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.
My father’s history and his conscious decisions were not those of his cousin Severin, who married out and effectively and consciously terminated his connection to his heritage, while my parents rebuilt their almost extirpated lineage thereby evincing the ultimate vengeance by producing multiple succeeding generations of highly-regarded and pious torah scholars and “people with good names.”
In 1987, I spoke to my father about going back to Poland, to a world that no longer existed. He expressed both an interest and a sense of fear venturing, “What if they determine that I left illegally and arrest me?” He was assured that if they will grant him a visa he would be safe. He at 68 was going with his 40-year-old son to a tableau of raw emotional confrontations, to a lost world that was incapable of being retrieved, of dynamics that survived only in his memory.
Arriving in Poland we drove to his former hometown Bendin/Dombrowa observing a certain sense of sterility and overwhelming ugliness about Communist Poland.
We did not linger anywhere in Poland. I sensed my father’s pain and depression when he saw that nothing remained. We went to Dombrower and saw this tiny empty lot which my father with a sense of satisfaction said was where his in-laws, the Gutterman’s, had lived. In Bendin he pointed with pride to a small apartment house and said that on the third floor was the famous Yeshiva Keser Torah that he attended as a child.
There were no plaques, no signs that declaimed the former Jewish quarter. There were no Jews extant, not even dead ones since even the cemeteries were destroyed.
We drove around asking elderly babushkas if they know where the old Zwydovsky (Jewish) cemetery was. We got these responses: no, it doesn’t exist—they built that factory there or they constructed a highway ramp where it used to be. Only in the outskirts of Bendin did we find the remnants of a cemetery that survived. It was overgrown with weeds and bushes and many of the tombstones had fallen. The road encroached upon one side of the sacred earth as did an adjacent farm. We spent several hours looking in this pre-war cemetery for a grandparent’s headstone to no avail. My father with a shudder says that he sees what it is like to be buried in galus and wants to be buried in Israel.
We then went to Shrodula, a village that became in 1941 the de facto local Jewish ghetto. All the Jews from the surrounding towns were forcibly relocated to its hovels and then en masse stuffed into cattle cars for the 25 mile journey from these relatively benign privations into the hell of Auschwitz/Birkenau.
We drove those 25 miles and entered the gates of Birkenau and walked alongside parallel rails bisecting a huge strangely barren field. There were no other people. Neither of us spoke, the only sound a soft wind blowing. We saw barracks with numbers on them and we looked for #11, the one that once housed my father and several hundred other unfortunate Jewish souls.
Each barrack had a pot-bellied stove and a series of three-tiered wooden bunks 4 feet wide. My father said that there were five people on each level and when one person turned, all the others sharing had to also turn in unison. With a far off look in his eyes, my father said that many tormented beings would, in desperation, kill themselves by hurling their bodies onto the electrified barbed wire fences.
We walked around viewing the seemingly endless expanse of the camp (camp–a strange euphemism that usually denotes good times), said Tehillim and davened Mincha. My father then began to say Kaddish with tears flowing; a Kaddish encompassing all the dead whose bodies were wrested away from their souls on these killing fields, for the loss of his parents and sisters and relatives and his pregnant first wife whose lives were cruelly extinguished and also for the civilization that was vaporized and now existed solely in his memory.
We walked silently to Auschwitz which was turned into a museum to the Polish war experience with no mention of the Jews. There were dusty and decaying exhibits, rooms full of human hair, shoes, eyeglasses, and most poignant of all, forlorn suitcases with Jewish names painted on them that would never be claimed by their murdered owners.
We entered a building labeled Zydovski Museum. In the basement was a large darkened room illuminated with a single ner tamid flickering on the floor. A voice of a chazzan chanted a most powerful Kel Moleh. I burst out crying uncontrollably. All the pent up detachment from the horrors could not be contained. The plaintive chanting reduced my hatred of our oppressors to a helpless sorrow.
My father told me that his every move was seemingly directed to the correct choice, that he was being watched over and, as he always expresses, he was meant to live. His refrain is that all the moves that he made contributed to his survival and were fortuitous and most important, that he became reacquainted with his future wife six months before the war ended.
It is easy to identify with Shlomo Ben David and his wife Rifka, vibrant caring personalities that elicit love, respect and an ever-present sense of optimism.
But who were their parents? Yes there is the photograph of an unsmiling Yid with a beard, “hoche” Yitchock Isaac Gutterman. But a picture does not convey the personality. If you tear it into pieces it does not cry out in pain or bleed hotly. His murder left his children orphans and his grandchildren bereft of a Zaidy. What about Blima and Sarah and Dovid who are even more abstract? No pictures remain of them. Yet they too were as real as hoche Isaac. They suffered needlessly, being only guilty of the appellation Jew.
We rationalize that they were brave as they were being sacrificed as a kapporah. We know that their beliefs and way of life was not lost or corrupted by expediency and impotent reconciliations. Their grandchildren are testimony that their credo lives on, in their successive generations’ values and ethos.
Our grandparents did not become statistics but building blocks, support beams and are being perpetuated in their grandchildren’s genes and way of life.
Yitzchock Isaac’s father, Yisroel Gutterman, the Steibel Yid, an almost forgotten personage suddenly came to life at the bris of a five-generation later grandson named after him. Yes, Yisroel lives on as does Isaac, Sarah, Blima, Dovid, Chana, Hadassah and Leah who were reborn in the ashes and are thriving as they emulate the values personified by their namesakes.
My parents are true survivors. They were not distracted by the many isms, some relatively benevolent, others of irreconcilable evil. They emerged from the war years with a spiritual, physical and emotional positiveness. My parents got married immediately after the war in Germany. They made a conscious and palpable decision to be religious and to rebuild their lives with Torah rules and the culture that was their parents’ way.
Their post-war years sojourn in Regensburg, Germany was just a zwichenzug in their lives before moving to America. America with its unlimited choices, freedoms and opportunity was a template of endless potential. Unfortunately, it also presented a society that was out of step with religion, that replaced G-d with a slakeless quest for success and money.
Ignoring these powerful and distracting influences, in 1949 our dear parents opted to relocate to Williamsburg, Brooklyn and sent their children to yeshivas, staying frum and not emulating the unencumbered ways of their “survivor” friends.
Instead of being handicapped or demoralized by the banality of their oppressors, our parents surmounted those vituperative influences by embracing an Orthodox religious life for themselves and their children.
At every juncture thereafter, a consistent conscious decision was made to live in a Jewish community and continue to send their children to yeshivas, paying tuition with scarce dollars.
This formula worked. My parents have, thank G-d, three children and eleven grandchildren and 30+ great-grandchildren, all frum and Bnei Torah (bli ayin hora).
Shlomo Ben Dovid Schlesinger went to Israel directly after this trip to Poland and, together with his wife, purchased burial plots for themselves in the Har Menuchos Cemetery so as to preclude being obliterated on hostile foreign soil.
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