Thursday, March 01, 2007

Reb Shimon

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death. The Yahrzeit. Reb Shimon Ben Chaim Noach died fifteen years ago on 11 Adar. I have written about him before in the context of the holocaust but there is more to his story. Here is another chapter as I pay tribute to him on this day.

His journey to the United States was not a smooth one. Nor was his release from his bunker in Drohobycz, a town located in the Ukraine. After losing his first wife, oldest son, and his brother Aaron, he managed to find his way to a bunker that had earlier been built by Aaron and spent the remainder of the Nazi occupation there. The lives of those in the bunker depended solely on the generosity of a righteous gentile, Ivan Bur, under whose house this bunker was built. The bunker was dug under his basement. There was a sort of “manhole cover” that closed the entrance to that bunker. It was camouflaged with debris from the basement so it couldn’t be detected. Great strength was needed to lift it and open the entrance. Opening it from the inside was an impossibility.

The Russian army eventually liberated the town of Drohobycz. The kind gentile who at great risk had cared for the people in his bunker never showed up after that. My father and the others weren’t even sure about the liberation. They knew it was happening because of a radio they had. But even if it was safe to get out, they had no way to open up that heavy cover with all the additional debris on it.

After a day or two of relative quite, they decided it was time to try. They would take a chance. They had to get out, or starve. But, how? My father thought of the idea of taking apart the wood frame makeshift beds and using one of the side beams as a lever. With the help of some of the others they managed to jar it loose and were able to get out. Once my father was outside the bunker, he saw Russian soldiers milling around. At that moment he realized that he was finally free of the Nazi terror. All the residents of that bunker were forever grateful to my father’s resourcefulness in getting them out of the bunker and to the Russian soldiers for liberating them. But the story does not end here.

My father, his remaining brother, and all able bodied men were immediately drafted by the Russian army to fight on the front lines. This meant almost certain death. Newly liberated Jews were used for cannon fodder by the Russians. This was my father’s lot. Frying pan to fire. Meanwhile my two surviving older brothers, teenagers at the time, were sent off to to live with some Frum people there who were now trying to resurrect their lives.

The Rabbanin of Lvov* needed a Shochet. Early on, after the town’s liberation, they somehow found my father, who had been a Shochet before the war and asked him if he could sneak away from his unit from time to time to Shecht for them. He agreed.

One time on his way there he was caught by his sergeant. It was war. He was AWOL. Going AWOL during a war is a capital offence, especially in Russia. The sergeant was about to report him to his commanding officer. At that moment my father pleaded his case to that sergeant telling him of the loss of wife, his children and all that he had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. That seargeant had a sympathetic ear and let my father go. But, instead of going back to his unit, my father continued on to Lvov.

He told the Rabbanim there what had happened and asked them for advice. Going back to his unit now would have easily meant death by firing squad. They told him to grow a beard, put on a Kapoteh, and live in the town as the official Shochet and the Russians would never find him. And so it was. His army unit actually passed through that town. The sergeant saw my father and didn’t recognize him. Either that or his compassion was even greater than first shown.

After the war, my father tried to re-establish himself. He became the Shochet in Kracow, married his second wife, my mother, and even had a little Shechitah business going, complete with a restaurant. But in very short order there were some pogroms perpetrated by the local Polish 'gentry', whose virulent hatred of Jews was in their mother’s milk (…to quote Menachem Begin). He decided it was time to get out of that unholy part of the world known as Europe.

He first sent his two surviving sons, my older brothers, to New York’s YeshivaTorah VoDaath. They stayed with my father’s uncle, who had immigrated to the US back in the twenties. In the meantime my father applied to the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) for the funds and a visa to immigrate to the United States. He changed his last name from Shapiro, to his mother’s maiden name, Maryles to make it easier to show relationship to his maternal Uncle in New York, also named Maryles. His thinking was that it would be easier to get a visa and immigrate that way. But he could only get visas to go to Paris, with my mother who was pregnant with her only child, me. I was born in Paris.

After about a month of frustration waiting for “The Joint” to cough up a visa, my father had just about had it. He went over to the officials took out his money and visa, threw it on the table and said, “Keep it!” He proceeded to plead his case very forcefully about how he and his family had suffered and now was getting a run around, his wife and baby left hanging every day hoping in vain to finally gain passage to the United States. They seemed to be giving a holocaust survivor, his wife and young child a very hard time. I don’t blame the JDC so much. There were probably thousands of people in the same predicament as my father. But my father was frustrated and had just gone through some very tragic and difficult circumstances, with no end in sight to his predicament. Never-the-less, compassion took over and the “Joint” came up with a visitor’s visa and passage to the US.

We finally arrived in New York for the maximun six week stay that a visitor’s visa allowed. After this we were forced to leave as my father had no basis to ask for an exemption from the very strict immigration polices of the day. Next stop: Toronto. From there, Cuba, which then had a pretty thriving Jewish community. There, my father spotted a want ad in one of the Yiddish papers for a Chazan and Shochet in the city of Toledo, Ohio. It was signed by the Mora D’Asra, Rabbi Nehemia Katz.

Rabbi Katz was a Gibor. A European Rav who received Smicha at Yeshiva University under Rav Shimon Shkop. He was also Rav Moshe Feinstein’s brother in law and was responsible for bringing him over from Europe.

My father applied for the job. Rabbi Katz immediately accepted him and arranged for a permanent visa. He remained in Toledo for 15 years as one of two Shochtim there, and as the Chazan of Congregation Anshei Sfard. He was in effect the unofficial rabbi of that Shul since Rabbi Katz as the official rabbi could not attend all three Orthodox Shuls at the same time. So he rotated. And when Rabbi Katz wasn't there, the memebrs of the Shul looked to my father.

Finally my father and mother had some peace. They lived in a community that loved them, no less than Rabbi Katz. The big problem for my father was my Chinuch. Toledo had no day schools. I went to public school until fourth grade. And my friends were either unobservant Jews or non Jews. I was invited to their parties. I sang their Christmas songs and I hated wearing my Yarmulka. My father saw this happening and became frightened for my future. What he did will be the subject of future post.

*The name of the city that my father schechted in was Lvov, not Drohobycz as originally written. Drohobycz was the town where my father’s bunker was located and where he lived prior to the Nazi occupation. I apologize for the error. The essay has been accordingly corrected.

Modified: 3/3/07 7:11 PM CST