Irving Bunim (1901-1980) is probably best known among Orthodox Jews for his best-selling, three-volume Ethics From Sinai commentary on Pirkei Avos.
Bunim, however, was far more than the author of a popular book. He served as Rav Aharon Kotler’s right-hand man and was one of the prime movers and activists in such organizations and institutions as Young Israel, Chinuch Atzmai, Torah Umesorah, Vaad Hatzalah, and the Lakewood Yeshivah. His son told The Jewish Press that when his father died, Rav Moshe Feinstein, the prominent American 20th-century halachic authority, told him, “This is not an aveilus d’yachid [a private loss]; this has the halacha of aveilus d’rabim [a public loss] because your father represented the rabim of Klal Yisrael.”
In advance of Irving Bunim’s 30th yahrzeit (December 11 this year), The Jewish Press spoke to his son Amos, who in 1989 wrote a biography of his father, A Fire in His Soul.
The Jewish Press: Why did you title your book A Fire in His Soul?
Bunim: Because my father’s soul was burning to help Klal Yisrael. The Young Israel movement would be the best example. At that time [in the 1920s] the Conservative movement was getting very strong and people did not understand the difference between Orthodox and Conservative. My father did, and the fire in his soul told him he had to make sure the world understood the difference and that a movement must be created to take care of the problems of the day without Yiddishkeit being compromised in any way.
And Young Israel fulfilled that function?
Yes. There were no shuls being built with mechitzahs in those days except Young Israel shuls. That was one of Young Israel’s main thrusts: to try to make sure that every shul being built would have a mechitzah.
Almost all the day schools and mikvaos in America were also only built because of the Young Israel movement. If it wasn’t for Young Israel, I don’t know if the gedolim who came to America [after World War II] would have found people to join them in their efforts. Reb Aharon Kotler used to come to the Young Israel dinner because he felt this was a movement that could relate to what he was doing.
Today some Orthodox Jews see Young Israel as left wing, and not as Orthodox as some other Jewish institutions and organizations.
In those days it was the only Orthodox movement. My father-in-law, Edward Silver, who was the district attorney of Brooklyn, told me that if it wasn’t for Young Israel he would never have been a shomer-Shabbos Jew.
You write in the book that some people within Young Israel wanted to align the organization with the Conservative movement. Why?
Because in those days most Orthodox rabbis did not speak English and did not relate to the public. The Conservative movement, however, had rabbis who spoke English and were able to teach Torah, and so many people in Young Israel wanted to move closer to it. The person who really made sure that didn’t happen was my father.
During World War II, your father served as chairman of Vaad Hatzalah. At one point the Vaad had plans to ransom 300,000 Jews from Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer of the SS. Can you talk about that?
In 1944, the Vaad’s representatives in Switzerland were Isaac and Recha Sternbuch. They were working on a deal with Mr. [Jean-Marie] Musy, who was the former president of Switzerland and who had a very strong relationship with Himmler. Himmler agreed that for every $17 sent to an account he set up, he would save one Jew from the concentration camps. He even said he would show his goodwill and save a trainload, 1,265 Jews, from Theresienstadt and two train loads, 1,638 Jews, from Bergen-Belsen without being paid for it. Incidentally, on that train from Bergen-Belsen was the Satmar Rebbe.
The Vaad tried everything to raise the money Himmler wanted. The total was $5 million, and Himmler demanded a down payment of $1.2 million. Getting permission from the American government to wire money to the Nazis was another hurdle. The Vaad worked tirelessly, but the deal was eventually killed by Saly Mayer, who represented the Joint Distribution Committee in Switzerland. He was against bribes and ransom, and was not going to allow these things to happen. He got a message to Hitler about what was going on, and Hitler stopped the deal with Himmler.
In the book, you quote an American Jew who told your father he didn’t want to donate funds toward ransom money that might be used to buy weaponry that would kill his son in the American army. Didn’t this person have a point?
This was an opportunity to save 300,000 Jews. It’s not necessarily true that this money would have been used to kill Allied soldiers. It was a case of vadai [definitiveness] versus safek [doubtfulness].
Ransoming Jews was not the only time your father and the Vaad tried unconventional tactics to save Jews.
