The Woman Who Won a Lottery Ticket – and Built Shuls


shulRare is the grandmother who doesn’t love to show off her grandchildren. A framed portrait gracing the coffee table depicting a toddler romping in the grass. A video clip of a little boy throwing his head back in laughter, his lilting voice like music. The mini photo album tucked into a proud grandma’s purse filled with smiling, happy children at play, at the park, at a wedding… But the pictures crowding the photo albums of Dubbe (“Dubbele”) Stern are of a different stock. No pictures of smiling babies peer out from those pages, no family portraits, no images of fathers looking down at their sons with unmasked pride. But this elderly woman displays her own set of nachas with unadulterated joy.In Dubbele’s albums, if you get to thumb through them, you will find pictures of shuls, lecterns and prayer-books. There are pictures of a Sefer Torah dedication celebration. Of dancing and leaping in tight circles around a canopy…Torches burning bright held high by little children parading before the new Torah…

Sitting beside Dubbe at a bris, I listen as she tells me the story behind those albums.

“I don’t have anyone,” she begins. “Not a husband, not a sister, not a child, not a grandchild. I have G‑d,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes and that sincere smile that never leaves her face.

She’s dressed simply, in plain clothes, old and worn, that belie a woman known to have won the lottery. “Tell me about yourself,” I say.

She laughs; a delicate, tinkling laughter like the sound of the china dishes the waiters are carting away.

“I was born in Warsaw, Poland,” she begins. “Tatte [Father] was very religious. But bread there wasn’t and we lived in a cellar. My parents came to live in Warsaw from a small shtetl nearby to look for a livelihood. I went to the Bais Yaakov school for girls.

“Then the war broke out in 1939. I was caught one day as I was walking on the street, and then I was liberated by the ninth armored division,” she says, opening and closing this harrowing chapter of her life in one breath-a subtle clue, perhaps, that explains her unwavering joyfulness.

I wait for more. Those words – war, 1939, the Warsaw Ghetto – history-packed words…they dangle before me, enticingly, as I look up at the woman who carries all those memories in her heart.

“How old were you?” I gently prod, searching for a side entrance to that pain-filled domain.

“I was a young girl, maybe twelve or thirteen. We were six children: Moshe who learned in Baranovitch, Kalmen, Yankel, David, Rivkale and me-Dubbela. I was hungry. I would go out to look for bread, my brother and I. I was always on the alert, scanning the countryside for signs of danger-I knew that if a Jewish child is discovered a kilometer away from the city, she was shot.

“One day, as I was roaming the countryside, I saw a man moving cautiously along. He was using a walk stick to feel out what’s around him, he was obviously blind. As he came closer, I heard him muttering under his breath that whoever will escort him will have what to eat. So I offered to accompany him and he was happy. We went up to a little shack and he knocked on the door. A polish peasant woman opened the door and the blind man began to sing a Christian song. Hearing him, the woman ushered us into her home and served us some soup…

“In this way, we spent a few weeks, wandering and begging, the blind man and I, knocking on doors, subsisting on a piece of bread, a plate of soup, and every now and then, an egg. Until, out of the blue, the blind man disappeared.

“I was on my own again. When hunger overtook me, I would walk up to one of the little huts dotting the roads and beg the gentiles living there to give me something to eat, a corner to sleep.”

Dubbele’s looks up at me, there’s laughter in her eyes. “You could make a movie out of my story, eh?”

She continues her story: “And so roaming the fields, I discovered an underground bunker where Jews were hiding out and they allowed me to join them. Whenever our food supply ran out, we would sneak out again to search for food: some corn, a bit of flour, every bit was precious. One day, as I was making my way across a highway in search for a farmer, a group of SS men swooped down on all the passersby and threw us into waiting trucks.

“I found myself in a transport sent to the Skarżysko-Kamienna slave labor camp. There I worked in a munitions factory, filling bullets with explosive powder, and then loading heavy, sixteen kilo barrels onto railway wagons. Later I was sent to a munitions plant in Leipzig. With the help of the UNNRA I came to Israel in 1948.

