This obituary was adapted with permission from a eulogy given on Dec. 7 by Rabbi Yonatan Cohen for Yakov Harari at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.
Yakov Harari was born on June 20, 1932, in Ludmir, Poland, a town of 25,000 Jews. Of that Jewish population, only 70 Jews survived. Of the 70 survivors, only two families survived intact. The Bergers, who later on became the Hararis, a family of a father, a mother, and two sons, were one of those two surviving families.
The town of Ludmir went through multiple roundups, and at least three liquidations. After each one, the ghetto became smaller in size. Yakov’s uncle was picked up during the first round, on July 5, 1941. Yakov’s grandfather was picked up during the second round, on July 31, 1941. Yakov was only 9 years old.
About a year later, in August 1942, during the first liquidation of the ghetto, Yakov and his younger brother, Rafi, were separated from their parents. For two weeks, they wandered from one peasant home to another, changing hiding places several times. Yakov was only 10 at the time.
With the grace of God, and through ingenuity and good fortune, Yakov and his brother reunited with his parents. Yakov left with his father in search of a new hiding place, while his brother and mother continued to hide. Several families turned them away. During their long expedition, they kept their feet warm at night by placing them on each other’s chests.
Harari shared the story of his family’s survival in Poland during a Holocaust Remembrance Day event on April 23, 2017. His story starts around 26 minutes in. Credit: Berkeley Community Media
At 10 years of age, Yakov knew more about fear, human evil, and cowardice than most people encounter in an entire lifespan. But Yakov also learned valuable, lifelong lessons about resilience, courage, hope, family, and love.
“Yakov was a miracle not only because he survived,” said Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Congregation Beth Israel, Berkeley, while delivering his eulogy. “He was a miracle because his survival story didn’t leave him embittered, despondent, or cynical.”
In the course of his adult life, Yakov made a choice, possibly an unconscious one, to focus on the positive lessons of those dark years — on resilience, on creativity and ingenuity, on the goodness of people. And that too was a miracle.
Watch a May 1990 recorded interview with Yakov Harari from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection
Here is just one example: Yakov’s formal schooling was disrupted during the war years, from when he was around 10 through 15 years old. When Yakov told his story, he would sometimes recount how his family reinforced the walls of the well dug in their hiding place as its possible collapse threatened the integrity of the home’s foundations. Yakov quipped that this was “his first lesson” in water engineering.
In 1945 Yakov attended a Polish high school as a gentile using the last name Birnatzki. The family secured papers to move to Israel as “the Schwartz family.” Later on the name was changed to Harari. At work, he was Jacob or Jake. But throughout, to those close to him, he was always Yakov.
The Holocaust was not the only formative and disruptive experience in Yakov’s life.
In 1948, after the family’s successful emigration to Israel, 11th graders there were recruited to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. Among them was Yakov. Parents were promised that their children would not be sent to the frontlines. However, Yakov noted that of a class of 16, three high-schoolers never returned home. Yakov’s life was spared again.
After the war, Yakov resumed his studies and completed high school; he then returned to the army for his regular military service. Once released, Yakov was finally able to learn without disruption. He attended NYU and then continued his studies in Detroit, Michigan, becoming a water engineer.
The man who only attended kindergarten, a few years of school (the Tarbut), and a few disjointed years of high school became a lifelong learner. Yakov attended classes at every imaginable institute in the East Bay and was a committed participant in several study groups. He made up for lost time and then some. His devotion to learning and community led him to become a leader in our community, where he served as president, and as a true exemplar of a serious student of Torah.
His community involvement also resulted in lifelong friendships.
Yakov and his partner Rena were married for close to 64 years. Together, they filled their life with laughter and culture, travel and love. Those who knew them cherished being in the presence of two elders who teased each other, who could lovingly disagree with each other, but who loved, loved, loved each other. And they spared your children the profound trauma that has so often been bequeathed to children of survivors.
Yakov was bright and intellectual. He was warm and caring. He was a gentleman and a mensch. He cared about his children and his granddaughter. He spoke to each of them daily. He took pride in them. He knew that they were his miracles.
When Yakov attended Shemini Atzeret services at Congregation Beth Israel in October, he was frail and pale and Rabbi Cohenn sensed that the end was near. Towards the end of the service, he invited Yakov to stand before the ark and open it for the prayer for rain. This is one of the greatest honors bestowed on the synagogue’s members. When Rabbi Cohenn asked Yakov whether he wanted him to bring up a chair to the bimah, he insisted: “No, I will stand.”
“He stood before the ark for ten minutes that felt like an eternity, and many of us caught a glimpse of his incredible courage and strength, and his stoic and regal dignity,” said Rabbi Cohenn.
The prayer for rain, recited only once a year, asks God to remember each of our patriarchs, their devotion and sacrifices, and their own quest for water.
Here is the section about Yakov Avinu, Yakov our forefather, which symbolically echoes Yakov’s own life:
“Remember Jacob who carried his staff
And crossed the Jordan’s water.
With steadfast heart he rolled away the stone
From the well of water.
He wrestled with an angel composed of fire and water,
So You [God] promised to be with him through fire and water.
For his sake do not withhold water.”
Yakov died on Sunday, Dec. 4. He is survived by his wife, Rena Harari, his children Arlana and Amir (Tia) and his granddaughter Sabrina Forscutt.