Besides being the designated date of the birth and death of Moshe Rabbeinu, the seventh of Adar (February 21 this year) also marks the 17th yahrzeit of Chazkel Tydor, father of Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz, a professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University and the author of seven books.
One of very few to have survived six years in Nazi concentration camps, Chazkel Tydor was born in Poland; received most of his education, including his semicha ordination, in Germany; and lived his post-Holocaust years in the United States and Israel.
The Jewish Press recently interviewed Tydor Baumel-Schwartz about her father, whose life story she recounts in her new book, The Incredible Adventures of Buffalo Bill from Bochnia (68715). Portions of the book appeared in The Jewish Press pre-publication.
The Jewish Press: Why did you write this book?
Prof. Tydor Baumel-Schwartz: The book is actually a combination of the personal and historical. For a long time I had felt it was a shame that my daughters, who were so young when their zeide died, didn’t really know much about his life.
Another factor is that I am a historian who deals with modern Jewish history, and I always felt that my father did not only have an extraordinary life, but that his experiences, spanning almost 90 years, three continents and so many different Jewish communities, were actually a slice of contemporary Jewish history.
When people today think of pre-war Europe, they often imagine sharp distinctions: chassidim, yekkes, Litvaks, etc. Many people like your father, however, were “hybrids” due to the upheavals of World War I. Can you talk about this phenomenon?
At the beginning of the First World War there was a mass exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe to Austria and Germany. After the war was over, some of the older refugees returned to Poland but their children often remained in Germany, becoming part of the German-Jewish community.
On the outside most of these young ostjuden [Eastern European Jews] became Germanized, cutting off their [long] peyos, giving up their chassidic dress and even taking on German names – my father adopted the name Heinrich in order to enroll in university. At home, though, they often retained their Eastern European customs. My father and his family, for instance, continued the chassidic custom of saying mizmor ledovid after washing netilas yadayim and not eating gebrokst on Pesach.
At my father’s wedding you could feel the tension between the German-Jewish and chassidic Eastern European parts of my father’s identity. My grandfather and his mechuten dressed in full chassidic regalia. My father, however, adamantly refused to wear a streimel in view of his loyalty to the Breuer German tradition. Instead he was married in a top hat.
How did your father retain his faith during the Holocaust when so many others abandoned theirs?
I asked my father this question many times, and I can only give you the answer he always gave me. He said he had lost everything except God. How could he give that up as well?
No one ever promised that belief in God would guarantee you health, happiness, and a reward in this world. Belief was absolute. You believed because you believed. Not because you were promised a reward for doing so.
Millions died in Nazi concentration camps. Yet your father managed to survive in Buchenwald and Auschwitz for six years. How?
Again, I can only quote what he used to say: siyata dishmaya – the help of the Almighty.
You write in the book that your father, remarkably, arranged Pirkei Avos shiurim in Buchenwald. Can you elaborate?
On Saturday afternoons there was a bit of unsupervised time when prisoners would tidy their blocks and clean their clothing. After completing these chores, some prisoners would walk between the barracks or even towards part of the Buchenwald forest that lay within the camp’s perimeter.
So, from the Sabbath after Passover onwards my father and his friends used some of this time to learn Pirkei Avos together. He and his friends saw it as a triumph against the Nazis, a small victory in their ongoing battle for spiritual survival in the concentration camp.
Twelve years after the Holocaust and 15 years after the Nazis murdered his first wife, your father, at age 54, married your mother. What was it like growing up as the daughter of an older father?
Actually, until I was nine I never realized my father was older than anyone else’s father. Whenever I asked my mother how old my father was, she told me he was 42 and I believed her.
I never really felt my father was “different.” The Ribbono Shel Olam blessed him with good health, and when my daughters were born, my parents would take them, even as newborns, for the night so that I could get a good night’s sleep. I would walk into my parents’ apartment early the next morning to see my father changing diapers, heating up bottles and being quite expert at burping little babies – all this when he was long past 80 years of age.
Did you learn anything about your father when writing this book that you didn’t know about previously?
There were a few revelations. The first was the depth of his courage. As I wrote the chapters about his pre-war years and the Holocaust, I heard stories from friends and family about his behavior under incredibly difficult circumstances. I still cannot fathom from where he had the tremendous strength of character and courage to do what he did.
The second was a financial revelation. Only after learning more about my father’s family’s financial background and pre-World War II life did I realize what a well-to-do man he had been before the Holocaust, which makes his post-war lower middle-class life all the more amazing.
The third was the depth of his faith. He had gone through a test, which no one should ever undergo and, incredibly, his belief remained unshattered. His last words to me before he died were in Yiddish, the language of his childhood, when he woke from a semi-coma and muttered, “Bring mir a tallis un tefillin.”
By his life and even by his death he was an example to me and an inspiration of what a Jew should be. I miss him enormously and am grateful for the many years I had the zechus to be with him and learn from his teachings and experiences.