Birth: April 23, 1910 in Poland
Death: July 28, 1995 (age 85) in Victoria, B.C.
Eulogy given by Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein at the funeral:
Funeral: July 30, 1995
Yahrzeit: 1 Av
Henry Sitwell – Yechezkel ben Zalman v’Zissa
Henry Sitwell was a gentle, most unassuming presence who dwelled among us. In shul he and Edith would always sit on this bench closest to the bimah, just to the right of the stairs. When called to the Torah he would rise as Yechezkel ben Zalman v’Zissa. In recent years he would ascend the bimah with difficulty, with his cane and the supportive arm of another. He was born Yechezkel Zitzer. Zitzer means in Yiddish one who “sits” or “dwells,” an “inhabitant.” At the suggestion of a relative in England, Sitwell became a direct adaptation of Zitzer. For one whose name suggests place and rootedness, the swirl of events, the whirlwind of the Holocaust, carried him to more places than he would ever have imagined. Yet, Henry carried that sense of place within himself, that sense of rootedness, of knowing who he was. Home and family became his place, transcending external reality. There was a sense of quietude, almost of serenity, as he observed life and reflected on his own. At times he seemed bemused, as though in his own world, where place and time never changed. And so he dwelled among us, Yechezkel Zitzer, Henry Sitwell, taking in everything, giving quietly of himself, radiating a gentleness of spirit that found comfort in the knowledge that he was at home among us.
Henry was born in Zamosc, Poland, near Lublin, in 1910. His parents would later say that he was born in 1906 to make him too old for the draft. He was the eldest of eight children, seven sons and one daughter. Four of them, among many other relatives, would not survive the Holocaust. Henry’s family was deeply religious, but open to the world and respectful of their son’s own choices. It was thought that he would be a rabbi. He went through the traditional framework of yeshiva learning, which became part of the seedbed of his life. He would occasionally speak of the tractates of Talmud that he had studied and which he could still recite. When called to the Torah, the words of blessing would come forth from his heart where they dwelled. He would lead the large Seders to which he and Edith welcomed so many people. He was completely at home in modern and classical Hebrew, sharing his love of the language of his people so freely with all who came to him, Jew and non-Jew. The rabbinate was not to be his calling, however. Prior to ordination he chose a different path. Equally at home in the world of mathematics, the diversity of disciplines reflecting the sharpness of his mind, Henry chose to pursue engineering. He studied in Vilna and Lvov and became a geodetic engineer. Ironically, that too, like his name, seemed to be about defining space, surveying and measuring, setting boundaries and defining parameters of land and place. After attaining his degree, Henry practiced engineering in the city of Kalisch. It was there that he and Edith met while she was a student. It was all so ordinary, the life of a young man and woman unfolding, one reflection of how a world was shattered, of lives waiting to be carried as splinters in the wind.
As the storm clouds gathered ever more thickly, Henry and Edith were married in Bialystok on October 10, 1939, almost 56 years ago. Affirming life, it was an act of ultimate optimism and hope. Edith’s brother-in-law went to a restaurant where Jews were gathered together to listen for news. Ten strangers came with him to be the minyan for their wedding in the home of Rabbi Dr. Rosenstock. Whatever happened to the rabbi and those who formed that minyan of hope, they became forever part of Henry and Edith’s life and a link through them in the golden chain of our people’s survival.
From the moment of their wedding, the journey of this young couple began as a trek for survival. Bialystok, Warsaw, Oudsk, Siberia, Uzbekistan…, and in Uzbekistan particularly Tashkent. At one time Henry and Edith were separated for many weeks. His desperate search for her was like a thread from the tale of a Jewish Evangeline, but in their reunion there was a happy ending even for all of the suffering yet to ensue. At every stage their survival was accomplished together. Perhaps this is the source of the perception held by so many of Henry and Edith as a pair rather than as individuals. Surely, they each had numerous facets and talents that defined them individually, and so your own gifts shall help you to continue now, Edith. Theirs was a love and a relationship that no one else can understand fully, but for those who lived in that time and place, who also knew the uniqueness of love’s bond forged upon that cruel anvil of history. Simple expressions of kindness and love that might occur between any couple became for them gifts of life. “When we were hungry in the war,” Edith says, “he would say, ‘I’m not hungry,’ and he would give me his portion of the food, saying that he had found something to eat already.” Edith’s delicious cooking that Henry so loved was over the years a symbolic return of that love.
In the midst of his parents journey for survival, John was born in Uzbekistan in 1944. The decision to try to have a baby was in Edith’s mind a naive hope that it would protect Henry from being taken away. In such naive hope is the source and strength of survival.
