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The Power of the Web
Finding a manuscript and a family

This story, though it may be read on its own, is a continuation of two stories I wrote around Pesach time.
Have a look at the first and the second to be filled in on the background.

We left our story of the manuscript penned by my great grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Prager, after it was supposedly sold to an unrevealed, unattending bidder at auction. As he intimated he would at the auction, Froilich, the auctioneer, rang me a few days later. He claimed to be calling on behalf of the purchaser who, he said, had purchased the work on behalf of a member of my family but was prepared to sell it to me anyway. I expressed some interest, expecting him to return to me the following day. He did not, nor have I heard from him since. Neither was the manuscript reoffered for sale at his subsequent auctions. Strange, but I was certain it would resurface.

In this expectation, I verified the manuscript's authenticity with Rabbi Kinstlicher, publisher of The Hatham Sofer and his Disciples and a renowned expert on this period. He related how he identified the work as originating from my great grandfather's hand. One thing that bothered him at first, he explained, was that the handwriting did not overly match that of my illustrious ancestor. While it did cross my mind, I did not ask from where he had familiarity with my great grandfather's handwriting? Did this mean that other works were known and available?

Jill says I talk [read write] too much, and that since these people found and baited me via the web, they were also monitoring my moves as well. Given what I wrote about them, they now did not want to deal with me. You, dear reader, please judge my actions.

Recall, this story took place ten months ago, Purim time, 5769.

The internet is a wonderful tool, an amazing facilitator, often unpredictable.

One day, a few days before Rosh haShana, I received the following email:


I stumbled on your blog and read with great interest -

My maiden name is Gelley - my grandfather was Menachem Gelley from Topolcany.

My grandmother survived and went to Australia.

My father is Rav Zecharye Gelley - are we cousins?

To which I happily replied, "Yes we are".

This was really exciting, a fairy tale. Finding long lost relatives via the ether.

I told her that I in fact knew her extended family well: her grandmother, her aunt and her late uncle. In fact, I related to her, I had ferried her grandmother between airport terminals when she travelled to visit her son and family in England. (In those days, before Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport, almost all international flights out of Australia departed from Sydney. To fly overseas from elsewhere in the country, one first took a domestic flight to Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport and transferred to the International Terminal.)

But I had not had any contact with my correspondent's father. For many years he had lived in Sunderland. I have been to London a number of times, both to visit my uncle Leslie and later on business too. But Sunderland is far from London. The furthest I ever travelled from London, on my very first trip in 1974, was to Birmingham.

I was in New York one time, not long after her father was appointed a rabbi there. I thought of making contact then. But I was only briefly passing through New York, spending most of my time in Boston, where I had the privilege of being sandak (often translated as godfather, but not really the same thing) for my nephew, Natan. Not a great excuse I suppose.

I didn't make it to New York again for eighteen years. For various reasons, Jill and I have spent a week in New York City, three Novembers running. I didn't make contact on those trips. Our common link, my father, passed away over forty years ago. And also I guess I felt a bit silly ringing a renowned rabbi to say, "Hi -- it is I, your long lost cousin.

But the above email correspondence piqued my interest. Perhaps my age has something to do with it. You start to have a different worldview as your time here progresses.

"How is your father? Please send him my regards"

"I told my father about emailing you and he sends very best regards. If you ever want to call him, his number is . . . "

So on erev sukkoth I decided to call my cousin and wish him a hag sameach, a happy festival. I rang a couple of hours before shabbat over here -- it was eight thirty in the morning on the east coast.

With trepidation I dialed the number, but it was now no longer a cold call. A lady answered the phone. I wasn't sure if this was the rabbanit, so I asked for the rabbi. "He came home from shule and was tired, and he went back to bed. Can I help?"

I explained that I was Menachem, the rabbi's long lost cousin and was making contact. We spoke for quite a while, mainly explaining how I fit into the family scene. "Are you [and my father-in-law] named after the same ancestor?" No, I am named after my maternal grandfather -- my father and your father-in-law were first cousins -- their mother's were sisters. "Oh yes, I did read some of your stories."

She was interesting to talk to, and interested in what I was saying. Very warm.

"Perhaps I'll see if my husband is awake -- maybe I'll wake him to speak to you . . . No. He is sleeping too soundly. I don't want to disturb him. By the way, do you live near Yerushalayim?"

"Yes, I do."

"My daughter is marrying off a son in ten days time over there. I'm coming, but it's too difficult for my husband to make the trip. I'd love to meet you."

So that's how Jill and I came to be going to a wedding where we were sure we wouldn't know anyone. But we were really looking forward to meeting with our new family.

We walk in during the huppa. First person we see is Jenny from Sydney. Her husband is a cousin of the other side. Then, a white shirt shines amongst all the dark suits (even I was wearing a suit -- middle grey with a bright red tie). It is Haim, the guy who has sat next to me in shule for the last twenty-something years. He too is a cousin of the other side. Jewish geography -- 101!

