Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Mantle of My Ancestor: Jacques Torczyner

The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California has an article in its March 27 08 issue, on six Jews who “put their lives on the line” for the formation of the State of Israel. I am proud to note that my father’s first-cousin, Jacques Torczyner, is featured in the article:

Jacques Torczyner
Names, places and dates. It was Johnny Cash who sang “I’ve Been Everywhere,” but Jacques Torczyner really has — and he’s got the names, places and dates to prove it.

With startling alacrity, the 95-year-old Rossmoor resident rattles off the play-by-play from Zionist meetings on several continents or recalls long, windswept walks along the Seine with future Israeli heads of state.

It has been an improbable life for a man who would have been content simply carrying on his father’s Antwerp diamond business. But the Nazis had other plans.

The entire Torczyner clan fled Belgium, traveling on the lam from Paris to the Pyrenees, where they walked over the border to Spain. From there, the family took a boat to Cuba. And on Dec. 17, 1940 — Torczyner remembers the dates for everything — they landed in Miami.

“And we made such a big mistake!” he says. “We had cousins who asked us to buy land on Collins Avenue, but we went to New York. Oh, if we’d done that, we’d have made a lot of money!”

In New York, Torczyner soon maneuvered himself to the top of the political department of the World Zionist Organization. Before long he was the right-hand man of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, the fiery and outspoken Zionist orator.

Silver told Torczyner to join the Republican Party — “there were no Jews there.” And that suited Torczyner fine. Along the walls of his flat are photographs of him in various stages of life with every major Republican figure from Sen. Robert Taft to President George H.W. Bush.

Silver’s name is not as well known as the men and woman currently pictured on, say, Israeli currency. But the Cleveland rabbi and Zionist Organization of America president was a powerful influence on the people and government of the United States regarding the formation of a Jewish state. And his man in the trenches was Jacques Torczyner.

It was Torczyner who oversaw the North American delegate election for the World Zionist Congress in December 1946. On the table were two courses of action: Should Israel declare statehood, or hold off in exchange for Britain’s promise of allowing 100,000 Jewish refugees into pre-state Israel?

This election was all about rounding up the most delegates. Torczyner had delivered the plurality of delegates to the plenum, and the vote went the ZOA’s way: A declaration of Jewish statehood was recommended. The decision came at 4 a.m., and Torczyner still remembers how future Israeli President Chaim Weizmann and his “moderates” slumped off into the night after losing the day to Silver and David Ben-Gurion.

It was a major day in Torczyner’s life, and for more than the obvious reasons. “Silver had said, ‘Jacques, in your campaign for the World Zionist Congress, if you don’t succeed, I’ll chop your head off.’”

Yet the groundwork for a declaration of Israeli statehood — and the inevitable war to follow — was long in the making.

On July 1, 1945, Torczyner, Ben-Gurion and 16 others filed into the East 57th Street apartment of Rudolph Sonneborn in Manhattan.

For nearly seven hours, Ben-Gurion spoke. At the end of the day, the Haganah had been founded. Sonneborn would soon be running weaponry to Israel.

“Ben-Gurion said something that nobody in America would like to hear. He said we cannot create a state without a war,” recalls Torczyner.

“And he explained how we must be able to defend ourselves — because don’t forget, America had made an embargo on weapons to the Mideast.”

Torczyner recalls walking the streets of New York with future Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, whose pockets were bulging with cash for purchase of guns on the down-low.

When asked where Kollek made his purchases, Torczyner gives a wicked grin.

“I don’t know, he didn’t take me there. This was illegal, don’t you forget.”

On Nov. 29, 1947, Torczyner sat in the stands at a former skating rink in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., that had been converted into a United Nations building. By a vote of 33-13 with 10 abstentions, the U.N. voted Israel into existence. It wasn’t a particularly nerve-wracking day for Torczyner. He knew the votes were there.

“Let me tell you, I know we had the votes and I’ll tell you why. On Thursday, it was Thanksgiving. On Wednesday, we didn’t have the votes. So we forced the U.N. to observe Thanksgiving and because of the weekend, they postponed [the vote] until Saturday,” he recalls.

Spotted a few days, Torczyner and his ZOA allies began working individual delegates. When asked what methods of persuasion they employed, he grins again.

“I won’t tell you. I don’t want to corrupt you. But the only way for some of them — you know how.”

He rests on his couch, surrounded by books and maps and photos of Silver, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion. His more youthful self stares out from many of the photos as well.

“I think I can tell you that this was a historic moment in Jewish history. So I was part of Jewish history,” he says with a nod.

“And now, 60 years later, I am worried about the future.”

I have always believed in the words I have heard credited to Seneca, that a person who prides himself on the deeds of his ancestors prides himself on a mantle not his own. I didn’t do those things, I didn't help create a State that has saved millions of lives and generated so much Torah over the past 60 years - my father’s cousin did it. It’s not even as though I know him well; we may have met a few times, but not at all in the past 20 years.

So while I am happy that someone did this, why am I particularly proud that it was my relative? What does this distant blood relationship have to do with anything?

No long answers here.
I suppose that in some measure it’s pride in borrowed celebrity, the feeling that his accomplishments and fame automatically rub off on me.
And, of course, there's an element of זכות אבות, zchut avot, the merit of our ancestors; I get some kind of spiritual protection by riding his draft, as part of his clan.
But, perhaps it's also something more positive, more selfless. Perhaps it’s also the thought that if my cousin did this, then there’s a potential hero in me as well.


  1. then there’s a potential hero in me as well.

    Who says that you aren't already a hero.

  2. Thanks Jack, but the day I think I'm a hero is the day I'm in real trouble...

  3. May his (and your) merits only increase!

    While it is important that the kids know about their yichus and the (often extraordinary) deeds of their grandparents, I always tell them that "nachas is more important than yichus."

    (I.e. the joy they give their parents and grandparents is what they should concentrate on, not the honor bestowed upon them by the deeds of others.)

    Or, in other words, I tell them: Knowing where you came from *is* important, but not nearly as useful as knowing where you're going.

  4. P.S. Thank you for sharing that story and the link. I have already forwarded it to a couple of people. Fascinating!

    (I even printed a copy and stuck it my "November" folder, for something to mention next Thanksgiving!

    How appropriate, as it shows how little we realize how many people to whom we owe much gratitude, and how much we take for granted.)

  5. Juggling Frogs-

    Exactly. Thanks for viewing/commenting/passing it along!

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