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Obituaries

Rabbi Mika Weiss, 88; Jail Chaplain

January 24, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a chaplain at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, Rabbi Mika M. Weiss traveled from his home in Brentwood two or three times a month for more than 30 years to counsel inmates. He felt he could relate to them.

A native of Hungary, Weiss was imprisoned in two Nazi extermination camps, Mauthausen and Gunskirchen, during World War II. He was liberated by American troops in 1945 but lost his freedom again when he returned to a Hungary that was under increasing Communist control.

"As long as you don't know bondage and oppression, you wouldn't be able to appreciate freedom," Weiss told The Times in 1993. "As long as you don't know bitterness, you cannot appreciate sweetness."

Weiss, rabbi emeritus at Temple B'nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, died Dec. 29 of coronary artery disease. He was 88 and had continued his chaplain duties at the Pitchess center until last year.

"He was able to explain how to be free inside barbed wire, something that he knew well," said Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Beit T'Shuvah, a Jewish rehabilitation center.

"He was just a tremendous inspiration to all who met him."

Borovitz should know: Weiss counseled him in the early 1980s, when Borovitz was an inmate at Pitchess on bad-check and forgery charges, before he became a rabbi.

"He brought hope to people who were hopeless, which is probably the greatest gift he could give to anybody," Borovitz said.

Born in Kiskunfelegyhaza, Hungary, in 1913, Weiss earned a doctorate in philosophy from the Pazmany Peter University of Budapest in 1939. The same year, he received his first position as a rabbi in Oroshaza, well before his official ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest in 1941.

Although he had several chances to flee the Nazis after the Germans seized Hungary, Weiss refused, saying, "What kind of man would I be if I forsake my own congregation?"

In May 1944, two Gestapo officers burst into his home in Oroshaza. They marched him at gunpoint to a police station where he joined other members of his synagogue.

"The next day, they took us to another town, to Debrecen jail where 50 people were packed into a small space," he once recalled. "There was no sanitation. The Nazis threw food at us like dogs."

Weiss was deported to Austria, where he inspired fellow death camp prisoners to maintain the will to live when they were ready to give up, said his son, Peter.

The Jews of Debrecen promised to make Weiss their rabbi if they got out of the camp alive. More than 500,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to German concentration camps; most were killed in gas chambers.

After the Gunskirchen extermination camp was liberated, Weiss served as the chief rabbi in Debrecen from 1946 to 1957, and was later named "eternal rabbi" of the congregation.

After returning to Hungary, Weiss put his life at risk by speaking out against those who had stood idly by when Hungary's Jews were deported by the Nazis, his son said.

When the Communists confiscated the homes and possessions of Jews living in Budapest and deported them to the countryside in the early 1950s, Weiss developed a plan to return them to the city.

"The only way he could bring them back to Debrecen [was] if they had health problems," said Peter Weiss. "He had the health minister start writing health decrees that this person's life is in danger--and then did it over and over."

About nine months after Soviet forces crushed a short-lived anti-Communist revolution in Hungary in late 1956, Weiss moved his family to Finland. He accepted a position as rabbi for the Helsinki Jewish congregation, where he served from 1957 to 1961; he became chief rabbi of all of Finland in 1959.

In 1962, with the Soviet Union threatening Finland, he and his family moved to the United States.

He became the rabbi of the Jewish Community Center in Flemington, N.J., and then came to California, where he spent three years as rabbi at Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

He moved to Temple B'nai Hayim in 1967, and a year later began serving as a chaplain at the Pitchess center.

"Only in America can chaplains have such close contact and [conduct] services in jail," Weiss once told The Times. "Even in Scandinavian countries, nothing compares."

Saying he wanted "to give something back to this country," Weiss also served as a chaplain for the Van Nuys Division of the Los Angeles Police Department for 22 years and was a chaplain at several hospitals and retirement homes.

"There is a lot of darkness all around the world," Weiss once told 12 inmates before lighting the menorah at a Hanukkah celebration in 1998.

"God's candle is the soul of the heart, the spirit of the human being. We should spread the light all around us."

In addition to his son, Weiss is survived by his wife, Hedy Flesh, and two grandchildren.

Contributions can be sent to the Rabbi Weiss Memorial Fund at B'nai Hayim, 4302 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91403.

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