Before she passed away, my Grandmother entrusted me with the safety of an old family prayer book that had been passed down through the generations. The book had been brought over from Russia when the family fled the pogroms that had been sweeping through the shtetls, villages and towns where my ancestors had lived for centuries.
Considering the fact that they must have left in a hurry (think about those scenes in Fiddler On The Roof where the families had been given just hours to pack up and leave – albeit a Hollywood sanitised account of a terrifying reality), it is easy to see that the book must have been a precious possession to have been scooped up and saved under such horrific circumstances.
It sat on my bookshelf for many years, the fragile leather binding embossed with mysterious emblems and inside the front cover a fading handwritten inscription in what appeared to be Yiddish but in Hebrew script, penned a hundred years ago or more by some long departed soul and now practically undecipherable.
One day I had vowed to take it along to some wise sage who might be able to shed some light on just what the words all meant.
And so it was that the book languished on the shelf for decades, largely untouched for fear of damaging the fragile pages.
Until a few days ago when I was prompted by an urge to pick up the book and take another look.
In this age of internet and instant communication with people in every distant corner of the world, I thought that there must be someone out there who might be able to help unravel the mystery of the strange handwritten inscription.
So I took a photograph with the camera on my phone and within seconds it had been uploaded to social media and was instantly available for all to see.
My ancestors would have been utterly astonished at such a world as we inhabit today where communication is immediate even between continents, where information can be accessed from anywhere and where it is possible for people to travel between different countries in hours.
When they packed their bags and left their homeland it would have been with heavy baggage and even heavier hearts, on foot through snow and rain, and for days and weeks on end – heading for an unknown country in a far off land. With nothing but a few precious belongings and a great deal of hope, they arrived in England where they would have to try to start all over again.
To think that the book I held in my hands had made that journey with them was both inspiring to me and weighted with the knowledge that I had a great responsibility to keep it safe for future generations.
Within hours of uploading the photograph to the internet, I had received kind offers of help from learned people across the world and very soon a part of the handwritten script that had been a mystery for decades had been translated.
I felt goosebumps as the words began to appear. Breaking through the mists of time, suddenly the hitherto unknown writer had a name! 'Rabbi Gershon' and then quickly there followed the information that the book was a wedding gift presented to my Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother on their wedding day! The town was Kretinga in Lithuania and the year 1912, only a few short years before the Jewish population of that place would be wiped out by pogroms and then the Holocaust. My Great Grandparents had fled just ahead of this – and just in time. And they had brought this incredible old prayer book with them, a moving reminder of a homeland where they had once been happy.
The old book now seems even more precious and its journey even more poignant.
To hold it now is to feel a story of love, laden with emotion and heartbreak – but ultimately hope.
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