ABOUT BETTY and
HARRY GURWITZ, AS
(OF BLESSED MEMORY)
By David Gurwitz
My father, Harry Gurwitz, was born in Rakov.
His mother's father was rabbi Leizer Halpern
I look almost identical to him.
My father's father was Avraham Gurwitz, one of the founders of the
free loan society.
My mother, Betty Gurwitz, was born on September 29th, 1916, which corresponds
to the second day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which happens to be
the second day of Rosh Hashana. She died, suddenly and completely unexpectedly,
on August 16th, 1989, which corresponds to the Fifteenth day of the month
of Menachem Av. The Fifteenth of Av is considered one of the holiest days
of the year, according to the teachings of our sages, (The attached files
will provide more detailed explanations of the holiness of both Rosh Hashana
and the Fifteenth of Menachem Av.)
I was not aware of either of these facts when my mother died. I knew very
little about my religion, and a lot less about my mother than I thought
Yet it was her death, sudden and tragic, which followed by 6 weeks the
death of my father to cancer, that propelled my wife and I to begin looking
into our heritage. We havent stopped since.
My mothers death, in retrospect, was one of the most influential
events of my life. It was also one of the biggest surprises. It was part
of a series of shocks that forever changed me.
First, some family background is necessary, in order to fully appreciate
the magnitude of the events.
In the summer of 1988, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He had survived
the war-and the death of his entire family- first, by fighting in the
Partisans of Poland, and, later, by joining the Russian army. After the
war, he miraculously made it back across the Russian line to Berlin, which
was divided into 4 zones- British, Russian, American, and French. He was
taken off of a train headed to Berlin from Russia by members of the Jewish
Underground, which had been formed after the war to assist the countless
displaced Jews. My father was brought through the 3 zones until he landed
in the American zone. He then helped to lead a large group of Jewish war
survivors down through German, over the Swiss border, and through Switzerland
My father, after this harrowing trip, lived in a displaced persons camp
in Milan, Italy. There were dozens of such camps located all over Italy,
which was very receptive to thousands of Jewish orphans- like my father-
after the war. The US instituted a restrictive immigration policy after
the war, and, through G-ds hand, my father met a man in Italy who
was able to qualify as a guardian and sign in hundreds of
Jews from Italian DP camps, who were able to book passage on a ship bound
for Canada in 1949.
My father was able to do all of this largely because of two reasons.
First, he had been a soccer player and gymnast growing up in Rakov, a
city near Minsk, in Lithuania. He was in great physical shape. He remained
in great shape until he came down with Parkinsons disease, prior
to developing cancer.
Second, my fathers father-who had co-founded the free-loan society
in Rakov, owned one of the few cars in Rakov. My father was extremely
mechanical, and was always tinkering with the car. When the Germans entered
Poland in 1939, my father joined the Partisans. After living in the woods
for a year became too difficult, many members of the under-fed, under-armed
Partisans joined the Russian army. They had a common enemy. The Russians
also had many trucks that needed drivers and repair personnel.
My father correctly surmised that driving a truck-which he did not know
how to do- would keep him in the back lines, away from the direct fighting
with the assaulting Germans. So, he learned overnight and drove a truck
for several years for the Russian Army.
One time, a group of trucks were separated from the infantry group associated
with them. German planes were constantly attacking during the day and
night. My father, and the other drivers, had to hide the trucks in the
thick woods during the day, and drove, at night. There were no highway
lights. The only illumination was the light of the bombs dropped by the
German planes. The experience caused such severe eye-strain that my father
wore thick glasses for the rest of his life.
His background with trucks led to my father working as a truck mechanic
for his entire working career.My mother grew up on the Lower East Side,
the oldest of three daughters. Her parents emigrated from Russia before
the war, and survived by using their ample skills as tailors.
My mother, as the oldest daughter, was caught in the bind that affected
many women of marriageable age at that time in America- most of the eligible
men were away, fighting.
G-d sent someone who barely knew my father, to accidentally meet a cousin
of my mothers father, in New York, at around the time that my father
was planning to come to Canada. That meeting led to my grandfather bringing
his oldest daughter up to Canada to meet my father. It was literally an
internationally arranged meeting, as the parties did not even know anything
about each other. They met, communicated in Yiddish (my father spoke Polish,
Russian, Italian, Hebrew, and Yiddish at the time), got engaged in 10
days, and were married shortly thereafter, in Canada, in Kitchener, Ontario.
July 10, 1950.
The Talmud teaches us that G-d, since creation, is busy making shidduchim-
marriage matches. It says that making a good match is harder for G-d than
splitting the Sea.
This shidduch was pretty incredible.
