Rav Moshe Zt”l on Survivors

Seldom since the years immediately following the War has so much attention been paid to Yom HaShoah, thanks to Ahmadinejad’s tirade at the UN yesterday. Few news sources resisted the irony of the world’s most famous Holocaust denier urging the world to finish the job he claims Hitler never started, in an address just a few hours before Yom HaShoah would be observed throughout Europe. Regardless of whether or how you usually relate to Yom HaShoah, we perhaps have a special obligation today to think of those Ahmadinejad denied, the UN delegates mocked, while representatives of other countries – not all of them friendly to Israel – participated in an unusual show of decency by walking out. Besides the seven countries that refused to attend the UN conference on racism in the first place, like the US, Canada, Italy, and Australia, those who walked out yesterday included Austria, Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic ,
Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, St. Kitts and Nevis. (In polls of the populace, Greece and Spain are the most anti-Semitic countries on the globe outside of the Arab world. Go figure.) And let’s not forget Morocco! Morocco walked out!

Something to think about the Kedoshim appeared in last week’s Jewish Week. The author is Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf, an attending psychiatrist at the NYU Medical Center. It is worthwhile reflecting upon – especially today.

I could not have been more than 4 or 5 when I asked her. It seemed to me, at the time, to be an innocent, straightforward question: “Mommy, when do I get my number?”

I was, of course, upset when she burst into tears and ran out of the kitchen, but I was also confused. This was Washington Heights in the 1950s. It was an enclave of survivors. Every adult I knew had a number. Even my teenage sister had one in blue ink tattooed on her forearm.

They were as ubiquitous on the benches of Riverside Drive as they were on the footpaths of Fort Tryon Park. If you saw an adult with some sort of hat on his head, he invariably also had a number on his arm. In the summer, when the community traveled en masse to Catskill bungalow colonies, or to Rockaway beaches, the numbers came too.

I presumed it was a ceremonious part of becoming bar mitzvah, or perhaps graduation from Breuer’s or Soloveichik, our local yeshivas. No one appeared to be embarrassed by their number. ARG! I never saw anyone try to cover it up when they went swimming. It seemed to be a matter of fact part of life.

When, as children, we would ask our parents why there was a “Mother’s Day” and a “Father’s Day,” but no “Children’s Day,” the automatic response was “Every day is ‘Children’s Day’!” In Washington Heights, in the ’50s, every day was Yom HaShoah.
Ironically enough, at the same time, no day was Yom HaShoah. The commemoration, as it exists today, was not around then. Breuer’s and Soloveichik consisted almost exclusively of children of survivors, yet neither school had any assembly, or recognition of any type, of the Shoah.

The very word Shoah didn’t exist. The word Holocaust did, but it was never invoked. When on rare occasion our parents would make reference to the events that led them to leave Europe to come to America, they would label it “the War.”

They spoke nostalgically of life “before the War”; they never spoke of what happened during “the War.” They spoke reverently of their parents and siblings who were “lost in the War”; they never spoke of their spouses or children who perished. After all, they had new spouses and new children who didn’t need to be reminded that they were replacements.

I was already bar mitzvah when I first realized that my parents had been previously married and had prior children. Years later I was shocked to discover that my sister with whom I was raised was not my father’s daughter.

When I finally came to understand that not every adult was a survivor, and people would ask me what survivors were really like, I never knew what to answer. There was Mr. Silverberg, our seatmate in shul, as jovial as Santa Claus, who always had a good word for everyone. On the other hand, there was Mr. Grauer, our neighbor whose face was indelibly etched in a frown and was always threatening to hit his wife or his children. In retrospect, as a psychiatrist, I could understand both, but who truly defined what it meant to be a survivor? Did anyone, or anything?

I learned the answer from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

This gadol hador, the greatest sage of his generation, was so renowned he was referred to simply as “Rav Moshe.” The closest I came to this legend was at Yeshiva University High School, where my rebbe was his son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Tendler. Rabbi Tendler, and every other rabbi, would speak of Rav Moshe in awe-stricken tones usually reserved for biblical forefathers.

One summer I was spending a week with my aunt and uncle in upstate Ellenville. Uncle David and Aunt Saba, survivors themselves, as the doctor and nurse in charge of the concentration camp infirmary, had managed to save the lives of innumerable inmates, including my mother and sister. After “the War” they had set up a medical practice in this small Catskill village, where, I discovered, to my amazement, they had one celebrity patient — Rav Moshe.

