Tag Archives: Polish Jews

Jews of the Week: The Minkowskis

Three Renowned Scientists

Hermann Minkowski

Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909) was born in what is now Lithuania, then part of Russia, and previously a part of Poland, to a wealthy Jewish family. His father was a merchant who paid for the construction of the famous Kovno Synagogue. In 1872, the Minkowskis fled the persecutions of the Russian Empire and settled in Germany. Hermann Minkowski went on to study mathematics and physics. In 1883 he won the Mathematics Prize of the French Academy of Sciences. He got his PhD two years later and taught at the Universities of Bonn, Konigsberg, Gottingen, and Zurich (where he was Albert Einstein’s teacher). Minkowski solved a number of big math problems, and actually improved upon Einstein’s theory of relativity, coming up with what is now called “Minkowski space-time”. He gave the mathematical proof for unifying space and time into a singular space-time continuum. Sadly, Minkowski met an untimely death at a young age from sudden appendicitis.

Oskar Minkowksi

His older brother was Oskar Minkowski (1858-1931), who studied biology and medicine. He went on to become a professor at the University of Breslau. (Since Jews were barred from holding such positions at the time, Minkowski had to nominally convert to Christianity.) In 1889, Minkowski did a number of operations on dogs and showed the link between the pancreas and diabetes. Together with Josef von Mering, Minkowski discovered how the pancreas controlled blood sugar levels, which later led to the discovery of insulin. Today, the Minkowski Prize is awarded each year for breakthroughs in diabetes research. His son was Rudolph Minkowski (1895-1976), who studied astronomy. He did important work dealing with supernovae, and later became the head of the famed Palomar Observatory, where he discovered a number of asteroids and nebulae. He also made important contributions in astrophysics, and won the Bruce Medal in 1961 for outstanding lifetime achievement in the field. The Minkowski Crater on the moon is named after him.

Can Jewish Homes Have Christmas Trees?

Words of the Week

In God there is no time or beginning to start, for He always existed and is
everlasting and in Him there is no beginning or end at all.
Rabbi Chaim VitalEtz Chaim

Jews of the Week: Babatha and Yadin

The War Hero Archaeologist Who Made a Revolutionary Discovery

(Credit: PBS/Nova)

Babatha bat Shimon (c. 104-132 CE) was born in the town of Mahoza by the Dead Sea to a wealthy Jewish family originally from Ein Gedi. It was in this area that Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin discovered a leather pouch with her belongings in 1960. The documents inside included her legal, financial, and marriage contracts, presenting an eye-opening picture of the life of an upper-class Jewish woman two millennia ago. An only child, Babatha inherited all of her father’s date palm orchards when he passed away. She married her first husband, a man named Yeshu, while still a teenager. He died several years later, after which she married another date farmer named Yehuda. One of the discovered documents shows that Babatha lent her husband a sizeable loan (interest-free, of course). When he also passed away, Babatha seized all of his property as collateral. The documents reveal a number of legal battles that Babatha had to overcome, as well as her impressive financial and business acumen. She spoke several languages and was well-educated. During the Bar Kochva Revolt, Babatha fled from the Romans and hid in a cave, together with one of Bar Kochva’s generals, named Yonatan. It is believed she was killed in the war shortly after. Archaeologist Richard Freund has said that Babatha “revolutionized the way that we think about Jewish women in antiquity.”

Yigael Sukenik (1917-1984) was born in Israel to Polish-Jewish parents. He joined the Haganah at 15, leaving several years later after a dispute with Yitzhak Sadeh. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an archaeologist. While studying at the Hebrew University he changed his last name to “Yadin”. When Israel’s Independence War broke out, Yadin returned to the newly-formed IDF and became the head of its operations. The following year, he became Chief of Staff. One of his first duties was going to Switzerland to study their army-reserve organization. He then created a similar reverse system in Israel. After resigning from the IDF to protest defence budget cuts, Yadin returned to academia. His doctoral thesis on a translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls won an Israel Prize. He travelled around the world to find and purchase lost and stolen Dead Sea Scrolls to return them to Israel. Meanwhile, Yadin excavated some of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, including Masada, Hazor, and Ein Gedi. During the Six-Day War, he returned to the military to advise the prime minister, and years later was part of the Agranat Commission that investigated the failure of the Yom Kippur War. As a result of this, he formed a new political party, Dash, which sought to fight corruption and restore confidence in Israel’s government. The party won a whopping 15 seats in its first election, and soon joined the new Likud coalition under Menachem Begin. Yadin became deputy prime minister, and played a critical role in the Camp David Accords. He wrote a number of bestselling books, taught at the Hebrew University for over 30 years, and was a renowned expert on the Qumran Caves, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Bar Kochva Revolt.

Words of the Week

Also I have seen under the sun, that in the place of law there is evil, and in the place of justice there is evil.
King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 3:16)

Jew of the Week: Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe

Miracles in the Holocaust

Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam (1905-1994) was born to a Hasidic family of the Sanz dynasty in the small Jewish town of Rudnik, Poland. At just 14, he lost his father, and replaced him as the town rabbi. At the age of 21, he was invited to become the rabbi of Klausenberg (then part of Hungary), and head its yeshiva. During the Holocaust, his entire family was sent to Auschwitz, and Rabbi Halberstam tragically lost his wife and 11 children. Nonetheless, he did not lose faith and continued to serve as an inspirational leader for the Jews in the camps. During a 1944 death march that took place on Tisha b’Av, the Rebbe recited the traditional Kinot as the Nazis tortured the Jews. Since it was Tisha b’Av, the Jews took off their leather shoes, so the Nazis used the opportunity to make the Jews march on broken glass. They then left them to die of thirst in the summer heat. As reported by several survivors, the Rebbe asked everyone to start digging in the earth. When they did so, water miraculously emerged out of the soil. The Jews were saved, and the bewildered Nazis left them alone. The Rebbe then said: “Here we have proof that despite all the troubles and the apparent concealment of God’s face, the Holy, Blessed One still loves us.” Another time, Rabbi Halberstam was shot in the arm by a Nazi and left to bleed to death. He wrapped a leaf around the wound and made a vow that if he survived, he would dedicate the rest of his life to saving the lives of others. The Rebbe survived. First, he stayed at the DP camps to run soup kitchens and care for the countless orphans. He established and headed the She’erit haPletah (“Surviving Remnant”) organization, which built mikvehs, set up Jewish schools, organized chuppas, and raised money for the victims. During this time, he met General (and future US president) Dwight Eisenhower, who was inspired by the “wonder rabbi”. Rabbi Halberstam then moved to New York, got remarried, and had seven more children. In 1960, he made aliyah and settled in Netanya. The Rebbe opened both a Hasidic-Ashkenazi yeshiva, and a Sephardic yeshiva, established the town of Kiryat Sanz and, to fulfill his Holocaust vow, founded the Sanz Medical Center/Ladiano Hospital. Today, the hospital serves half a million people, runs strictly according to Jewish law, and has the distinction of being the only hospital in Israel that has never closed—not even for a worker’s strike. Famous for his deep love and concern for every Jew, Rabbi Halberstam was beloved by everyone who knew him, secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. His two sons continue to lead the Sanz-Klausenberg communities in New York and Netanya.

Tisha b’Av Begins this Saturday Night

Words of the Week

I promised myself that if, with God’s help, I got well and got out of there, from those evil people, I would build a hospital in Eretz Yisrael where every human being would be cared for with dignity. And the basis of that hospital would be that the doctors and nurses would believe that there is a God in this world and that when they treat a patient, they are fulfilling the greatest mitzvah in the Torah.
Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe