on the roof to light the bonfire on the grave of Reb Shimon Bar Yochai.. The silence of the Lord enveloped the natural beauty and surrounding splendor. At that time, the pressure of the crowd was massive.
“And suddenly, the worn-out metal rail (of the balcony) was torn off the roof, sweeping with it heavy stones, and the crowds that leaned against it fell on the dense masses that were standing below. It became a bloody scene, as building blocks and metal pieces seemed linked in conspiracy to hurt and destroy without pity. Ten people were killed and thirty injured. The Hillula became a “yellala” (cry of anguish). Rivers of blood and streams of tears washed the plaza of the Tsadik.
The author, Sha”i Agnon, who had arrived at Meron that same day (on foot from Jaffa) and who was miraculously unharmed wrote: “.. and I, who a short while earlier stood with the living, became a carrier for the dead.”
Among those killed in the disaster was my grandfather, Moshe Rosenthal.
How Yocheved found out about the disaster
In the diary of Yocheved, I learn for the first time how the family received word of the disaster. And here is what she writes:
“Lag Ba’Omer arrived and Father had not thought at all about going to Meron because times were bad, and also our home was far from the village [at this time the family lived in Metulla. The mother, Esther, was staying in Jerusalem to make preparations for the wedding of the oldest daughter, Rivkah] so he did not want to leave us [the four daughters] alone. But the farmers tempted him: they were taking the wagon to Safed, and they would take him there and back. And another farmer, a friend of the family, took us to his home until Father got back.
“They left on Sunday and [were intending] to return on Wednesday, since [it was] a 12 hour journey. We went back home on Tuesday at noon, to prepare for the Sabbath and to do the laundry. And there was no water.
“You had to go far and bring water in four tins in crates on a donkey. On Wednesday night we waited for Father. All the farmers came back and said that he would return the next day. They already knew that he had fallen from a roof in Meron with ten others, and that he was wounded in a hospital. But we knew nothing..
“Only on the next day, the farmers learned that he had died. And the children in the village heard about it. I went to return the donkey with the tins that we had borrowed from a farmer, and one of the children ran in the street and shouted at me: Your father is dead and you are riding around! I left the donkey and the tins and ran home crying when I heard that Father had died. We all immediately ran to the farmers and they said that this was not true, that he is only slightly wounded and that he would be home for Shabbat.
“Only on Thursday night, the news came to the village that he had truly died. And they [the farmers] were worried that we would become a burden to them. So they brought two mules and a horse, and we packed a few belongings, and at midnight we departed with a fellow. We travelled for 12 hours without even a drop of water. Our hearts were broken, because we had lost the head of our family, our dear Father.
“They took us to Safed. There Mother had a big family and her parents were also there. They took us to Father’s sister who also lived in Safed… she was sitting Shivaa, and we all sat on the floor until the lighting of the candles. It was Friday afternoon when we had arrived. Then a few family members gathered and they all felt sorry for us that we were left without a father. And Mother had not yet come back [from Jerusalem] as she did not know of the tragedy that had befallen us.”
So wrote my aunt, Yocheved Segal.
This was not a return to Safed, but an exile to Safed. The four sisters were thrown to the town they had never known. In one stroke, their horizon shrank to the lowest class of young ladies of their age, the class of orphans in Safed with no protector.
This exile was to influence the family for over one hundred years. When I look back at all the family knowledge I had collected, I discover that in looking for my grandfather, I was actually seeking my own identity.
A city that devours its inhabitants
Safed of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was not a “Charmed city”. It was a city that devoured its citizens.
Throughout the 19th century, the city was hit by terrible earthquakes that reaped a bloody harvest. Thousands of victims were killed and injured. Many of these were killed in epidemics, and many survivors were looted in attacks by Arabs, bedouins, and Druse.
After the big earthquake in 1837, only 1500 Jews were left in the city that previously held 3500. Up to the turn of the century, many thousands of pilgrims came to Safed, but many then escaped from it. In the census of 1922, the population numbered only 3000 Jews.
It was not only natural disasters and conspiring neighbors that made life in Safed so difficult. This was a city with a poisoned atmosphere – poison of fear for survival, the evil of poverty, superstition, and religious fanaticism.
A well-known saying (that rhymes) in Yiddish goes: beware of persons from Safed or Tiberias, as from fire and water. (Salst sich heiten fon a Tverianar und a Tsfaster wie fon feier und wasser.)
The modernization that started to permeate the Holy Land with the arrival of the first Aliya and the foundation of the settlements of Baron Rothchild had skipped over Safed.
