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The Smell Just Isn't Going Away

You may find it easier to follow this story if you read the background in the previous article.

Elisha rang me on Thursday afternoon to say he wanted to go to the auction. I had already decided not to go and had told him so. I didn't like the way things were shaping up. I knew this wasn't a straight business, but I didn't know the rules of the game. My old mate had warned me. I was insecure gambling with the big boys, the pros. If the manuscript was handed in at auction or even if it were sold, I knew "they" would approach me. I am probably the only logical purchaser -- at most one of a very select few -- though possibly there was wider value, it being written by a student of the Ktav Sofer.

I knew I couldn't stop Elisha from being there. And I think I was actually happy he would be there. "With a friend. OK -- register your friend as a bidder with you out of site."

An hour later he called again to say that he was on his way to the auction and that he wanted to bid. "What's my maximum?" "I don't think this is a great idea, and we don't know the rules of the game -- $1,500. That'll end up as $2,000 because the buyer commission is 18% and the verification will cost us another $200 -- and don't know if we'll have to pay V.A.T. Which friend is with you?" "No, I'm on my own."

"Oh! Register yourself when you get there. The auction house manager, whom we met last night, probably won't be at the registration desk -- the auction has already been in progress for close to an hour. But I'm sure he'll recognise you whenever he sees you, and we both know that can't be good news."

I think we spoke about twenty times over the course of the evening. Mobile phone technology -- did the human race manage to survive without it? Were there less brain tumours?

There were about thirty people at the auction. About 100 items had been sold when Elisha took his place. The manager himself is the auctioneer!

"Our" item is number 256. About 30 seconds for each sale. There would be at least an hour and a half, a bit of time to get a feel for the way the game is played.

Elisha became friendly with Baruch, the person who came in after him and sat next to him. Most of the audience were black kippah clad Jews -- Baruch wore no yarmelke. He started collecting Judaica as a hobby, but now did this full time. There were two auction houses in Israel selling this type of material, each with two or three sales a year. The attendees all know each other and faithfully frequented all the meetings. One man, sitting in the front row, was buying a large number of items. Even so, he didn't buy everything that came up -- some articles remained unsold.

Baruch, like my European friend, noted it's a pity the auctioneer knows you're a descendent -- he'll jack the price up!

How does he do that?

Elisha found out quite soon. In addition to the thirty or so people present, there was a bank of telephones manned by four young ladies taking "phone bids". Additionally, prior to offering some of the lots for sale, the auctioneer would announce, "I have some pre-auction offers". He sure had plenty of room to manoeuvre!

There was a short break in the proceedings after lot 240. Back after the intermission . . . soon item number 256 was presented to the assembly. The auctioneer announced that, though it was not noted in the catalogue, an additional two leaves (four pages) were missing from the manuscript. He also stated that a number of people had questioned the authenticity of the work, but everyone should rest assured that the renowned authority, Rabbi Kinstlicher, had already verified the authorship. Strange -- just yesterday he told us that the owner did not want to pay the eminent expert his $200 verification fee.

He also informed the audience that he was holding some (not just one?) pre-auction bids. The reserve price listed in the catalogue was $800.

The proceedings commence. "Do I have $800 for Rabbi Prager's work?" The man in the front row tips his hat.

"Do I have $900? -- no". Looking towards Elisha, "perhaps the grandson would like to bid?"

Elisha nods his acquiescence. "But I have a bid of $1,000." No-one in the room had moved -- and not one of the phone girls.

Elisha ups to $1,100. The man in the front row has apparently already lost interest.

"I hold a bid of $1,200."

Elisha goes to thirteen. "I have a bid of $1,400."

Elisha holds his ground.

Do I have a further bid? $1,400 once . . .  $1,400 twice . . . Are we going to let this item go for a mere one thousand four hundred dollars? $1,400 going . . . 

Elisha has one last bid. One thousand five hundred dollars!

No time to even hold his breathe. Auctioneer immediately retorts, "I have a bid of $1,600."

Elisha doesn't move, and the man in the front row remainss still. 1, 2, 3. Sold!

But get this! Looking towards Elisha, our auctioneer says, "If you like, I'll put you in contact with the purchaser". What? He already wants to part with his most recent acquisition?

I think perhaps we should have stopped the bidding at $1,100, though Baruch subsequently told Elisha that it was good that he put in a couple of bids, because the guy in the front row may have come back in. But who knows whether this gentleman isn't part of the multi star cast? In any event, he successfully did take the Jung manuscript for $850.