My aunt mentioned casually that Rav Moshe had an appointment the next day. Would I like to meet him? Would I? It was like asking me, would I like to meet God.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I agonized over what I should wear. Should I approach him? What should I say? Should I mention that his son-in-law was my rebbe? Should I speak to him in English, or my rudimentary Yiddish?

I was seated in the waiting room, in the best clothing I had with me, an hour before his appointment. It seemed like an eternity, but eventually he arrived, accompanied by an assistant at each side. He didn’t notice me.

I was frozen. I had intended to rise deferentially when he entered, but I didn’t. I had prepared a few sentences that I had repeatedly memorized, but I sensed that my heart was beating too quickly for me to speak calmly.

My aunt had heard the chime when he entered and came out of the office to greet him: “Rabbi Feinstein, did you meet my nephew Ikey? Can you believe a shaygitz [unobservant] like me has a yeshiva bochur [student] in the family?”

Rav Moshe finally looked at me. I was mortified. My aunt was addressing him irreverently. She was joking with him. She had called me Ikey, not Yitzchok, or even Isaac.

Then it got even worse. She walked over to him. Surely she knew not to shake his hand. She didn’t. She kissed him affectionately on the cheek as she did many of her favorite patients. She then told him my uncle would see him in a minute and returned to the office.

Rav Moshe and his attendants turned and looked at me, I thought accusingly. I wanted to die. In a panic, I walked over to him and started to apologize profusely: “Rabbi Feinstein, I apologize. My aunt, she isn’t frum [religious]. She doesn’t understand…”

He immediately placed his fingers on my lips to stop me from talking. He then softly spoke two sentences in Yiddish that I will remember to my dying day: “She has numbers on her arms. She is holier than me.”

Rav Moshe had understood what I had not. Our holiest generation was defined by the numbers on their arms.

[Thanks to Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald for pointing out the article.]

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14 comments to Rav Moshe Zt”l on Survivors

  • Loberstein

    Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky and others of that generation were giants in midos tovos. In complement to their Torah knowledge, they were really good human beings. Both they and others like Rav Ruderman saw the ill effects of Communism and secularism on Russian Jewry.They came to the US when there was a much smaller base of learned, stictly observant Jews and built the foundations of today’s vibrant communities.They were spiritually very strong but they were also understanding of those who fell. Woe for those who are gone and cannot be replaced.

  • Raymond

    While my own father was never in a nazi concentration camp, he was forced by the nazis to flee from his small Jewish town in Poland. He narrowly escaped death many times, from gunfire barely missing him to hiding himself in the snow to having no source of food for many days, and sometimes longer than that.

    Perhaps my father, too, was a holy man. I wish I had appreciated and treated him better than I did before it was too late. If he were still alive, he would have turned ninety years old yesterday.

  • Moshe Schorr

    I would love to leave a comment, but it’s hard for me to see my keyboatd through my tears.

    Thank you for this.

  • aron feldman

    I read the article,and once again I was blown away by RMF’s middos and sensitivity.I guess the criteria to be a Gadol today is how many times you grabbed away a mic from a singer at a chasuna.

    But if you think that the RWO world is insensitive to survivors because they don’t participate in Yom Hashoah events I have a bridge to sell you! That is a canard!

    Who has more connections to their Grandparents? The religious or the irreligious? IIRC when that menuvales Sara Silverman made her foul mouthed rant for BHO she was target ting the irreligious whose Grandparents are lucky if they come once a year

  • Meyers

    I find the details of the R’ Moshe story hard to believe…

  • Susan Cohen

    Thank you for posting this. Thank you for sharing. Thank you.

  • Pesach Sommer

    This is one of the most beautiful stories I ever heard. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Baruch

    The article appeared in The Jewish Week not Jewish News.

    After reading it several times I wondered were Dr. Hirschkopf not telling the story first hand whether some would question its veracity. After all, the argument would go – what 20th century Rosh Yeshiva or Gadol/Posek HaDor worth his salt would ever countenance being approached by a woman in the manner described or, worse, put himself in a position where such contact was remotely possible.

    And than I read Myer’s comment…

  • yankee

    Thanks for posting this story. L’aniyas daati, this is the famous line in gemorah “bemokom she’atah moitzei gedulosoi shom atoh moitzei anusnusoi” (Where u find his greatness u will find his humility). A truely great person is a truly humble person. Reb Moishe personified this. We are truly a dor yosom.

