Menachem's Writings

Ultimately It Boils Down to Greed and Stupidity
Doesn't it always?

Today I want to write about my father's cousin, Ali. I believe Ali is short for Alidor.

A number of my father' cousins, as well as one of my uncles, were named Ali. The oldest son of each of my grandmother's siblings was given that name. All of them also bore the Hebrew name Avraham, named for their common grandfather, Rabbi Avraham haLevi Prager of blessed memory, the chief Rabbi of Topolcany. This town is located not far from today's Slovak capital city, Bratislava, still known in Jewish circles by its German name, Pressburg. (My late brother too was named Avraham after our alter zaydeh.)

The Ali about whom I want to write today is Ali Broyer. He was born in 1913, two years before my father. Ali was the oldest of my grandmother's youngest sister's eight children. Ali's father originated from Mattersdorf in eastern Austria. He was a German teacher, a profession which became redundant in post first world war Czechoslovakia. In search of work, the Broyer family moved [back] to Mattersdorf in 1929. Ali, by now sixteen years old, remained on his own in Czechoslovakia.

At some point in time, probably from around 1936, my father and Ali flatted together in Topolcany.

  Grave of my great grandfather, Rabbi Avraham haLevi Prager of blessed memory in the Topolcany cemetery

Before my father's passing, in 1966, I knew nothing of Ali nor of the Broyer family, even though my father corresponded with his aunt all the years he was in Australia. In fact I knew very little about my father's family at all and the goings on in his life from those times. There were titbits here and there that I was later able to piece together with stories which I subsequently heard from his relatives and friends from the old country. [Added in 2023: For more on his life, see my The Partisan's Trilogy.]

As a child, I did not know anything at all about my father's European life. Sure I knew he was from Czechoslovakia, that he escaped there when the communists took over, that he was the only member of his immediate family to survive the war. I did not know that he had been married and with a had a daughter, that his wife and child were murdered. When I think back I do recall hints of his life in the Slovak resistance, but I did not understand that back then.

Ali told me about the Slovak Nazi sympathisers, known as the "brown shirts" because of their uniforms. They did not wait for the war to start in order to openly torment local Jews.

One day, Ali related, he arrived to shule early in the morning. Everyone was excited, abuzz with talk concerning the overnight attack on the brown shirts. It appears someone, and no-one knew who, had attacked them, meting out to them a serious beating. Only then did Ali recall that my father returned home very, very late, and was still fast asleep.

Ali's family returned to Topolcany after the 1938 Anschluss which brought the pro-Nazis to power in Austria, rendering Austria's Jews personae non grata overnight. A few months later they received entry certificates to Palestine. Ali stayed on in Topolcany until August 1939 when he too joined his family in Israel. Three of his sisters, two of whom were already married, remained in Europe. The married sisters were murdered along with their husbands and children. Seren, the single sister, joined her family in Israel after suffering terribly during the war.

Ali gave me a letter, written in German, sent to him by my father in 1946. It outlined the events of his life since Ali left Topolcany, including his war experiences, his personal losses, the passing of his parents, and his eventual return "home" in December 1944 accompanying the advancing Soviet Red Army.

Ali relocated to Yerushalayim, marrying a lady named No'omi. He was an accountant, an extremely precise man -- a yekke for those who understand. He was clever and shrewd. He spent most of his working life at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.

When he retired Ali moved to Arad because of his wife's asthma. The air in Arad is very dry and is said to give asthmatics relief from their suffering, allowing easier breathing than on the coastal plain and also than in Jerusalem. I first met Ali and No'omi in Arad in 1976, and visited them on a number of occasions over the years. His company was always a delight and I understand why he and my father got on so well.

They considered their Arad domicile to be temporary, longing to return to Yerushalayim. And after a number of years they did, making it easier to drop in on them.

I really hate to use divisive labels to differentiate religious Jews, because there is one God and He gave us only one Torah. But I need to make some categorisation in order to successfully spin my yarn. Ali was what most people today seem to call "modern orthodox", "a religious zionist" or a "knitted kippa" wearer. His brother Béla was the same. Other members of his family were haredi, ultra-orthodox, black hatters, whatever all these terms really mean. You will learn one unfortunate aspect of this division as my story continues to unfold.

As Ali and No'omi had no offspring, Ali planned an interesting use for their assets following their ultimate demise. He decided to set up a loan fund, providing interest-free advances to his nieces and nephews and their descendants, "for all the generations". He excitedly explained to me how it was going to operate. He half apologised to me that it was meant for his parents direct descendants, thus I was excluded -- but he still loved me just the same.

The mid-eighties in Israel were years of massive inflation, reaching a peak rate of 20% a month. Everyone was developing schemes to preserve the value of their money. Delaying payment by just one month gave you an instant 20% discount on your transactions, with a corresponding loss to the payee.

