When Rabbi Mika M. Weiss conducts High Holiday services for Jewish prisoners at the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho in Castaic on Monday, he will understand something of their plight.
“I experienced two kinds of bondage and oppression,” the 79-year-old Rabbi emeritus of Temple B’Nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks said. “The Nazis and the Communists.”
On May 19, 1944, two Gestapo officers burst into the home of the young rabbi in Oroshaza, Hungary. At gunpoint, he was marched to a police station and held there with others from his local synagogue.
“The next day, they took us to another town, to Debrecen jail where 50 people were packed into a small space,” he “There was no sanitation. The Nazis threw food at us like dogs.”
Since 1968 he has served as chaplain at the Pitchess facility. He took the job, he said, because he felt he could relate to the inmates.
“Only in America can chaplains have such close contact and (conduct) services in jail,” Weiss said. “Even in Scandinavian countries, nothing compares.”
After surviving Mauthausen and Gunzkirchen extermination camps, Weiss was liberated by American troops in 1945. He returned to Hungary and became chief rabbi of Debrecen, but once again became victim of a hostile regime.
On the day his son was born in 1956, the Soviets invaded Hungary and instituted a repressive regime.
Weiss went to Finland, then came to the United States in 1962, working in New Jersey and finally Southern California.
Besides working with prisoners, Weiss serves as chaplain at the Van Nuys Division of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“I asked to be their chaplain because I wanted to give something back to this country,” Weiss said.
Capt. Ron Seban, formerly stationed in Van Nuys, said Weiss is gregarious and witty. He makes weekly visits to the Van Nuys station, chatting with the officers about the emotional side effects of police work.
“They are lonely,” Weiss said of the police. “They need a good word.”
At the Honor Rancho, Weiss conducts holiday services and regularly visits Jewish inmates. One inmate was so impressed with the rabbi that after his release he asked Weiss to conduct bar mitzvah services for his two sons.
“As long as you don’t know bondage and oppression, you wouldn’t be able to appreciate freedom,” Weiss said. “As long as you don’t know bitterness, you cannot appreciate sweetness.”