There are many ways that people deal with their feelings. Some internalise, others exude emotion, and still others speak calmly and quietly. I tend to be extreme. I mostly internalise but easily become (over) emotional. I’ve been privy to a few comments of late, from both friends and acquaintances who say words to the effect of
“I really enjoy your blog, but how do you find the time. Have you lost your job?”
Our Rabbis tell us (in the Midrash to Megilas Esther) that Hashem first provided “the cure’” and only then allowed “the illness” to invade our world.
הקב’’ה הקדים רפואה למכה
More often that not, we seek to become healed and find it elusive. Sometimes, what appears not to be a cure per se, in time, serves only to effect the mending of a broken body or soul. Writing is a cathartic experience for me. I don’t agonise over posts or polish my words.
I consider myself very fortunate. The evil Nazi empire ימח שמם וזכרם sought to terminate our people. They decimated the great nation of Israel and, in so doing, implanted and engraved an indelible emotional scar into the psyche of our race and religion. This scar is worn by survivors together with the offspring of some survivors.
Many years ago, as a boy, I observed the survivors, the שארית הפליטה, resident in our Jewish old age homes. There were entire floors housing those who had quite literally “gone out of their minds.” I heard them talking to themselves, or yelling accusatively at me as if I was the dreaded SS, or hugging me with love because they mistakenly thought I was that little lost brother who had been savaged by the Nazis ימח שמם וזכרם. I consider myself fortunate and enriched because I also rub shoulders and have rubbed shoulders with those survivors whose mental faculties were left largely intact. Whether through my parents’ friends or members of Elwood Shule, I experienced and continue to experience the gamut of colourful personalities who picked themselves up from the ground, dragged their battered bodies and souls through the challenges of a new life in strange countries with foreign cultures and languages, and literally renovated their lives.
Over the last few weeks, three such dear souls met their maker and were transported directly to Gan Eden, גן עדן.
Yossel Gelbart ע”ה
Yossel was commonly known by the fond moniker Gandhi. Emerging emaciated from Buchenwald, Yossel’s features resembled those of Gandhi. The nick name stuck. Yossel was born in the famous town of Ostrowice, better known in Yiddish as Ostrovtzer. The town was famous because it was the seat of the revered Rav Meir Yechiel HaLevi Haltzshtok ז’ל, the ascetic Ostrovtzer Rebbe, who fasted most of his life. My Uncle Hershel יבל’ח also hails from this town and both he and Yossel knew each other before the war.
Yossel was fond of describing the scene on Erev Yom Kippur in Ostrovtzer. The Rebbe rarely ventured out in the middle of the day. On Erev Yom Kippur, however, the Rebbe and his entourage walked to the Mikvah, in the time old tradition. Yossel recalled watching the Rebbe walk through the main street on his way back from the Mikvah. Completely bedecked in regal white, R’ Meir Yechiel’s countenance radiated קדושה to the extent that even the non-Jews of the town “fainted” in gripping awe at the sight of the Tzaddik’s visage.
Yossel was forever happy. He sat about 10 rows behind us at Elwood Shule. Exceedingly humble, he could best be described as a Poshiter Yid, the iconic simple Jew. When there were plenty of seats closer to the “front”, Yossel refused to move closer. He had his seat, his מקום קבוע, and he reminded me that he never missed paying for that seat!
Yossel was always happy בשמחה. He sang at the top of his voice, and attended Shule each Shabbos, without fail. If he was missing, we knew he was sick. Alas, I had intended to visit him in hospital on the Sunday before he passed away, but circumstances arose which prevented me from doing so.
Yossel was fond of telling anyone that he was the son of the “Blinde Noosen” because his father R’ Noosen ז’ל was visually impaired. In those days, people were kindly described by their impairments. In my father’s town of Rawa Mazowiecka (also my spiritual birthplace) they had Doovid Meshigeneh (crazy David) , der Loomer Doovid (Lame David), der Shvartze Noach, Moshe Aron Kopeh Yayeh and so on.
