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Memories of Forgotten Times

When he met the Sanzer Rebbe shlita and was feted as one of the last survivors of a holy world gone black he explained how a young boy of 16 could preserve his Yiddishkeit all alone holding on to the ethics of his fathers and mentors both in a place of barbaric degradation and in a foreign city where complete freedom beckoned


e was the Sanzer Rebbe’s guest of honor the object of a great deal of excitement in Netanya’s chassidic court. They even gave him a three-page spread in their periodical. After 60 years as a successful businessman in Milan Italy Mr. Aron Tenenbaum now 92 relocated to Jerusalem in 2011. But what made him a celebrity among the Sanz-Klausenberger chassidim was the discovery that Mr. Tenenbaum could share rare firsthand memories from the prewar empire of Sanz.

Aron Tenenbaum was born in 1923 in the town of Brigel situated in the part of Galicia that was a center of Sanzer chassidus. An old-time self-effacing Jew Mr. Tenenbaum knows what all the fuss is about — his eyes have seen greatness and his memories are clear and incisive.

He was a chassidish boy in a small shtetl in Galicia a nameless inmate in seven concentration camps and an affluent Italian Jewish businessman. Today Mr. Tenenabum is a retired great-grandfather in Jerusalem yet the raging tides of time have not affected his deepest core.

A picture window and open porch provide a golden Jerusalem panorama a new-ancient home for this man who has lived through so much. “I can’t say I miss Milan but I can’t say that I don’t miss it” he offers philosophically. “I spent 63 years of my life there.”

They were industrious years. Mr. Tenenbaum was a prosperous watch dealer and simultaneously one of the pillars of Milan’s Jewish community serving as baal tefillah and baal korei in the Via Cellini beis medrash and as an active chevra kaddisha member.

Grandchildren and great-grandchildren smile from portraits and snapshots placed all around the tasteful room. Mr. Tenenbaum’s late wife Gerty is a key part of the story a quietly supportive companion whom he praises effusively as a full partner in his life’s endeavors. On a colorful photographic collage of the Tenenbaum offspring one picture stands out — a black-and-white head shot of the Brigele Rav Rav Moshe Lipshitz. Mr. Tenenbaum’s Galician roots are as much a part of him as the more recent role of Italian Jewish businessman. Today in Jerusalem it’s all come together.


The Rebbetzin's Blessing

Mr. Tenenbaum’s Yiddish is a rich Galician dialect although Polish and Italian are his other languages — one representing his origins the other his adopted country. His tone is serious but occasionally a touch of wry humor breaks through to the surface with a small smile. It’s a conversation laced with wisdom learning and a lifetime’s experience.

He of course never met the sainted Divrei Chaim of Sanz who passed away in 1876 but the holy Sanzer Rebbe’s influence — and his descendants — continued to sustain the Jews of the region.

“I knew four children of the Divrei Chaim” Mr. Tenenbaum remembers. (The Divrei Chaim had eight sons and seven daughters from two marriages and these were children of his later marriage.) “Reb Shayele of Tchechoiv Reb Shulem Leizer of Ratzfert and his daughters Chumele who lived in Sanz and Gitsha. I saw them when they all came to Sanz each year for the Divrei Chaim’s yahrtzeit on the 25th of Nissan. That day was like a Yom Tov — thousands came from all over Poland. Reb Shulem Leizer was an old man and they carried him on a chair. There was a huge crowd attending the yahrtzeit but when I was little my father held me in his arms so I could see. We also saw the tzaddik Reb Shimale Zelchover who came for the yahrtzeit. My father took me to the beis medrash to see him reciting Shema at night. It was a sight I’ll never forget. Incredible.”

When Mr. Tenenbaum was “discovered”and began sharing his recollections the current Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe — realizing that few people in the world if any could still be transported to that place with their memories — was more than eager to hear this firsthand account. And so were we.