  • Loberstein

    “what 20th century Rosh Yeshiva or Gadol/Posek HaDor worth his salt would ever countenance being approached by a woman in the manner described or, worse, put himself in a position where such contact was remotely possible.” Maybe this seems self evident to you, but not to me. I saw the three gedolim I mentioned and they were of a different breed than leaders in our orphaned generation.
    Today, intolerance and disdain for “the other’ are more the norm than in Rav Moshe’s day. I know a musmach of Rav Moshe’s yeshiva from the early years. His wife told me that at their wedding there were 7 bridemaids who marched down the aisle and 7 men. In her words ” Reuvain was Moish’s( her husband) best man. Of course he wore a tuxedo.” And , of course, there was mixed seating. rav Moshe Feinstein was the mesader kiddushin and these were his talmidim . So how can you even compare him to those who pretend women are non existent and won’t print their picture and hardly even their name in their papers. It is a different and new interpretation of Judaism.

  • Ori

    Loberstein: Today, intolerance and disdain for “the other’ are more the norm than in Rav Moshe’s day.

    Ori: Why? Is this the result of more insular education?

  • tzippi

    And it’s not just the survivors. There was a mindset that you saw in earlier years that you don’t now. The Pesach Mishpacha (American) featured an article about Rabbi Avigdor Miller by one of his grandsons. Rabbi Miller would have a “seder” at family simchos of expressing gratitude for his family. As he put it, his greatest hopes were that he should have at least one child who was shomer Shabbos. To have the flourishing family he had was beyond his wildest dreams, and not something he would take for granted or credit for. It was pure kindness on G-d’s part, as he saw it.

    Frankly, I have these same aspirations that Rabbi Miller and my grandparents, born at the turn of the twentieth century and in America well before the Holocaust had. To add to Rabbi Oberstein’s first comment, this was the reality of pre-war America.

    I don’t know how or if we can change this mindset. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz wrote something along these lines a few weeks ago. Not taking for granted, being grateful for all these kindnesses, seeing the good that IS there after having undergone the ravages of exile, “deracheha darchei noam”…What’s not Jewish about all this? Why is this a chiddush?

    Is this due to insularity? I wouldn’t say. I also wouldn’t say that insularity per se is bad. It’s necessary to set acceptable parameters; this is the beauty of Judaism, living within acceptable parameters. We SHOULD all be able to get along. I think that there is an in-town/out-of-town dichotomy afoot here, but I won’t begin to define that.

  • L.Oberstein

    Ori asks why there is intolerance today. I think part of the reason is that many have forgotten “These and those are the words of the Living G-d”. I don’t know if it is ignorance of Jewish history, a feeling of being overwhelmed by secular society, or the arrogance of feeling superior and especially chosen more than others in the chosen people or a combination of all the above. Since little true Jewish History is allowed to be taught in many schools and since a phony and totally fantastic view of life in Europe before the War is given over to many of our youth in schools where secular studies are either not taught or are ridiculed, it is not hard to see why so many hae absorbed a skewed view of what our “mesorah” is. When did not printing pictures of women in periodicals become a Jewish requirement? True, there were a few groups that had such a radical attitude towards women,but not mainstream orthodoxy in most of the world. Even the so-called Lituanian tadition is not what it was really like , just what later generation would like to imagine it was like. HOw do those who wear “Brisker Peyos” explain all the pictues of yeshiva students in pre-war Lithuania wearing straw hats and light colored suits? I think that they either don’t let such pictures be seen in their schools or they doctor them to exclude what they don’t want, like the women or the Zionist flag in the background. In other words , there is too much sheker in the dogma of those who claim they represent emes. Rav Moshe and Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky did not preach or practice what is today called yeshivish.

  • Michoel

    It would be nice if we could all just allow ourselves to be moved by a beautiful story without shlepping everything into criticising charedim.

    There is no inherent maaleh in grey suits and there is no need for today’s yeshiva students to “explain” the wardrobe of pre-war bnei Torah, any more then there is a need for the pre-war talmidim to explain why they don’t dress like Rashi. There were kanoyim in Reb Moshe’s time aplenty. Reb Moshe himsef sometimes expressed himself in a way that could be interpreted as more “intolerant” then some later charedi Rabanim. Most of Reb Yaakov’s and Reb Moshe’s decendents dress and look very frum. And there is, in ways that are sometimes subtle, a great deal more tolerance in the Yeshiva world today, then there was 40 years ago.

    “there is too much sheker in the dogma of those who claim they represent emes”
    I don’t think Reb Moshe and Reb Yaakov would be too happy to hear someone talking that way about committed frum Jews.