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The Final Chapter

David Damen, Antwerp

The Seletzki family of Antwerp has been selling seforim for seven decades. But a decision to replace the area’s private properties with commercial towers marks the end

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

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BACK PAGE As the shades are about to go down for the last time, Reb Michoel Seletzki looks back on the years, grateful that he was able to support his family with such a holy profession (photos: Daniel Binyamin and Mordechai Zev Schwamenfeld)

“S ’iz noch epes gebliben fun di Yiddishe plattes?” (Are there any phonograph records left?)

Reb Michoel Seletzki runs his fingers through his reddish-gray beard and points to the cartons stacked one on top of the other as he spreads his hands, as if to say, “If you’re interested in those old records, just dig around in those boxes to see if you find anything.”

Soon those boxed will go to a sheimos disposal site and a recycling factory — old machzorim in out-of-style leather bindings, Gemaras from the printing house of the widow and brothers Re’em, dusty siddurim from the Hebrew Publishing Company, greeting cards from the 1970s that have yellowed from standing in the window for so many years. Meanwhile, the day before Seletzki Seforim — Antwerp’s oldest Jewish bookstore — closes down following a municipal decision to replace the area’s private properties with commercial high-rise buildings, people are here scavenging for some usable sefer, silver items that might be a bit bent out of shape, the top part of a forgotten esrog box or a mismatched coaster for a becher.

As people come to find bargains, they can’t help notice the peeling walls behind the old shelving that has finally been emptied. Now the mystery has been resolved: Yes, the walls in Seletzki’s seforim store stand on their own, and not, as some might have thought, because they were leaning on the seforim.

Basement Business

For the last 71 years, the Seletzki family has been selling seforim. Over the years, as the community grew, so did the number of seforim and Judaica stores, but locals and tourists alike continued to stream to the rickety old storefront in order to feel the authenticity of an old-time seforim gesheft. The organized chaos, the charming mess, the groaning laden shelves towering to the ceiling at some precarious angles, only added to the experience that no longer existed among the modern boutique stores that have become the new style for Judaica establishments.

Reb Nosson Seletzki was a lone Yid from Vilna who lost his wife and four children in the Holocaust. Before the war, he was a ben bayis at the home of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the rav of the city, and at one point, he learned in the Mir under Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel.

The organized chaos, the charming mess, the groaning laden shelves towering to the ceiling at some precarious angles, only added to the experience that no longer existed among the modern boutique stores that have become the new style for Judaica establishments.

Rav Finkel, the rosh yeshivah of Mir, once came to Antwerp to raise money for the yeshivah that had been newly reopened in Jerusalem,” says Nosson Seletzki’s son Reb Michoel. “The town’s Jews gathered at the Bourse, and the Rosh Yeshivah passionately described the yeshivah that had been active in Mir before the war. ‘I’m sure none of you were there,’ he added. Suddenly, my father stood up in the crowd and announced, ‘I learned in the Mir, and I even remember the Rosh Yeshivah’s shiur.’ And my father began to repeat the shiur word for word. Rav Eliezer Yehduah was extremely moved — he stepped off the stage, came over to my father, and hugged and kissed him. ‘If I had come here just to hear this — that would have been enough,’ he said to the surprised crowd.”

After the war, Reb Nosson made his way to Antwerp and found temporary refuge at the home of a goodhearted Jew named Reb Yisrael Kornfeld. One day, a non-Jew with a truck filled with seforim pulled up in front of the Kornfeld home. He knocked on the door and offered the Kornfelds the entire contents of the truck for the sum of five thousand francs. It was no small sum, but it was still attractive enough to be able to earn something on it. Reb Yisrael offered the deal to Reb Nosson, and the basement of the Kornfeld home suddenly became an improvised seforim store. People would come to purchase a sefer, and Reb Nosson would go down to the basement to retrieve it and bring it up to the customer waiting in the street. Within the collection there were definitely old seforim that could have been collector’s items, but back then anyone who was buying a sefer really intended to use it. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 667)

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