By Rabbi Avi Shafran
If you’ve noticed a little less dignity, geniality and nobility in the world of late, it may be because we no longer have Reb Yosef Friedenson here with us.
Reb Yosef’s humble bearing, good will and astuteness would have been remarkable in any man. But for a veteran of the Warsaw ghetto and a clutch of concentration camps to have emerged from the cauldron of the Holocaust as so shining a model of calm, forbearance and fortitude is little short of amazing – and something that deeply impressed all who had the privilege of knowing him.
I am among those fortunate souls, and I had the additional honor of working in the same offices as he, at Agudath Israel of America. There were times here and there when he would ask me to do some minor research for him. I tend to overschedule my days and, especially if I’m in a cranky mood, I sometimes feel put upon when asked to do something I hadn’t included on my day’s agenda. But when the asker was Reb Yosef, no matter how grumpy I might have been a moment before, the very sound of his voice, which transmitted his modesty and eidelkeit (sorry, there’s no English word that can do the job), melted any cantankerousness I might have been nursing. I was happy and honored to help him in any way I could. Because of the person he was.
He was known as “Mr. Friedenson” but in fact was a wiser man and more of a rabbi by far than most who coddle that title. He was not into titles but into work, on behalf of the Jewish people.
For more than a half-century – beginning in the Displaced Persons camps after the war’s end – Reb Yosef edited a Yiddish publication, which became the monthly “Dos Yiddishe Vort” – “The Yiddish [or Jewish] Word” – produced under Agudath Israel’s auspices. Even as the periodical’s readership dwindled with the loss of Holocaust survivors over the years, he forged ahead and, until virtually the last day of his life, worked hard to produce the glossy monthly that regularly offered Orthodox commentary on current events, historical articles and rare photographs from the pre-Holocaust Jewish era and the Holocaust itself. He approached his editing duties carefully and professionally, in the beginning of the venture recruiting top-notch writers and doing his own top-notch writing. He once said about his father, Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, who edited the pre-war Agudath Israel newspaper in Europe, that he was “bristling with energy and ideas.” It was an apt description of himself.
During his final years, Reb Yosef did much of the writing for Dos Yiddishe Vort himself, often under pseudonyms that were transparent to most everyone who read the publication. (No one cared; his own recollections and writings were deeply appreciated by readers.) And the issues increasingly focused on rabbinical figures who perished during the Holocaust, and on pre-war Jewish communities. Special editions were devoted to the Jews of Lodz or Lublin, to the Gerer rebbe or the Chazon Ish. And throughout, there were personal recollections of the war years and accounts of spiritual heroism during that terrible time.
That, in fact, was Reb Yosef’s overriding life-mandate: to connect new American generations with the world of Jewish Eastern Europe. He didn’t harp on Nazism or anti-Semitism. That there are always people who hate Jews was, to him, just an unfortunate given. It didn’t merit any particular examination.
What did, though, was the decimation itself of European Jewry and the horrifying toll taken by the upheaval of the Jewish people on the Jewish dedication to Torah. When he would reference the Germans it was usually to note their perceptive realization that Torah is the lifeblood of the Jewish nation. They tried to drain that figurative lifeblood along with their pouring of so much actual Jewish blood. But – and this was what yielded Reb Yosef’s victory smile – they failed. He saw the ultimate revenge on the Nazis and their henchmen in the reestablishment and thriving of observant Jewish life, yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs on these shores and others.
He would sometimes call attention to a line from a prayer said on Mondays and Thursdays, the long version of Tachanun. “We [Jews] are like sheep led to slaughter,” he would quote, and know well how true that has been over the course of history. But, Reb Yosef would continue, the operative words, the secret to Jewish survival and Jewish identity, lie in the supplication’s subsequent phrase: “And despite all that, we have never forgotten Your name.”
Reb Yosef never forgot G-d’s name, not in the ghettos, not in the camps, not in the office where he toiled for decades to remind others of the Jewish world that was, and that can be again.
And we, for our part, will never forget either him or his message.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran