It was a hot, balmy day in May 1975, and the sun beat mercilessly down on the Cal-State campus in Northridge, California, as crowds of parents, grandparents, siblings and friends arrived to celebrate the graduation of their loved ones.
Once inside the graduation hall, families eagerly looked for their graduate among the hundreds of graduates, who were seated in the front few rows. Proud mothers waved at their sons and daughters and blew them kisses, and the graduates, in their caps and gowns, sheepishly grinned back.
A little old man, shuffling slowly into the hall, did not seem to belong to any family group. Dressed in a black gown and cap, he was actually one of the graduates—at almost 80 years old, he was senior to the second-oldest graduate by a margin of many decades.
Seemingly oblivious to the noise around him, he slowly made his way forward, nodding almost imperceptibly at the few people who made eye contact. As he reached halfway toward the front of the hall, a man in his mid-30s suddenly stepped into the aisle in front of him.
The old man looked up. His face crinkled into a broad smile, and his sad brown eyes twinkled with pleasure.
“Ehud, wow, I really was not expecting you. That is so nice of you. Thank you so much for coming. You know it wasn’t necessary …”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ehud replied, “how could I have missed your graduation?”
The old man grinned broadly, and shook Ehud’s hand. An usher urged him to find his seat, and he slowly walked towards the graduates’ section, where the nondescript octogenarian was nothing more than a slightly out-of-place curiosity. Those who knew him called him George, or Mr. Nagel. That was his name—George T. Nagel, an elderly Jewish man with a foreign accent, who lived in a room in the dorm building, and more often than not could be found reading in the library.
In the five years he had been at CSUN, although he lived in the dorm building, George had made no real friends among the young students. No one knew exactly how old he was, nor why he was so keen to graduate with a degree in psychology. But truthfully, nobody cared enough to ask.
George Nagel was a loner. Although he was unfailingly polite in his interactions, interactions were limited to mealtimes, and he clearly had no interest in socializing. He was unobtrusive and studious, a phantom who had been living under the name George T. Nagel for over 40 years. His real name was Yechezkel Taub, and he was the scion of one of Poland’s most illustrious Hasidic dynasties, having inherited his father’s title at the age of 24, along with a thriving Hasidic “court” and a sect numbering thousands of loyal followers.
In fact, although no one at CSUN on that hot day in 1975 knew it, George T. Nagel was none other than the once-acclaimed “Yabloner Rebbe,” the founder of a unique village called Kfar Hasidim near Haifa in what is now the State of Israel, to which he led hundreds of his loyal followers from Poland before the Holocaust. What not even Taub realized on the day of his anonymous graduation was that a process had started that would see the Yabloner Rebbe reunited with his past and reconnected with the unique project from which he had desperately tried to escape, but with which he would forever and unavoidably be identified.
Yechezkel Taub was born on Oct. 7, 1895, in Nowe Miasto (Neishtot in Yiddish), a small town in Poland just east of Płońsk, north of Warsaw. His father, Rabbi Yaakov Taub, was “Rebbe” of Jabłonna (Yablona), a small rural town close to Warsaw that was home to a vibrant Orthodox Jewish community. Revered across Poland as a mystical Hasidic leader, Rabbi Yaakov was a great-grandson of the original Yechezkel Taub—after whom he named his newborn son—the illustrious Rebbe of Kuzmir (Kazimierz Dolny), progenitor of several Hasidic dynasties, most famously the Modzitzer sect, renowned for their love of music and for their numerous beautiful musical compositions sung at Sabbath and festival gatherings.
The Yabloner Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Taub (1860-1920), father of Rabbi Yechezkel Taub of Jabłonna
Rabbi Yaakov’s father, Rabbi Yosef Moshe Taub (d.1866), had moved to Jabłonna from Nowe-Miasto, where his father Rabbi David Tzvi Hirsch Taub had founded a branch of the Kuzmir sect. Pious and devout, Rabbi Yosef Moshe was married to a descendant of Rabbi Yisrael Hopstein, the legendary Maggid of Kozhnitz, and he set up his own branch of the Kuzmir dynasty in Jabłonna, becoming known as the Yabloner Rebbe. Tragically he died young, leaving his 6-year-old son, Yaakov, to be raised by his grandfather.
In 1882, Rabbi Yaakov married Beila Gurman, and in the years that followed they had five children—Yechezkel and four daughters. Unusually, it was Rabbi Yaakov’s son-in-law, Chaim Yosef Halevi Vanchotzker, married to his oldest daughter, Michal Rachel, who was groomed to be the successor, rather than his son, Yechezkel. When Chaim Yosef unexpectedly died at a young age, the burden of expectation suddenly fell upon Yechezkel. Nevertheless, this unpredicted turn of events was not of great concern. At the time of Chaim Yosef’s death, Rabbi Yaakov was still in his 50s, and it would surely be many years before Yechezkel would inherit the Rebbe’s title and responsibilities.
But Rabbi Yaakov was not in good health. Soon after WWI began, he moved from Jabłonna to Warsaw, to be closer to Poland’s best medical doctors and facilities. Sadly, it was to no avail. In the summer of 1920, at the age of 60, Rabbi Yaakov passed away, and Yechezkel, not quite 25 years old and barely prepared for the position, suddenly found himself at the head of one of Poland’s prestigious Hasidic sects.
With the help of his wife, Pearl, a Kozhnitz descendent whom he had married in 1915, and his widowed elder sister, Michal Rachel, Yechezkel threw himself into the task of leading and inspiring his followers, intent on living up to the legacy of his father and the Kuzmir Hasidic heritage. Genuinely concerned for the welfare of his followers, he was very warm and personable, in addition to being learned and highly intelligent. He became involved in every aspect of his followers’ lives, making sure that the rich helped the poor, and that the less well-off devoted time to community affairs so that they wouldn’t feel like takers. The Hasidim adored him and flocked to his weekly Friday night tisch gatherings, where he sang with them and regaled them with Torah discourses. The new Yabloner Rebbe was considered a rising star among the Hasidic Rebbes of Poland, and a future leader of Polish Jewry.
