Holocaust Survivor Finds Lost Relatives: The Impact of a Weekly Story


Circulated to tens of thousands, 300th issue of “Here’s My Story” is published

Pamphlets, unbound sheets of paper written in language that anyone can understand, have circulated for centuries, their power lying in their wide reach and accessibility to all. Six years ago, Jewish Educational Media (JEM) began issuing Here’s My Story, a weekly pamphlet featuring personal meetings and interactions with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, distributed via print and email to tens of thousands of recipients who have been inspired and motivated by the encounters in myriad ways.

Cytryn survived the Kielce ghetto, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, Mauthausen, Dachau, Gross-Rosen and other Nazi camps before making it to America after the war and growing up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., around the corner from the Rebbe’s synagogue. He met the Rebbe before going off to fight in Korea.

The impact has often been unexpected.

About a year ago, JEM released a book titled My Story, highlighting 41 such encounters. Many of them were new stories, and some had already been featured in Here’s My Story. In the book these stories were slightly expanded, with more pictures, but in the same spirit as the weekly pamphlet.

Around the same time, Rabbi Chaim Levi and Yehudis Cohen were scouting out northern Virginia’s Loudoun County to see whether the area was a good fit for a new Chabad center. An area Chabad rabbi introduced them to Albert and Dale Citron, a recently retired couple who agreed to host a Chanukah party in their new Ashburn home where the Cohens could meet more community members.

“I was cajoled into making the party,” Dale laughs. “We were heading to Florida the next day, but I decided OK, we should really have this party.”

Some 50 local Jews showed up. “It was a big success,” says Rabbi Cohen, who together with his family has since permanently moved to Ashburn and established Chabad of Loudoun County. At the end of the party, as a token of appreciation to the Citrons, the Cohens presented Dale and her husband with the My Story book.

“That night I opened the book, and I see this story about someone named Bernard Cytryn,” she says. “He’s from Kielce [Poland], a Holocaust survivor who made it to America and fought in Korea, and I say, look at this guy, he looks like a Citron!”

Her husband, Albert’s father, had been born in the town of Checiny, about 13 kilometers away from Kielce, and had come to the United States in the early 1920s. The two siblings he left behind, as well as much of his extended family, had been destroyed by the Germans. In the My Story interview Bernard Cytryn explains that he had survived the Kielce ghetto, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, Mauthausen, Dachau, Gross-Rosen and other Nazi camps.

Cytryn’s own story continues. After the war he made it to America, where HIAS located an aunt whom he came to live with in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn—around the corner from the Rebbe’s synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway. In the early 1950s, he had a momentous private audience with the Rebbe prior to shipping off to Korea. The book included the Yiddish letter the Rebbe sent to Bernard while he was at the front, where the Rebbe inquires of him.

Elimelech Leiman being interviewed by Jewish Educational Media (JEM) for the “My Encounter with the Rebbe” oral-history project in 2011. When Rabbi Yossi Groner, executive director of Chabad of North Carolina, read about the encounter four years later, he was inspired to think out of the box.

“Please write to me about your health, and also about your donning tefillin and other Jewish activities . . . Please write to me how Passover was, and whether the Seder was conducted by a rabbi or a chaplain. Did you have a minyan for the holiday prayers?”

It was the Rebbe’s letter, testifies Bernard, that had given him the hope and courage to endure. While he made it through both the Holocaust and war, his family had not. “Though my family perished, somehow I survived,” he says in the interview.

But reading the names, the towns and seeing the pictures, Dale knew Bernard had to be related to her husband. “He looks exactly like my late brother-in-law,” she says.

The couple flew down to Florida the next day, and through the Cohens, the team at JEM, and finally Rabbi Avraham Bekhor, Cytryn’s local Chabad rabbi in Randolph, N.J., they discovered that Bernard now lived in Florida. They called him up and met for coffee at Bernard’s development.

“They immediately embraced and we sat for hours,” says Dale. “He had lost touch with all Citron/Cytryns, he did not know any existed.”

Groner and members of the Charlotte Jewish community at the groundbreaking for a new Chabad center.

The two were undoubtedly family, and when the extended Citron family gathered in Florida a short while later to celebrate Albert’s 75th birthday, Cousin Bernard was the guest of honor, surrounded by a family he never knew he had.

“He told his story in front of the family, everyone, the youngest children, were quiet,” says Albert, who has kept up with Bernard every week ever since. “This was not a coincidence. He was crying for joy, and I can’t say it didn’t affect me either.”

An interview, a book, a young Chabad couple and the hosts of a northern Virginia Chanukah party came together to reconnect relatives thought to have been forever lost.

Turns 300

The interviews showcased in Here’s My Story—which just released its 300th pamphlet last week—all come from JEM’s My Encounter with the Rebbe oral history project, which has conducted 1,500 interviews with a wide range of individuals to date. Packed into 1,200 words and printed on two sides of a single page, they are also available and archived on TheRebbe.org, a joint project of Chabad.org and JEM.

The real life stories they feature vary; one might be the assurance the Rebbe gave to an unconvinced father that his son would live following a horrific accident, another the advice he gave to a successful British accountant that he could do more for his brethren in Israel from his vantage point in the UK than by emigrating, and a third encouraging a young woman to begin teaching Torah classes to other women while her husband led a men’s study group. But each one contains an experience that changed the life-trajectory of the interviewee, and communicates a lesson to the reader.