The economy had to react quickly to avoid potential disaster. Two main methods were used, both involving linkage of debt. The first was linkage to the dollar. Although all payments in the economy were made in shekels, shekel amounts were linked to the dollar. In effect you were paying 20% more after that month in nominal shekels, but the correct amount in terms of true value. The second method, which was ultimately adopted by the economy as a whole, was linkage to the monthly cost-of-living index. Dollar linkage provided the advantage of a daily update.

Ali's decision to set up his fund was during this period of rampant inflation. He immediately realised that, were money to be borrowed in shekels, with the face value amount repaid, the fund would very quickly evaporate. So he told his family that the all loans would linked to the dollar value at the time of borrowing.

The haredi side of the family all complained that such a move contravened the halacha, Jewish Law, as repaying an amount greater than that borrowed (in shekel terms) was tantamount to charging interest. Usury, even indirect, against a fellow Jew is against Torah Law. One may argue that this linkage was not a direct contravention, as in theory at least the Fund could exchange its reserves into dollars, each borrower in essence now receiving dollars. Linkage would necessitate paying unnecessary bank fees when moving from one currency into another. In the eighties however, it was still illegal for Israelis to hold foreign currency.

There are other tools available to ensure loans maintain their values. For example, Heter iska, which converts a loan into a business venture, has been used since Talmudic times. All Israeli banks, including the orthodox ones, use a form of Heter iska in order to carry out their business, both in charging and paying interest.

Each of the haredi cousins asked his rabbi or rebbe if what Ali proposed to do was permitted. And all the rabbis maintained it was absolutely forbidden. None suggested a Heter iska or any other alternate. One can only wonder why.

Please do not accuse me here of haredi-bashing. The cousins and their rabbis are well-versed in Jewish law. The way the question is asked often is the problem, and vested interests may affect the framing of the rabbical inquiry. If the question was, "Is what my uncle doing acceptable in terms of halacha?", then the response must be no. If the query is, "How can we make this work within the accepted framework of halacha?", the answer may have been very different. Perhaps there was some negotiation with Uncle Ali of which I remain unaware.

Eventually even these ultra-conservative rabbis also understood that something needed to be done for commerce to continue. This situation reminds me of a case heard a couple of years back by the N.S.W. Supreme Court between two brothers-in-law, both rabbis. After unsuccessfully arguing that the millions of dollars in question were a gift not a loan, the court set an amount to be paid. As a number of years had passed since the original transaction, the court added interest and inflation factors into the repayment amount. The [losing] rabbi then presented that he was prepared to pay the principal but not the interest or linkage as it was forbidden for Jews to pay interest to Jews. Unknown to this rabbi, in addition to being a justice on the bench of the state supreme court, the judge was an elder in the Baptist Church, and extremely well versed in the Bible. "It is well known", he retorted, "that the Jews have ways of working around these loan laws. If they did not, all their commerce would grind to a halt". Rejecting the rabbi's claim, the justice said that if the rabbi did not immediately drop his line of argument he would hold him in contempt of court. Needless to say, the rabbi paid the principal and all the other charges in line with the court's ruling.

But at the time Ali was setting up his loan fund, his nephews' rabbis did not yet know what this gentile knew all too well. They told Ali that his arrangement was unacceptable. Only Efrayim, Béla's son, tried to speak reason to them. "Do you not understand?", he told his cousins, "He does not owe any of us anything. He does not have to give us a penny. You are needlessly making him angry and he will react ... you'll see. None of us will get anything."

"What else will he do with his money?" Of course none of them assumed his assets were that great. After all, Ali had just been an accountant in a semi-governmental body all his life. How much could he have managed to stash away?

Efrayim retorted, "He'll cash in all his investments -- convert them all into $100 bills. He'll take a taxi ride from Yerushalayim to Tel Avvi. He'll sit in the middle of the back seat, both windows wide open. He'll throw the bills out of the windows as they travel along the highway. When they reach Tel Aviv, all his cash will have vanished."

They simply repeated their chorus -- the rabbis do not permit it.

Years later, in 1995, at a goodly age, No'omi passed away. I visited Ali a few days later to pay my respects. It turned out to be the last time I saw him.

Ali arose from sitting shiva for No'omi, immediately going up to her grave as is the custom in Yerushalayim. That evening he fell ill and entered hospital, passing away during the same night.

Ali's estate was distributed as follows: Béla received 3%, their two other surviving siblings each received 2%, and No'omi's nephew, who acted as executer, received 4%, making a total of 11% of his estate being bequeathed to family. Under Israeli inheritance law, a will cannot be challenged by family members if at least 10% is distributed within the family. The shrewd Ali knew how to cover himself to achieve his ends.

And the remainder of the estate? Half to Yeshivat Mercaz haRav Kook and the other half to the local girl's orphanage.

His other nieces and nephews wish they had listened to Efrayim's advice. Though inflation was brought under control by the nineties, and by then linked loans were accepted across the board, Ali did not change his will to reinstate his nieces and nephews.

Oh, I forgot to tell you. Ali was worth in excess of one and a half million dollars.

Menachem Kuchar, 27th July, 2010    
16th Av, 5770    

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