Rabbi Israel Polter puts on tefillin at the shtiebl in his father's seat.
Rabbi returns to childhood home in
Belgium for many moving experiences.
I Special to the Jewish News
he saying "You can't go home
again" is one Rabbi Israel
Polter can happily disprove.
Rabbi Polter, 75, of Oak Park has
twice returned to his birthplace —
Antwerp, Belgium — once in 2009
and again in 2012, both times with
his youngest son, Yossi, 34, of Crown
"I was born in 1937:' the elder Polter
explains, "and because of the war, we
moved to France in 1940. We got out
when we found out the Nazis were
rounding up children."
Yossi recalls, "The family was at
home, and a German came to the house
and demanded the children. My grand-
mother, thinking quickly, said, 'My
family is exempt: A priest who lived
in the neighborhood was walking by
and my grandmother said, 'Ask him:
The priest told the officer, 'Yes, they're
exempt: and the German left:'
Israel, his five brothers and sisters
and their parents remained in France
until 1942, and then made their way
to Switzerland, where they lived until
1945. After the war, the family, intact,
traveled back to Antwerp, living there
until 1951. That year, the Polters moved
to Toronto, where the family became
involved in the Chabad movement.
Israel Polter eventually moved to the
Detroit area in 1962, where he and his
late wife, Freida, raised five children.
"It was always my dream to return to
Europe Polter says, noting this wasn't
a desire shared by his siblings.
So, in 2009, he and his son took their
first, weeklong trip to Antwerp, where
"not too much had changed:' according
to Israel. "It was like I had left yester-
Yossi says, "My father remembered
everything. He was so excited, running
around like a child:'
The elder Polter asked a man on the
street where Kleinblatt's Bakery was
— a landmark for him — and when
he found it, from there he was able to
find his house, his school and even the
midwife's home on Brielmontlei Street
where he was born.
His birthplace had undergone a
change, which the two discovered while
searching for the home.
"We were walking down the street,
trying to find the midwife's house
Yossi says. "My father remembered the
number and, as we were walking down
one side of the street, the addresses
"We crossed the street, and the build-
ing didn't look familiar to my father,
but then he saw the number and said,
`This is it: We looked up and noticed
that it said `Bais Chabad: So his birth-
place had become a Chabad house. We
went in and met the rabbi, and told
him this was where my father had been
Another moving experience was
finding the synagogue the family
attended, called Osten Bais Midrash,
which had survived the war. "The shul
is on the first floor:' explains Yossi,
"and the top floor housed a shtiebl (lit-
tle room for comomunal prayer), which
is still in existence:"
"It was amazing; Israel says, "the
same benches, the same tables. I sat in
my father's seat and put on tefillin in
the same place I did 62 years ago at my
The Polters' second visit last August,
although only for three days, was to
commemorate Israel's 75th birthday. "I
wanted to have an aliyah in the house
where I was born:' Israel says.
Are there more visits to Antwerp in
"I want to take my grandson there
Israel says. "He'll have his bar mitzvah
in a few months, and I want to take
him to the same place.
"I'd like to go back every year:' he
says with a smile.
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