In early 1912 Baila Breslau (pronounced Breslov, nee Bizir) from the town of Rēzekne in Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire, received the worst of all letters. In it she was informed that her husband, Mordechai, known as Mottel, had been found dead on railroad tracks in Sasakwa, Oklahoma.1

Was it really him?

But was it really him? For two and a half years the matter remained unresolved, preventing Baila from remarrying. Finally, the question was brought to the halachic luminary, Rabbi Meir Simcha of the neighboring city of Daugavpils (known to Jews as Dvinsk), who confirmed that Mordechai may be assumed dead and Baila was indeed a widow.

Who was Mottel Breslau, and how did he end up on the tracks out in the lands belonging to the Seminole Nation?

Many of these questions may never be answered, but let us try to piece together whatever facts we can find.

For much of his adult life, Mottel was a woodworker, who, like many in the early twentieth century, traveled to the New World to find his fortune. He got a job in Denison, Texas, just south of the Oklahoma border, and saved up money to bring his family to America.

It seems that Mordechai loved his wife, regularly sending her loving letters and money. In his letters, he endearingly called her Bilinka. More than once, he tried to convince her to bring the children to America, sending her money and tickets for the trip, but it didn’t end up happening.

On January 21, 1912, Mottel sent a worrying letter to his beloved Bilinka stating that, “People want to take my life because I created a scene at the station. If anything were to happen to me, it would happen in Denison, Texas, by the train station. So they should know where to look. If this passes peacefully, I shall leave America for good.”

No explanation was given as to the nature of the “scene” he had caused, although it is likely that he was involved in some sort of crime. A second terse letter followed immediately thereafter: “Bilinka, if I am killed tonight, there will be two hundred dollars in my pocket for you. Yours, Mottel Breslau.”

On January 24, Breslau left Houston, Texas, on a train bound for San Francisco, presumably to get away from his pursuers. His ticket listed his destination as Kansas City. He made it barely more than 100 miles, to Sasakwa, Oklahoma, where he was found dead on the train tracks.

But could it be proven that the body belonged to Breslau?He made it barely more than 100 miles

There was no shortage of clues. For a start, there were dollars in his pocket, as his letter said. The amount finally made available to Bilinka was $141, less than the $200 mentioned, but that could be because some of the money was used to pay for court and burial costs. In his coat there was a train ticket and a baggage ticket, both made out to Mordechai Breslau. His pocket contained letters from Bilinka, and he had medicines from a pharmacy in Houston all with his name. His luggage even contained woodworking tools, indicating the owner’s profession.

All this was set out by a justice of the peace, L.B. Kitton, who stated in a series of letters to Bilinka and her brother (who lived in America), that he had carried out the bodily inspection of the deceased, and that he together with a panel of justices had determined the identity of the dead man. He notified her that the money had been deposited for safekeeping, and that she could retrieve it through an affidavit. Mottel was buried in a cemetery in Sasakwa.

How did he die? The justices determined that he had fallen off carriage 24 of the train. But did he jump, or was he pushed? Bilinka’s brother wrote to Bilinka that in his view it was a suicide. He argued that if there were specific people out to kill him, he would have specified who they were in his letter to his wife.

Was he right? We shall never know for sure.

But the saga didn’t end there. Before Baila could remarry, it was necessary for a Jewish court to determine that Mottel was indeed dead as the coroner had claimed. The rabbinic court in New York was led by prestigious scholar, Rabbi Shalom Elchanan Yaffa, a European-trained rabbi who served in St. Louis before moving to New York, where he served as the chairman of the Rabbinical Association of America.

Rabbi Yaffa and his panel of rabbis accepted the coroner’s verdict and permitted Bilinka to remarry.

Their main arguments were that the Sasakwa court could be trusted on that matter, and that the coroner’s letter did not appear to be tainted by any apparent interest, and could therefore be treated as reliable.

But the matter was far from settled; what went in America would not necessarily pass muster in Europe. For Bilinka to remarry, a local rabbinic authority would have to accept the American ruling. And so, the matter came to the desk of Rabbi Israel Dushovitz, the rabbi of Rēzekne. Rabbi Dushovitz was a member of the Chabad community, who eventually emigrated to America and became a prominent rabbi in New York. He died in 1945 and is buried in Queens.

But the matter was far from settled

Despite being an outstanding scholar himself, Rabbi Dushovitz sought the counsel of one the greatest halachic authorities of the time, Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk. He had two concerns:

First, can we be sure that it was really Mottel Breslau? Maybe the deceased was wearing Mottel’s coat (along with all the items found in the pocket)? It was unclear from the court papers that his body had been positively identified.

Second, since the last time he had been seen, he was alive, is there sufficient evidence to alter his status? Otherwise, the rule is that a person is presumed to be alive until established otherwise.

For the matter to truly be put to rest, the answer would have to be yes on both counts.

The response didn’t disappoint. Since Mottel’s letter placed him in the location he was found dead, wrote Rabbi Meir Simcha, we may follow an established halachic principle laid out by sixteenth-century French Torah scholar Rabbi Moshe Trani: If an item is lost in a particular place, and an item like it was found in that area, we may assume that the found item is the original lost item.

In addition, Rabbi Meir Simcha accepted the suggestion of Bilinka’s brother that Mottel had committed suicide (perhaps driven by fear of his attackers). This, said the sage, meant that Mottel was deranged and a grave danger to himself. Thus, by the time of his actual death, he had some of the status of a “dead man walking.” The required level of proof that he actually died can therefore be lowered considerably. He compared this to a well-established halachic principle that if a person was witnessed being bitten by a snake and never seen again, or found in an unrecognizable state, we may fairly assume the individual is dead.2

As for Rabbi Dushovitz’s worry that perhaps the coat belonged to Mottel, but the body was of someone else, Rabbi Meir Simcha rejected any such concern. He stated that there is no reason to think that his clothes had been lent out, and it is reasonable to assume that the clothes found on a person are his own. Moreover, if he had lent someone his coat, why did he leave his money in the pocket? And if someone had stolen the coat, why would the thief leave personal items labeled with someone else’s name in the pockets?

With this ruling, the sad death of Mottel Breslau was confirmed beyond question. Bilinka was now able to remarry. A transatlantic saga spanning more than two years finally came to a close.

We don’t know what happened to Bilinka after that, but let’s hope that after this tragedy she was able to remarry and live the remainder of her life in peace.