All of a sudden, the tone of the letters changes. They become dry reports of annual profits from a synagogue in New Jersey. Next, there is a letter offering employment to Rabbi Avigdor from the Sons of Israel Congregation in New Jersey. Hooray! Rabbi Avigdor will emigrate to the United States and have a job and so there is a letter to the consul at the United States Visa Department. Following this is a flurry of letters testifying to Rabbi Avigdor as a student and as a rabbi.
No matter how aware I am of the sheer terror, the evil, the awfulness of the Nazis and the Holocaust, I sometimes find myself bowled over by the most seemingly mundane details, and to borrow from Hannah Arendt, by the banality of evil. I realize that Jews who were taken from their homes, who lost family members, prized family possessions and their freedom, also lost identity papers. These are the papers that we keep locked in a safe. The papers that are our passports, our social security cards, our marriage certificates, and our diplomas – these are the papers that testify and that assert our identities. Rabbi Avigdor, among countless others I am sure, had to rebuild his life. He also had to rebuild his identity by slowly and meticulously writing to all the places he had been to in his previous, pre-Nazi life and asking them to testify for him.
The most heartrending example is Rabbi Avigdor’s efforts to obtain membership to the Rabbinical Council of America. By 1953, Rabbi Avigdor was a shul rabbi in Hartford, Conn. and he wanted to join the council. The correspondent at the RCA is sympathetic and quite apologetic but states that he’s sorry but policy dictates that Rabbi Avigdor must present not one but two certificates of semicha, rabbinic ordination. He realizes, he says, that Rabbi Avigdor lost everything in the war and he suggests that Rabbi Avigdor write to one or two rabbi friends and have them write letters testifying that he has received rabbinic ordination. As I follow this exchange, the years between 2013 and the decades following the war melt away. What will happen? Will Rabbi Avigdor receive his letters and then membership? I sit on the edge of my seat.
There is a letter by Rabbi Nathan Manuel and another by Rabbi Aaron Pechenik and yes, Rabbi Avigdor has achieved membership. A few documents in and I am almost at the end of the Avigdor file. I see an article written in honor of his fortieth wedding anniversary and later, sadly, his obituaries.
Now it is time for me to fill in the details, to move on to secondary sources. I learn about his weekly, long running, beloved column in The Jewish Press. I read his books. From Prison to Pulpit, published in 1975, contains a collection of his weekly derashot, sermons. A Survivor’s Thanksgiving (Shehecheyanu), published in 2003, recounts life before the war. He recounts his history in still another and I learn that Rabbi Avigdor was reunited with his father, Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Avigdor, who later became the chief rabbi of Mexico. I learn that Rabbi Avigdor moved to the Lower East Side with his father and became the executive director of the Shlomo Kluger Yeshiva despite not speaking English. He got married and was blessed with four sons. Rabbi Avigdor, who passed away in 2010, lived until he was 90.
About the Author: Shoshana Batya Greenwald recently received a master's degree in decorative arts, material culture and design history from Bard Graduate Center. She is the collections manager at Kleinman Family Holocaust Educational Center (KFHEC) and a freelance writer.
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