Leonard Holtz found an archive of letters in a shoebox. Then he and his wife gave it to the Chabad Library
By: Dovid Margolin
(Continued from last week)
While Leonard is a collector, his wife, Laura Zimmerman, is not. Between Leonard’s Civil War collection and the numerous boxes of old Jewish books and Judaica in their Hartford-area basement, it was getting crowded. June 13, 2021, was a Sunday—a perfect day to clean things out.
The year of Covid-19 was a difficult one for everyone, but was particularly hard on Leonard, who spent much of 2020 burying victims of the virus and fearing he could be exposed at any time in the course of his work. Sorting through the clutter in his basement proved to be a cathartic experience. When he started the day, he noticed a large synagogue furnishing with Hebrew words emblazoned on top: “Know Before Whom You Stand,” it read.
Towards the end of the day, at about 10 p.m., he finally reached the shoebox, or what he calls The Shoebox. With every intention of burying it all the next day, he began sifting through the box’s contents.
“Inside were letters, many of them all compressed, and suddenly I notice this letterhead that says ‘Rabbi Schneerson, 770 Eastern Parkway,’” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe what I was pulling out of there.” Most were typed correspondences on the Rebbe’s letterhead with the Rebbe’s signature. But one was all handwritten, only the signature matching the others.
At the time, Holtz didn’t recall it was the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit nor did he know what to make of his curious find, so he posted a few pictures on a Jewish genealogical Facebook page, including a photo of the Rebbe’s 1941 letter. Within 20 minutes he began receiving Facebook messages and friend requests asking for more information. Fortunately, one of those who saw it and reached out to Holtz was Brooklyn-based Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, who immediately recognized the letter’s historic importance and the excitement its publication would garner.
“When I saw it I was stunned,” Berkowitz says. “We knew of almost no surviving letters for the entire 1941, and out of the blue, on 3 Tammuz, someone posts a letter written by the Rebbe three weeks after his arrival? And it’s him trying to help someone locate family members in Europe? I couldn’t sleep the entire night.”
Beyond the obvious importance of the letter’s contents, Berkowitz also strongly believed that the most fitting home for such a document was just a couple hundred feet away from where it was written 80 years ago—the Central Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
‘Something Powerful Is Going On’
Berkowitz and Holtz connected first by Facebook messenger, and then by phone, speaking for an hour early Monday morning. Inundated with messages, Holtz took his Facebook post down. On Wednesday Berkowitz, his 17-year-old son Menachem, and his brother—Rabbi Yirmi Berkowitz of the Kehot Publication Society, representing the Chabad Library as well—drove from Brooklyn to Hartford to see the letters in person. There was the Rebbe’s handwritten letter, but others as well, including letters to Greenberg from the Sixth Rebbe. By then, Holtz had placed the items in protective plastic sleeves and laid them out on his broad kitchen table.
From the beginning, the experience for Holtz was like “stepping into a moment in my life when something very, very powerful is going on,” he says. “I realized I was dealing with something very special.” If it was only the happenstance of the date, that would have been enough. But there would be more.
The Holtzes warmly received the Berkowitzes in their home. As they looked over the letters and discussed the lives of the individuals mentioned, Rabbi Yirmi Berkowitz asked whether Holtz might have more information about Greenberg’s burial arrangements. Holtz’s father, a collector too, had retained files for funerals he did long after legally mandated, and so Holtz still had Greenberg’s full 1959 records. Then, seeking to find out more information, Holtz went into his office to pull out a copy of Jewish Cemeteries of Hartford, Connecticut, an important genealogical tool compiled in the 1990s by Edward Allen Cohen and Lewis Goldfarb with information from nearly every Jewish gravestone in the region, stretching back a century.
As Holtz pulled a volume out of the shelf something fell out: It was a magazine with a portrait of the Rebbe on the cover. “The visionary leader who spoke only one language,” the text on the cover reads. “Yours.”
There was an audible gasp in the room.
“It was just, ‘How is this happening?’” recounts Holtz.
The 2014 magazine had been sent to Jewish homes in the area by Rabbi Yosef Gopin, director of Chabad of Greater Hartford, but neither Holtz nor Zimmerman recalled it at all.
Then they opened the magazine. Inside was an article about Chabad’s Merkos Shlichus “Roving Rabbis” program profiling two yeshivah students who had spent their summer sharing Judaism in Alaska. One of them was Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz.
“The article was about Avraham Berkowitz and here he is in the room,” Holtz recounts. “If this didn’t happen to us, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
In the stunned minutes of silence that followed, Holtz and Zimmerman knew that the letters belonged back home at 770, gifting them to the Chabad Library then and there. On Wednesday evening, the Berkowitzes brought the newly discovered archive to Brook, who carefully scanned every letter and fragment. On Thursday morning the collection was presented to Rabbi Sholom Dovber Levine, chief librarian of the Chabad Library, where it was cataloged and added to the existing Greenberg file.
The story’s layers are multifold and intricate. There are the Holtz family’s many Hartford connections with the Greenberg and Hurewitz families, including the funeral arrangements of two patriarchs a half-century apart; Rabbi Greenberg’s martyred and forgotten family, all of a sudden coming to life; and Greenberg himself: gone for six decades, lying just feet away from the Ohel but with no one to say Kaddish for him. Then there are the boxes given for shaimos that accidently went unburied, all the records saved, and all of it coming together 80 years later to the day—and on the Rebbe’s own yahrtzeit.
Holtz and Berkowitz have become friends. Together with his wife, he hopes to soon visit the Library in Crown Heights and the Rebbe’s Ohel in Queens—with a stop at the resting place of Rabbi Shimon Greenberg.
“So many things had to happen to make this happen, for the letter to go full circle and for us to meet this wonderful new family,” says Holtz. “If you didn’t have faith before, if you didn’t understand something special was happening until now—this event sends a sign.”
After all, it was the Rebbe who taught that the miraculous is in actuality a heightened sense of reality. That nothing is an accident, the world is not a discordant collection of parts but an interconnected whole, and that miracles and wonders take place all around us.
We must just open our eyes to their existence.
If you are aware of any other correspondence or archival material from the Rebbe that may be of relevance to the Chabad-Lubavitch Library, click here to help ensure that these materials are given a permanent home where they can benefit the wider public.