Yet everything changed in 1924, with the visit to Jabłonna by a distant relative of the young Rebbe, the charismatic Rabbi Yeshaya Shapira, a crown prince of the Polish Hasidic world. Rabbi Yeshaya’s late father, R. Elimelech Shapira, had been the revered Rebbe of Grodzisk, whose followers numbered in the tens of thousands and were spread across Poland. Tragically, Rabbi Elimelech’s eldest three sons had predeceased him, so he remarried in his 60s and had two more sons, the first of whom, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman of Piaseczno, would later become immortalized as Rebbe of the Holocaust-era Warsaw Ghetto, whose inspiring sermons to demoralized ghetto inhabitants, recorded on scraps of paper, were recovered from the rubble of the ghetto after the war, and published in a book titled Esh Kodesh (“Sacred Fire”).
R. Kalonymos Kalman Shapira of Piaceszno, author of Esh Kodesh, c. 1925, together with his son R. Elimelech Benzion, who perished in the Holocaust, in an unknown photograph discovered in the Yabloner Rebbe’s archives. There are no other confirmed photos of R. Elimelech Benzion.
Shapira was Rabbi Elimelech’s youngest child. Within a year of his birth R. Elimelech died, and his widow moved back to her parents’ home, where the two boys were brought up and educated by her father, Rabbi Chaim Shmuel Horowitz-Szterenfeld of Chantshin, a descendent of the “Seer” of Lublin and one of the most unusual Hasidic Rebbes in Poland at that time. Incredibly studious and with a gifted intellect, he was renowned for completing the entire Talmud and Shulchan Aruch each year, and also known for his very ostentatious “court.” But most of all, he was notorious for his eager support of the proto-Zionist movement, Chovevei Zion, and for advocating settlement of the Holy Land.
It was this aspect of his outlook that would capture the heart of his grandson, Rabbi Yeshaya. Rejecting attempts to get him to lead his own Hasidic sect, Rabbi Yeshaya became consumed by the idea of Jews resettling the Land of Israel. In 1914, he visited Ottoman-controlled Palestine, where he was overcome by the headway made by the Zionist pioneers who had settled there. Despite his elevated Hasidic pedigree, he became an active member of the Zionist movement, which was then dominated by secular Jews openly hostile to religious observance.
With the outbreak of WWI, Rabbi Yeshaya was expelled from Palestine by the Turks, and so returned to Poland, where he founded the Polish branch of Mizrachi, and enthusiastically promoted the immigration of Torah-observant settlers to Palestine. In 1920 he managed to return to Palestine with the intention of moving there, even though his wife initially refused to join him. In 1922, he presided over the founding of Hapoel HaMizrachi, an organization devoted to setting up agricultural settlements in Palestine for religious Zionists. His ultimate dream was the relocation of an entire Hasidic sect from Poland to a new home in Palestine, together with their Rebbe, so that the stigma attached to Zionist immigration would be offset by the success of a mature Hasidic community who had immigrated en masse, without any depletion of their Torah observance or Hasidic identity. With this in mind he set out on a mission back to Poland in 1924, and came upon the Yabloner Rebbe and his community.
The impact of Rabbi Yeshaya’s visit to Jabłonna was electric. He regaled his hosts with vivid descriptions of the Holy Land, and told them about the opportunities available to those who bought land and created agricultural settlements. The Ottoman Turks were gone, and the British were now in control. In 1917, Great Britain’s foreign secretary, Arthur J. Balfour, had dispatched a letter to Lord Rothschild in London, a letter that would later become known as the Balfour Declaration, which formally declared that the British government viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” and would “use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”
Not since the days of Cyrus the Great had a gentile power urged Jews to return to their homeland, said Rabbi Yeshaya. The declaration by Cyrus in ancient Persia had resulted in the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the reestablishment of Jewish supremacy in the Jews’ ancestral territory. Now, thousands of years later, that same opportunity had arisen once again. How was it possible that religious Jews, who had so tenaciously clung to their heritage over millennia, would cede this opportunity to reprobate Jews who had discarded Torah and Judaism? This was a chance for a religious renewal of biblical proportions, said Rabbi Yeshaya, and what greater way was there to embrace this chance than by moving from Poland as a complete community, old and young, rich and poor, and to relocate to the heaven-on-earth that was the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Yeshaya’s passionate presentation and infectious enthusiasm had a profound effect on the Yabloner Rebbe, and on many of his Hasidim. The Rebbe immediately called together a gathering of all his followers, during which he forcefully advocated for the Yabloner sect to immediately begin preparing to move to Palestine. Initially, he suggested, the less well-off members of the sect would go together with him and lay the necessary groundwork. The purchase of the land and all the initial expenses would be funded by the wealthier members of the community, who would ultimately join the new settlement once everything was set up.
The response to this vision in Jabłonna was jubilant and euphoric. It was as if the Messianic era had arrived. Those who were planning to travel with the Rebbe to Palestine began to prepare for the trip, while the Rebbe himself feverishly fundraised among his followers, and from anyone who had an affiliation to the Kuzmir Hasidic groups. He also sought the blessing of senior Hasidic leaders, to boost the concept of large-scale Hasidic immigration to Palestine and to reassure his own followers that they were doing the right thing.
But the Yabloner Rebbe encountered unexpected disapproval at a meeting with the esteemed leader of the Gur Hasidic sect, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter. Known as the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Alter presided over tens of thousands of Hasidim in Poland—many of whom were themselves in prominent leadership positions—and he was widely acknowledged as one of the principal leaders of European Orthodoxy. Although the predominant view among the Hasidic leadership was strongly anti-Zionist, Rabbi Alter was less hostile towards the new realities in Palestine, and was even supportive of Orthodox immigration, in marked contrast to many of the Hasidic rabbis at the time, who considered any action by Orthodox Jews which might be interpreted as tacit support for Zionist ideals as catastrophic. But the meeting did not go as planned. After probing the Yabloner on every aspect of the proposed project, the Gerrer Rebbe dismissed it as a terrible idea.
