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Skeletons in My Closet
or I think I may smell a rat

I don't know a great deal about my late father's family. He told us very little about them before he passed on. To summarise what I do know, and have written in the past, my grandfather was Baruch Béla Kaufman. My father told me his father was ninety-one years old when he died, a lonely old Jew in Topolcany, after the last Nazi massacre of his Jewish townsfolk.

According to this dating, my grandfather was born in 1853, exactly a century before me. My father's birth certificate lists his father as having been a little younger -- you can't overly depend on the accuracy of official records referring to events which occurred in mid-nineteenth century. My father told me that his father was a widower with two children when he married his second wife, my grandmother.

My grandmother was sixty-four years old when she passed away. She was the daughter of a prominent Slovakian sage, Rabbi Avraham haLevi Prager. Feige Fanny returned her soul to her Maker at home in December 1939, at a time when Jews still had the privilege to die in their own beds.

I have wondered (though one doesn't ask these questions out loud) how the daughter of an outstanding European Rabbi came to marry an older widower with two children, a man of not noted learning. She also would not have been too young.

Two days ago I received, out of the blue, the following email:


I came across your website while working at translating an auction catalogue. I was actually looking for the correct spelling of Rabbi Avraham HaLevi Prager's name.

I thought that you might be interested to know that a manuscript that he wrote will be up for sale this Thursday, March 26.

The following is an Internet link which feature the auction and a description of the manuscript . . . .

The manuscript is lot number 256 (and 257 seems to be a manuscript from great-uncle or something).

Looking forward to hearing from you.

I assumed the translator was a freelancer, not that it mattered. I did check her out on the Web, but didn't then observe all the details. I must note that the website seems to represent many auction houses around the world and the name of the local auctioneer didn't jump out.

In any event, I followed the link in the email to the following information:

Manuscript. Handwritten Novella from Rabbi Avraham HaLevi Prager, Chief Justice in Topoltshan [Topolcany]. Volume of novella on the Talmud written by Rabbi Avraham HaLevi Frager (sic), chief justice in Topoltshan. Manuscript. [c. 1890]. [78] pages of crowded writing. In his youth, the author studied by the 'Kitav Sofer' and by Rabbi Shlomo Quetsch, Rabbi of Nikolsburg. In [1869] he served as Rabbi of the 'Poalei Tzedek' organization in Pressburg. In [1887] he was appointed Rava"d in Topoltshan. Shu"t 'Shevet Sofer', Yoreh Deah, siman 53, features a response written to him. His son-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Jung, was the Rabbi of Werbeitz [refer to this catalogue for his manuscript], and another son-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Greenberg was the Rabbi of Tzoldmalak, Hungary. Refer to: Kinstlicher, 'HaChatam Sofer V'Talmidav', p. 476. 16x21 cm. General very fine condition. Tear in the next-to-last leaf, affecting text. Clear, legible Rabbinical hand. Nice, modern binding. To the best of our knowledge, this manuscript was never printed.

After reading the auction lot details, I replied to my correspondent, almost on impulse:

Thanks for letting me know about this.

I can't comment on the authenticity of the document, but the background information attached is flawed.

Regards, Menachem

I did not receive a reply, which I found a little strange.

Looking back, I guess, I didn't properly read, nor really absorb, the content of the email. The translator obviously had worked on this printed and bound catalogue, numbering a couple of hundred pages and listing some three hundred and fifty lots, weeks earlier. So why, I should have asked myself, did she suddenly remember to write to me, just two days before the auction? She of course kept my information in the back of mind for a few months, and suddenly thought she'd better write?

And who was this mysterious great uncle, Shlomo Jung, of whom I had never heard?

I did a bit of checking within my family. Yes, one of Rav Prager's sons-in-law was indeed a Rabbi Jung. And his wife: my grandmother! Unfortunately (or as my brother puts, fortunately for us) the marriage was never consummated and my grandmother returned "home".

On learning this fact, I felt (a bit guilty that) I may have been a little abrupt with the translator in my initial response, so I sent off the following:

I did some checking on the personalities mentioned on the site, and it does check out better than I initially thought. The world is full of surprises. The key thing that put me is off is that my grandmother was married more than once, a fact of which I was not previously aware. (It runs in the family -- I didn't know until after my father died that he had been previously married at the start of the war.)

The spelling is definitely Prager -- I still have a living Prager relative. Also the name you have Rabbi Shlomo Quetsch -- I believe this should be Katz.

Out of interest, from what raw document were you translating? I would be very interested to find out more about my family if you can put me in the right direction.

I am going to try and get to Yerushalayim tonight to have a look at the manuscript.

to which this time I did receive a cheery response, "Well, I'm glad the info checked out . . . I'm glad you found it interesting" though nothing in relationship to my family history. I later saw that the translation was just that -- a translation of the Hebrew in the auction catalogue. My question should have been addressed to the author of the Hebrew text.