The young family did survive. With war’s end they returned to Poland. Fearing the pogroms and hatred in that land they went to a Displaced Persons camp in Austria. In the American zone Henry became the director of ORT. Edith’s involvement in ORT now is another symbolic link to that time. In the camp John contracted polio as a very young child. He was taken to a hospital where he remained in isolation even from his parents. Your earliest memory of your dad, John, is a most poignant memory that shall continue to give sweetness to all of your days. It is that image of your dad bringing you a sucker in the shape of a rooster and tossing it to you through the window of your isolation. In 1947 Charlie was born in the camp. In 1949 the family went to Israel. Henry worked in Haifa as a geodetic engineer. As they all walked to visit grandparents who had also miraculously survived, Charlie remembers being carried on his dad’s shoulders. It is a beautiful image of your dad at a time that most of us did not know him. Mentally and physically drained the family came to Canada in 1952, first to Montreal and Toronto and then to a government job with natural resources in Regina Saskatchewan. Lucien was born in Regina. Those were lonely years for the family, living away from community in converted army barracks near the airport without a car. Henry was often away up north surveying, leaving Edith alone with the children.
Building on both the reality of their isolation in the early years in Canada and memory of their home-centered lives in Europe, family was the centre of Sitwell life. Without a car, they would go for family walks in the neighborhood. Henry would take the boys fishing — to a place where there were no fish — yet dutifully putting “food” on the hook as bait. Reflecting now, they say he probably knew there were no fish but wanted to teach patience and optimism. These were traits that helped him to survive. Through family stories and reflections we come to see such a simple good man of so many talents, truly “salt of the earth.” Henry worked with leather, keeping cobbler’s tools at home with which he resoled the family’s shoes. May some of those shoes that you still wear help to “resoul” you as you find comfort in memory. He was also able to reupholster worn out seats, as he did for your bicycle, Aaron, that corduroy and velvet one he made lasting longer than the original one. As a mathematician he developed a conversion formula to go from metric to imperial measure using a special scale he developed for the slide rule. Prior to the computer it was very significant. He loved music and had a great collection of classical records that he would put on after work to help relax. Henry was also a skilled calligrapher, often writing documents in many different scripts for both the government and for individuals. Henry was a teacher at heart. He tutored people in both math and Hebrew. As Lucien reflects, he had a profound sense of respect for learning, for education. In one on one sharing of his own knowledge he showed deep respect for every individual seeking to learn. He shared of his essence in teaching Hebrew to so many, both Jews and non-Jews.
In 1970 Henry and Edith came to Victoria where they finally found the community they had never found in Canada. It was here that we came to know and love them. In the years without a rabbi Henry would share his Jewish knowledge and help with services and Jewish life. We will deeply miss the presence of this gentle patient man among us, even as you his family will miss him on so many levels. He was so truly as Edith says, “a good husband, a good father, a good man.” When he taught you to ride a bike, John, and the day came when you rode off on your own, he said, “he doesn’t need me anymore.” But he was so wrong. You did need him, and now all of you continue to need his memory. The memory of all that he meant will continue to guide you as surely as the father’s hand upon the bicycle seat. Now he has let go, but he shall continue to gaze upon all of you as you go forward on your own. May you all hear and read and reread the beautiful words that he inscribed in his beautiful calligrapher’s hand as an inscription in a photo album waiting yet to be filled with pictures and memories; “To treasure the years of love and warmth we experienced together.”
Henry died on Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of a month of both great sorrow and great hope and comfort for the Jewish people. Amid your great sorrow, may you also find comfort in the memory of this beautiful human being, your husband, your father, your grandfather, your brother, your uncle, our friend Henry Sitwell, Yechezkel ben Zalman v’Zissa. As he is called home to his ancestors may his soul be embraced by all those who came before, those from long ago taken amid flame and fury and those more recently. May his soul teach and share with little Tyler Benjamin, Charlie’s young son, called home so early, who will now get to know his zayde. For all of you, remember those words that he penned, now to be a legacy, “To treasure the years of love and warmth we experienced together.” In so doing his memory shall be a blessing among you.
Gravesite Details: Row D – Plot 7
פּ״נ (Here lies)
In Loving Memory of
Husband, Father, and Friend
Hebrew Name (below)
Yechezkiel b. Zalman v’Zisa
Born in Poland
April 23, 1910 – July 28,1995
ת נ צ ב ה
abbreviation for Biblical quote: “May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.”
Edith Sitwell (1915–2001)
John Sitwell 1944-
Charlie Sitwell 1947-