The Unlikely Funeral

Walking through Bnei Brak in the summer is like enjoying quality time in the sauna, while trying to go about everyday life. Nowadays, most places are air-conditioned, but back then, it was just boiling, with nowhere to go for relief. The streets were alive with a mélange of aromas. A falafel store at the corner did brisk business, and the smell of frying chickpeas combined with the smoke of Time cigarettes wafting out of the famed Dubek building on Rabbi Akiva Street. Everyone was sweating; what could you do? It was really incredibly hot. And humid. The kiosks sold cold drinks faster than they could cool them in the fridge. People pressed the bottles covered in beaded moisture against their necks, took a gulp of their cola, seltzer, or water, and suffered in silence. Bnei Brak of 35 years ago.

I was just walking along minding my own business, the way I always did, when the sound of screaming intruded on my dreams of the beach at Caesarea. I turned around and saw a sight I will never forget.

A rusty Egged bus had pulled away from the bus stop, and the driver had already pressed down on the gas. An older woman was hanging from the back door of the bus, probably caught by the doors as she was getting off. The driver didn’t know she was there.

People yelled in fright; the woman’s agonized screams rent the air. But still the driver drove, and the woman was dragged along the street. By the time someone flagged him down, the damage was done. The woman was dead.

***

As a paramedic I have seen many traumatizing scenes, but the sight of this woman was definitely one of the worst. It was a brutal picture. I did my best to work on here, to attempt to save her, but there was nothing to be done. She was gone.

Back then in Israel, autopsies were performed as a matter of course. Any time someone died, unless the family protested strenuously (and even then, it didn’t always help), an autopsy was carried out. Things have changed a lot since those days, and forced autopsies are nowhere near as prevalent as they once were. But when this story took place, the chance of the ambulance carting this woman off to Abu Kabir to be autopsied was very likely. And that was a crime.

The woman had had the misfortune to die in a horrific accident; she didn’t deserve to be cut up and studied. Her body deserved to be saved from such a fate. Flipping quickly through her belongings, I couldn’t find evidence of any family to notify or any mention of relatives to call: no photos, no phone numbers. There was an identity card and a few bills, some change, some tissues, and that was it. Meanwhile there was no time to lose. The doctors who carried out the autopsies had a way of finding things out very quickly. There was no time to track down relatives and inform them of the funeral. There was no time for anything. The woman lying in front of me was an official meis mitzvah, a dead body that nobody knew or was able to identify. This meant that everyone had an obligation to bury her.

Within minutes a representative of the chevrah kaddisha had appeared to deal with the police and the bureaucrats. In an amazingly short time a taxi was making the rounds of Bnei Brak streets with a loudspeaker attached to its roof. The speaker was announcing the levayah for a meis mitzvah to be leaving shortly form the corner of Rabbi Akiva and Yerushalayim Streets. A meis mitzvah is no small thing, and the crowds began to form. It wasn’t long before the street was jam-packed: thousands of people were intent on accompanying this unknown woman on her final journey. The funeral began on time, and the crowds began their trek toward the cemetery.

I watched in disbelief as the throng continued to swell in size: thousands of black-hatted bachurim and kollel yungeleit gathered on one side of the street, and countless Bais Yaakov girls and their teachers, mothers, and friends stood on the other side, spilling over into the thoroughfare, all walking slowly behind those who were bearing the niftar. It was a sight to behold.

Many gedolim have resided in Bnei Brak, and their funerals have been large, huge even. But almost none of them had been this big. It was crazy! That an unknown woman should have garnered such a crowd of the city’s most eminent scholars! Why? Who was she? What could this woman have done to merit such a send-off? The crowd waited until the levayah was over, and then they began to disperse to their homes and yeshivahs. As I watched the  chevrah kaddisha refilling the grave, I promised myself that I would find out more about this woman and why she had merited such a farewell.

***

Easier said than done. I was a busy guy, holding down a few jobs, besides my obligations to my learning and my family, and it wasn’t easy for me to find the time for serious investigations. And even when I was able to put aside some time, I would pick up the phone and find that I didn’t know where to begin. I knew the woman’s family name, and my first move was to go through the phone book, calling everyone with the same name. She wasn’t related to any of them. Nobody had even hear of her. According to her identity card, she had made aliyah from Russia a few years before, and she didn’t have a husband or children. A sad story. Older woman, killed by bus. No one left to morn her death.

I was mourning, though. It wasn’t much, but I learned some mishnayos and I said Kaddish and I prayed that she would find eternal peace. Still, I wondered who she was. Every line of investigation that I took left my stymied, but I hoped that one day I would uncover the facts that I was missing. For now, I contented myself with some davening and learning.

One day, I heard about a gathering of Russian Jews that was taking place in Bnei Brak, an all-day affair of speeches and presentations to the religious Russian community in Eretz Yisrael. Politicians, rabbanim, and other influential people would all be there to share their wisdom for the benefit of those who had managed to escape. I wasn’t really interested in the speeches, but I was hoping that maybe I would find some people who might have heard of this mystery woman. I told nobody of my hopes, knowing that everyone who knew me was already sick of hearing about the saga of the meis mitzvah. If I ended up with something more, I would be happy to share it with my friends. Until then, I would keep my mouth closed.

