Letter from Jerusalem II : Pay It Forward
Across time and place, wherever Jews have suffered persecution, homelessness or uncertainty, the gift of an extended hand has saved lives.
The immigrant, the refugee, the homeless. I have been witness to their experience, often and at firsthand. It has been my own experience. It is one that leaves an imprint, and it compels, impulsively, almost instinctively, reaching out to help. Here are three stories, united by a common thread. a September 1938, Vienna.We are hiding in someone’s apartment, my father and mother, my younger sister and I. I am 11 years old.
We have fled the small town in which we lived—it is being made Judenrein. The Gestapo is looking for my father, a well-known rabbi. If we attempt to leave, he will be arrested at the border and sent to Dachau or Buchenwald. But we can’t stay where we are now; the Gestapo will shortly find us. We are trapped. Then late one evening the doorbell rings. My father winces, my mother sits still, her hands resting on her lap. At the entrance stands a young man in a Nazi militia uniform. He extends his hand to my father. “Have no fear, Rabbi,” he says. “I have come to help. My name is Haslinger.”
Turning to me, he asks: “You remember my brother from class, don’t you? You shared your lunches with him.”
Yes, I remember well. During the years of the Great Depression, the Haslingers’ father was out of work. My mother hated the sight of hungry children. During the years the Haslinger boy and I were together in school, she sent me off every day with two small bags, one for me and one for him, in each a sandwich and an apple.
“You must be on the morning train to Pressburg,” the man tells my father. “The Gestapo will be here by tomorrow afternoon.”
“We can’t,” my father says. “They will take me off the train at the border. It will be a ride to the concentration camp for me.”
“No, you will get to Pressburg, I promise you,” the man says. “You have no choice, Rabbi.” He places his right hand on the left side of his chest and stares into my father’s face. “On my honor, nothing will happen to you. Please be on that train. Please. You will arrive safely.”
We take the train. Four small suitcases on the compartment’s rack. An overnight bag in my father’s hand—shirt, underwear, toothbrush and tefilin. For Buchenwald or Dachau. It is an hour’s ride to the border. We exchange no word. An hour frozen in time. Then the stillness is broken by a piercing shriek of metal grinding against metal, and an acrid smell of something smoldering fills the carriage. The train has just reached the last stretch before the border, but instead of slowing to a halt it gathers speed. A trainman running down the corridor shouts something about brakes. The border posts loom ahead. The train races through a barrier, past gesticulating soldiers, past swastika flags, over a ribbon of empty land, past more soldiers in different uniforms, past a flagpole with a different flag and stops several hundred yards into Czechoslovakia.
Haslinger was an employee of the Austrian railway system. He had himself assigned as brakeman on the morning train that day, and whatever it was that he put into the mechanism, it burned out the brakes.
We can’t stay on in Pressburg, the permit issued by the police is for a few weeks only. Frantic, my parents apply for visas to any country that will accept Jewish refugees. Few are willing. We become transients in Czech territory, Slovak territory, Hungary, Belgium, waiting for the precious piece of paper. We have no money. But wherever we find ourselves, a Jewish community takes us in.
Rescue. A distant cousin of my father in New York provides the affidavits that facilitate a visa. The ship bringing us from Antwerp docks in Hoboken, New Jersey, in January 1939. The cousin and his wife are there as we walk down the gangplank with the suitcases, $5 in our pockets. We are taken to an apartment the cousin has rented. The refrigerator is filled with good things. Deliveries of food continue for months, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society provides money for staples. Eventually my father finds a position.
May 1965, Sukhumi, Abkhazia.
A minyan in an abandoned building, half-past 5 in the morning. The police tolerated the twice-daily services held there by the town’s Grusinian— Georgian—Jews as long as no attention was called to the gatherings. It was, in fact, only with difficulty that I learned of the place when I arrived in Sukhumi from my university in California.
I was participating in a scientific workshop sponsored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, one of the first such occasions to which scientists from abroad were invited. Aware of the plight of the Jews of the Soviet Union, I had on principle intended to decline the invitation, but was then persuaded to accept by those who were leading the effort to forge contact with Jewish communities in Soviet lands.
Repression was severe in the 1960’s, and the Soviet intelligence agencies did whatever they could to prevent such contact. With the VIP status as a guest of the academy, I would have an unusual degree of freedom of movement and a margin of personal safety; I could perhaps succeed in bringing back some valuable information. And so I came to spend a few weeks in Russia and the Ukraine, doing very little in the way of science and a great deal more of meeting with Jews.
