It was a perfect setting for nostalgia.
The Sadigura Rebbetzin, Rebbetzin Surele Friedman, her daughter Mirelle Margulies and I were sitting outdoors on a beautiful summer evening reminiscing about her famous grandfather, Reb Getzel Berger of London, who passed away 44 years ago. Forty-four years is a very long time, during which much can be lost to memory. However, sitting under the stars, a symbol of eternity, puts time in perspective and makes one realize how short 44 years really is. And when you live your life as Reb Getzel did, your impact resonates forever.
When I first heard that Rebbetzin Friedman was involved in the book Rabbi Nachman Seltzer wrote about her grandfather and that we could meet to discuss it, I was very intrigued. To me and to many in the post-Holocaust generation, Reb Getzel’s name evokes awe. We knew him as one of the closest chasidim of the Satmar Rebbe, the person upon whom the Rebbe relied and whose fingerprints were on the establishment of what is now the vast network of Satmar mosdos and communities in the US, Eretz Yisrael and London.
Reb Getzel had been a close friend of my grandfather’s, who was also very involved in building the Satmar mosdos, so it was a name I heard a lot in my youth. But although I’d heard about him, speaking to the Rebbetzin made me realize how little I really knew. Reb Getzel wasn’t just a philanthropist who wrote checks. He was a man who was always there for klal Yisrael, helping individuals and yeshivos in a very personal way. It was time I learned more. And as the Rebbetzin told me in the course of our conversation, it was also time for Reb Getzel’s descendants to learn more about their illustrious progenitor, who had helped chareidi Jewry reestablish itself after the churban.
The idea to write a book documenting Reb Getzel’s life germinated during a turbulent period in the Rebbetzin’s life. She had traveled to Los Angeles to be with her husband, zt”l, who was in need of medical treatment.
“My son, who was staying with us in California, is named after my grandfather, Elyohu Elyokim Getzel,” she shares. “One morning, someone saw his name on his tallis bag in shul and asked if he was related to the Getzel Berger of London. When he said yes, the person said that he had a story for him.
“His father had once spent a Shabbos with the Satmar Rebbe in Arizona, and an unassuming short man he didn’t know had come over and asked him if he had enough food for Shabbos. A few hours later he met this man again, and again the man asked if he was sure he was okay and if he had enough food. It occurred to him that perhaps this man was hungry and that he was asking because he wanted him to share his food with him. That was until someone told him that the short man was the world-renowned philanthropist Reb Getzel Berger, who, baruch Hashem, didn’t need his food and was only asking out of concern. I’d never heard that story, but I wasn’t surprised.”