Of all the Divrei Chaim’s progeny Rebbetzin Gitsha was the one Mr. Tenenbaum knew best. “She took kvittlach like a rebbe. One time when I was a young boy Rebbetzin Gitsha visited the Brigele Rebbetzin and people brought kvittlach. I was there because I used to hang out there and the Rebbetzin who knew me said to Gitsha ‘Bentsh dem yingel.’ Gitsha asked me ‘What should I bentsh you with?’ and I answered ‘Hasmudeh tzi lernen.’ So that was what she blessed me with.

“Nu I try to go and learn” he says simply of the substantial chavrusashaft he maintains avidly through thick and thin.

“My father was born in Sanz, and we spent a lot of time there,” Mr. Tenenbaum continues, mapping out the area on the tabletop. “To get to Sanz, we went by train, through Tchechoiv. Brigel, which had about 500 Jewish families, was near Tchechoiv, and Sanz was about 50 kilometers away. There was a Yiddishe street there in Sanz, full of batei medrashim. One was called ‘Chumele’s beis medrash’ — it was the shul of the Sanzer Rav’s daughter’s husband.

“Rav Bentzion of Bobov, who was a Sanzer grandchild, used to come to Brigel. I remember he came when I was a child, when the Limener Rav made a chasunah in Brigel. He gave me a brachah too.”

Galicianer Yidden were known for the bitter poverty they endured, and for the sharp minds with which they were blessed. Despite the lack of formal yeshivos, it was a learned society, and many were distinguished scholars, the rabbanim Torah giants. Mr. Tenenbaum never saw the gaon Rav Meir Arik from Tarnow, who passed away in 1926, but he remembers that the luach that was used in Brigel bore Rav Meir’s signature.

Mr. Tenenbaum learned in the town cheder with a melamed named Reb Moshe Hillel. “This melamed, Reb Moshe, had traveled to the Divrei Chaim as a young man — he walked the 50 kilometers from Brigel to Sanz because he had no money for the train. Although there was a cheder, there was no yeshivah in town, and when I was a little older I learned with the Brigele Rav in the beis medrash.”

His father, Reb Tzvi Tenenbaum, was both a talmid chacham and a working man. He was the “ne’eman” (in today’s terminology, mashgiach) of Brigel — the town’s meat was under his supervision from shechitah until sale, and he knew all four parts of the Shulchan Aruch, with commentaries, by heart. Aron was the oldest son, and he shouldered some of the family responsibilities to help his father. “We were four boys and four girls. Chaya was my older sister, a redhead. I have a granddaughter who looks exactly like her. Then me, Blima, Avrohom Chaim, Esther, then Moshe, Leah, and Shlomo Leib.”

Amid the deep ice that covered Brigel in the winter, Aron collected firewood and drew water for his mother before davening and learning.

“We had a two-room apartment in Brigel, but more than I remember my home, I remember the succah I used to build every year as a boy. When I arrived in Italy in 1946, the first thing I did was build a succah. It was in my blood.”

Seven Levels of Gehinnom

World War II reached Brigel one fateful Friday in 1939, when Aron was 16. “On that Motzaei Shabbos, my mother took a big blanket and made a backpack out of it for us. Sunday morning, my father and I left. They had called for the men to be deported and my father decided to flee, but I didn’t want him to go alone, so I went too. We began to try to get away on foot, walking from that Sunday until Friday, when we reached the small town of Myenitz. My father was not a great walker; I was a little faster than him. We couldn’t go any further. So we returned home.”

From there, Aron was deported to a concentration camp. “They wanted to deport my father, but my mother came to the station with all the children, crying and begging them to let my father go. At the last minute, they released Tatte and took me instead. My father went back home with her. After that, I saw my family only one more time.”

The place where Aron’s nightmare began — the first camp that teenage Aron Tenenbaum survived — was in Tchechoiv, the town of the holy Reb Shayele.

