Mushky Cohen is in Huntsville because of a Japanese diplomat.
Mushky and Rabbi Moshe Cohen established Chabad of Huntsville in 2015, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, who helped establish Chabad in Montreal — after being rescued from Europe by Chiune Sugihara.
Rabbi Moshe Eliyahu Gerlitzky was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1915. He studied in Jewish schools, then in 1927 became involved with Chabad after seeing the intense reaction in a small town to the arrest of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe by the Soviets, for his Jewish activism.
He continued his studies in Chabad yeshivas, then was asked to return to Lodz to help run the yeshiva there.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he was among those who fled to Warsaw, traveling by foot with two friends. In Warsaw, he and other students were instructed by the Rebbe to flee to Vilna, Lithuania, and according to Mushky Cohen, they traveled by foot and train for days, covering 450 kilometers.
At one point, the three were “exhausted, starving and covered in mud,” when they encountered two Nazi soldiers, who pointed their guns at them. They “looked at them with disgust and then said, ‘you disgusting filthy Jews, nothing will ever become of you,’ and they walked away,” she said. “Oh boy, were those soldiers wrong,” she added.
They studied in the Chabad yeshiva in Vilna, mindful of the continuing threat. Gerlizky and 53 other students were able to get visas from Sugihara, after which they traveled the Trans-Siberian railway across Russia to Vladivostok, then to Kobe, Japan.
They soon realized that the visas were just 10-day transit visas, but they had no plans beyond Japan. They found refuge in Shanghai, which had been annexed by Japan.
In 1941, Gerlitzky and eight friends received visas to Canada and crossed the Pacific, hoping to wind up in New York. But when they arrived in Montreal, the Rebbe told them to establish a yeshiva there, and they were warmly welcomed by the community.
Well, mostly. A Chabad memorial for Gerlitzky stated that Samuel Bronfman of Seagram’s, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, wasn’t thrilled with the new “old country” institution and offered to pay for the students to relocate to Toronto.
Nevertheless, the school thrived, with Gerlitzky taking the role as fundraiser.
On a personal level, Gerlitzky met and married Chana Rosenblum. They had eight children, with over 300 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He died in April 2010.
Mushky Cohen said that in their family, Sugihara’s name “is synonymous with kindness, bravery and righteousness. He was the soul that lit candles while candles were being blown out.”
At every major family event, she said, they would hear Sugihara’s name and “my grandfather would choke with emotion, tears streaming down his face, and look around at all his descendants and say ‘look at this… all the result of one righteous soul’s kindness’.”