Jacob Apelberg sought to have his passion for learning filter down to his two sons. So even when he was routing them in chess, he was trying to instruct them on how to improve their games.
“He was always a great chess player,” Benjamin Apelberg said of his father. “He would take the time to kind of help us along. He would let us take moves back and try again. He was trying to be a teacher.”
Mr. Apelberg, who escaped the clutches of the Nazi Germany invasion into Poland only to be sent to a labor camp in the Soviet Union and eventually became a preservationist of the Yiddish language and culture, died of a stroke Sept. 11 at Northwest Hospital in Randallstown. The Pikesville transplant would have turned 89 on Oct. 22.
Rabbi Rory Katz, who had known Mr. Apelberg and his wife, Estelle, since starting at Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore as an intern four years ago, said Mr. Apelberg enjoyed engaging people in conversation.
“He just made you feel like you were in the right place,” she said. “There wasn’t somewhere you were supposed to be, and you weren’t someone else you were supposed to be. You were there, and he was happy to be talking to you, so you were happy to be talking to him. As a person who lived so much variety and color in his life, he just made you see so much color all around you as well.”
The youngest of four boys and one girl, Jacob Apelberg was the son of Aron Apelberg, a Hebrew teacher, and Bracha Apelberg, a hardware store owner, in Wąsewo, Poland. Mr. Apelberg was two months shy of his second birthday when he lost his father in a bus accident that claimed 17 other victims. In a 97-minute interview Dec. 16, 2014, as part of a series organized by the Yiddish Book Center, Mr. Apelberg said his father’s death had a profound impact on him.
“I was very young, but I still remember it because after this happened, I remember I started to think about death,” Mr. Apelberg said at the time. “I did not understand exactly what that means, but I knew my father will not come back. … And then I say to myself, ‘If death will come, I will run away.’”
In 1939, German soldiers who had already invaded the village told the family to leave. Mr. Apelberg, his mother, and his grandparents lived in an inn for two months during which his grandmother and then his grandfather died.
Mr. Apelberg and his mother then moved toBiałystok, Poland, but were rounded up by Russian soldiers along with about 500 others and sent by train to a labor camp in a remote part of the Soviet Union.
“There were no doctors, and there was no school there because it was a labor camp,” Mr. Apelberg said. “It was prison essentially. But nobody guarded you because it was forests for hundreds of miles. Where are you going to escape? You would be lost.”
At the labor camp, Mr. Apelberg lost his mother.
“She became ill, and there was no help,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what was the illness, but one thing, her abdomen all the time was swollen. … When this happened, I was thinking, ‘I have lost all of my life.’”
A neighbor with her own family adopted Mr. Apelberg in 1940 when he was 8 years old. Several years later, they left the camp for Kazakhstan, and he returned to Poland in 1946.
Benjamin Apelberg said his father’s childhood created an independent streak.
“I do think it weighed on him because he was forced to fend for himself,” he said from his home in Rockville. “Because of that, he was used to kind of doing things on his own. That would drive him to push himself to advance his career and his education.”
Mr. Apelberg returned to Poland and later immigrated to Israel in 1949 where he joined the army. He later studied engineering at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and Hebrew language and literature at the University of Haifa.
Due to a lack of qualifications, Mr. Apelberg worked odd jobs to make ends meet in Israel. That contributed to an affection for those who worked in the service industry, Mrs. Apelberg said, remembering a time when her husband bought a dozen pizzas for a handful of men replacing the roof of their home.
“He was thinking about the workers,” she said.
In 1970, Mr. Apelberg met the former Estelle Kushner, and the couple married Nov. 21, 1971, in Haifa, Israel. Mrs. Apelberg said her future husband was friends with her father’s cousin and was frequently invited to the house for meals.
“The funny thing is, he had a motor scooter. So we went everywhere in his motor scooter throughout Israel,” she recalled. “So I got to tour the country that way.”
Informed by potential employers that he was too old, Mr. Apelberg left Israel in 1973 and joined his wife and infant son in Baltimore where he graduated from the Johns Hopkins University with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. He worked for medical products supplier Becton, Dickinson & Co. until he retired at the age of 68.
In retirement, Mr. Apelberg began writing poetry in English and Hebrew. In 2010, he spent three months translating a 1,000-word Yiddish poem by Chaim Grade called “The Pillar of Fire that Remained After My Rabbi’s Death.”
“He wanted there to be a real appreciation for Yiddish and the Yiddish culture,” said Katz, the rabbi. “He felt there weren’t as many Yiddish speakers as there should be. So he was someone I saw as really trying to revive Yiddish and make people really see how much beauty was in the language.”
Services were held Sept. 13 at Sol Levinson & Bros. Chapel in Pikesville, and Mr. Apelberg was buried at Beth Tfiloh Cemetery in Woodlawn.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Apelberg is survived by another son, Eytan Apelberg of Washington, D.C., and three granddaughters.