Some further background checking (via the Web). The translator worked as office manager for the auction house between 2000 and 2003 and since then is listed as a "freelance translator", I assume with an occasional catalogue from the previous employer. Perfectly legitimate, but . . . .

And indeed nothing on Prager, other than by yours truly.

Last night Elisha, Jill and I excitedly went to view the manuscript.

Standing in front of my grandparents' and great-grandfather's graves in Topolcany was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. I totally lost control. I don't think I expected to feel the same way holding the fruit of my grandfather's hand, but I did expect to feel something. But nothing! Nothing at all!

Now it could be because it was just a small (about A5 size) exercise book, the sort we all used at school, though I'm not sure what else I was expecting. Or perhaps, my body knew to refrain from anything emotional because I wanted to play my cards close to my chest, not revealing my true interest in the item. But I felt nothing.

We did learn that Rav Prager's notes and those of his "son-in-law" had been submitted by the same seller. Rather strange considering the divorce and the fact they lived in different parts of Austria-Hungary. Why would an ex-son-in-law have his ex-father-in-law's handwritten commentaries? That seems to be the only way these two originals came together. Had they studied this together, and the notes were meant for the son-in-law? How they arrived here, in Israel, was not touched on.

The owner of the auction house, very pleasant and polite, managed to avoid most of our questions (a real poker player, perfect poker face). Perhpas I was not sufficiently forceful. Despite my attempt to closet my relationship to the author, when asked directly if I was a grandson, I answered honestly. "Yes", he said, "we've had some interest in this piece". I took the comment at face value, though Elisha didn't swallow the bait so quickly.

But it was obvious to me that the only people interested in this work were perhaps my second and third cousins, in which case the work would remain within the family. The other option was a collector wanting any piece hand written by a European rabbi over a hundred years ago -- today everything is a collectible.

We perused the notebook. The manuscript comprises notes or a commentary on what we thought was tractate Rosh haShana, New Year, from the Babylonian Talmud, though in fact it is T'rumah. It goes page by page through the meseheth, commenting on the glosses of Rashi and the Tosaphoth. My feeling is it comprises notes for personal use rather than something written for publication or even for others' consumption.

Though the catalogue lists the item as "General very fine condition.", it is in in fact in extremely poor condition. The pages are very browned and more than half of the pages show marked water stains. (In comparison, the Jung manuscript is in almost excellent condition, written in almost effeminate handwriting.)

The catalogue also states " Tear in the next-to-last leaf, affecting text". Affecting text -- that's an understatement! Half the page is ripped out! But flipping through the booklet (which is was very recently bound in a handsome, plain hardcover, probably for the sale) I found one page to be about two square inches at the bottom of the binding. On further inspection, I saw that four pages were missing! (The pages were numbered by the author as he wrote, in traditional style commencing with page 2.) I pointed out the "oversight" to the auctioneer who noted the problem, saying he would announce it when the lot was presented.

My gut feeling was confirmed -- that the purchaser would only someone with an emotional attachment . . . and I am such a sentimentalist. As such the value was limited to my preparedness to spend the money on something like this rather than the Picasso on which I have my eye.

As there was no indication to the manuscript's authorship, or anything else for that matter -- just the text, I asked the auctioneer how he knew that it was great-grandfather's work. "There's a guy here in Bnei Brak named Rabbi Kinstlicher. He is the undisputed authority on works by Hungarian rabbis. He should be able to verify it."

Very interesting, "but if that's the case, why did the current owner not get it certified?"

Wait for it: "He didn't want to pay $400 to have the two (Prager and Jung) documents checked. But if you have them examined after the sale, and they turn out not be what is claimed, we guarantee to return your money. Why don't I register you now for the auction tomorrow night, so that you'll be able to bid."

I have a childhood friend, an awesome Torah scholar, who is an expert re old Jewish books. He lives in Europe today. I thought I should give him a call. Perhaps he can shed some light on the issue. I knew I was out of my depth.

On hearing the story, his first comment was, why did you register with him? Now he knows you are interested! He'll push up your bidding.

I beg your pardon?! How can an auction house (legally) bid against its buyers? and stay in business? "Well that's why I refuse to deal with him. But there are only two people in Israel who deal in this kind of stuff. Let me phone the other chap and see if we can learn something from him."

We indeed confirmed that an O.K. from Kinstlicher was worth its weight in gold. And he achieved an advanced degree of merriment when I told him that the auctioneer would refund my money if the document proved not be by Rabbi Prager.

With all of this knowledge, Jill asked me last night what I was going to do. I replied that I would depend on my family tradition -- I'd see if my antecedents would visit me that night . . . they did not drop by.

It's now a few hours before the auction is due to take place. My current feeling that I will sit it out (though Elisha wants to go). If the manuscript is indeed verifiable, it means other Prager writings must exist. And if it is not, I don't want to buy, and then pretend that it is or it might be. So I'll wait to see if the item sells or is handed in, in which case I am sure that I will be approached very shortly.

This story does have a continuation, though not yet an ending.

Menachem Kuchar, 31st March, 2009    

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