“Don’t take any money or help from the secular Zionists,” he warned ominously, “they do not have your interests at heart and any financial dependence on them will be an utter disaster.”
Surprised by the harsh advice, the Yabloner Rebbe was still determined to carry out his plans. Within months he was on a boat to Haifa with a couple of hundred Yabloner Hasidim, armed with cash from hundreds more who wanted to own some holy land and to participate in this unique endeavor. Travelling with him on the boat was Rabbi Yisrael Eliezer Hopstein, who was en route to Palestine with a group of Kozhnitz followers. The two rabbis decided to join forces and build a Hasidic settlement together. They arrived in Palestine, where they were feted by Zionist officials. Although they were offered land near Tel Aviv, the Yabloner Rebbe preferred the mountains overlooking the Jezreel Valley close to Haifa, and asked the Jewish Agency and JNF to help him purchase land in this area.
The principal landowners in the Jezreel Valley were the Sursuks of Beirut, one of the most prominent Christian families in Lebanon. At one time they had planned to build a railway line across the valley, and the legendary British diplomat and Christian philosemite, Sir Laurence Oliphant, had worked hard to find investors to fund the construction, but the plans were never realized. The land had been in the Sursuk family for generations, tenanted by Arab farmers who paid for the right to work the land. But these farmers had no legal rights to the land, and the British authorities confirmed that the Sursuks could sell land to JNF without giving notice to Arab residents, who could be summarily evicted without compensation.
With the help of JNF and the legendary Zionist land purchaser, Yehoshua Hankin, several thousand acres were purchased, encompassing the Arab villages of Sheikh Abreik, El Harbaj and El Harchieh. The Arab residents were given compensation to vacate the land, and the two Hasidic groups began building homes on a hill overlooking the Jezreel Valley and the Kishon River. The Yabloner Rebbe had decided to call his section of the village Nachalat Yaakov, after his late father, while the Kozhnitz neighborhood was called Avodat Yisrael (“Labor of Israel”)—a reference to the founder of the Kozhnitz dynasty, R. Yisrael Hopstein, the Maggid of Kozienice, whose published work was also called Avodat Yisrael.
The Rebbe reached a financial arrangement with JNF, who agreed to treat the down payment for the land as a loan, to be repaid to the 90 families after two years, once the settlement was up and running and on condition that the families remained. The deposit amounted to a quarter of all the monies the group had brought with them from Poland, but both JNF and the Rebbe were confident that sufficient funds remained to set up the settlement, which they agreed would be a dairy farm.
High-profile visitors flocked to the new settlement, to see the remarkable phenomenon of Hasidic Zionist farmers for themselves. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, visited the settlement together with his Sephardic counterpart, Rabbi Yaakov Meir, and a large delegation of Jerusalem rabbis. Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am, was another notable visitor during his last visit to Palestine. He was joined by the celebrated Zionist writers Yehoshua Ravnitzky and Chaim Bialik. The future president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, even visited with Lord Balfour, whose 1917 declaration had been the catalyst which led to the British control of Palestine along with the new wave of immigrants after WWI.
Weizmann, in his role as head of the Jewish Agency, had been particularly critical of Polish immigrants who refused to work the land, and particularly the Orthodox, who set themselves up in new urban enclaves, such as Bnei Brak. His visit to the Yabloner Rebbe’s village and farm was deliberately promoted and widely publicized to highlight the Hasidic pioneer’s dedication to the Zionist ideal, so that it might act as an example to others.
Not everyone was happy with all the attention the Yabloner Rebbe was getting. The secular Zionist movement had been running intensive training programs for pioneer settlers for years, and were horrified that the Zionist leadership was tripping over itself to accommodate untrained—and in their eyes, untrainable—Hasidic immigrants.
David Ben-Gurion, who headed the powerful Histadrut trade union umbrella organization, scathingly attacked those who were promoting the Hasidic farming community. “How dare these Hasidim from Jabłonna and Kozhnitz be allowed to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael and waste precious land,” he railed during his keynote speech to the 1925 Zionist Congress in Vienna, adding, “if they must come, let them settle in Tel Aviv and leave the real work to people who know what they are doing.”
Ben-Gurion had a point. The 90 families who had joined the Rebbe in Palestine were comprised of all ages—including elderly grandparents, nursing mothers, and little children, and none of the adult men had any training in construction or dairy farming. Rose-tinted idealism would only carry them so far; ultimately the community would need to become self-supporting if it was to become the beacon of Orthodox agricultural immigration that its promoters hoped.
Conscious of the animosity the project was generating, in 1926 JNF published a gushing pamphlet—“Hasidim Alu El Ha’aretz” (Hasidim Have Gone up to the Land). The short pamphlet described the ethereal atmosphere of spending Shabbat in the pioneer Hasidic village. Singing, dancing, spirituality—all in the setting of a utopian agrarian community devoted to turning the barren landscape of the Holy Land into a “land flowing with milk and honey.”
The Yabloner Rebbe featured prominently in the pamphlet, and was described as the engine of the enterprise, working from the early morning until late at night, focused on the minutest details, and available for every single one of his devoted followers, young and old, as they struggled to turn the dream into a reality.
Tragically, however, whatever could have gone wrong went wrong. The former Arab tenant farmers refused to leave their land and villages, despite the compensation they had received. There was heavy rain and the Kishon River overflowed, flooding the valley and turning it into an unmanageable swamp. The Hasidim made a vain attempt to drain the swamp, but to no avail. Soon the water-sodden land was infested with mosquitoes, malaria broke out among the settlers, and some of them succumbed to the sickness and died.
The bridge they had built over the Kishon River was wrecked by Bedouins who were camping locally. The heavy rain continued, and the swamp grew. Meanwhile, the Arabs killed one of the cows and threw it into the well, contaminating the fresh water supply. Venomous snakes hidden among the ubiquitous thorns bit farm workers, killing more than one. Bedouin marauders murdered some of the newcomers. Money was scarce, and the dairy farm seemed unable to make ends meet. Despite the initial enthusiastic moral and financial support from Yabloner Hasidim in Poland that continued after they arrived, funding from abroad slowly dwindled and then dried up completely, and soon the Hasidim were literally starving.
