This past week was the yahrzeit of Avi Mori, my dearly beloved father, my teacher, my guiding light, the eminent sage, HaRav HaGaon HaTzadik Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l. It is difficult to believe that 18 years have already passed since he was called to the Heavens above. In my mind’s eye, I hear his kind, gentle voice; I see his magnificent, holy countenance and his loving smile, and yet, the years have passed. Eighteen is not an ordinary number…. 18 is chai – life – so I would like to recall some of the memories from the exemplary life of my saintly father, Avi Mori.
In all my years I never heard my father raise his voice, say an unkind word, or lose his temper…. not even during the most trying periods of his life – the Holocaust, the Displaced Persons Camps that followed, the trials and tribulations of adjusting to a new life in America (in a neighborhood that had never seen Orthodox Jews, how much more a rebbe of my father’s caliber). Throughout his life, his calm, loving, compassionate demeanor remained constant. Even during his final years, when he had to battle devastating illness, my father’s chesed – goodness prevailed.
Hungary was the last country to be invaded by the Nazis, but as Hitler’s armies conquered Europe, persecution of Jews became a way of life. Young Jewish boys were conscripted for slave labor – a torturous experience from which few returned. Our city became a collection point from where these boys were deported. As the Rabbi, my father was able to obtain permission to conduct services for them, but he was always carefully searched – he could not bring anything into the camp.
My parents, however, thought it unlikely that I, a little girl, would be searched, so I accompanied my father, and my mother sewed medications and whatever else was critically needed into the lining of my coat. Thus, I had the merit of witnessing how a mere human being can be “higher than the angels.”
My father had the most beautiful voice. When he davened, the walls themselves shook. I will never forget my father’s prayers in the detention camps, for while he was permitted to conduct services, he was not permitted to have private conversations with the boys. Undaunted, he wove into the prayers a message for every person and those messages spoke volumes, entered every heart, and imparted courage, faith and hope.
Many years later, I was speaking in a community in New Jersey when a young man approached me and related that his father had told him that while he was in a detention camp, a Rabbi Jungreis would come to visit, bring messages to all the boys from their families, strengthen them with prayers and impart a brachah to each and every person. He added that the rabbi’s little daughter would accompany him and bring much- needed medication. “Could that rabbi have been your father? Could you have been that little girl?”
Tears choking my voice, I nodded my head.
Quickly, he ran to the phone and called his father, who now lived in Belgium and handed me the receiver.
“It was your father’s brachos that kept me going,” he told me. “I will never forget him.
Whether in Bergen-Belsen or in a DP Camp in Switzerland, my father’s sacrifice, commitment and love, never wavered.
In 1945-47 following the Holocaust, we were placed in DP camps in Switzerland. A group of Polish young men between the ages of 17 and 22, who had survived the hell of Auschwitz and whose parents had been slaughtered, arrived at my parents’ DP Camp. The young men were all very angry – they had thrown away their yarmulkes and openly expressed their disdain for religion.
My father did not argue with them or admonish them. Instead, every night, he went to their room and said the Shema with them. He would go from bed to bed, tuck them in, plant a kiss on each forehead, and say in Yiddish, “Shlof gezunt heit, lichtige kind – Sleep well, my precious child.”
My mother, Rebbetzin Miriam Jungreis, A.H., volunteered for kitchen duty, and she always tried to make something extra for them. Slowly, my parents removed the bitterness from their hearts and brought them back to Torah and Hashem.
For some unfathomable reason, the authorities in Switzerland separated us children from our parents. My older brother was sent to a school near Zurich in German Switzerland; I was sent to a place near Montreux in French Switzerland, and my parents, along with my younger brother, were in yet another area. It was a very trying time. Battered and scarred, we yearned for the warm, loving presence of our parents, but it was not to be.
There was a Yiddish song that we sang in those days, “Vi Ahin Zol Ich Gayen? Ver Ken Entferen Mir? – Tell me where can I go? Who can answer me?”
For my father there was only one answer to that question – Eretz Yisrael! Unfortunately however, we could not obtain the necessary papers to make that dream come true. The British, who then ruled our Holy Land, limited Jewish immigration to a trickle, and anyone who dared to defy their quotas was sent to a detention camp in Cyprus. My father refused to chance that. We had experienced one concentration camp too many – it was enough, so we waited patiently for our papers. The days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, and the months into years, and there was still no sign that the fulfillment of our dream was at hand.
In the DP school to which I had been assigned, I had a roommate who became a good friend. We did not have permission to keep the lights on at night, so my little friend and I made up a game – before going to sleep, we would identify every object in the room: “This is a chair…. this is a table….” so that during the night, when we became terrified by nightmares and those pieces of furniture appeared to be Nazis, we would reassure one another, “It’s only a chair…It’s only a table.”
But then, one day, my little friend (whose parents had been killed in the Holocaust) received papers for Eretz Yisrael. Orphans were given priority by Aliyat HaNoar, and were granted the few visas that were made available.
My father came to visit and I cried bitterly. I told him that, since I was alone in my room, my fear of the night intensified. My father assured me that I was never alone – that Hashem would always be watching over me, and that he himself would always be at my side.
Then he took out his pen and wrote the beautiful passage from our Torah, from this week’s parshah, depicting the unique relationship that our father Jacob enjoyed with his son, Benjamin. “V’Nafsho keshurah b’nafsho – His [Jacob’s] soul was bound to his [Benjamin’s] soul.” The father’s soul was bound to his son’s soul.
“Never forget that lichtig kind – my precious light (my father always called us precious lights). My soul is forever connected to yours.”
The years passed – 1945…. 1946… 1947… and there was still no hope of our being granted permission to go to Eretz Yisrael, and then, one day, we received papers for the United States. My parents decided that our family had been fragmented long enough, so with G-d’s help, we would go to America and build a new life.
It was the dead of winter when we set sail. It took us four weeks to cross the Atlantic in a small Italian freighter. The seas were rough and as our ship was tossed back and forth, we wondered if we would ever make it. When we finally docked, instead of the port of New York, we found ourselves in Norfolk, Virginia.
But whether we were tossed by the stormy waves of the ocean or whether we had to struggle with the challenges of our new life in America, my father’s message from the Torah was forever with me, “Nafsho keshurah b’nafsho.”
And now, on this eighteenth yahrzeit, I would like to say to my father that my soul is bound to his.
L’Ilui nishmas Avi Mori, HaRav HaGaon Ha Tzaddik Avraham HaLevi Jungreis ben HaRav HaGaon HaTzaddik Yisroel HaLevi Jungreis, Hy”d.Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis