Binyamin Brenzel is 100 years old. He lives in Jerusalem, down the street from the Schechter Institute. He worked as a bookkeeper at Neve Schechter, the JTS branch in Israel, and later at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, for a total of 31 years, retiring at the age of 98. He is visited weekly, with great devotion, by Munir Morduch, who is in charge of maintenance at the Schechter Institute. Every year at Chanukah time, about twenty members of the staff go to his modest apartment to celebrate his birthday and every year he tells us stories about his century.
Born in Lvov on December 14, 1902, he lived through all of the major tragedies and triumphs of the twentieth century. As a teenager, he volunteered to serve in the Austrian Army in World War I; he was assigned to the Supply Corps. In 1918, he returned to Lvov where the Ukrainians and the Poles were vying for control of the city. The Jews sided with the Ukrainians, so when the Poles emerged victorious, Binyamin fled for Czechoslovakia where he worked in a textile factory until 1927.
In 1927, he returned to Lvov for his brother’s wedding. When his brother left for the States, Binyamin replaced him at another textile firm. Binyamin married Lina in 1932. In 1934, they tried to get visas to join his family in the U.S., but were denied visas because the quota was full. They managed, however, to get certificates from the British to enter Palestine and they made aliyah in 1934.
From 1934-1939, Binyamin built houses, worked on a dock and picked fruit. In 1939, Binyamin joined the British army and served in various non-combat roles in different countries until retiring with the rank of Staff Sergeant in 1946. His last position was as a guard at the Reading Power Station in Tel Aviv.
Shortly after the State of Israel was founded, Binyamin became manager of the payroll department in the Ministry of Labor in Tel Aviv, which later moved to Jerusalem. In 1955, he married his second wife, Florence; they had met when she had brought him regards from his relatives in the States. After “retiring” from the government in 1969, he began to work at Neve Schechter and at the Schechter Institute, as described above. Binyamin speaks Hebrew, English, Yiddish, Czech and Ukrainian.
This past year, his niece Edith Tuber of New York, gave us a copy of the letter which follows; Binyamin wrote it to his sister Adela on November 30, 1947, the day after the United Nations approved the Partition Plan. This time capsule from 1947 is an important historical document, which captures the euphoria of that special moment in Jewish history. In the hustle-bustle of every-day life in Israel, we are pre-occupied by terrorist attacks, the war with Iraq, the economic crisis, and the current battle between the Treasury and the Histadrut. One day a year, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, we step back and thank God for the miracle of the State of Israel: the Ingathering of the Exiles, the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language, the creation of a vibrant democracy in our ancient homeland.
I know of no better way to get into the spirit of Yom Ha’atzmaut than for you to read this beautiful letter by Binyamin Brenzel. It captures the mood of the people of Israel as the countdown began towards the end of Exile and the birth of the State – whose very name was still unknown! As we read it, may we set aside our everyday worries and dwell instead on the beauty and successes of the State of Israel as it turns 55.
Tel Aviv, 30.11.1947
Dear Adela and the rest of the family,
As you note, I wrote the date on top of this letter in full, as this will be a historical date for the generations to come. It took 1800 years and cost the Jews millions of victims: the right to be recognized by the great majority of the U.N. as a people. And I am happy to be one of those who live in this historical moment.
Now I am satisfied. But I was not so last night or two nights before when I was sitting by the radio until late night hours listening to the General Assembly’s outcome of the vote. When I was sitting thousands of miles from New York, listening to the arguments pro and contra, my heart, as the hearts of all people here, sank and rose together with the speeches of the delegates there. And when I heard the delegate of France suggesting an adjournment for 24 hours, which was finally accepted by the majority, I felt very unhappy. But last night I had the privilege to hear the knock with the hammer, of the President of the U.N. saying: We shall now begin the voting by role call, those in favour will say yes, those against will say no, and those abstaining don’t know what to say (sic!).
It was 12:20 after midnight (your time 5:20 p.m.). I could hardly sit quiet listening to the results of the voting. I kept a pencil and paper and noted down the yes’es and no’s as they came from the radio. After the president said: a majority of 33 pro, the whole town went crazy. You should know that I was not the only one who was sitting by the wireless. Tens of thousands went out into the streets singing and dancing the whole night. Old and young were dancing “horra”.
Now we are looking forward to a great future. Of course it will be hard in the beginning, there are many enemies against us, but we sincerely hope to get through it. And, if everything goes as planned, I shall be working at the end of the next 8 months for the Government of “Medina Ivrith”. I am enclosing a cutting from a newspaper showing the people waiting outside a press building, for news. As you will notice, it is late. I am too excited to write anything more today.
And now, I look down from my office window and what do I see? There is a glassware shop just opposite. The owner has brought a dozen bottles of wine and serves free drinks for passersby. And everyone who drinks must say “Shehechiyanu” and “Long live the Jewish State” and has to throw the glass to the floor and break it. Well it’s a great moment, and I am happy. And how are all of you? I hope well. We are, of course!!!
O.K. And now best regards and love to all of you—
Lina and Ben
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: mailto:email@example.com. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.