In 1928, the Rebbe went to the United States, where he visited various communities to raise money for the settlement. Although he was warmly welcomed wherever he went, he had limited success finding philanthropic support, and returned empty handed. In desperation, the Yabloner Rebbe turned to the Zionist organizations for help, but soon discovered that they were going through their own challenges. Palestine was experiencing a serious recession, and financial support from Zionist philanthropists in Europe and the United States had decreased. Nevertheless, the Rebbe was unrelenting and would not let the mounting challenges destroy his dream, nor would he let the difficulties devastate the lives of all those who had joined him to realize it.
“We don’t have any money, and we are drowning in difficulties,” the Rebbe told Zionist officials when they met, “but we have come this far, and we are not giving up now.”
The JNF and Jewish Agency administrators sat there stony-faced. This enterprise was no longer the propaganda vehicle of 1925, and they were in no mood to waste time or money on a project that was by all measures an unmitigated disaster.
But the Yabloner Rebbe had a plan up his sleeve. He would arrange for a skilled group of Hapoel HaMizrachi religious Zionist farmworkers to be brought in, he told them, to train and work alongside the Polish Hasidim. Each of the new farmworkers would be given their own plot of land to build a home, free of charge, in addition to some land that they could farm for themselves. The mountaintop village would move down into the valley, which would give farmers easier access to the farms, and the Rebbe would trade excess land with JNF and the Jewish Agency for food and other supplies.
“We may not have any money to give you,” he told the Zionist officials, “but we have plenty of land—far more than we need to make our community successful. We can give JNF land in exchange for whatever is needed to turn our project into a success.”
Suddenly the Yabloner Rebbe became emotional, as he explained what was at stake. “Please don’t abandon us to our fate,” he pleaded, “my Hasidim are dying, and I need to save them!”
Ultimately the two sides reached an agreement. The Zionist administrators insisted that the elderly and infirm would have to return to Poland until everything was sorted out, as they were a drain on resources. Secondly, the dairy farm would need to close and make way for orchards and crops. Thirdly, the land would have to be signed over to JNF ownership, pending future developments. The Yabloner Rebbe reluctantly agreed to all of these conditions.
In exchange, the Jewish Agency provided the settlers with a stipend, while JNF took care of accumulated debts. The two Hasidic branches of the settlement were combined into a single entity called Kfar Hasidim (Village of Hasidim), and they were also joined by a third group—religious Zionists from Germany and Holland who had trained at Hachshara camps in Europe, recruited to change the farming community’s fortunes for the better.
In May 1930 work was finished on a paved road connecting Kfar Hasidim to the Haifa-Nazareth highway. The Rebbe immediately arranged for those Hasidim who were not working on the farms to obtain jobs in Haifa, and a commuter bus was organized to pick them up and drop them back each day—a remarkable innovation for the time.
Sadly, although matters had improved for residents of Kfar Hasidim, the Yabloner Rebbe soon found himself in the midst of a financial scandal. With the situation for Jews in Poland rapidly deteriorating, especially after 1935, Hasidim from Jabłonna began turning up in Palestine, expecting to take possession of the plots of land they had paid for over a decade earlier. Since the Yabloner Rebbe was unable to give them any land nor refund their money, they accused him of being a thief. He begged them to understand that their land had been used to help the settlement survive, but in their eyes the rebbe was a crook who had fraudulently taken their money and not given them what he promised in return.
After the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in 1936, and the increasing violence against Jews in Palestine, longtime residents of Kfar Hasidim also demanded money from the rebbe so that they could go back to their families in Poland. But he had no money for them either. Kfar Hasidim was just beginning to pay for itself; there was no money to spare. With outstanding debts to JNF and the Jewish Agency and the threat that they would repossess land and homes in Kfar Hasidim, while at the same time battling accusations of theft from his own followers, the Yabloner Rebbe traveled to the United States in 1938 to see if he could interest some wealthy Zionist Jews to offer him financial support. He would not return to Kfar Hasidim for over 40 years.
The rebbe arrived in New York, and moved in with his niece, Arella Mezrich, daughter of his sister Rivka Grafstein, who had tragically died in 1931 after being bitten by a snake. Arella was raised in Kfar Hasidim, but some years earlier had decided to leave for the United States. In 1935 she arrived in New York, and soon afterwards married Mordechai Mezrich, an immigrant from Russia. The Mezrich family had a bag-manufacturing business based on the East Coast, and were moderately prosperous. The Yabloner Rebbe used the Mezrich home as his base, and began visiting Orthodox communities sympathetic to the Zionist cause to generate support for the expansion of Kfar Hasidim. To broaden his appeal, he partnered with the Federation of Polish Jews in America, an organization founded in 1908 to assist Polish Jews who had settled there, but which more recently had started to provide relief for Polish Jews in distress. By the late 1930s anti-Semitism in Poland had reached a new peak, fully enabled by the Polish government via legislation and also by a deliberate policy of refusing to reign in anti-Jewish violence. This situation motivated the federation to offer their full support for the Rebbe’s plans to bring Polish Jews to Palestine.
In July 1939, the New York Daily News reported the purchase of 400 acres of land in Palestine by the federation for the settlement of 500 Jewish families from Poland. The report declared that the “colonists” who would move to Palestine from Poland would be “extended credit for building houses and other necessities,” and added that the project was “under the direction of Rabbi Ezekiel Taub of Palestine,” assisted by a special committee of the federation.
Tragically, the ambitious plans never had the chance to materialize. Two months later the German army marched into Poland, and the Yabloner Rebbe now found himself stuck in the United States as a war refugee. He immediately abandoned his fundraising campaign and attempted to volunteer for the war effort. At first he attempted to join the army and the navy, but they were not particularly interested in the idea of conscripting a Polish Hasidic Jew in his mid-40s. Undaunted by this rejection, the Rebbe began to look for construction work in the military-supplies industry that was quickly gathering pace during the early months of the war thanks to the Lend-Lease Act, which authorized the transfer of arms and defense materials to “the government of any country whose defense the President deem[ed] vital to the defense of the United States.”
