The parallel lives of my father, Shlomo Ben Dovid Schlesinger, whose name was once Severin and that of his first cousin, Severin F., diverged exponentiallys shared a maternal grandmother, Raisel Schlesinger, a frum balabusta, who lived and practiced the traditional ways of her forefathers. along different lifestyles and choices. Each of the Severin
From her foundation of piety and tradition evolved diametrically opposing priorities and values, comparable to a pair of parallel laser beams that are one degree off from each other; the longer the elapsed distance, the greater the divergence.
Bubby Raisel’s daughter, Tante Fela was a model of respect towards her mother. She would dutifully visit her almost every Shabbos, going from Bendin to Dombrowa, (Poland) by trolley car. Yet, as to not offend her mother’s religiosity pretended that she walked the several mile distance.
Tante Fela had married Henry, an educated and talented industrialist who owned a hardware factory. He was a complete secularist who had no use for religion and the values of the shtetl.
The war swiftly put an end to Henry’s progressive views and way of life. In quick order his factory was confiscated, he was thrown out of his expansive apartment and was sent to a concentration camp together with his wife Fela and their only son, Severin. Miraculously all three were chosen to survive their planned dehumanization and extermination.
My father recently connected with his first cousin Severin after a hiatus of 25 plus years. An Internet search revealed that Severin, after retirement, in an apparently similar fashion to Shlomo Ben David, began speaking to public school groups about the Holocaust, attributing his survival to good luck and his personal triumph over evil.
My father often lectures to yeshiva students about how his emunah and his optimism were the reasons for his survival. Punctuating his discourse with the refrain “Hashem wanted me to live,” He tacitly imparts how unstunted he remained in the face of great adversity and how it did not leave him depressed or with a caustic demeanor. His theme is that his horrific experiences did not diminish his faith in the goodness of the Creator and that G-d directs the course of all events.
He relates how his father, Reb Dovid, had conducted himself amidst the numbing horrors of Auschwitz. His father, as other prisoners, was fed starvation rations, yet would exercise a profound restraint that reaffirmed who he was, despite where he was. There were two gestures that underscored this. When he found a scrap of meat in his daily ration of gruel, he would refuse to eat it by reason of it being non-kosher but would offer it to his son to sustain him. Reb Dovid was given a daily single slice of bread. His practice was to divide it into two. One he would eat immediately, the second he would put away for the evening. This self-discipline was rare in an environ that held no promise of the end of the day, let alone of a tomorrow.
A fellow from his hometown noticed that he had put aside the half slice and became obsessed with it. He begged him to share it with him claiming that he would die if he could not have the bread. Reb Dovid gave it to him. His son remonstrated that each person received the same rations daily, and his father responded that he had the strength to survive without that scrap of bread, but perhaps this poor Yid did not.
My father followed in his parents’ traditions in contradistinction to the prevalent inexorable gravitation toward the modernistic trends evolving in Europe, the new isms that were becoming compelling. The concomitant rejection of traditional Jewish values and their replacement with secular ways were taking up the imagination and lifestyles of the majority of Jewish youth to the consternation of their parents.
Let us indulge in a momentary reverie, placing ourselves in Shlomo Schlesinger’s shoes between the pivotal years 1937 to 1947 and vicariously contemplating the choices he was confronted with and how he opted, juxtaposing them with how the reader would have chosen or been compelled to do under similar circumstances.
The background is such; the world is still in the grips of the Great Depression. There is an effective boycott of Jewish stores and merchants promulgated by the Catholic Church resulting in wide-spread poverty. Socialism, Communism, Bundism and Zionism, all antithetical to religion, are the subjects of heated debates and are attracting the youth as the new truths. The economic and social turmoil entices them to move to the liberalistic big cities of Europe or emigrate to America and Palestine. Then came World War II with protagonists that relegated human life as worthless and elevated banal evil to a state religion. This was followed by the lawlessness and striving for the new values of post-war Europe, an all-encompassing materialism.