This is a story about a kind man who owned a local grocery store, where I worked when I was 12 years old.
I was born in Nyirbator, Hungary, in 1951. We had no running water, no electricity — we used lanterns — and two wells. We used one well for drinking water and cooling food, and the other we used for washing dishes and bathing. In 1956, when my parents, my brother, and I escaped to Vienna — the Hungarians were starting to make lists of Jews again, so we got out — we still lived under the same conditions. When we got to America, we settled first in Bedford Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn, and later moved to Rego Park, Queens. In Queens, right down the street from us, on a beautiful tree-lined block with private homes, was a tiny corner grocery store run by an elderly gentleman and his wife.
Whenever my mother or my aunt, who lived with us in a two-family house, needed groceries, they would ask me to run down the block to Uncle Moishe’s store. It was my aunt, Eva Major, who gave him the nickname of Uncle Moishe. His real name was Moisha Deutch. Whenever I went to the store, Uncle Moishe would greet me warmly, with his infectious smile, and he always would joke around with me.
Even when I was a young child he made an impression on me, with his jovial nature and his genuine caring about each and every customer who entered his store. I always looked forward to going to pick up groceries for my mom and my aunt, because I really liked him — and of course it didn’t hurt to get a candy each time I entered his store.
When I turned 12, Uncle Moishe asked me if I wanted a summer job stocking shelves and making deliveries with my bicycle. I never had a paying job other than walking Teddy Pollack to school, because his mother wanted to make sure he didn’t wander off to do his own thing for the day. I was somewhat nervous and apprehensive about accepting the job, because I didn’t know what really would be expected of me.
As a child, I never had an opportunity to go to sleepaway camp, or even day camp, because we couldn’t afford it. However, here was an opportunity to keep myself occupied while my parents went off to their factory jobs. My mother was a seamstress. She worked in a sweater factory that had no air conditioning, only fans.
My father worked in a quilting factory, inhaling the dust particles that poured out of the quilting machines. I recall my father coming home totally exhausted, and so wiped out that he barely had the strength to eat dinner. My father coughed a lot every day, and I am certain it was from inhaling the fine particles floating in the air. It was only years later, as a teenager, that I found out that my dad had brown lung. That’s the disease coal miners get.
I was so excited to start my summer job because I knew I would be in an air conditioned store, and I would not sweat like my parents had to in the factory.
I worked in the store only one summer.
Shortly after the summer, while I was in our shul one Shabbos, a big commotion erupted in the back, near the coat room. Shul members were running around frantically. As I walked toward the back of the shul I noticed there was a person lying on the floor, but I couldn’t make out who it was. A person from shul went to get a local doctor around the corner and only then did I get a good look at the person lying on the floor.
It was Uncle Moishe.
They took Uncle Moishe to the hospital, and that evening when we returned to shul for Mincha, there was a buzz and much whispering. I asked my father what was going on, and he told me very sadly that Uncle Moishe had passed away in the hospital. It was 1966.
I was speechless. All I could do is remember all the fun times I had in his store and how much he liked me. Uncle Moishe had no children, his first wife had died, and he remarried a very nice lady whose name I cannot recall. Uncle Moishe and his wife loved children, and he gave candy to every child who came to the store.
Uncle Moishe’s wife moved out of the neighborhood after a while, and we lost touch with her.
I never realized at the time that Uncle Moishe and I would cross paths again. In 1969, my grandfather passed away. He was buried a few gravestones away from my father’s brother in Washington Cemetery in South Brunswick Township. As is customary, my family goes out to the cemetery once a year, usually before or near Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My brother and I would accompany our father, our mother, and our Uncle Sandor to the cemetery to say prayers at my uncle’s and grandfather’s gravesides. After saying tehilim, reading from the manah loshone and saying the kail molah, at the end we would all roll up our sleeves and clean up the weeds around the graves.
During one of our yearly visits to the cemetery, my father noticed a gravestone that had so many weeds that they almost covered the entire stone. As my father got closer, he noticed the name Moishe Deutch.
It was my Uncle Moishe.
My mother and father put my brother, George, and me to work immediately to clear up some of the weeds. We all worked very hard to remove the weeds that were obstructing the face of the tombstone. After we cleaned off some of them, my father said some tehilim and made a kail molah for Uncle Moishe. The following year, we came with much better tools, and we did a major cleanup of Uncle Moishe’s grave.
Every year my father would make a kail molah for Uncle Moishe.
After my father, Menyhert Srolovits, passed away 11 years ago at 89, my brother and I took on the responsibility of caring for Uncle Moishe, saying kaddish and kail molah for him. (My mother, Ilona, who survived Auschwitz, is now 90 years old.) Every year, George reminds me when Uncle Moishe’s yahrtzeit is, and I say Kaddish for him and try to sponsor shalahshudis in shul in his memory. I have made several attempts to locate some of Uncle Moishe’s relatives, but I have not been successful.
This was not a story about what my brother and I have done for Uncle Moishe these past 48 years or so, but rather how a simple act of kindness toward a 12-year-old boy resulted in his being remembered on his yahrtzeit every year.
This is also a story about how many other Uncle Moishes there are out there, people whose graves are totally forgotten. If you have a relative who no one goes to visit at the cemetery please take it upon yourself to visit and say a kail molah for them.
If anyone knows of a living relative of Uncle Moishe, please email me at email@example.com.
Leslie Srolovits lives in Teaneck with his wife. He was a senior technology officer at JP Morgan and then at Capitol One before he retired; he is one of the 10 founders of Young Israel of Teaneck, which started in his basement.