My brother Arthur was born July 10, 1951, in the Bronx, where my parents
had settled. My father worked as a truck mechanic for many, many years
without any pension. My mother worked as a bookkeeper. Money was always
I was born on April 1, 1955, which was the 9th of the Hebrew month of
Nissan, six days before Passover, and one day before the Sabbath known
as Shabbos Hagadol, which was the last Sabbath prior to the Jews leaving
Egypt, and heading for the splitting of the sea and the giving of the
Torah at Mt. Sinai.
My brother and I grew up in the South Bronx, 13 blocks north of Yankee
Stadium, one block off of the Grand Concourse and 174th Street. The neighborhood
was originally Jewish, Irish, and Italian. When I was 10 years old, it
started to turn dangerous, due to increased immigration and people fleeing
the Bronx. I literally used to have to wait to pick up my mother, when
she came home from working as a bookkeeper at 6 PM, at the 174th Street
subway station, standing with an iron bar and a can of Mace (pepper spray)
in my hand.
My family finally moved to Co-op City in 1971, while I was still attending
Bronx High School of Science. My brother got married in 1974. I went away
to Brandeis University in 1972, and to Boston College Law School in 1977
(following a year between college and law school where I traveled throughout
Europe and lived in Spain).
My parents moved to Florida in 1979, and enjoyed 9 years of relative calm
and good health. They were living on their combined pensions (my mother
from NYC, and my father from Texaco, where he went to work in 1968) of
approximately $1,400/ month.
( Imagine that) My brother and I augmented their income, but they were
proud and lived within their means.
When my fathers cancer became more intense, forcing him into a wheelchair,
I spent a lot of time in Florida. My mother was taking care of him, essentially
by herself, despite the fact that her two knees had deteriorated to the
point that they were causing her severe pain and discomfort.
Six weeks before my father died, I was at their apartment, when I found,
between two books, a photograph in an old frame that looked somewhat like
my son Solomon, who was 2 at the time. When I showed the photo to my mother,
and asked her where she got the photo of Solomon in such an old style
frame, she told me that it was not Solomon in the photo. It was, quote,
Daddys first son, from his first wife, both of whom
had been killed in the Holocaust.
I was stunned. I did not know what to say.
G-d put the words in my mouth, as he does to all of us, when we ask properly.
Sometimes, even when we do not.
I sat down on the couch, next to my father. I asked my father, Did
you have a son?
He said, I do not know what you are talking about. He got
up from the couch, when he literally was able to walk only with the help
of a walker, and walked, unassisted, into the bedroom to rest.
I remained on the couch, stunned.
An hour later, he came back, and sat down, next to me. He asked me, Do
you know what you asked me?
I nodded, yes. I could not speak.
He said four words. He said, his name was
. And he switched to Hebrew.
He got up, and went back to the bedroom. That was all he said.
He passed away 6 weeks later, on June 30, 1989.
My mother decided after we buried my father, to have her aching knees
replaced. The surgeon in Florida, who had performed several hundred knee
replacement surgeries, had a slot available 6 months later, and my mother
Two weeks after the funeral, the doctors office called my mother,
informing her that a slot had come up for August 15. My mother decided
to move up the date of her surgery to that date.
She went in that day, assuring my brother and I that she did not need
us to be there, at a hospital in Florida. My wife was pregnant with Chana,
and my mother wanted to be able to walk with her and play with her.
I called the hospital that night, after the surgery, to speak with her.
I was informed that she was in a coma.
She died the next day. Never woke up. With two brand new knees.
Recovering from the loss of both parents, and the loss of a brother I
never knew I had, took a long time. I am not sure that I have fully recovered.
My wife stayed incredibly strong during this period, and gave birth to
Chana- named after my father, Harry- a few months after we buried both
of them within 6 weeks of one another.
All of this time has been a period of tremendous spiritual growth. There
have been many people who have been sources of strength and guidance for
Some of this spiritual growth must have affected my music.
I had started playing piano, and composing in college (a whole other story),
and somehow kept it up despite the time constraints of the growing family,
business needs, and increased Talmudic studies.
In the last few years, I have written many songs. I say written,
meaning composed. I can not read music.
G-d put these songs in my hands, and I made a recording several years
I gave one to my cousin Rich, who called me and said, Dont
think you are such a big shot. You are very talented, but your mother
was much better.
I never knew that my mother played. She never told me.
It seems that she played a recital in Carnegie hall, and was offered a
scholarship to Columbia. In the 1930s, this was very unusual.
Her parents were tailors, and had to move from their Bronx apartment.
They could not afford the moving costs to move the piano. My mother stopped
The concert to be given on Tuesday night, July 23, is in the memory of
my mother, Betty Gurwitz, ZL, and in the memory of my brother, Benyomin