“שמע בני מוסר אביך ועל תטוש תורת אמך”- A Heritage of Hope

RabbanitEstherWagner             Weisbergfamily

Rabbanit Esther Rivka Wagner with her daughter Malky,

and her grandchildren,

Rabbi Shalom Weisberg (current MMY faculty), and Michal


On the 17th of Iyar, May 25th, 2016, I paid a visit to Mrs. Malky Weisberg, who graciously invited me to her office on the Yad Vashem campus. Little did I know the significance of that date.


Rabbanit Esther Rivka Wagner (nee Willig) A”H, Malky’s mother, had passed away just two months prior at the age of 92. Rabbanit Wagner, a holocaust survivor and an impressive woman of her own right, had been a long-time MMY witness on our annual Heritage trip to Poland. Her passing was a tremendous loss for all of us too. Just two weeks after her passing, MMY 5776 embarked on yet another voyage, attempting a glimpse at a horror that was. With all this happening in succession, one after the other, I reached out to her daughter to try and connect with the history and memories that much of the MMY family feel so intimately a part of. I sat with Malky, and asked her to give me a taste of the inspiring life of her mother, and the legacy that she left behind.


When Malky spoke, there was no pomp or ceremony. She spoke simply, yet poignantly, and I began to get an idea about the woman who raised her. She started at the very beginning of Rabbanit Wagner’s story, providing me with background and painting a picture of the piety of her mother’s origins. Forty-five minutes later, we were both crying.


As I alternated typing and tear-wiping, I listened raptly to a tale of faith, fortitude, and fortune. I learned about Esther Rivka Wagner’s illustrious father and wise mother, about how they raised her with Torah values, conviction, and much love. I smiled when I heard the news of her mother’s engagement to Rabbi Yisrael Wagner, although the war was sweeping in on them. I took note as she described the German invasion and the awful new realities that they were forced to face. I was blown away by Esther Rivka’s determination to fight for life and forge on despite all the loss and pain and dread that were life’s constant companions then.


Young Esther Rivka had chosen to jump the train to Belzec, sneak back to their old hiding place, and retrieve the false papers that she’d obtained some months ago, just in case… While back in the city, she received a letter from her fiance and was reunited with him, only to be torn from his side yet again. He was forced to go into hiding, but as for Esther Rivka, her papers sure did come in handy after all. She used those papers to pass as an Aryan Catholic girl, procuring work as a nanny in a number of Christian homes, never letting her guard down lest she be discovered. She endured the unremitting terror of being found out, of being caught for the Jewish girl that she was.


Esther Rivka survived the war without word from any of her family members or her fiancé. She made every attempt to find him while teaching at the DP camp that was her new temporary home, to no avail- until the day he walked right through the front gates, asking about a particular Esther Rivka Willig. Together they built a beautiful life, and a family of four.


Years later, after fulfilling her dream of making Aliyah with her whole family, Rabbanit Esther Rivka Wagner embraced the opportunity to share her account and the lessons she imbibed to the next generation. She accompanied many young adults on their quest to try and glean some inkling of what it was like for the Jews during the Nazi occupation. For years and years, the girls of MMY had the Z’chut of drinking in Rabbanit Wagner’s obvious and unswerving Emunah in a G-d Al-mighty who was with her throughout every step and setback of her journey. She never doubted His loving presence in her life, and never questioned His ways. We’ve been honored to be a part of this great woman’s life story, and to carry on in her tradition. The fact that her grandson, Rabbi Shalom Weisberg, is now a beloved faculty member of MMY, is further proof of the kind of family she raised and the inheritance she left behind.

“שמע בני מוסר אביך ועל תטוש תורת אמך”


As the sun was setting on that 17th of Iyar, and on my emotional meeting with Malky, I still had one more question for her, “But when and how did your parents finally get married?” Her deliberate look hinted to an answer that would leave me stunned.


You see, Lag B’omer 1946, the 18th of Iyar, was the date of Rabbanit Rivka Esther Wagner’s wedding. That evening would have been her 70th wedding anniversary. Yehi Zichra Baruch.

To read more about the life of Rabbanit Wagner, click here.

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