Meet Meir Yechiel HaLevi, Rabbi of the tiny hamlet of Ostrowiec, Poland, in the early 1900s, known as the Ostrovtsa Rebbe. He lived almost eighty years and became world renowned as a leading Hasidic figure of his time. About four months ago, I learned that this odd, pious, brilliant, often eccentric man had intervened with my grandparents about ninety years ago, back in 1920, and essentially saved our family from the Nazi Holocaust.
At a key moment of indecision, with newly-independent Poland being invaded by Bolshevik Russia’s Red Army and Jewish people in particular torn between patriotism and revulsion at escalating pogroms, it was this Ostrovtsa Rebbe who turned boldly political and insisted that my grandfather refuse to bloody his hands and instead take the family to America — a journey frought with danger and uncertainty.
For the past six or so months, I have been digging into this story and finding surprise after surprise, bombshells hiding in dusty old archives. The Rebbe turned out to be just one of many guardian angels for us. Another was a criminal smuggler named Rubinsky who spent most of the 1920s in European jails, charged with forging passports and visas for refugees trying to circumstant newly-imposed American immigration quotas.
I’ll tell you more about this in posts over the next few weeks. Stay tuned. But for now, a simple acknowledgment to Rebbe Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtsa. I’m glad to have found him.