The Here’s My Story title draws on the ubiquitous phrase uttered by the countless individuals who met, corresponded, or even simply witnessed the Rebbe: Each has a story to share. Indeed, many of the leads the team at JEM receive come from people who might randomly bump into a fellow Jew in an airport, at a wedding, or at the workplace. “Here’s my story with the Rebbe,” is the common refrain.

Some 3,000 copies are printed in the New York area, and more than double that sent via email. The email is in turn shared by rabbis and communal leaders with their communities, many of whom also print it locally for the benefit of their community, so while it is difficult to pin down an exact number, the reach is in the tens of thousands. Rabbi Moshe Herson, the dean of the Rabbinical College of America (RCA) in Morristown, N.J, and head Chabad emissary to the state, has been sharing the stories with thousands of people on his email list on a weekly basis for the last two years.

“The comments I receive, mostly verbally, are that the Rebbe’s conversations with people of all walks of life are a very meaningful breath of fresh air, especially in today’s society,” Herson says. “The Rebbe’s unselfish, caring, wise counsel to people powerfully elevates the reader to a higher, pure plain. At least temporarily, the reader is catapulted into a sphere of light and hope.”

One of those on Herson’s list is Herb Jaffe, a writer in Las Vegas who previously served as op-ed columnist and investigative reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark for 39 years.

“As you well know, my wife Fran and I had a personal experience with the Rebbe. And he remembered us several years later when we were both having serious health issues,” Jaffe recently wrote to Herson. “He told us, through you, that we would both continue to live fruitful lives for years to come… Well, here we are in Las Vegas, just as the Rebbe said. So, yes I can identify with the stories of so many others. Each of those stories is fabulous.”

Inspiration Leading to Action

Raw inspiration needs to be channeled, and Here’s My Story has in more than one instance served as a catalyst for more. For example, in the fall of 2015, Rabbi Yossi Groner, executive director of Chabad-Lubavitch of North Carolina, was embarking on a much-needed new building project for his Chabad center in Charlotte. Building expansion means fundraising, and Groner was busy approaching local supporters and philanthropists. There was one donor he knew he wanted to present the plans to, but he didn’t feel comfortable.

“I knew I’d go to this individual, but I didn’t feel I could ask him full force,” recalls Groner.

That week he got the Here’s My Story pamphlet in his email. It was an interview with Montreal businessman Elimelech Leiman, who had gone together with his Ukraine-born father—a menswear businessman in Montreal—to see the Rebbe in the early 1950s. Leiman’s father owned an old building in Montreal, and after a series of fires started by a tenant, his insurance company demanded he either install a sprinkler system, a prohibitively costly enterprise at the time, or build a new building altogether. Architectural plans were drawn up for a new construction, but the senior Leiman didn’t have the money for it. Appearing to be, in his son’s words, “the picture of depression,” he came to New York, plans in hand, to see the Rebbe.

“The Rebbe heard him out and then motioned to my brother, who was holding the plans for the new building … ,” says Leiman in his JEM interview. “‘Show me the plans,’ the Rebbe directed, and we unrolled the blueprints for him. He looked at them and began asking questions as if he were an architect.”

The Rebbe wanted to know why the basement ceiling was so low. Leiman replied that the foundation was rock, and it was expensive to dig deeper. Why are you only building three stories, why not more? the Rebbe wanted to know. He didn’t have enough money for more.

“The Rebbe thought about it and said, ‘You should make the basement ceiling higher and you should make the foundations sturdy enough to add more stories afterwards, even if you don’t have the financing to invest now.’ He added that the bigger the container, the more blessings the Almighty can put into it.”

Leiman recalls his father walking out of the meeting a changed man. He returned to Montreal, convinced his bank to give him a mortgage at half the going rate, and indeed built a brand-new building.

Sitting in North Carolina, Groner felt himself inspired. “Inspiration has to lead to action,” he says. “I read the story, and I felt the Rebbe was telling them to think outside of their limited box. The bigger the container, the bigger the blessing.”

He approached the supporter and laid out two separate plans Chabad had, one for a larger scale project, the other more stripped down, and asked the donor for his thoughts. “He said no question, go with the bigger one.”

“Not only was I not rejected, I was given a very sizeable commitment with a promise that there would be more as the project unfolds,” the rabbi explains. Over time the plans evolved into two separate buildings on Chabad’s campus. Stage one has already been built, stage two will begin in two weeks.

“The story gave me the resolve to think bigger and ask for more,”,” he says.

Continued Impact

For most of its lifetime, the primary sponsor of Here’s My Story has been the Chicago-based Crain-Maling Foundation. Its director, Dr. Michael Maling, had seen a couple of issues and became enthused about supporting the project.

“I read it every week,” says Maling. “It’s had a lot of impact on my life, personally, but most importantly, these are shining examples of how the Rebbe positively impacted whole lives that people are living.”

These examples, says Maling, are needed now more than ever. “We’re all looking to heal the world in an active way, and this is a very positive influence on our culture.”

Groner says that members of his synagogue print out a number of copies of Here’s My Story, as well as its Hebrew-language sister publication, Hasipur Sheli, and make it available to the congregation. “For people to read a personal experience like this, it can often penetrate much deeper than a teaching.”

Maling agrees. “All the stories are different, they’re all good. I’m not an Orthodox Jew, I don’t read Hebrew, but these stories, fused together, they’ve helped solidify my Jewish path in a way that I can understand. I find it thrilling that this has been such a hit.”

To subscribe to Here’s My Story, email [email protected].

By: Dovid Margolin

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