In Safed there were no public institutions. There was no town council, no educational system, no public health system, nor municipal service. There was hostility to any form of education other than the traditional one. Innovators had to fight to create a public school, a library, a kinder-garden. Only the few rich families in Safed (and there were some) could provide an education for their children by hiring private tutors. The poor who wanted their children to learn a trade to support themselves had to turn to the (Christian) missions. The first attempt to create a modern Hebrew public school, an initiative of the Baron Rothchild, was put down with contempt by the ashkenazi Jews. All 120 students who were accepted in the first year were sephardic community members.
The worst curse that hung over Safed – and over the entire ancient settlement in the land of Israel – was the curse of the “Halukka”. This was the name of the lifestyle based on a monthly dole from funds that were collected overseas. The money was distributed by a network of “kollelim”. Each kollel distributed funds to its members based on their affiliation. The kollel set the rules of behaviour of the followers – how to dress, where to pray, and how to educate their children. Whoever failed to satisfy these conditions was excluded from the Halukka. Although the Halukka funds sufficed only for rent and the cost of water, they were the balance between some sort of existence and destitution.
The “black bats” and the ban on women
About the nature of the city, we learn from its reaction to the disaster in Meron.
“And the zealots of Safed started immediately taking action, and called for a large meeting in the synagogue of the Holy Ha’Ari to find the guilty. They declared a full ban on women travelling to Lag Ba’Omer to Meron, and also on going for a walk in the city and even on going to market to buy fish, or meat, so that there would be no contact with men. And it was forbidden to play musical instruments in Meron. And on all these decrees, they sounded the shofar (ram’s horn)..”
(The Hapoel Hatzair, Alef Tamuz, 1911)
Reb David Shube, one of the founders of Rosh Pina, tells in his book “Memories from the House of David” about his initiative to bring modernization to Safed. He initiated the creation of a Hebrew school and library.
And here is what he says about founding the library and the school:
” … this library was what brought the first rays of light to the city of Safed, and spread them in the dark alleyways and helped many to develop the spirit of the young generation that was thirsting for knowledge. The creation of a library in Safed at that time was a total revolution.. we had to prepare for war with the “black bats”.
He continues to recount how the “black bats” retaliated. They hounded all the participants in the project and threatened them with loss of their part of the “Halukka”. They also pestered the library patrons with curses and insults.
That was the Safed that Moshe Rosenthal had left. That was the Safed to which his widow and four daughters were forced to return.
One of the things that I had realized was that my grandfather did not leave Safed, but rather, escaped from the city and from its “black bats”. The tragedy meant that his daughters, and my mother among them, were forced to head back into the darkness of the bats. And with that, I understood why a disaster that occurred over one hundred years ago so affected my family. It also made me feel as if this calamity happened only yesterday, as if it were my own personal tragedy.
In her biography, Yocheved describes the beautiful life, especially in Mishmar Hayarden (where the family moved from Rosh Pina).
“We had a nice apartment, and the salary was pretty good: 60 Franks per month – this was then a large sum. My brother Shmuel ZL” had a large field full of grain and he brought us wheat, chickpeas and lentils, and we raised a few goats as there was good pasture there, and a few chickens and ducks. In the yard we put in a vegetable garden, so there was plenty at home. Mother ZL” made all kinds of cheeses from the milk, as well as butter and sour cream.”
The Wonderful discovery of Leah Keshet
Most of the above information – but the tiniest part of what was revealed to me over the past month – came to me thanks to Prof Leah Edelstein-Keshet. The discovery of this great-grand-daughter was very important and moved me no less than the discovery of the family story that was uncovered with her help. Leah is the grand-daughter of my aunt Yocheved the author of the memoirs, and the daughter of my cousin Tikvah.
Tikvah was a notable scientist, who emigrated to USA in 1962 and later to Canada with her only daughter, Leah ,9 years old at the time, and her husband, Michael Edelstein, a mathematician.
Contact with my branch of the family had been lost even earlier, but years of distance kept it from being renewed. The rediscovery, and recent translation of Yocheved’s biography (aided by her close friend, Nima Geffen, a professor of Mathematics from Tel Aviv University) brought Leah and her husband Yehoshua Keshet to visit Safed and, thus, indirectly, to contact me.
How the vanished grave was rediscovered
The episode of the discovery of the grave of my grandfather and also of his son, Shmuel, occurred through a chain of events that Safed elders (“ziknei Tsfat”) would attribute to the type of miracles that Safed has been blessed with.
