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Profile in Courage

A resolve to try to be a better Jew. Precisely what Reb Yossele intended


My reading for the Three Weeks this year is Faith Amid the Flames, a memoir of Reb Yosef Friedenson ztz”l by his son-in-law Yosef Chaim Golding, skillfully woven together from Reb Yossele’s vast output over nearly seventy years as editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort.

My overwhelming reaction to the work is a feeling of privilege to be a member of the eternal Jewish People and a resolve to try to be a better Jew. And that is precisely what Reb Yossele intended. He devoted his postwar life to celebrating the gevurah, emunah, and chesed (courage, faith, and deeds of loving-kindness) of even the simplest Jews in the ghettos and camps.

Rabbi Avraham Birnbaum worked often with Mr. Friedenson on translations of his Yiddish writing to English. Generally, Reb Yossele did not spend too much time going over the translations. But one time, he insisted on five rewrites until he was satisfied.

Bruno Pape, the manager of the Starachowitz steel factory, and the most decent German whom Reb Yossele encountered in his years in the “universities of Nazi atrocities,” had supplied the Jewish slave laborers with flour to bake matzos for Pesach.

Yet when Pape entered the barracks and saw the Jewish prisoners eating matzos, he could not believe what he saw. “You are idiots! Eat bread! You still believe in your ‘loving G-d’ with such loyalty, even though He has forsaken you,” he shouted.

One older chassid from Krakow, Reb Akiva Goldshtoff, stood up and answered him in perfect German, “Nicht total und nicht eivig — not totally and not forever.” That was the phrase Mr. Friedenson insisted be exactly right.

On another occasion, Pape made a factory inspection. as a group of Jews were joyously celebrating Simchas Torah. (For some inexplicable reason their Polish coworkers did not show up that day, giving them some free time.) “Are things going that well for you that you feel like singing?” he asked.

They had been singing “Ein Adir KaHashem,” and Reb Yossele translated the words for him. When he got to the verse, “There are no men of wisdom like those in [Klal] Yisrael,” Pape demanded that he stop and asked incredulously whether they truly believed it.

A young teenage boy, not a regular member of the group’s clandestine minyanim, stood up and told him, “Yes, Herr Pape, ich glaube, I believe.”

Reb Yossele’s own chasunah in the Warsaw Ghetto was a testament to his father’s belief in the eternity of the Jewish People. His father’s last words to him, as he and his new bride prepared to make their escape from the ghetto were, “Even though we may never see each other again, Klal Yisrael will always be there and the Ribbono Shel Olam won’t forsake Klal Yisrael. Netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker.”

In these pages, we meet Mattis Viener, born to a nonobservant family in Vienna, who with his zeal and passion, created groups of young Gerrer chassidim, the Mottisovtze Movement, in ghettos throughout Poland, who maintained their chassidic garb, beards, and peyos, and kept learning under Nazi rule, even though all these things were capital offenses. (How Mattis Viener moved from place to place remains a mystery.)

No less inspiring are the multiple acts of chesed Reb Yossele records. His own father divided up his last loaf of bread in the Warsaw Ghetto to give to ten starving orphans, even though he had nothing for his own family for the next day. In Shidlovtza, Reb Yossele’s wife, Gittel’s, hometown, Reb Henach Shteinschneider, himself a refugee from Lodz, devoted himself to the needs of poor, starving refugees. When the landlord of one of those refugees wanted to evict him because his body was covered with sores exuding pus, Reb Henach, a wealthy man, who was fastidious about his personal cleanliness, undertook to personally wash the sores and apply ointment to his fellow Jew, a complete stranger.

No one survived the Holocaust without being the beneficiary of numerous miracles, and Mr. Friedenson was no exception. In Ohrdruff, a smaller camp noted for the brutality of the Nazi overseers, Reb Yossele was too emaciated and exhausted to move anymore, and was taken to the camp infirmary — an almost certain death sentence. There he was recognized by Reb Berish Erlich, the son of Rabbi Nusen Pinchos Erlich, one of the greatest lamdanim of Warsaw. Reb Berish sized up the situation, and invited Reb Yossele to his bloc, where he would give him a slightly larger bowl of soup.

Neither Reb Berish nor the larger bowl of soup materialized that night. But in the interim, in the period after Reb Yossele spirited himself out of the hospital, the Nazis, yemach shemam, carried out a selektzia in the hospital and murdered nearly every patient. Later, in Buchenwald, he was in a recuperation ward. His friend Reb David Kahan, who lived in the “youth bloc” opposite, which had received slightly larger rations from the Red Cross, invited Reb Yossele to share some of his bounty. At that precise time, the Nazis went through the recuperation ward killing anyone who said he could not work, which Reb Yossele would surely have done.

THOUGH REB YOSSELE chose to focus on Jewish heroism, rather than German brutality, it was essential, he felt, for the generations of rebirth to understand clearly the Nazis’ intent. German troops entered Poland on railcars painted with the slogan “We’re traveling to Poland to destroy the Jews.” But it was a particular type of Jews who were their priority. Soon after the German takeover of Lodz, two soldiers entered the Friedenson apartment in search of Reb Yossele’s father, a prominent Agudah activist.

As they were leaving, after failing to find their prey and having extracted the requisite bribe, one of the soldiers asked Reb Yossele what were those beautifully bound volumes in his father’s library. When he answered, “the Talmud,” the soldiers were instantly transformed into wild beasts, grabbing the volumes from the shelves, ripping the pages to shreds and then stomping them with their boots, before throwing them out the window.

But the “Talmud learners” outlasted the Nazis. Reb Yossele was at the second Siyum HaShas, June 27, 1938, in Reb Meir Shapiro’s Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. After the official gathering ended, the Modzhitzer Rebbe began to sing, the orchestra began to play, and the Boyaner Rebbe, Rav Moshenyu Friedman Hy”d, began to dance, alone. Reb Yossele never forgot the Boyaner Rebbe’s dance.

And he was there at the first Siyum HaShas after the war, together with a forlorn group of survivors in the Feldafing DP camp, with only two volumes of Gemara between them. But he lived to see the 11th and 12th Siyumim, the latter with well over a hundred thousand Jews together in one venue.

THE POST-HOLOCAUST Yossele Friedenson was a man driven by a mission, a mission bequeathed to him by his illustrious father, Rabbi Eliezer Gershon Friedenson Hy”d. Only 43 at the time of his martyrdom in the Warsaw Ghetto, Reb Leizer Gershon was the editor of both the Bais Yaakov Journal and another journal, headed the Bais Yaakov Press, ran the central office of 300 Bnos and Neshei Agudas Yisrael branches in Poland, and founded Ohel Sarah, a girls vocational school in Lodz. His lectures drew large crowds all over Poland, not to mention on Leil Shabbos in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Reb Leizer Gershon was wont to start his sentences with the words, “I have an idea,” of which ten or so were forthcoming a day. His son too was a man of ideas, ever eager to engage in debate and discussion with those of us fortunate enough to be invited into his cubby-hole office at Agudath Israel. Working almost alone, he produced 430 issues of the Dos Yiddishe Vort, and was working on the next issue at the time of his passing just short of 91. In the later years, as the pool of Yiddish writers dwindled, he wrote almost the entire magazine himself.

He was a vital resource for Holocaust researchers, including Hamodia editor Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein’s monumental Project Witness, and a frequent lecturer for Torah Umesorah.

His last words, as he reclined with a broad smile on his face, were, “Mameshe! [Mother!] Leizer Gershon!”

His great father would have been proud of his great son, whose life served as an emblem of the words in Tachanun, “U’v’chol zos Shimcha lo shachachnu.”

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 820. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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