***

The convention was taking place at some hall at the edge of the city. It was another hot day, and as I parked outside the building I felt my shirt sticking to my back. I watched as dozens of Russian Jews headed purposefully toward the building, intent on finding out what they needed to know to be successful in their new home. After everyone had entered the hall, I shrugged my shoulders, took a deep breath, and followed them inside. This was it. If I couldn’t find out about the mystery woman today, I would give up.

I found myself in a quiet lobby. The brown linoleum on the floor was worn through in many places, and the drapes that hung listlessly from the windows were old and frayed. Off to the side of the room stood a rickety table, a steaming samovar resting in a place of honor in the center. Some simple refreshments on paper plates. A few ancient posters on the walls. Clearly, the Jewish Agency felt they had better things to do with their time, because there was no money behind this gathering.

I eased open the double doors at the back of the hall and saw a crowd of a few hundred people listening avidly to a bearded man standing on the dais, waving his arms in the air. Without even knowing the language, I knew he was a good speaker. I found a program and saw that his speech would soon be over, followed by a 15-minute break. This was my opportunity to get out there and do some networking. There had to be someone in here who had known this woman!

The speaker went about 10 minutes overtime, and when he was finished the crowd applauded warmly. Then they made their collective way out the back doors and into the lobby for some tea and herring. It was a hot day in August, and these people were drinking exceptionally hot tea. Go figure.

“Excuse me,” I said to one of the people closest to me. “Would you perhaps know a woman named Anna Grossman?” The guy shook his head quietly and went back to his tea. As he turned away, he gave me this look that implied unhappiness at my being there. I moved on to the next person. He, too, had no idea who I was talking about. Or maybe he did and just didn’t trust me with the information. You can never really tell. Maybe he was still worried about the KGB, even safe in steamy Bnei Brak. Different cultures think and act differently. I didn’t give up.

“Do you by any chance know anyone here who is a relative of Anna Grossman?” I asked them, one and sometimes 10 at a time. Sometimes they didn’t understand what I was talking about; sometimes they couldn’t be bothered to respond. I was close to giving up. Just then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Spinning around, I saw a smiling man in his early 30’s. Trimmed beard, very white teeth, he appeared friendly enough.

“I heard that you are looking for someone who knew an Anna Grossman,” he said.

I nodded my head. Was my search finally coming to an end?

“I knew Anna.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and I could tell that he was reliving all sorts of times that I probably wouldn’t want to know about at all.

“Why do you want to know about Anna?” he asked. Once more, I repeated the story of the strange death of Anna Grossman. I told of the bus. The driver speeding down the bloody street. The screams. And then, the funeral, the likes of which I’d never seen before in my life.

The man stood still. His eyes held a clarity, a beauty of sorts that I had rarely seen in an adult. He was quiet for a while as the crowds around us finished drinking their tea and eating their herring and cake. Soon enough we were alone in the lobby, the only sound an occasional burst of laughter from the crowd in the hall. I guess the next speaker was a funny guy.

“I know all about Anna,” the man said. “You deserve to know who she was.” He guided me over to a few chairs tilting dangerously in a corner. I tested one before sitting down on it.

“My family lived in Anna’s hometown,” he began. “As a child, I can remember her going about her business. And what business was that?” he asked rhetorically, “The business of saving people.”

“Who did she save?”

He smiled at the perplexed look on my face.

“Back then,” he went on, “the Russian hospitals were overcrowded, uncaring places. They probably still are. Autopsies on everyone. And if nobody showed up to claim the body within a short amount of time – and I mean short – then the body was placed straight into an unmarked grave in the city graveyard, where all unclaimed bodies went. The hospital didn’t have the time or inclination to be bothered by the family’s reaction when they learned that Great-Uncle Misha had been unceremoniously tossed into an unmarked grave. They didn’t care.

“But Anna cared. She wasn’t even religious, but she cared. Anna developed a network of sorts. She bribed the people who need to be bribed. They received their cigarettes and fresh fruit, their vodka and shoe polish – whatever it took. Her network provided her with the information she needed: namely, the knowledge of when Jewish patients passed away with no family to attend to their burial. In those cases, Anna swung into action. She would fly into the hospitals like an angel of mercy, equipped with whatever she needed to ensure cooperation. She knew the way people spoke, the way to their hearts, and she got the job done. The Jewish bodies would be removed from the hospital and brought to the Jewish cemetery for a proper Jewish burial – all this despite the fact that she wasn’t even religious!

“And that wasn’t even the full extent of her self-sacrifice,” he said.

What else could she have done? I wondered. Wasn’t this enough?

“There were times when her informants didn’t reach her in time. When the hospital had so little space that it wasn’t even willing to keep a body until Anna arrived. And it was in those moments that Anna found her true glory.”

He paused. I could sense that the moment was here. The moment I had been waiting for.

I motioned him to go on.

“When Anna missed getting there on time,” he said, “she simply went around to the city graveyard late at night, got out her shovel, and dug the body out. There were many times where she did this all by herself, with no help! Just one woman, digging up a body for reburial. Just because she cared. Digging up meis mitzvah after meis mitzvah, bribing all the officials who stood with their hands opened in front of her, risking prison; not because anyone was watching and would give her honor, not because she was getting paid to do it. Just because she knew that it was the right thing to do.”

His eyes were full of tears now.

“Now do you understand why she merited such a funeral?” he asked me. I shook his hand and nodded. In the end, it all made perfect sense.

(Reproduced from It Could Have Been You by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer pages 65 – 72, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)

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