“Rosh Hashanah that year was Shabbos, and somehow I managed to get away to my family for two days before Yom Tov,” he remembers. Aron found his parents and siblings crammed into a tiny room in the Brigel ghetto. “It was one large room, maybe a little larger than this, and four or five families were staying there, on the floor. It was like Tishah B’Av there. I wanted to stay with them. I told my mother that I wanted to be with the family for Rosh Hashanah, and she said, ‘No, you can’t stay here. Fuhr tzirik. [Go back.]’ I think she felt that they were nearing the end. She begged me to survive. Then she commanded me, like a tzava’ah, ‘Di mizt iberleiben der krieg! [You have to survive the war!]’ Then, my mother turned away from me and she faced the wall and…” Reb Aron’s voice trails off. A small, sad smile appears. “I can’t tell you what she told me. Better not. After that she left me. I listened.”

Aron went back to face his own destiny in the camp. On Tzom Gedaliah, the Jews of Brigel were deported to their deaths. His mother’s command, and the instruction that had saved his life, would ring in his ears for the rest of his life.

In the beginning, some familiar Yidden kept Aron company. “In the camp in Tchechoiv, we were a few boys together. Every Shabbos we sold some of our bread for bronfen. We gave the liquor to the German meister, and he let us work less. We used to daven a little together, too.”

When Pesach came that first year, permission was given for the Jews to bring in matzah. “Whoever didn’t eat the chometz got matzah. One day, the matzah was finished. We were called for appel, but I was lying on the floor. The Judenfater — a Jewish overseer — came into the block and shouted to me, ‘Gei! [Get out!]’

“I said, ‘I can’t.’ He asked why, and I said, ‘I don’t have what to eat.’

“ ‘Fress broit! [Eat bread!],’ he yelled at me. At that, I somehow stood up and left the block… and he came after me and gave me a piece of matzah.”

On the last day of Pesach, the Germans decided to give the inmates soup with chometz. “A few of us didn’t eat it,” says Mr. Tenenbaum. “Then one Yid, a man from Tarnov, said, ‘I am a rav, and I pasken that you all have to eat and I will eat with you.’ Then he started to cry, and we all cried together. He didn’t eat, and we didn’t eat.”

Of the next six years, of the seven different prison camps that Aron Tenenbaum survived, he speaks little. “The shivah medurei Gehinnom,” he calls them. He doesn’t like to talk of hunger and cold and fear, of beatings and dogs and gunshots and being pushed by the rifle butts of crazed human beasts. Instead, he wants to talk of faith, and of “nissim v’niflaos.” Alone as he was, he never felt bereft of Divine Providence.

“I can’t tell you about five years of lagers. But I can tell you that every Yid who lived through those years had help from Above. We had Hashgachah elyonah and we saw it clearly. Rav Aharon Belzer said that everyone who survived the Holocaust had two angels at his side to bring him through. I can tell you about my own malachim, about two incidents when I saw those angels of protection clearly.”

During the last year of the war, Aron Tenenbaum found himself in the living hell of Mauthausen. There were thousands of inmates in Mauthausen, and every day the Nazis counted their victims to make sure none were missing. On their orders, every prisoner had to immediately emerge and stand upright in line outside. Whoever stayed inside the block was killed.

“There were three shifts there. Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours appel [standing for roll call]. Once, they called everyone out for appel, and I didn’t hear. I was lying on the bunk. Everyone was outside, and one number was missing — mine.

“The third time they called, I heard and I went outside. The SS guards were trying to work out who had been missing at the first count, screaming that they would hang him. A tall Yid was standing next to me and said, ‘Der Eibishter zol helfen az zol nisht zein kein Yid. [May Hashem help that the missing man not be a Jew.]’ I didn’t know what had happened, but he told me that they had realized someone was missing. He asked my name, and I said Tenenbaum, and he said, ‘That’s who they’re looking for!’

