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Look for the Pink

F. Jakabovits

Granddaughter of the previous Amshinover Rebbe and mother of the present Rebbe, Rebbetzin Chaya Nechama Milikovsky a”h lived a life of holy simplicity

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

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EYE OF THE STORM Rebbetzin Chaya Nechama Milikovsky’s turbulent life crossed Poland, Japan, China, and Eretz Yisrael. One thing remained a constant: her commitment to finding good in the world — and in others

T he daughter of Rebbetzin Chaya Nechama Milikovsky pulls out some papers. “Here. These are some letters that we got at the shivah.”

More than 30 years ago, your mother greeted me for the first time, like a long-lost child she’d been waiting for from the beginning of time.

And another: Your mother wrapped me in such a huge bear hug when I arrived at her grandchild’s wedding. This was my introduction to the beauty, sheer simchah, and avodah of the Amshinover chassidus.

Perhaps the most fascinating glimpse is stored in the memory card she hands me. The scene is a small reception in the home of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l, hosted by Rebbetzin Leah. The occasion: Nobuki Sugihara’s visit to Israel this past spring (son of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul who issued transit visas to a group of Polish refugees, enabling them to escape and ultimately survive the war). The table is beautifully laid, Mr. Sugihara sits at the head, surrounded by the roshei hayeshivah of Mir and their wives. Sugihara’s wife is present too, along with a Japanese television crew, who wedge themselves between the seforim shranks and plastic chairs.

Rebbetzin Chaya Nechama Milikovsky (née Kalish) sits demurely next to Rebbetzin Rifka Ezrachi (née Shmuelevitz), both survivors of that fateful period, having lived out most of the war years in Japan and China. Chaya Nechama Kalish was a teen at the time, Rifka Shmuelevitz was a young child. The speeches are formal, cordial, full of appreciation. A Japanese reporter then turns to the two venerable women, asking if they’d like to say something to Mr. Sugihara.

The quiet, diminutive rebbetzin takes the microphone. “My name is Chaya Milikovsky… I was helped by your father… I am here today because of him. My children know they are here because of him…” She continues with poise, the European lilt in her words a testimony to a childhood spent in a different time and place. She wishes him years of “good health and family pleasure” as she recounts the kindness of the Japanese people during that time.

There is no self-conscious smile, no nervous blinking at the cameras. She’s completely confident. Rebbetzin Rivka Zonabend laughs. “When they invited my mother to this reception, I said, ‘My mother is for sure going to say no.’ She didn’t like big things, didn’t enjoy publicity — she was asked to speak countless times to groups about her wartime experiences and always declined. But she said yes: ‘This is my chance to say thank you.’ ”

For a woman whose ego occupied little place in her life, her speech wasn’t anything worth repeating; indeed, Rivka only heard about it from others. With a graciousness born of humility, she thanked Mr. Sugihara — unconcerned that her speech was being filmed by a Japanese television crew. But I find it just as fascinating how Rivka hands me the little blue chip full of precious memories, and the original condolence letter written by Sugihara after her mother’s passing without a trace of possessiveness.

“You’re not nervous?” I ask her as I gingerly put them into my purse. She waves it off with a simple shrug. As I imagine her mother would have done.

***

Some people are great because they come from greatness; they hail from illustrious forebears and carry a rich family legacy. Some people are great because of their children; the mother of a public figure is a celebrity in her own right. And some people are great because of who they are. Rebbetzin Chaya Nechama Milikovsky was all of the above.

A scion of greatness, she held onto her past, fiercely upholding tradition and sharing her encyclopedic knowledge of Amshinov lore. A mother of greatness, she guided and helped. But she did not ride on the greatness of her family name; never used her father or her son as a ticket to honor. She was a great woman in her own right. She was wise. She was devout. She was compassionate. And she was so, so normal.

Head and Heart

The Rebbetzin lived through many worlds. Chaya Nechama Kalish was 14 years old when the war began. Uprooted from her home in Otvock, Poland, she spent seven years on the run: through Vilna, Russia, Japan, and China. Although she survived with her father, R’ Meir, and her grandfather, the Amshinover Rebbe (R’ Shimon Shalom), their tale is replete with hardship; fear, hunger, disease, death, and destruction.

On the run: Rav Shimon Shalom in Shanghai (covering his face, second from left); beside him, Rav Chaim Milikovsky, shortly after his chasunah (second from right)

Her daughter, Rebbetzin Rivka Zonabend, relates how her mother wrote an account of some of their travails, as well as the miracles. It was descriptive, poignant writing, depicting truly difficult years, years that left her with residual trauma. “But when she heard what happened to those who didn’t survive, she tore it up.”

Her next few decades, first in America, and then in Eretz Yisrael, also contained their share of personal suffering. But the Rebbetzin remained an eternal optimist. The Rebbetzin was extremely intelligent, speaking six languages as well as a smattering of Chinese and Japanese. While in China, her father hired a private tutor to teach her English and French. She also helped her grandfather, the Rebbe, in technical aspects of his duties as a spiritual leader in Shanghai.

Rebbetzin Rifka Ezrachi, daughter of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz ztz”l, relates how Chaya Nechama would accompany her father to Japanese offices to act as translator. Her flair for language never left — after her arrival in Eretz Yisrael, her Hebrew became polished, her grammar flawless. “She enjoyed reading. As a child in America, I remember her weekly trips to the library. She was comfortable reading in English and French, and appreciated works in their original language.”

People felt they could talk to her about any subject, as her knowledge was vast. But her heart was just as big. Deeply sensitive, she was able to intuit the nuances of human emotion and listen as if nothing else in the world existed. And this from a woman who was not a big believer in modern psychology. She could connect with every type of person, every type of background, from downtrodden souls to the acquaintances who came just to bask in the Rebbetzin’s warmth. And each enjoyed her undivided attention. When people returned to her, they were amazed at how she remembered them, their issues, their children by name.

Some of the tributes heard from callers: “We were struggling with so many issues after our move from America and had a hard time fitting in. She made me feel so normal.”

“I remember her ‘Really?’ with her European accent, and the look in her eyes. When she would say ‘That must have been so difficult for you,’ I felt validation.” A woman complained about her husband. “She kept saying, ‘Encourage him, encourage him.’ I felt like that’s what she was doing to me.”

“She made me feel like there was no one in the world she wanted to see more.” This statement was echoed by almost everyone I spoke to. “She thanked me for coming, made me feel like I was bringing her genuine pleasure. She remembered all of my kids’ names, what they were doing, what my husband was doing.” And it wasn’t only because of her phenomenal memory. At the shivah, someone quipped that the human heart has four chambers; Rebbetzin Chaya Nechama’s heart had a thousand.

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