My father passed away on September 2, at the age of 91. I wanted to share his life story.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1925. His mother died when he was 17. Shortly after his mother’s death, he enlisted in the U.S. army. In the summer of 1944, at age 18, he was sent to France and served as a machine gunner. A few months later, his division was overtaken by the Nazis in Alsace-Lorraine and he was captured.
How did he survive in captivity? One of the first things he did was throw away his dog tag, so his captors would not know he was Jewish and give him “special treatment.” Because he knew Yiddish, he understood much of what his captors were saying and could even speak some German. But he had to avoid using certain Hebrew words that made their way into Yiddish that might give away his Jewish identity. He made sure to listen more than he spoke.
He remembers that the German guards were very anti-Semitic. Once, a German guard showed him a picture of Hitler and said: “Do you know who this is? He is the man who took everything from the Jews and gave it to us.” And when President Roosevelt died in April 1945, they came into the barracks shouting that “Rosenfeld” was dead. To them, the U.S. president was a Jew named “Rosenfeld”! (In previous columns, I have addressed how names often get transformed when going from one language to another. Here is another example!)
He often had to think fast. When a Nazi guard wondered where he had learned German, he told him that he was a student. The guard got suspicious. “If you are a student,” he asked, “why are you not an officer?” My father says that he looked down at the ground as though ashamed, and came up with the following response: “Because I drank too much.” The guard was satisfied with this answer. (My father later wondered whether the guard might also have had the same problem!)
While in captivity, he bartered his cigarettes for bread and potatoes. He also bartered his milk rations with captured Indian prisoners who had been serving in the British army. They would not eat the meat rations and wanted the milk.
My father initially hid his Jewish identity from both his captors and fellow soldiers. But after several months, an American soldier approached him and said that the prisoners would probably be dead within three days. What type of burial did he want? My father recalled that the question really jarred him. The thought of a cross over his grave hit him so hard that for the first time he risked his life and admitted that he was Jewish. But it turned out that this soldier was working for the Germans. My father and the other captive soldiers who admitted to being Jewish were then singled out for harsher treatment.
When the war was over, he went to Brooklyn College and law school on the “GI Bill.” The government paid for the education of its former soldiers.
He became a lawyer and encouraged my mother, Lee, to become a lawyer as well. They practiced law together for 20 years. After lawyers begin practicing, many have the urge to become judges. My father encouraged my mother to achieve this goal. In 1975, New York Governor Hugh Carey appointed her a judge in the Workers’ Compensation court. She held this position for 12 years. (Her accomplishment was especially impressive since she had come to this country from Switzerland at age 13, not knowing any English.) My father retired from the practice of law in 2005, at the age of 80.
My father was always very optimistic. One of his favorite sayings was “when life gives you a lemon, you should turn it into lemonade.” After having been a teenager in the army, with bullets and death all around him, nothing in any courtroom ever scared him. Also, his ability to think well on his feet, nurtured while in captivity, helped him when he was in court.
One time, my father was trying a case in Staten Island. A statement he made offended the judge, and the judge ordered him put in handcuffs. My father responded to the judge that he had fought the Nazis as a teenager in World War II and nothing that the judge did would scare him. The judge was so impressed that my father had fought the Nazis that he ordered the bailiff to undo the handcuffs and forgave whatever my father had done to offend him.
My father and mother were among the founding families of the Riverdale Jewish Center. My parents came to Riverdale in the 1950s when there was practically nothing there. My parents were also very involved in the founding of S.A.R. I was born in 1958. In the early 60s, the two dozen of us young Orthodox children in Riverdale needed a school to go to, so my parents helped found the “Riverdale Hebrew Day School.” In 1970, this small but growing school merged with two other schools: Akiba and Salanter. These schools were located elsewhere in the Bronx, in areas with declining Jewish populations.
One of the committees my father was on was the naming committee. He suggested naming the school “RASHI,” an acronym for: Riverdale-Akiba-Salanter Hebrew Institute. But the representatives of the Salanter school insisted that the “S “ had to come first, since R. Salanter was a prominent figure, and that school had a longer history and more students than the Akiba and Riverdale schools. That is the inside story of how S.A.R. got its name.
How did my parents meet? My mother’s father was an Orthodox rabbi and educator, Rabbi Benzion Blech. He always wanted my mother to marry someone Orthodox and very learned. But my mother had other ideas. While attending Brooklyn College, she saw my father from afar, while he was working as a librarian in Brooklyn College. He was attending Brooklyn Law School at the time. It was love at first sight for my mother. After she won my father over, then came the harder challenge: convincing her father. My father was not Orthodox and had never met an Orthodox person before. He did not at all fit her father’s image of a son-in-law.
An old friend of my mother’s, “Chayele,” now advanced in years, recently told one of my sons the following story: My mother and father had been dating, but Rabbi Blech did not know they were dating. Chayele came up with an idea. She told my father to sit in the front of the room where Rabbi Blech was giving shiur. Every time Rabbi Blech finished a thought, my father should nod his head approvingly and mutter “a gut vort.” My father did this and then after the shiur, as Chayele hoped, Rabbi Blech walked over to one of his talmidim and asked, “Who is this new illui in the front row? Maybe he’s a shidduch for my daughter!”
I am sure that this story is not true! Nevertheless, in retelling this story, I see myself in the role of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century B.C.E.). In a famous passage (VII, 152), he explains that his role is to transmit the ancient stories that are told, even when he does not believe them. Sometimes, entertainment value trumps truth!
The true story, as my mother relates in her book, “Justice is Blonde,” is that her father eventually realized that my mother was not going to marry the learned Torah scholars he had hoped for and was set on marrying the handsome law student she had met in the library. Thus, she gradually won her father over to this shidduch with my father, who was willing to become Orthodox. However, the family legend is that Rabbi Blech prohibited everyone in his family from entering a library from that time onward! (I apologize for telling another humorous falsity here!)
One time, a friend of my father’s warned him that by marrying my mother, he would not be able to eat in restaurants again. He was thrilled with the thought. Having lost his mother at age 17 and been eating out since then, he was looking forward to a life of eating at home.
My father put his life on the line to fight Hitler. God rewarded him with arichat yamim. May his memory be a blessing.
By Mitchell First
Like his father, Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney. He has spent decades in the library and became a Jewish history scholar as well. He can be reached at [email protected].
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.