Leah Edelstein-Keshet and her husband Yehoshua came to Safed and visited the Hameiri Museum. There they chanced to meet the archivist, Uri Gordoni whom they asked about the history of the Lag Ba’Omer disaster and the grave of Moshe Rosenthal. Through a spontaneous visit to the Safed cemetery they later met his contact, Eliahu Ben-Tovim, who recognized from afar as a foreign-looking couple, wandering aimlessly, and likely needing assistance.
Ben Tovim approached them and offered his help. He led them to the grave of my uncle, Shmuel Rosenthal, and of the nearby grave of Moshe Rosenthal. The names and dates of death left no room for doubt about the identity of these as the actual graves of our family members.
The grave before it was refurbished
Eliahu Ben Tovim has for years worked as a volunteer, finding holy graves in the Safed cemetery. With great labour, all the while, he removed collapsed earth and crawled in tunnels to uncover tens of graves of the righteous. A highlight of these discoveries, two years ago, was the identification of the grave of the notable Eliezer Azikri, composer of the poem “Yedid Nefesh” that is recited on the Sabbath eve.
In the past, Ben-Tovim served 29 years in the Israeli army. He then took up police work in logistics, and the research in the cemetery he carries out voluntarily in his own free time.
I asked Ben-Tovim how he found my grandfather’s grave without even looking for it. He told me that his commander in the army, named Rosenthal, asked him to find his family’s graves in Safed. Ben-Tovim discovered a large plot with many graves of people whose family name was Rosenthal. It is not at all clear if these are all related to us. But among those graves were found the graves of Moshe Rosenthal and his son Shmuel. When he met with the Keshet couple, he remembered that he had read about Moshe Rosenthal in an article that I had published in the “Makor Rishon” and that also appears on the internet. This recollection then led to the contact between me and Leah Keshet.
The Keshet couple are both mathematicians, and Yehoshua has a strong inclination to statistics. They told Ben-Tovim that the probability of the events surrounding the discovery of the grave was so statistically small, that it is hard to believe that it happened. And so they followed in the footsteps of our old wise ones who said that “astrology does not apply to the nation of Israel”.
The riddle of the disappeared uncle
Yocheved’s diary solved many puzzles that relate to our family history. But one riddle remains that Yocheved did not solve – the puzzle of the brother who vanished – Israel.
Leah quickly pointed to this riddle, a puzzle that burdens the family for over 102 years.
The oldest son of the Rosenthal family emigrated from the Eretz Yisrael in 1909, as a 26 year old. His emigration was seemingly linked to some personal tragedy. According to family tales, he was in conflict with his wife, possibly over epilepsy developed by his son, possibly over differing viewpoints about a religious life style.
In the family stories, this chapter remains sealed. It is told that the son wandered about, homeless and abandoned by his mother, and that he was eventually found, dead, in one of the wadi’s. Contact with the brother that had settled in USA was weak, and limited to an occasional $5 that he sent to his mother. That was until his heart stopped suddenly in the year 1932.
Uncle Israel Rosenthal who vanished 102 years ago and has been now found.
For a long time, the death of the brother was hidden from his mother (my grandmother). My own mother succeeded to stay in touch with the brother’s widow, Eva, for many years, and during those years, she sent dollars to the USA to be returned to the mother, as if from her living son.
At one stage, contact broke off and was not renewed until these days, thanks to the resourcefulness of my aunt’s grand-daughter.
A family reunion after 103 years
Leah Keshet succeeded to find the date of arrival of uncle Israel Rosenthal in the USA with the aid of lists of immigrants provided by the Ellis Island Foundation. There lay a first surprise: He did not come directly from Palestine, but from Paris, where his first wife had stayed behind. By consulting various documents, it appears as if he returned to Israel to divorce and marry another woman from Safed, named Hava (Eva) Adelman, who joined him in USA. These facts were unknown in the family and uncovered only recently thanks to American documents.
According to the census that was conducted in the USA during the years 1920 and 1930, Leah Keshet found that Israel had five surviving children. Two others had died as infants. The surviving children grew up, had families of their own and many have descendents.
Leah Keshet did not rest. She sent messages everywhere, and dug into genealogical websites, and one day, I received the message: “Eureka! I found someone!” One of the descendants of uncle Israel, Sharon, had replied to the inquiry.
Only a few days later, the Keshet couple made their way from Vancouver Canada to New Jersey. There they met several family members, among them Isaac Rosenthal. He is the last surviving son of my uncle, i.e. he is my first cousin. And this is how a Jewish family from the land of Israel was reunited, after a separation of 102 years.