After the hupa, we meet the rabbanit and some of her family. It was truly wonderful, very exciting.

Then she said something that started the clockwork in my head ticking away. "Do you ever come to New York?"

"Sure, on occasion."

Next time you do, please come by and visit us. I think it's very important to keep family together.

So here we were again -- November and bound for New York. Michal's wedding was three weeks ago. We wanted a short "get away" break. Another New York cousin was out of town for Thanksgiving and happy for us to babysit her west-side apartment.

And I really wanted to do a photographic workshop given by Joe diMaggio, a seminar in which I had intended to participate a year earlier, but it hadn't work out.

Black Friday in Manhattan.

Low season, points -- tickets were cheap.

And last but not least, to meet my family.

We phone our relatives. "Super. We'll come by between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m."

Jill says, tell her we're vegans. We won't be able to eat. It will be uncomfortable if she goes out of her way to prepare something especially for us.

Don't worry -- we're not going for dinner. It's too early. I don't think we'll stay long. We didn't even take a bottle of wine. I even told another cousin living nearby that we'd drop by afterwards.

Uptown A Train, arriving at about a quarter to five. Good timing. The rabbanit greets us. "The rabbi is at mincha; he'll return soon."

Their son drops by for a few minutes. I am speaking to the rabbanit, Jill to Dovid. Suddenly Jill yells across the room, "He has the manuscript!"

I am dumbfounded. Really. Wow! Great! Excitement, but I am unable to express it.

This has been a long story, one that has occupied me for most of the last year.

"How did you get it? When? What did you pay?"

Dovid's son, Avraham, named after our great grandfather, will soon be barmitzva. He would like to hand out something from the boy's namesake at the event.

My cousin left Europe with a few handwritten pages by our great grandfather. Over a year ago Dovid sent copies to Rabbi Kinstlicher in Israel, requesting him to edit them for publication.

An answer to one of my outstanding questions, viz how Kinstlicher recognised our great grandfather's handwriting for comparison.

"How much did you pay for the manuscript?"


Considering it supposedly sold for $1,600 at the original auction, plus 18% commission, for a final price of $1,888, Froilich's purchaser made a whopping $112!

"How did Froilich find you? On the web?"

"Who is Froilich?

"About six months ago [May?], someone who knows Kinstlicher approached a relative of my wife who then approached me. I don't have internet access."

You've got to hand it to them -- these guys are great at what they do -- a nice targeted sale. When they didn't like me, who they found on the web, they continued on.

Dovid assumes the deal originated from Kinstlicher. And that one it was of our "cousins" who has held the manuscript all these years. He now needed money. He did not know who that may be.

I doubt it. I have spoken to some of our relatives. Unfortunately we are not that many. It would be nice to know who has held the manuscript over the years, since it disappeared from Uncle Moshe Prager's house in early 1945. I believe Nitra is the missing link.

Now, thanks to Dovid, Rabbi Kinstlicher is now working on the manuscript and with God's help it will be published. I am really happy that the work is back in the family's hands and that it will see a distribution.

But as I wrote earlier, "The smell hasn't gone away".

The rabbi arrives home. We start talking. We really hit it off. Both with him and his wife. It was like we'd always know each other. We got on, well like cousins. We talked a lot. We had a lot to catch up on. His memories of my late father, my grandfather, my father's first wife, their daughter. He told me of his own history. Transportation to Bergen-Belsen with his mother and siblings, fortunately very late in the war, but a fight to survive. His father's death from typhus at a labour camp. Of our great uncle Moshe, Rav Avraham Prager's only son. Parkinson's Disease at a time when absolutely no treatment was available, how he just sat in his chair, quiet and motionless.

Then the Rabbanit said, "Let's adjourn to the kitchen and have something to eat". Oh, oh. I was very apologetic. "It's my fault. I should have said something. Jill even told me to tell you earlier, but we're whole food vegans, so we're difficult to feed."

"Oh that's great" came the reply. "I almost am too. I'd like to be. I don't eat processed food either. Maybe a little meat on shabbos. Nothing I made now has milk or cheese or anything. I made some fish. I wasn't planning to eat any myself. So my husband will enjoy that bit on his own. We'll have soup and salad. There's plenty, really."

We talked a lot more. I showed them my new book of photographs featuring the Samaritans. I had picked it up that morning. The rabbi loved it. He looked closely at every photograph. The pascal sacrifice in real life. They also enjoyed my Hevron book.

The rabbi presented me a personally inscribed copy of his book of Talmudic novellae, Zichron Menachem, named in honour of his father.

It was time to go. We had had a wonderful evening. And we still had to visit my other cousin, around the corner. We walked in there a little before nine. "Where have you been?" Mike asked when we arrived. I thought you got lost. I was preparing a search party.

That's family for you.


Please feel free to and don't forget to stop by my site to look at my latest (and classic) photographs.


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