I was greeted with suspicion when I first arrived at the minyan late one afternoon. There was no sign identifying the place, and I knocked on several doors up and down the poor street until one opened. Men were sitting in a dimly lit room, waiting for minha services to begin. A tall, bearded man asked me what I wanted. I identified myself as an observant Jew. The man had studied in a yeshiva in Lithuania when he was young and he spoke Yiddish. He was the hakham, the rabbi. There was no welcome, only a long, cautious questioning.
How did I find out about them? Had someone sent me? Why wasn’t I at the conference they had read about in the papers? Did I know how to pray? My answers were carefully weighed, the men speaking urgently with each other in a language I did not know; my questions were deflected. Only when I returned, day after day, with my talit and tefilin, reciting the liturgy by heart, did suspicion lift: I was a fellow Jew, not an informer in the pay of the police.
As I am about to leave one morning, a thin, middle-aged man rushes into the room. He is unshaven, his clothes ragged. He is Ashkenazi and speaks Yiddish and Russian. He has just wound up in Sukhumi; truck drivers had given him rides over many days from somewhere in the east. He is making his way back to Poland where he was arrested five years ago, he doesn’t know why. He was just let go from the gulag, with no money and no food for the last two days. He needs to spill all this out, but the men don’t let him. The hakham says: “Don’t tell us, don’t tell us anything. We don’t want to know. We will help you, but you must go on. Now.”
He pulls a strongbox from behind a loose brick in the wall, takes out a number of bills, at least 50 rubles—a lot of money—and presses them into the man’s hand.
The hakham looks at me.“You don’t understand,” he says. Then he mumbles a sentence from Deuteronomy: “And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt; therefore I command thee to do this thing.”
December 1982, Jerusalem.
Saturday night, in the study of my apartment. There are five of us—a librarian, a curator of medieval manuscripts, a postman, a teacher of mathematics and myself.
We are doing the business of a gemah (in Hebrew, gemah connotes a free-loan society).
My colleagues live in Mea Shearim and Geula, the neighborhoods of the haredim; my apartment is in the upscale quarter of Rehavia. Geographically, the distance between us is small—socially and religiously, it is large. What brings us together is a commandment: “And if thy brother be waxen poor and his means fail with thee; then thou shalt uphold him. Yea though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live. Take thou no interest of him or increase.”
Shortly after I made aliya with my wife and three young sons in 1966, I met Reb Moshe at the daily afternoon minyan in the Chagall chapel of Hadassah Hospital at Ein Kerem; he worked in the hospital’s mailroom. Would I perhaps want to attend a meeting of his gemah? he asked one day. He and three of his neighbors met early mornings for an hour of Talmud study, and some years ago they decided that a group devoted to the study of the law should also act in the name of the law. They formed a fund—each putting in 20 pounds sterling—and began to extend small loans. I joined the group, and I am with it to the present day. We meet once a month, Saturday nights, most often in my apartment, which is roomier than any of theirs.
The fund now stands at $120,000, through our own contributions and those solicited from friends. The loans we can give are more substantial; they are short-term loans, intended to meet sudden contingencies—rent for a newly married couple, bed and clothing for a new baby, a sewing machine for a seamstress setting up her own shop, repairs of a home damaged by storm. Our gemah is known by word of mouth and is approached by men and women from all walks of life—workers and students, Jews and non-Jews, the religious and the secular, the very poor and the temporarily in straits. The fund is constantly in circulation, the monies returned the days before a meeting lent out immediately. There is a great need in this city for loans free of interest and given on trust.
Trust has been vindicated in our gemah—in more than 50 years there has not been a default. The number of requests invariably exceeds the funds at hand, and applicants must wait their turn.
The meeting of the Gemah that particular evening in December is an anniversary of sorts for me. That month, 25 years ago, I turned to the Jewish Welfare Federation of San Francisco for a loan. I had been offered a faculty position in Berkeley, and I needed a home for my family. I did not have the money for the down payment on a mortgage. The federation granted me a loan of $3,000, to be repaid in monthly installments over two years. When the debt was closed, a request was made of me: When you will be in the position to do so, help others as you now have been helped. I made that pledge.
Were this story no more than a personal account, it would be of very little interest. But my story reflects the story of our people, my experiences echo the experiences of the Jew down the centuries. Few of us can claim a lineage in which the status of “have” and “have not,” of security and insecurity, has not been tenuous. Had we been deaf to need we should have disappeared long ago. The impulse to reach out is imprinted in our history. And the impulse lies at the core of Judaism’s values. We must not forget, lest we betray ourselves. The world would be the poorer for it.