August 20, 2019

Holocaust Survivor, Tefillin Reunited

Al Kleiner, shown with his wife, Regina, wears the long-lost tefillin set.

It’s not uncommon to hear miraculous reunion stories involving Holocaust survivors. They usually revolve around finding long-lost family members or friends. However, the story of 91-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor Al Kleiner being reunited with the tefillin set he had in his youth is just as miraculous. 

After the war, the then 16-year-old Kleiner and his parents spent almost five years in a displaced persons camp in Germany. His father passed away in 1948; the next year, Kleiner and his mother made their way to Los Angeles. However, Kleiner’s tefillin set took a longer and more circuitous route, via Budzanow, Poland, and then to Tel Aviv, before finally making its way to Los Angeles and to Kleiner himself last year.

The tefillin set was discovered in May 2018 in a cupboard in the Tel Aviv home of Kleiner’s first cousin, Gershon Leisner, by Leisner’s 62-year-old daughter, Uvi. “They pulled out this burgundy-colored, small velvet pouch, eaten over the years with small insect holes, showing its fragility and its age,” Kleiner’s daughter Janet Rosenblatt told the Journal via phone from her home in Los Angeles. “Inside was a child’s tefillin set, a child’s tzitzit, and a small Torah.”

Uvi thought the items belonged to her late father and kept them. But when she showed the bag to her younger sister, her sister immediately noticed the case was hand-embroidered with the word “Zion” in Hebrew on one side and the initials “BK” on the other. She realized the initials on the tefillin bag were those of Al Kleiner’s older brother, Benuman. 

“Finding this personal artifact while my father is still alive is just a miracle.” — Janet Rosenblatt

“The question was,” Rosenblatt said, “how did the case from Budzanow end up in Israel?” Rosenblatt knew that Kleiner and his parents survived the Holocaust hidden by their righteous Christian neighbors, the Witomskis. While Kleiner’s older brothers Benuman and Meyer were killed at the beginning of the war, Kleiner and his parents managed to survive by living in a hole in their neighbors’ field from the end of July 1943 until March 1944, when Poland was liberated by the Soviets. 

“I remember that my grandmother said that [her parents] gave everything that was left to this Christian family,” Rosenblatt said. In 1942, the Kleiners were sent to a camp but managed to escape in 1943. They were hidden by two non-Jewish families. However, fearing reprisals, both families forced the Kleiners to leave, and the Kleiners then approached the Witomskis. The Witomskis asked a priest what to do. He told them to dig a hole in a field and bring the family food every few days. 

At some point after the war, the Leisners returned to Poland to see if anything was left of their home. Rosenblatt believes that’s when they recovered the tefillin bag. When Rosenblatt’s daughter and son-in-law visited Israel last June, they were finally able to bring the bag back to Los Angeles.  

“We looked at it with tears in our eyes and saw all this bag had gone through, how it survived and [was] returned to my father,” Rosenblatt said. “My father unfortunately has Alzheimer’s disease, so he did not really recognize it.”

However, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur last year, Rosenblatt invited the family rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Mentz of Chabad of Bel Air, to come to the house, along with the rest of her family, to see the long-lost treasure. “The miracle is, when Rabbi Mentz wrapped the tefillin around my father, my father continued to wrap it himself, like his memory came back,” Rosenblatt said.

Rosenblatt plans to donate the bag to either the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. or the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust after her three grandsons’ bar mitzvahs. 

“Finding this personal artifact while my father is still alive is just a miracle to me,” Rosenblatt said. “It survived the terror of the Holocaust. That it made its way from Budzanow, Poland, in its harshest times to our great holy land of Israel, and was then returned to my father’s hands in Los Angeles, can only be a miracle.” n