You could never wipe the smile off Yossel’s face. He was a Jew who was שמח בחלקו—happy with his lot in life. A staunch Zionist, he donated beyond his means. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as I trudged wearily down the steps of the Bimah after leading the Shule in the Musaf davening, Yossel was always one of the first to shake my hand and exclaim יישר כח. I used to grab his hands at that point, and my children stand testament to the scene of Yossel and I enjoying a little dance together. His happiness was infectious. When I asked him why he was always so happy, he replied:
“When I was a little boy hiding from the Nazis, and lying next to my mother, my mother prophetically informed me that I, her youngest son, would be the only member of the family who would survive the War. She was right, unfortunately. I was scared, but I knew then that I had to survive, and despite being shot and wounded by the Nazis, I undertook to sing my way through the war. I sang in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. I sang at all times. I still sing today”
I am sure, that in Heaven above, Yossel is reunited in the bosom of his dear mother and wider family, singing with the Angels in an exalted גן עדן.
David Felzen ע’’ה
It has barely been a week since David Felzen’s passing. The Felzens and Balbins have been inseparable family friends from as early as I can remember. His dear wife, Mrs Sally Felzen, may she be spared a long and healthy life, is a powerhouse for WIZO and Magen David Adom. I fondly remember all the functions they arranged and the Tzedoko they were involved in, especially for the State of Israel. Mrs Felzen always called him David, but in our house, he was always Doovid Felzen.
Mr Felzen was different to many of my father’s friends. As a boy, I remember being impressed by his physical countenance. This was not an emaciated shrinking violet. Mr Felzen impressed me as a man who possessed the trait of גבורה strength and fortitude together with an abundance of חסד, kindness. In the parlance of ספירת העומר he was חסד שבגוברה, kindness in strength.
A builder, and in keeping with my image of him, he drove a ute, laden with all manner of building supplies. He wasn’t a neo-developer who pored over spreadsheets and dealt with sections of the planning act and VCAT. This was a hands-on, ” I do it with my hands”, builder. Those two hands and those two feet, supported by his wife and family, literally built the פרנסה livelihood that saw them emerge from a modest fruit shop after the war.
Mr Felzen was one of the “men” who I referred to in a previous article. We regularly walked together from Elwood Shule, snaking a path through Carlisle Street, together with my father יבל’ח, Uncle Ya’akov ז’ל, Mr Sharf ז’ל, occasionally R’ Chaim Yaffe ז’ל and Yankel the קצב. Mr Felzen wasn’t “into” shmattes and the shmatte talk. Rather, he was one of the mayvens who solved the existential problems the State of Israel was facing. This august group of personages had a penchant to provide an answer for every impenetrable conundrum. I guess they believed they were immortal and super wise on account of the fact that even the Nazis couldn’t touch them.
Mr Felzen distinguished himself to this young lad. In comparison to his fellow travellers (shleppers), Mr Felzen had an acute sense of humour. So many survivors had trouble mustering their latent sense of mischief and mirth—not so Mr Felzen. I’d often be “in stitches” when he described one of the characters on the street who was walking in the opposite direction to us. These characters were repainted and architected into Yiddish parlance in a way that only he could concoct. Some of those rather succinct caricatures, are probably best not published, although I am happy to share a memorable one with anyone who should so desire 🙂
On a more personal front, I won’t forget his kindness in pin pointing a property in Lumeah Rd, a מציאה, just prior to our wedding. I remember him helping to negotiate a deal with Hiam Sharp, and then renovating the back section of the house, which included an uninhabitable kitchen, and which served as the foundation stone for my wife’s legendary culinary skills. His hands, with those thick stubby fingers bearing witness to the physical toil in which he engaged, were an icon of the self-sacrifice that he bore to build up a house לשם ולתפארת, which has seen new generations of committed Jews, proud of their people, religion and country and a credit to him and Mrs Felzen.
Mr Felzen had a love for singing. Towards the end of his life, his memory failed on occasion. I’m proud to say that during the times that I visited him with my father and wife, he always recognised us. No sooner than seeing him seemingly morose in hospital, I’d start singing with him. He never failed to participate despite his illness. His eyes shone with brightness as he belted out the traditional tunes that occupied the more permanent parts of his mind.
May his memory be a blessing.
Yankel Sperling ע’’ה
On Shabbos, my father and I spoke about visiting Yankel. Alas, that was not to be. Mr Sperling passed away this morning. My father was a regular visitor, although of late this was less frequent due to my father’s “on again, off again” colds. I never missed bringing him משלוח מנות and he always obliged with a nice bottle of scotch in return.
Mr Sperling was born in Tomashov Mazowiecka, a sister (and larger) city to my father’s home town of Rawa Mazowiecka. The Sperlings knew the Balbins from before the war. My Grandmother’s brother, R’ Mordechai Amzel ז’ל (Fetter Mordechai) lived near the Sperling and Hoppe families in Tomashov. Fetter Mordechai was a Radoshitze Chasid, Mr Sperling’s parents were traditionally religious Jews but not of any Chasidic persuasion as I recall, whilst the Hoppe family were Alexander Chasidim. The Sperling family was like many in Poland at that time. Although the parents were devoutly traditional, some of the children were influenced by various youth groups and “isms” and found meaning in life through different outlets. Mr Sperling would always retell, what I thought was one of his favourite stories. He loved to tell stories and we loved to hear them.
“One of my brothers, became a communist. My Tatte and Mame were not at all pleased, but he was very independent and there was not much they could do about it. We all did a few things which my parents were not so happy about. One thing I will tell you, despite these differences, all of us had enormous respect for our parents. We worshipped the ground that they walked on. I remember an incident on Kol Nidrei night. My brother, the communist, came to Shule out of respect for my father. I stood next to my brother in Shule during Kol Nidrei. When the Chazan started saying אור זרוע לצדיק in a powerful and meaningful tone, my brother’s left leg started to shake uncontrollably. I nudged my brother and told him, you see, on Yom Kippur, even a Communist like you is in awe and fears God.
Mr Sperling used to tell me this story each Yom Kippur after I led the davening on Kol Nidrei night. He sat directly behind us, and I know it would be his fervent wish that his beloved grand-children and great-grandchildren occupy that hallowed row in the future.
In contrast to Yossel and Mr Felzen, Mr Sperling had a stern demeanour. Some people misunderstood thinking that he was perhaps remote or unfriendly. After more than forty years sitting in front of him, I knew that this was utterly false. Mr Sperling was a man of truth. He wasn’t into pleasantries or pandering (חניפה). He called a spade a spade.
A very successful business man, Mr Sperling would note, without fear or favour, that some of his friends resented the fact that he had made more money than them. That was their problem, he used to say, not his. For Mr Sperling and his late dear wife, family was their main focus. Mrs Sperling suffered greatly in her struggle with illness, and Mr Sperling used to always glance up to the ladies gallery to see that she was okay.
When Mr Sperling came into Shule, I began a custom of helping him secure his Tallis in a way that would avoid the inevitable “slip off the shoulders”. He used to expect this from me as a boy and then as a young man. Our sons Tzvi Yehuda and Yossi continued this tradition when they came into the world of Elwood Shule. He was almost always honoured with an Aliyah on the High Holidays, and never missed an opportunity to donate money with a משברך in honour of my father and I. He would sometimes buy the Aliya of Maftir and give it to me, just so that he could say “Now that’s how a Maftir should be said”. He was always very loyal to me and my wider family.
There are two aspects of his character that endure in my memory. The first was the utter delight that he had for his grand-children and great-grandchildren. Starting off from a young Victoria, who used to sit on my lap as a little girl, when any grand-child entered Shule sitting beside him, his eyes lit up. He was so proud to be part of Jewish continuity especially as manifested in a Synagogue service. Later, when great-grandchildren joined the parade, even Mr Sperling’s usually stern demeanour transformed into an enormous smile. The joy of having the זכות merit of being part of their lives was palpable on his face. The second aspect was the constant infusion of a respect for Yiddishkeit that he worked tirelessly to instill into his grandsons and Tal. I observed this, year after year. He never missed coming to Shule on Yom Tov or a Yohr Tzeit, let alone Yizkor. He patiently explained, to the best of his ability, what was occurring during davening. In return, the two grandsons exhibit an enormous respect for their Zayda,
He too will be sorely missed.
2 thoughts on “A difficult few weeks”
I am not a Holocaust survivor or the son of one.
However, when I read about the personalities and their lives I am somehow transported into their sweat bitter world.
Maybe I was there in a different gilgul.
I love my people and the G-d who creates us.
May He have mercy on his kinderlach and bring Moshiach now, which will surely bring an end to all the suffering of the ages, as we stand upright in our Holy Land.
Isaac, all the people you wrote of were very special in their own way, but thanks in particular for the tribute to my great uncle Yossel A”H, you really hit the spot with your words about him. He always spoke warmly of you too. May he be zoche to the ultimate Aliyas Haneshomo with a Yeridah back to this world with the coming of Moshiach…