As the war in Europe escalated, the Yabloner Rebbe moved out west, where he found work in California shipyards. In 1942, The Jewish Floridian reported that the Rebbe was working as a riveter at a shipyard in San Francisco. A few months later the same newspaper reported that he had moved to Los Angeles, where he had found work as a designing engineer in another shipyard. “The Rebbe solves the problem of observing the Sabbaths without losing hours,” the paper reported, “by working overtime on weekdays.”
In June 1942, the BBC broadcast a report claiming that over 700,000 Polish Jews had been deliberately and systematically exterminated by the Nazis. By November American newspapers had confirmed the slaughter but revealed that the BBC had underestimated the true magnitude of the genocide. Millions of European Jews had been murdered by the Nazis, they reported, and the grisly rumors that had been emerging from the European continent for over a year were all true. These emerging details of the Holocaust had been reliably relayed to the press via Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland, who sent a series of communications to Rabbi Stephen Wise through the U.S. State Department. Initially the State Department tried to suppress the information, which officials considered exaggerated and sensationalist, but after conducting their own independent investigation the information was finally released to the public, and the full horror of the Holocaust was confirmed.
Jewish communities in Allied countries across the world held rallies, prayer days and vigils, and Wednesday, Dec. 2, 1942, was declared an international day of mourning. Jews who had family in Nazi-controlled countries, or in countries with ties to Nazi Germany, were panic stricken, and across the world they desperately lobbied the Allied leadership to attempt something—anything!—that would bring the relentless killing to a halt. But besides empty declarations, and meaningless platitudes, nothing was done, and the slaughter continued.
In January 1944, under pressure from his Jewish-born secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, President Roosevelt withdrew the State Department from any role relating to the Nazi murder of Jews, and instead he created the War Refugee Board, under his personal authority, to address the issue. In November 1944, the board published a one-page announcement that confirmed both the existence of the sprawling operational death facility at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the extermination of the vast majority of European Jewry.
For Polish-born Jews the board report was a devastating bombshell. It substantiated once and for all what they had most feared, namely that all the Jews of Poland were dead—gassed, shot, burned—murdered like animals in death camps and killing fields. Before the war Poland had been home to the most vibrant and most populous Jewish community in the world. Now that community was gone, wiped out.
For the Yabloner Rebbe, erstwhile rabbi of Jabłonna near Warsaw, the emerging news of the Holocaust came as a double blow. Besides the fact that the entire Jabłonna community had been obliterated along with the rest of Polish Jewry, there were those—including the extended families of many of the Kfar Hasidim pioneers—whom he had sent back from Palestine to Poland, because they served no useful purpose in the farming settlement and were a pointless drain on its resources. This had been a non-negotiable condition for the continued involvement of JNF and the Jewish Agency with the Hasidic settlement, and however reluctant the Rebbe may have been to go along with it, he had allowed it to happen. In his own mind the Rebbe began to believe that the deaths of those who had gone back to Poland were his fault.
“Chaskel Taub”, U.S. Citizenship Declaration of Intention, 1942.
The pain was overwhelming. And moreover, where was God in all this? Did He even exist? If He did, was it not crystal clear that He had utterly abandoned the Yabloner Rebbe? So many people’s lives had been lost or devastated—and he, Yechezkel Taub, had been the agent of their destruction. His entire Hasidic sect had been wiped out, and those who remained alive in Kfar Hasidim despised him for his role in wrecking their lives.
In late 1944, as the full weight of his distressing predicament became clear, and his anger at God grew and kept on growing, the Yabloner Rebbe decided on a drastic course of action. Without Hasidim, he decided to himself, he was no longer a rebbe—a rebbe has to have Hasidim, and his Hasidim were gone. Meanwhile, his Kfar Hasidim project in Palestine was an utter failure—whoever remained there certainly didn’t need him, and it was more than likely that they didn’t want him either. The best thing for him to do, he concluded, would be to disappear into oblivion in the United States of America, like millions of other faceless immigrants who had done the same.
And just like that, one day, Rabbi Yechezkel Taub—the revered Yabloner Rebbe, scion of the Kuzmir Hasidic dynasty, at one time the leader of thousands of devoted followers, and trailblazing Orthodox Zionist settler—removed his yarmulke, cut off his sidelocks, shaved off his beard, quietly changed his name, and filed immigration papers to become a naturalized citizen of the United States.
On Aug. 1, 1945, two non-Jewish acquaintances, Margaret Depew, a hotel manageress, and Albert Crapo, a rigger, both vouched that they had known “Chaskiel Taub” since December 1944 as a “man of good moral character” and then witnessed him take the oath of allegiance, after which he was confirmed as a U.S. citizen.
His naturalization papers referred to him as “George Ezekiel Taub Nagel.” He avoided all contact with the Jewish community of Los Angeles, and severed all contact with Kfar Hasidim, except for secretive communications with his family, who referred to him by the codename “Uncle Dod,” combining the English and Hebrew words for uncle. He stopped keeping kosher, and also stopped observing Shabbat and festivals, including Yom Kippur. He abandoned the study of Torah or any religious texts, and almost never visited a synagogue.
For all intents and purposes, the Yabloner Rebbe was no more, replaced by an urbane Polish immigrant with slicked-back hair and a sad, faraway look in his eyes.
With WWII over, the shipyard no longer needed George Nagel, but his many years working in construction and engineering would not go to waste. Southern California was in the midst of a massive construction boom, particularly in the San Fernando Valley adjacent to Los Angeles. The small suburban communities which had previously dotted the valley landscape suddenly blossomed and bloomed, rapidly overtaking the citrus orchards and farms that had dominated the area during the early decades of the 20th century.
Between the ever-expanding defense, space, and aircraft industries located in Southern California, there was a constant supply of new job opportunities, and these industries in turn attracted electronics companies, the atomic energy industry, and of course companies specializing in research and development. Add to all these the requirement for services catering to the new residents and their families, with all the associated jobs—and the need for new housing was urgent, and meeting that need could be extremely profitable.
George Nagel immediately seized his opportunity. He borrowed money to buy plots of land, on which he constructed the type of modest homes that were becoming ubiquitous across the valley. His knowledge of construction had its origins in the difficult, hands-on work he had supervised during the early years at Kfar Hasidim, and this experience ensured that his development projects were all successful, quickly making him a wealthy man with an ever-expanding empire of development projects.
Occasionally he would partner on a project with one or more of the enterprising group of Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivors who had landed in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles, particularly the Kornwasser brothers, Mottel and Yankel. The Kornwassers were originally from Sosnowiec in Poland, and had lost their entire families in the Holocaust. Some of the survivors, like the Kornwassers, knew who George really was, but at his request they kept his identity a closely guarded secret.
George Nagel in Los Angeles, 1950s.
Another one of George’s friends in the strictly Orthodox community was Yidel Rottenberg, son of the Kossonye Rebbe of Kleinwardein, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Rottenberg, who immigrated to the United States from Hungary in the early 1930s, and moved to Los Angeles in 1937 to take advantage of the mild climate, which alleviated the symptoms of his chronic asthma.
Yidel was a shochet (ritual slaughterer), and a charming conversationalist. His brother Rabbi Ephraim Asher Rottenberg presided over a tiny Hasidic synagogue in Fairfax, but Yidel frequented Rabbi Yitzchak Pinchas Ginsburg’s synagogue, which was close by. He encouraged George to join him there, and on rare occasions George relented and came to the shul—but only on condition that no one would be told who he really was.
Truthfully, no one gave him a second glance. He was just another lost soul of European origin who had somehow landed in Los Angeles, no longer religious but yearning for an occasional connection with the traditional Jewish life of their youth. There were dozens of such visitors at the tiny Fairfax synagogues all the time, and no one pried into their backgrounds or their current situations; after all, everyone had plenty of their own baggage to be concerned with.
When the Sadiger-Przemyśl Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef Friedman, visited Los Angeles in the 1950s, he presided over a gathering of local Los Angeles Hasidim one Saturday night at Rabbi Ginsburg’s synagogue, and Yidel Rottenberg persuaded George to attend. At the time, Rabbi Friedman was one of the foremost Hasidic rabbinic personalities in the world, a prestigious leader from a prestigious dynasty, and a visit from someone of his caliber was extremely unusual.
There was quite a crowd at Rabbi Ginsburg’s synagogue to share in the Rebbe’s post-Shabbat meal—considered a special privilege in Hasidic circles—but there were not hundreds of people, as there would certainly have been in New York, or in Europe before the war, where there might even have been thousands. Los Angeles had no real Hasidim, just a small handful of Holocaust survivors who had been brought up Hasidic, and who were nostalgic for a taste of their youth. The Sadiger-Przemyśl Rebbe went through the motions for them, but some of those who came were very disappointed.
“You call this a tisch?” one of them said to his friend, within earshot of George and Yidel.
“This is a joke. A shadow of what a real tisch should look like,” he continued, “I remember the tisch of the Yabloner Rebbe—my father took me to one when I was a child. Now, that was a real tisch, with proper singing, and a real spiritual atmosphere that uplifted everyone there. Not like this one.” And with that he got up and left.
Little did the man know that directly across the table from where he had been sitting, listening to every word, was the Yabloner Rebbe himself—the very man who had inspired him and hundreds of others all those years ago—now a nondescript, cleanshaven, nonobservant Jew, who built cheap homes in the valley. But George said nothing, and neither did Yidel Rottenberg.
The California economy took a nosedive in the late 1960s, and unemployment began to climb. Bank deregulation had changed the dynamics for savings-and-loan institutions. East Coast and Midwest money, which had previously flowed generously in California’s direction as a result of higher interest rates for savings in California, now stayed at home, as the interest rates in New York and Chicago began to match those in California. Bank loans were consequently less readily available for real-estate speculators. The housing boom was slowing down.
A couple of years earlier, George had decided to invest in an apartment complex development project, which was quite an upgrade from his previous focus on subdividing small lots to build cheap single-family homes. As the economy deteriorated, George discovered he was in over his head. Substandard contractors did not meet deadlines, and when the apartments were finally ready they looked terrible and didn’t sell.
Eventually the banks foreclosed and took possession of the apartments. George was almost completely wiped out financially. Suddenly, without any warning, George was taken ill and rushed to hospital. It took weeks for him to be properly diagnosed and treated. In his 70s, and acutely aware that both his father and paternal grandfather had died young, he did not believe he would ever make it out of the hospital alive.
As he lay sick in hospital, George was regularly visited by his great-nephew, Ehud Yonay. Ehud was the grandson of his older sister, Michal Rachel, whose daughter Erella had married Ehud’s father, Mordechai, the rebellious son of an ultra-Orthodox Russian Jewish pioneer who had joined the Kfar Hasidim settlement soon after it was founded. The very secular Mordechai was considered scandalous by the devout Hasidim of Kfar Hasidim. His son Ehud, who was also not observant, had moved to California after his army service to become a journalist for California Magazine. It was in California that Ehud met his great-uncle for the first time. They spent a lot of time together, becoming very close. As soon as Ehud heard that George was in hospital, he rushed over to see him. As the weeks went by, Ehud dropped in regularly to spend time with George in an effort to cheer him up.
“Why don’t you come back to Israel?” he asked George. “What are you still doing here in America by yourself, with no family?”
“I can’t go back,” George replied. “I messed up their lives, and they all think I stole their money. There’s no way I could ever go back. Forget it. That part of my life is done.”
“How about you just come back for a visit?” Ehud suggested.
George looked at his nephew. “I’ll think about it,” he said.
But Ehud wouldn’t relent. The topic kept coming up. No one cared about the past, Ehud maintained—life had moved on. But George wasn’t convinced. After decades of self-imposed exile, he just could not see himself returning to Kfar Hasidim, the source of so much painful anguish and trauma.
