Originally my plan today was a column about the meeting between President Trump and China's communist party boss Xi Jinping. Then came word of the death early this morning of Masha Leon.
She was for decades the gossip columnist of the Jewish Forward. Along with a handful of others — including the New York Post’s Cindy Adams — Masha was a master of one of journalism’s most wonderful genres.
By day Masha ran with her husband an educational publishing company. By night, she worked the party circuit in the world’s liveliest city, meeting almost every famous person from, as Tablet’s editor, Alana Newhouse, put it, Elie Wiesel to Queen Latifah.
Little did any of them know that when Masha was a girl, she and her mother caused to be sent one of the most consequential messages in the history of the Jews. Messrs. Trump and Xi would be lucky to match it.
It’s a reminder that one just never knows what might be the reward of an act of kindness. Masha herself didn’t learn the consequences until decades after it happened.
Masha was born in Warsaw, and survived, she once wrote, by “a series of miracles.” She lived through the bombing of Warsaw, the German occupation, and getting trapped in a no-man’s land between hostile Nazis and Russians.
What strength Masha’s pluck must have given her mother, Zelda. For a while they survived on potatoes, which is why Masha’s freelance resume included, alongside such titles as McCall’s and Ladies Home Journal, the Idaho Potato Journal.
Eventually they got to Vilna, where, in August 1940, Russian secret police threw Masha’s father, an anti-communist Polish journalist named Matvey Bernstein, into Lukishki prison. One day Masha and her mother were waiting outside hoping to get to him some warm clothing.
They thought he’d need it for the exile to Siberia that they assumed lay ahead. A young newlywed woman next to them whispered that she was sending into the prison a message to her husband on a piece of paper stuffed into a bar of soap.
The newlywed was desperate to get word to her husband that she was going to make aliyah to Eretz Israel. Masha’s mother whispered a warning that the authorities might cut open the soap, discover the note, and exact punishment.
“My mother,” Masha would later relate, “suggested that instead she should embroider a coded message on a handkerchief—no one would suspect anything, since embroidery was commonplace.”
At the time Masha and her mother had no idea who the young woman was. Masha’s father was indeed sent to Siberia, while she and her mother were among the lucky recipients of visas from the righteous Japanese consul at Kovno, Chiune Sughihara.
That enabled their escape to Canada, and, in 1945, arrival in America, where Masha would raise her own family. And, eventually, discover the mystery of the young newlywed outside Lukishki prison.
Masha was reading Menachem Begin’s 1977 memoir, “White Nights,” when she came to the chapter about his imprisonment at Lukishki. Begin related that he shared a cell with a prisoner named Bernstein.
One day, Begin received from his wife several handkerchiefs. They were embroidered with the same word, “Ola,” which, at first, seemed an odd misspelling of, “Ala,” Aliza’s Polish nickname.
The two prisoners puzzled over it. It was Bernstein who suddenly exclaimed that “Ola” in Hebrew can be transliterated as “aliyah.” She was telling him that she was heading to Palestine.
“It was all clear to me now,” Begin wrote.
Begin told of how he’d considered divorcing his wife, so that Aliza would be free to remarry if he were to die in prison or Siberia. But after deciphering the coded handkerchief, he didn’t.
My own theory is that the knowledge that Aliza would be in Israel was one of the things that sustained Begin in his epic journey from the Gulag to Palestine, where he led the revolt against the British and set the stage for independence.
Masha eventually told the story to Aliza herself and, when he was in New York, to the Begins’ son Benny. “Were it not for your father,” Benny told Masha, “I might never have been born!”
Nor might have been the state of Israel itself — save, one can imagine, for the fact that one day outside Lukishki Prison, Zelda Bernstein was tugged along to glory by her plucky young daughter named Masha.