I ask about the rest of the family and she tells me she never heard from them again. “Maybe they died in Treblinka, or of starvation in the ghetto, I’ll never know. My brother Moshe who learned in Baranovitch,” she becomes thoughtful, “maybe he’ll read this story and we’ll find each other…”

The Lotto Ticket

Dubbele got married to her husband, Tuvia, in 1957 and put her holocaust experiences behind her. She wanted nothing more than to build a new generation of Jewish children. However, it wasn’t destined to be. She never had children. Still, Dubbele’s joie de vivre never waned. Always she found ways to fill her life with joy, giving of herself, spreading happiness wherever she went.

“I had an interesting hobby. Every week I would go out to buy a lottery ticket. There was one number I played with, all the time, 15,1957-the date of my wedding. My husband would laugh, ‘A million people buy the lottery,’ he would say, ‘you’ll be the winner? It’s impossible. Don’t burn up money, give it to charity, if you must.’ But Dubbele always assured him that one day she will indeed win the lottery.

“One day, I was walking down Allenby St. with a dance in my step and humming a tune to myself when I met Rebbetzin Mund. ‘Dubbela, why are you singing?’ She asked, ‘What’s making you so happy?’ I told her, ‘It’s my day today. I’m on my way to buy a lottery ticket and I’m sure that I’ll win.’

“Rebbetzin Mund, the wife of Rabbi Simcha Mund, was a righteous woman, a good-hearted woman. She must have felt like humoring me. ‘If you’re going to win,’ she said, ‘let me join you. I’ll be your partner in the lottery.’ I said, ‘Great, you’re a rebbetzin, you are a holy woman, I can hardly stand next to you. You be the one to pull out the ticket.’

“‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s your day, you be the one.’ So I bought a lottery ticket, placed the receipt in my pocket, thanked the rebbetzin, and was on my way.”

That week, Dubbele’s wedding date turned out to be the winning numbers. She won fifty thousand dollars-a small fortune in the late 1960s. Without a moment’s hesitation Dubbele hurried to the rebbetzin and presented her with half the money. The rabbi and his rebbetzin were incredulous. “It’s your money,” they protested. “You could build yourself a beautiful five storey home!”

“No it belongs to both of us,” Dubbele insisted. “We made a partnership.”

In addition to the twenty five thousand dollars, Dubbela counted out two thousand five hundred dollars and handed it to the rabbi. “This is a tenth of the money. Give it to the charity of your choice.”

The rest of the money Dubbele presented to her husband. “It’s for you,” she said. “What do I need?”

The Dividends

Tuvia invested the money in a real estate property and Dubbele stopped buying lottery tickets. Years passed. Tuvia Stern left the world. Dubbele was alone once again. And yet, the joy on her face, her zest for living never left her. Eventually she sold the property her husband had purchased and used those funds to build two synagogues: “One for my husband and one for me.”

Today, if one ventures to walk through the timeless arches and quaint twisting alleyways of the Meah Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem, one comes across a small, humble structure. “Tuvia’s Shteeble,” reads the placard that hangs over the entrance. And in a city not too far away, the city of Ashdod, there stands another synagogue, “Beit Feige Dubba.” Each one a silent tribute to a woman who once searched for bread to nourish her body and now hungers for food to nourish her soul.

And Dubbe herself? She can be found inside a hospital cafeteria or a senior citizen home, feeding a forlorn patient, smiling to an elderly woman, spreading her sunshine, giving to others wherever she goes.

“I have no one,” she says. “No one but my Father in Heaven.”

And of course, the albums filled with pictures of the two synagogues she built-her greatest joy in life…

{By Mirish Kiszner. Mirish Kiszner is a teacher, counselor and lecturer living in Yerushalayim. She’s published hundreds of articles in numerous Jewish publications. Her latest book is Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary People (ArtScroll), a collection of true stories about real people.}

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