“So what are you going to do if you get better and get out of the hospital?” asked Ehud.
“I’m not getting better so fast,” said George, “and maybe I’ll never get out—except in a box.”
“Don’t be so morbid! Don’t be silly! What if you do get better? Will you go back into business?”
“Never!” said George emphatically.
“Then what?” The journalist in Ehud could not leave a question unanswered.
“I think I want to go to college and study psychology.”
Ehud laughed. “Are you kidding? College? Psychology? Why don’t you just come home to Israel?”
George sighed. “All my life I’ve been interested in studying psychology. I’ve got just about enough money to live, so if I don’t die in hospital I’m going to apply to university and study psychology. That’s what I want to do.”
George looked across at Ehud, his face resolute and determined. Ehud shrugged his shoulders. The idea seemed utterly preposterous. But as soon as George was discharged from hospital he applied to San Fernando Valley State College, did his admissions interviews, and enrolled as a psychology undergraduate. Rather than rent an apartment in Northridge, near the college campus, he opted to live in the dorms with all the students.
George was in his element; it was as if he had been reborn. His sole interest was learning, and he spent most of his time in the library—reading, writing, researching. He still retained a few investment properties, through which he was able to modestly support himself, but he refused to get involved in any business-related activities—that part of his life was over. He had come to the realization that every day he had left was precious, and he wasn’t going to waste any of his remaining time trying to make money, which he realized he didn’t need and would never use.
George Nagel, CSUN Graduation, 1975.
Before long George had become a minor celebrity at the college, which in 1972 was renamed California State University Northridge (CSUN). Newspapers reported on the veteran student dorming alongside anti-war protesting students, many of whom adopted him as a surrogate grandfather. George was a good listener, and always happy to offer advice—and countless students beat a path to his door. But none of them knew who George really was. He had stripped his backstory to the most basic information so that no questions were asked. He told everyone that he had arrived in the United States via Palestine just before WWII—a poor refugee with no wife or children, and no money or prospects. He was the embodiment of the American Dream—he had become a successful businessman and now wanted to spend the remainder of his life studying, catching up on all the time he had lost in his younger years, educating himself in subjects that had always interested him, but for which he had never had the time.
George was joined at CSUN by his young “relative,” Joseph Chudy, nephew by marriage of his niece Arella Mezrich. The Chudy family lived in California, having moved there in the 1940s, and they treated George like family. Joseph was particularly close to George, but he, too, knew nothing about the old man’s true background. The only person who knew anything about the unique history of the Yabloner Rebbe and his alter ego, George Nagel, was his great-nephew, Ehud.
In 1975, George T. Nagel graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology. It was a landmark event, and Ehud believed that with the education bug out of his system, George would finally agree to come back to Kfar Hasidim. Immediately after the graduation, Ehud brought up the subject again. It was time to visit Israel. Unexpectedly, George was more open to the idea than ever before, and he promised Ehud that he would visit Kfar Hasidim at some point very soon.
But he was still anxious. “What will I do if they all still hate me? If they treat me with contempt? If they still think I’m a thief!” he asked Ehud.
“What’s the big deal?” Ehud replied. “If you’re not comfortable in Kfar Hasidim, you’ll take a taxi to Haifa, stay in a hotel, and take the next flight back to L.A.”
George shook his head. He still wasn’t sure.
“I’m not moving back—you know that,” he said.
Ehud smiled. “We’ll see.”
George T. Nagel’s Psychology major Bachelor’s certificate, awarded May 1975
George was not quite ready yet. He had decided to go for a master’s degree, but rather than attend classes and take exams, he contributed volunteer hours at a drug-rehabilitation facility, where he counseled recovering drug addicts from the margins of society. He carefully documented each case, offering his candid account of his encounters and his reflections.
The final result was a book—Paradise Cove—They Escaped the Cuckoo’s Nest—a reference to the multiple Academy Award-winning movie of 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the movie, a group of patients at a mental health facility are confined there by fear and intimidation. In George’s dissertation, he eases people out of their mental jails and introduces them back into society.
George had come full circle. Suddenly he was back in his role as a Hasidic Rebbe, even if he did not realize it himself. He was helping people to improve their lives by healing them, teaching them, and bringing the best out in them. In this guise he was no longer George Nagel, the immigrant businessman escaping from his miserable past; instead he was the Yabloner Rebbe, giving people with no hope a better vision of the future.
It was 1978, and he was ready to return to Kfar Hasidim. He told Ehud that he had booked a roundtrip ticket to Israel, and the dates. Quietly, without letting George know, Ehud informed his mother that her uncle was coming back.
The day arrived, and George landed at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. A car was waiting to pick him up for the one-and-a-half-hour ride to Kfar Hasidim. The car drove through the entrance of the village and stopped at the nondescript house on Rechov Hameyasdim where George’s niece Erella lived with her husband, Mordechai. He hadn’t seen her for 40 years.
Erella ran over to George and hugged him. “Welcome home, Uncle!” she bubbled, “we have a surprise for you.”
“A surprise?” He wasn’t sure if he liked the idea of a surprise.
“Yes,” she replied, “but we need to drive up the road to the social hall. There are a few people there who are waiting to meet you.”
They arrived at the hall, which was packed with hundreds of people who had gathered to meet the man who had put Kfar Hasidim on the map. Old and young, religious and secular—everyone connected to the village was there. A seat at the front was left empty for George, and as a hush descended he slowly made his way toward his seat and sat down under the large welcome sign that adorned the front wall. An elderly man stood up and turned towards George.
“Rebbe, do you remember me?” he asked.
George looked at him, trying to figure out who he was.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Are you Chaimke? Chaimke Geldfarb?”
Chaimke smiled. “Yes, Rebbe, it’s me.” His voice was hoarse with emotion. “On behalf of all the residents of our Kfar, I want to welcome you back home. You were probably nervous to come here. You probably think we are angry with you. You probably think that because you brought us here from Poland, away from our homes, away from our families, to build your dream, not ours. And then it all went wrong, so you think we are angry that it all went wrong. But Rebbe, if that’s what you think, you’re mistaken. Because Rebbe—you saved our lives—if it were not for you, we would all have been killed by the Nazis.”
