I was privy recently to an important conversation with a man named Meylakh Sheykhet. Everything about him seemed a little foreign initially and there was a time not so long ago that it would have been impossible to reach him.
But the world has changed and there’s magic about these days – computers and e-mail; Facebook and Twitter; Google, Yahoo and Bing. You just need to know how to conjure up the proper spells, ahhh, search engines.
On a recent afternoon, I sat inside a windowless meeting room at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta in Midtown, part of a committee looking into the desecration of mass grave sites in Eastern Europe. It seems the brutal reality of the Holocaust remains alive, especially across the killing fields of Belarus and Ukraine. Although there are numerous memorials hidden away in the woods and fields of the region, thousands of graves sites have been ignored over the years and, worse, desecrated by looters in search of profit.
The problem has outraged Tosia Schneider, a lovely woman just the other side of 80, who fears she has relatives among the restless souls being disturbed. A Holocaust survivor who has lived in Atlanta for decades, Tosia managed to quickly pull together a committee, sanctioned and supported by the William Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum, to explore the problem and figure out a solution.
It’s a huge task, involving foreign governments and international laws, cultural misunderstandings and generational enmity. Progress has been slow. For months, committee members have attempted to contact groups and individuals looking into the problem, with little success.
On this day they would take a huge step forward, thanks to Meylakh Sheykhet and a little computer magic.
Meylakh lives thousands of miles away in Lvov, the largest city and cultural center of western Ukraine. He’s a director with the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, and has spent the last decade surveying Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust grave sites. He recently learned of the inquiries being made by Tosia and other committee members and contacted Liliane Kshensky Baxter with the Breman Museum. Lili touched base with Tosia and she reached Meylakh.
But something didn’t feel quite kosher. Meylakh spoke perfect English, had a cell phone that somehow was routed through upstate New York, and was part of an organization that had an impressive name but that no one on the committee was familiar with.
So we called him.
It only took an instant and Lili was saying hello and explaining who we were and why we were calling. Our hope was to use a speaker phone in the conference room, but once we had made the connection we could only make out every other word. Lili grabbed the phone, talking to Meylakh in both English and Yiddish, pausing every so often to share what they were discussing.
But Meylakh remained a cipher, a disembodied voice without shape or form. That’s when someone suggested we might want to arrange an interview in a few days or the following week, using something like Skype.
Now I’ve heard of Skype and have some vague idea of what it is, but no clue how it works. Meylakh, 4,500 miles away, overheard the suggestion and did have a clue. He told Lili he had Skype on his computer.
Meanwhile, Jarrod Rifkind, a student at Northwestern University and a Breman intern had been quietly tapping away at his laptop throughout the meeting. He mumbled something about not being able to “friend” Meylakh, then asked how he spelled his name. It turns out a few vowels had been dropped when listing Meylakh on the agenda. Go figure. After updating the search, we could hear a ringing tone, both in the conference room and from the phone Lili was holding.
And a moment later, magic, there he was on Jarrod’s computer – bushy beard, quiet smile, receding hairline topped with a skullcap. Yes, of course, that’s Meylakh. And it was.
He talked and we listened. And we believed what he said because he was right there in the room with us, only a few feet away. We could see the pain on his face and read his body language as he discussed his difficult work. This wasn’t just a distant voice. It was a person who shared our worries and concerns, someone we could trust.
A little over two decades earlier I had witnessed an experiment. While one friend sat at a computer and labored to find the correct spelling of a word on the internet, another friend grabbed a nearby dictionary. On that day the friend with the book won the contest.
I recall wondering at the time what the point of the internet was and why anyone would want to deal with the high-tech mystery of a computer. Now I know.
Middle photo: A desecrated grave in Belarus.
Bottom photo: Alexander Graham Bell makes his first telephone call in 1892.