I didn't expect to hear from anyone on Friday. Israel had changed its clocks during the previous night and everyone is zonked. Also, Friday, with its preparations for the Sabbath, is not a day for religious Jews to make deals.

Sunday, just after 11 a.m., a phone call from the auctioneer. He seemed a bit confused as to whether I was Elisha or Elisha was me or maybe someone else. Aren't you the grandson? No actually I'm a great grandson. Momentary silence. Confusion? Does not compute. Are you the older one or the younger one?

I'm not sure he knew, nor overly cared, to which one of us he was speaking. (Everyone thinks I am one of kids when I answer the phone, so it is possible my voice confused him.) Mr Auctioneer figures we, being foreigners, have access to heaps of dough. "Are you still interested in the manuscript?" Er, perhaps.

"Would you like me to put you in touch with the buyer? He bought it on behalf of a member of your family overseas, but if you're interested he said he would rather sell to you and doesn't not feel he has any obligation to the man on behalf of whom he bought it."

Really? Is this guy serious?

Oh, I don't really know -- er maybe -- oh alright, you can get him to call if you like . . . .

"I'll give him your phone number." Oh OK. Thanks. Bye. Have a nice week. Click.

I decided to spent the day researching the matter further.

First I rang my fatherís cousin, Jana Gottshall. Her father Moshe was Rav Avraham's only son. She gave me some background information on the Prager family, some of which I had not previously been aware.

Next I spoke to Rabbi Kinstlicher. (Why didn't our auctioneer know this?) He confirmed that he had indeed examined the manuscript. It was brought to him without any indication of authorship. If the "owner" suspected it was by Rav Prager, he did not tell our manuscript expert. The work is a commentary on the tractate of T'murah. Four rabbis are mentioned in the text, a common thread being Topolcany. Rabbi Kinstlicher tried to find a candidate who would have known these four. He put his money on Rabbi Prager, but wasn't certain. He had some facsimiles of the Rabbi's handwriting. Grandpa's handwriting was inconsistent. But our manuscript did match one of them. Still not convinced.

Then he recalled another reference by a rabbi from a nearby town, the author of a work called Shoot Halacha l'Moshe. This responsa thanks Rabbi Prager for a letter to him, justifying a legal point made by the Hatham Sofer from a passage in Gemara T'murah. The wording he uses is identical to that which appears in the manuscript. Bingo! "But I didn't understand his proof, because the quote appears on the last line above the tear and I couldn't guess what he was saying further."

The Rabbi and I spoke about the family -- a really nice guy with an amazing memory and knowledge base. Moshe Prager and his son Aharon Calev often published novella of their father and grandfather, in various European Jewish magazines, usually at the time of his yartzeit.

"What bothers me", I told the rabbi, "was that the two works are in the same hands." Rabbi Kinstlicher was not aware that my grandmother and Rabbi Shalom Jung were divorced, probably very early in their marriage. "Even with this information, I am not concerned. It's possible one had the other's notebooks and did not return it after the divorce. And after the shoa, as you are aware, things could have gone anywhere."

A possible scenario. My uncle Moshe, when times started to get bad, took all his and his father's books and cemented them into the attic. After the war, Jana was the only family member returning home. She requested a cousin (from her mother's side) to inspect the attic. There was nothing there of value, "just a few chumashim and machzorim". Someone had been already there.

A few months later, Jana meets the son of the rabbi of Nitra, a town thirty-five kilometres from Topolcany. When Landau hears Jana's surname is Prager, he becomes excited and irritated. He calls his father, the rabbi, to tell him that there is a "surviving" Prager. At that point, a few months after returning from Auschwitz, a young, all alone, Jana was happy that the works were in the hands of a "rabbi" and not in a bathroom. "I did not know I was soon going to marry a rabbi."

Is this what happened to our Mesecheth T'murah notes?

In the fifties, while living in Newcastle, N.S.W., Jana, hearing that the Landaus had successly established themselves in America, wrote to them re the books/manuscripts. She didn't even received the courtesy of a reply.

Later in the day I rang my old childhood mate. "I warned you to tread carefully". He repeated his disgust of the way these auctions are run. "They try and find a distant 'relative', someone in the Five Towns or Riverdale, with plenty of spare cash, and somehow jack up the price." I guess, given the current economic situation, this will not continue to be too attractive a business.

"I hope you get your grandfather's work, but it's a nasty business."

So far, Tuesday afternoon before Pesach, I have not heard from the auctioneer nor from his mysterious "purchaser". Over two weeks have now elapsed.

Menachem Kuchar, 16th April, 2009    

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