“Look over there …” Chaimke pointed toward a group of people in the middle of the hall. “That’s my son with his wife and children, and next to him my two daughters with their husbands and children. My parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and their children—all murdered by the Nazis. But we came with you, Rebbe. We built this place. We founded this village. We survived. And you were the one who saved our lives. And for that we thank you. Thank you for our lives, and for the lives of our children and grandchildren. We can never thank you enough.”
Chaimke sat down, and an old woman rose to speak.
“Rebbe, do you remember me?”
George looked carefully at her.
“Sheindel, is that you?”
“Sheindel, yes, but now they call me Shoshana.”
Sheindel had a lump in her throat as she spoke, and she struggled to get the words out. “Rebbe, Rebbe, where have you been for so many years? We missed you! We needed you! Without you we would all be dead, and we would not have had our beautiful lives in our beautiful Israel. Why did you leave? Everything turned out OK in the end. Look at us, look at how lucky we are. We escaped from the murderers and built our own homes in God’s promised land. You said we could do it, and we did it.”
Sheindel began weeping. Tears flowed down her cheeks, as her daughter next to her put an arm around her shoulder.
“Rebbe, come home,” Sheindel sobbed, “you’ve been gone for far too long. It’s time to come home.”
There was dead silence, besides Sheindel’s muffled sobs. George looked around the hall. Everyone was looking at him. He looked down at his hands, and then at the floor. Slowly he got to his feet.
“My friends, my dear, dear friends,” he began, “I am so moved by this warm welcome. I don’t have very much to say. I have missed this place and all of you so much for all these years. I never understood how much this place meant to me, and how much I meant to you—until now. I never thought about what you just said. I never thought about the fact that I saved your lives, only about all the lives that were lost. I never thought about what I gave you, only about what I took away from you. But now it’s all become clear.”
He paused for a few seconds. You could have heard a pin drop. Then George whispered, slowly, deliberately, “It’s time. I’m ready. I’m coming home. I’m ready. I’m coming home,” and he sat down.
There was a moment of silence, and suddenly the hall erupted in applause. Everyone rose to their feet and applauded. It went on and on, as George made his way through the hall and shook everyone’s hand, smiling broadly. The Yabloner Rebbe had returned to Kfar Hasidim, and now he was going to move back.
George flew back to Los Angeles to wrap up his affairs and prepare for the move to Israel. But sorting everything out took him longer than expected. Although he had wanted to finish his master’s at CSUN, he soon realized that this was not going to happen, and that he would have to make the move to Israel before he became too old. Over the next couple of years George visited Israel for extended periods, until, in November 1981, he gave away his last few possessions and flew off to Israel to settle there for good. He had just turned 86.
After more than 40 years away, he was finally back living in Kfar Hasidim, loved and valued. It was at this point that George Nagel returned to his roots, changing his name back to Yechezkel Taub. Moreover, he became the revered Yabloner Rebbe once again. He grew back his beard and sidelocks, his yarmulke returned, and so did his religious observance. The Rebbe was given a seat at the front of the Kfar Hasidim synagogue, where he prayed regularly, and several times a week groups of eager youngsters would gather on a patch of land outside the house in which the Rebbe lived, and he taught them Torah, and told them stories of their heritage in the Hasidic tradition.
Very few people knew about his return to Israel, and truthfully, few would have cared. The pioneering challenges of Palestine in the 1920s and ’30s were a distant memory, replaced by the flourishing and vibrant State of Israel. The Yabloner Rebbe was a relic of the difficult past best left forgotten, of interest to no one outside his own family and the residents of Kfar Hasidim.
c.1985, the Yabloner Rebbe with the celebrated Israeli poet Shin Shalom (pseudonym of Shalom Joseph Shapira; 1904–1990), who was a school teacher in Kfar Hasidim during the 1920s.
Even Kfar Hasidim had changed substantially since those early days, with the addition of a new ultra-Orthodox neighborhood—Kfar Hasidim Bet—home to an internationally renowned yeshiva, ironically of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian persuasion. But the lack of interest in his return to Israel didn’t bother the Rebbe at all. He was not interested in attracting attention to himself. After more than four decades living under a pseudonym in Los Angeles, any publicity would only have dredged up unnecessary attention, and potentially unpleasant stories and dormant resentments.
In early 1986, the Rebbe began to weaken and decline, and he passed away peacefully on May 22. He was 90 years old. The funeral was modest, attended by the residents of Kfar Hasidim, with a low-key service. The Rebbe was buried in the heart of the cemetery, among the graves of all those who had followed him from Europe to create a Hasidic settlement in Eretz Yisrael over 60 years earlier. Although things had not turned out quite as planned, together they had dared to dream, and to persevere. Kfar Hasidim had endured despite the many hardships and challenges, and despite the absence of its foremost activist and leader for so many years. But he had ended his life in their midst, closing the circle that had begun in 1924.
The Rebbe’s headstone was installed within a month of his burial, as is the custom in Israel. The inscription focused on the Rebbe’s distinguished lineage and his single greatest achievement:
Here lies Grand Rabbi Yechezkel Taub, the ‘Rebbe of Yablona,’ son of Grand Rabbi Yaakov Taub. Last scion of the dynasty that began with Grand Rabbi Yechezkel of Kuzmir, disciple of the ‘Seer of Lublin’ … in 5685 he led his Hasidim up to Eretz Yisrael where he redeemed the lands of Harbaj, Harchieh and Sheikh Abreik. Founder of Nachalat Yaakov, later known as Kfar Hasidim.
His remarkable trajectory from revered Polish Hasidic leader, to Zionist pioneer, to reviled failure, to war refugee, to shipyard worker, to successful real-estate developer, to bankruptcy, to geriatric college student, and back to his roots as a revered Hasidic Rebbe, is surely one of the most astonishing Jewish stories of the modern era.
Originally published in Tablet, September 17, 2018.