“He told me that they had already called out all the people named Tenenbaum and whipped them and bloodied them up, and if they call Tenenbaum again I should run too, and not admit that I had just come out, but say that I had been there all along and seen what had happened with the Tenenbaums, who had been whipped.

“I did join the other Tenenbaums, but the SS didn’t believe me. They let everyone go back inside, and I was outside to be hung. I was alone. I promised them that I had come outside with everyone else and seen how they called out all the Tenenbaums and beat them, and I begged and begged and begged them to let me live. Suddenly, the Nazi screamed out, ‘Gei arain! [Go inside!]’ I ran. I lived. I never again saw that Yid who told me what to do. To me, he was a malach of salvation.

“Then, once again, in 1945, when the snow was on the ground in Germany, the SS guards decided that our clothing had to be cleaned. This meant that everyone had to remain in the freezing block for three days. Early in the morning, on the third day, everyone had to go into another block to find their clothing that had been disinfected with some gas. A totally unfamiliar Yid advised me, ‘When you go to take clothing, don’t stay an extra second. Run out and dress up outside in the cold.’ I ran inside, found my clothing, and did as I was told. The block where they had disinfected the clothing was warm, after the frigid air outside. Warm, but thick with gas and chemicals. Most of the people who lingered there in the warmth by the clothing heaps perished instantly.

“I saw the malachim, and the fact that I lived is a miracle.”

Mauthausen was liberated by the US Army. Horrified by the starvation they witnessed, compassionate but ignorant, they offered food to the emaciated survivors, who had lived on bread and soup for years. “I saw my mother at night, in my dreams,” Tenenbaum says. “And she warned me, ‘Don’t eat anything.’ I didn’t eat the food they were distributing. Some of those who did, died.”

No More Pictures

Free, among thousands of displaced and war-scarred Jewish survivors in Europe in 1946, Aron Tenenbaum needed a place to settle. “Moshe Sharrett came to Europe to convince us to go to Eretz Yisrael. We were brought to Bologna in Italy, but in the end, no one came for us. We were then taken to Modena, where we stayed for three weeks, sleeping on the floors in a large academy building. I had some food that the Americans had given us, and I sold a blanket — with that money I could have lived for who-knows-how-long. But no one was coming to get us.”

Realizing that he was not going to make it to the Holy Land any time soon, Mr. Tenenabum decided to make his way to a closer city he had heard of that had a Jewish community — Milan. He hitchhiked into Milan and arrived in the evening. “I was an adult orphan,” he relates. “No parents, no family, no language, no job.”

Outside the Via Unione synagogue, a line of refugees stood waiting. Mr. Tenenabum joined them. “When it came to my turn, I was told that regretfully, there was nothing left. ‘But what was there that is now finished?’ I asked.

“ ‘Each person received a handout: one item of clothing and a few coins,’ the organizer replied.

“ ‘I don’t want a handout, I want a job,’ I said. Within two days I had a job. I started to work, and slowly I started to deal in alte zachen on the side, then in watches. I even bought myself a bicycle.

“Every day I went to daven and learn in the shul and I scrutinized the survivors on their way to Palestine to see if there was anyone I knew.” Thousands of Jewish refugees passed through, but no relatives appeared.

One thing Mr. Tenenbaum never wanted to do was go back to Poland. “The whole place is a cemetery,” he says. But eventually his longing for a picture of his mother took him back to a gentile neighbor in Brigel. “I have pictures of my father, and of the brother after me, Avraham Chaim, because they had to have ID cards when the war broke out. But not of my mother.” The lady, who had been the local photographer, had nothing for him. She claimed that she had burned the pictures of her Jewish neighbors during the war, so as not to incriminate herself, but Reb Aron never really believed her. “I think she had them but didn’t want to return them to me.”

Not long after liberation, Mr. Tenenbaum found himself in Basel, Switzerland. He met a seforim dealer there, and immediately asked him if he had the sefer Divrei Chaim. “The dealer charged me a fortune, 70 francs for the sefer, which was a first edition, printed during the Sanzer Rav’s lifetime. Just for comparison, I paid three francs for the night’s hotel stay in Basel. But I would gladly have paid even more for the sefer. I felt such a thirst for that sefer. It was one of the first things that I felt the need to buy after the war.”