They tried whatever they could. There was a person by the name of Rabbi Yosef Farber, who was the head of Heichal HaTalmud in Eretz Yisrael and was trying to get his family out of Poland and bring them to Israel. He went to the Jewish Agency to get a visa and Joseph Schwartz, who was the head of the Jewish Agency at the time, said to him, “Rabbi, the law is that to get a visa you must have at least 5,000 dollars.” He said, “I have 5,000 dollars.” He asked him, “Where did you get the 5,000 dollars from?” Rabbi Farber told him that my father had put the money into his account. Joseph Schwartz said to him, “In this organization we do not do anything that’s not 100 percent legitimate, and therefore we’re not going to give you that visa.”
Rabbi Farber came to my father in tears and said, “You have to help me.” The next day my father invited three people to lunch who were very influential: Leon Gellman, the president of Mizrachi; Abraham Goldberg, the president of the ZOA; and Ephraim Kaplan, one of the foremost Yiddish writers of the day. He told them the whole story and asked them to go to the Jewish Agency and get Rabbi Farber the visa. They said, “We don’t know if we can do that.”
At that point my father got very upset and said, “The Jewish Agency has a big window on 5th Avenue on the ground floor. If you don’t go to the Jewish Agency and get that visa, I will throw a rock and break the window.” They asked him, “What good will that do?” He said, “The New York Times is going to come down and ask me why I broke that window and I will tell them one Jew doesn’t want to save the life of another Jew.” They said, “But Mr. Bunim, you’re not crazy, you’re not going to do something like that.” He said, “I take a shevua that I’m going to do it.”
Rabbi Farber got the visa.
In your book, you write at length about your father’s close relationship with Rav Aharon Kotler. Can you provide some details?
Reb Aharon always called my father his shutaf. He called him his partner in hatzalah and his partner in building Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey.
Reb Ruderman [rosh yeshiva of Ner Yisroel] told me that Reb Aharon would not have become Reb Aharon in America if not for my father. All the doors were closed to Reb Aharon. Everybody felt that [a European-style yeshiva] didn’t belong in America, it was archaic. The person who opened all the doors for him to get support was my father.
What was it about Reb Aharon that led your father to become so devoted to him?
Reb Aharon was nonpolitical. His only motivation was two things. As he said when he came to Pennsylvania Station from Europe on April 23, 1941: “I came to America for two purposes – to save as many Jews as I can [from the Nazis] and to rebuild the Torah that was destroyed and decimated in Europe.” My father’s main purpose in life was to see that everything he did was with honesty and integrity, and, therefore, when he saw a person like Reb Aharon, who had no political motivations whatsoever and was only driven by his feelings forKlal Yisrael, he related to that.
A Fire in His Soul is about your father, but you mention in the book that you started assisting your father in some of his activities when you got older.
I was very active in Torah Umesorah and Chinuch Atzmai, and was very active with Reb Aharon. I used to go on very important missions with Reb Aharon, some of which were missions impossible.
Can you elaborate?
When I was 26 years old, Reb Aharon called me up and told me there was a whole group of Jews who had lived through the Holocaust who had gotten involved in smuggling gold. He wanted me to meet with the judge and ask for rachmanus. I said to Reb Aharon, “I’m 26 years old, I was never in court in my life, why are you sending me?” I argued with Reb Aharon for 15 minutes until finally I asked him, “Rosh yeshiva, are you telling me this b’geder da’as Torah and emunas chachamim?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Then I have no choice.” He said, “That’s right, but I want to tell you one thing: whatever you do in life, if you do it with emes you’ll always succeed.”
So I had no choice, but the odds against me were probably a million to one. I walked to the federal court and told the person behind the information desk that I wanted to schedule an appointment with Judge Lynch. He said he couldn’t call Judge Lynch since he had no secretary, and the only way I could get to Judge Lynch is if I knocked on his door myself. I knocked on the door and the judge opened it and asked me, “Why are you here?” I said, “I am here representing the chief justice of Jewish law.” He said, “Who is the chief justice of Jewish law?” I said, “His name is Rabbi Aharon Kotler and he is the head of the most prestigious rabbinic seminary in the world.” He said, “Come in.”
So I came in and I said to him, “Your honor, there’s no way in the world that you can judge these people like you would judge an American. These people were in concentration camps. How can you expect them to respect human law when they saw there was no respect for human life?”
It’s a long story, but at the reading of the verdict the judge accepted my logic and the sentence was suspended. When I heard the verdict, I ran out and I called Reb Aharon. I never heard such simcha in my entire life.