Engagement and marriage, in 1948, became an Italian edifice on Galician foundations, since Gerty Sperber’s family originally came from Voinige, a shtetl not far from Brigel. They had lived in Berlin before the outbreak of war. A poignant touch was that the Shakever Rav, Reb Yoel Halberstam, who was a Sanzer grandchild, was in Italy then and served as the mesader kiddushin. The early years of building and rebuilding were difficult, but as the young family grew, business also prospered. Mr. Tenenbaum sold luxury watches, even developing his own brand at one time. He initially avoided dealing with German companies, but later relaxed the rule.

“We don’t actually defeat them by not buying German fridges,” he opines. “There is only one way to ‘retaliate’ — and that is shishah b’keres echad [raising large Jewish families].”

For 60 years, the Tenenbaum family rubbed shoulders with the many rabbanim and dignitaries who passed through the city. Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, for one, would take a break from his rabbinical duties as chief rabbi of Antwerp by staying in Italy, and knew the Tenenbaums well. Mr. Tenenbaum also has a close relationship with former Israeli chief rabbi Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, whom he knows from both Italy and Switzerland.

“One time he was staying in our home in Milan, and told me, ‘I’m going to the pope tomorrow, and I have nothing to give him.’ I had a friend who was a baal tokeia, so I got a beautiful black shofar from him. I wrapped it up carefully in a box, and gave it to Rabbi Lau to present to the pope.”

Tied Packages

During the 1950s and 1960s Milan boasted a decent-sized Ashkenazic kehillah, although it never rivaled other European cities such as Antwerp or Zurich. The community shrank due to emigration and assimilation among the younger generation. Today, the Orthodox community is mostly Sephardic. But even in its heyday, standards were mixed. Mr. Tenenabum’s children attended Jewish schools, but were not able to eat at all their classmates’ homes. After school, Mr. Tenenbaum hired rebbeim to teach his children, both the girls and the boys. And while he stretched out a hand in friendship to all Jews, especially helping them build up their own businesses, Reb Aron maintained his own personal standards unrelentingly.

Mr. Tenenbaum was interviewed for Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust archive project about his hellish experiences in the concentration camps. Yet over the years he’s made sure to carefully confine the Holocaust to a corner of his mind, while staying focused on Torah learning, family matters, and, until recently, business.

Mr. Tenenbaum chooses his words carefully. “Each of us survivors carries a ‘package,’ but in order to move forward, we had to tie it up with a ribbon and move on. You cannot live with the past all the time. It’s impossible. I never told my children about the horrors. I think the children take it worse than their parents. To tell a child that his father was beaten up and humiliated can cause severe trauma. They can experience it worse than the actual survivors.”

Until about 15 years ago, silence ruled, unbroken, and the package stayed tied. In recent years, though, Mr. Tenenbaum has begun to describe for his children and grandchildren bit by bit the horrors of the war. Seven years ago, Mrs. Tenenabum passed away, and after that Mr. Tenenbaum decided to fulfill a dream laid to rest in 1946: a move to Jerusalem.

Now feted as one of the last survivors of a holy world gone black, he explains how a young boy of 16 could preserve his Yiddishkeit all alone, holding on to the ethics of his fathers and mentors both in a place of barbaric degradation and in a foreign city where complete freedom beckoned. Mr. Tenenbaum likes to speak of the tiny jug of oil that retained its seal of purity in a defiled Mikdash.

“A pure chinuch is in the bones,” he says. “I remember that during the hunger in the camps on Pesach, I thought of my father baking matzos and my mother scrubbing and scraping. I couldn’t touch the chometz. When a child sees yiras Shamayim in his parents, in his home, that stays inside him forever.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 621)

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