They Called Him ‘Yossel’ But He Was “My Zeidy”


yosef-friedenson-smallBy Rabbi Yossie Friedman (Managing Director of Project Inspire)

On Shabbos Parshas Zachor, my Zeidy, Reb Shmuel Yosef Friedenson z”l, returned his holy neshama to its Creator. I say “my Zeidy” despite the fact he was only my Zeidy for the last 11 plus years. The dozens of my friends who called to be menachem me on my loss, understood, as well, that although he was my wife’s biological Zeidy, he was my Zeidy, too. I had the privilege to form such a close relationship with my Zeidy, Reb Yossel Friedenson, z”l that his loss has left me sad yet thankful and joyous for having had the opportunity to spend time with this giant of a man.

The famous song “My Zaidy” sung by Moshe Yess a”h, almost accurately describes “my Zeidy”. Zeidy made us laugh and Zeidy made us sing…. he spoke about his life in Poland, but no, he NEVER spoke with a bitter memory! Zeidy never spoke about the soldiers who would beat him. He chose to dedicate his entire life speaking and teaching about the never-ending gevurah, emunah and chessed that were displayed by Yidden during the horrors of the Holocaust. He spoke about the Yidden who would share their last crumbs of bread with starving children and families, not knowing when, and if, their own stockpile would be replenished. He spoke about the unwavering faith of even the most “simple Jew” in the death camps, or what he called, “the universities of Nazi atrocities”. Yes, my Zeidy, “graduated” from 7 Nazi universities of atrocities with his rock solid emunah in the Ribono Shel Olam, intact. He regaled us about the Jewish Nation and how we are eternal and unique; always using the term “indestructible”.

He had the unique talent of speaking both German and Polish, which was extremely unique for a Chassidish Yid from Lodz. He told us that before one Pesach, while in Starchowitz, one of the slave labor camps he was in, he was able to negotiate some extra flour from the kitchen and they were able to bake Matzos. When the camp commander walked in on Pesach and saw them eating the Matzoh, he yelled at him, “Friedenson, fres broidt – eat bread, don’t eat these crackers they won’t give you any nourishment at all. What are these crackers?”  After explaining to him that it was Pesach and Jews don’t eat bread, only Matzah, the Kommandant became furious and he yelled at him and his group in the camp saying, “Your G-d has forsaken you and you still believe in Him and still eat these crackers just because He told you? Your G-d has completely abandoned you, don’t you see that?” My Zeidy would tell us how, at that point, the Kommandant seemed to have stumped the entire group, as they recognized the situation that they were in; it was undeniable. While he was rummaging through his brain for an answer, a Yid named Akiva Goldschtof piped up “No” he said, “It is true that our G-d has temporarily put us in this situation, but he has not totally forsaken us, not totally and not forever.” My Zeidy said that those words resonated within the camp until they were transferred to Auschwitz in 1944. Before leaving Starchowitz, while the group was passing through the doors on their way to Auschwitz, obviously depressed, this German named Bruno Papa turned to my Zeidy and said “Friedenson, Don’t you remember what Goldschtof said ‘not totally and not forever?’ You guys will be fine; your G-d will take care of you.” My Zeidy would point out that this concept, that the Jewish people are indestructible, was even apparent to the German guard during those times of horror and hopelessness.

yosef-friedensonOn a similar occasion he told us how, one day, when the German work detail did not show up, one of the Yidden in the camp remembered that it was Simchas Torah and amongst themselves they started to sing, in hushed voices, the famous Piyut “Ein Adir K’Hashem, Ein Baruch K’ven Amrum, Ein Gedula K’Torah…” Suddenly the guard burst in and started yelling at them “What are you singing? What are you singing? Friedenson, what are you singing?”  Sheepishly my Zeidy said that it was a Jewish holiday and they were praying. “Are you praying for our downfall?” said the guard. “No”, said Zeidy, and he started to translate the song for him: ‘”there is no one as powerful as our G-d, no one is as blessed as Moses,” and he continued until he got to the phrase, ‘there are no people as wise as the Jewish People.” At that point the guard interrupted, yelling on top of his lungs “Friedenson, you believe that? You believe that? Look at you people! Hitler is killing all of you, and you believe that you are the smartest people, look at you! Do you believe? My Zeidy said that at that point no one had an answer until finally, from the back of the bunk, a young Yid, who my Zeidy described as not even being religious, piped up and replied in a strong voice “Ya, Ich glaub” “I believe.” The bunk fell silent and then each one of them followed suit replying to the guard “Ich glaub” “I believe.” As if in a state of shock the guard stood frozen, staring at all of them and replied “I’m afraid Hitler will never be able to destroy a people like you” and he stormed out of the room. My Zeidy used to always say how right he was.

I had the great zechus to travel on numerous speaking trips with him. I once asked him, “Zeidy, with all these amazing stories, people might get the sense from you that the Holocaust wasn’t so bad, no?” He answered, “Yossie, that’s all people know about the Holocaust, every book they read and every survivor they meet will tell them about the Gehinnom, but who will tell them and show them that Churban Europe was the biggest proof of Jewish eternity and Hashgacha Pratis? Who will tell them about their own relatives who risked their lives to bake Matzah or to put on Tefilin or to perform a Bris? Who will teach the young generation about the faith and courage that their grandparents had all so that they can be learning in Yeshivos today, if not me?”
My Zeidy lived with one slogan on his lips and on his mind. “Ver hut gechulemt”, “who would have dreamt,” he would say… when a new great grandchild was born, or finished a Mesechta, or when they stood up proudly to say the “Ma Nishtana,” this was the expression on his face.  “Who would have dreamed when we pulled up to Auschwitz on Tisha B’av 1944 that we would live to see this.” He always just sat and smiled as if each of these occasions were his own private revenge on Hitler and the Nazis, yemach shemam.

In the summer of 2006, I traveled to Mexico City with my Zeidy on a speaking tour. The trip was on behalf of Torah Umesorah and was aimed to educate teachers and lecturers in Mexico on Jewish spiritual survival during the Holocaust. For about 8 hours that day he spoke on different topics in the Holocaust but again, mainly on the topic that he considered most dear: the unwavering emunah that the Jewish people had in the Ghettos and camps of Nazi Germany. One evening there was a lecture that was open to the entire community. While the close to 5,000 participants filed into the local auditorium, I sat with my Zeidy in the 3rd row, waiting for the program to begin and for him to be invited up to the podium. To the right of me, two simple Mexican Jews, wearing blue jeans and T-shirts had Gemoras open and were learning that day’s daf HaYomi; but not just learning, they were yelling at each other in Spanish as they went through the kashas and terutzim of that day’s Daf. I turned to my left and saw that my Zeidy was totally fixated on this chavrusa shaft. He would not take his eyes off of them and I watched as the tears welled up in his eyes. I tried to lean over to tell him that we should move up to the front row but, at that point, it was as if I totally did not exist. Finally my Zeidy was invited up to the podium and in his speech he yelled the following message. “My dear friends, do you realize that for me to come to Mexico City, to see Yidden learning the Daf HaYomi in Spanish, learning the same Talmud that these barbarians looked to destroy every volume of… don’t you realize that this is my victory, this is our victory? We are an eternal and indestructible nation and there is no bigger proof to it than what I witnessed tonight.” He always quoted the pasuk of Yeshaya HaNavi who said a nevuah that Hashem told him ‘V’eschem Lo E’eseh Chala’ – ‘I will never destroy you’. He said we need to realize that it is a promise from Hashem that we are here to stay as long as we serve Him” and this was another proof of the truth of that nevuah.

But, yet, my favorite memory was just a few years ago while sitting around the Shabbos table. One of the things I loved most was to sit and sing at the table with Zeidy. We would sing old classics from Ger and other Chasidic dynasties. However, there was this one time that was especially nice. He had lots of koach and was all “into it”. Then he suddenly stopped and he said, “You know, I just remembered a story that I never said over.”
He said it slowly as if the memories were coming to him at that moment while he told us this most amazing story. He said that in the camps, while the going was rough beyond description, there was a Heimishe Yid who would make a Melave Malka every Motzei Shabbos. He explained that, obviously, this didn’t include any food, as there was no food to be had, but this Melave Malka consisted of mostly singing. He explained that this man, Meilich Rubenson, would gather a group of Yidden together and he would sing a song. At this point a huge grin came upon his face and I could tell that he was remembering the tune and the lyrics. He was so happy to have had this memory and told me that he had never remembered nor repeated this story. Oh, the joy that it brought him. He started to sing… ‘Amar Hashem l’Yaakov, yuh Tatte yuh, Al Tirah Avdi Yaakov, nain Tatte nain, ich hub fahr keinem kain moreh nisht, nuhr far dir alein. I fear no one but you Hashem……’ And he would continue this song, stanza by stanza, until he finished. He told me “Yossie, looking back, it is laughable, it was a joke! Everyone knew that the Germans were winning the war and there was very little hope for us, if any. But this Yid, with his singing and faith, gave Chizzuk and hope to all the Jews in the camp. It gave us strength to go on. We cried. This was no bitter memory but on the contrary, tears of joy, tears of hope, tears that tell the story of our people through thousands of years of pain and suffering and yet, here we are, going strong.”

The next day after he related this story, he was invited to speak in a shul in Monsey. It was 3 days before Tisha B’av, a most appropriate time for him to speak to the younger generation about his experiences. I urged him to tell this new story which he remembered. I told him, “Zeidy, don’t just say the story, sing the song”. He did. While the audience sobbed, two young men stood up from the back. “We are Meilich Rubenson’s grandchildren”, they announced through their tears. “Thank you for sharing that incredible story about our zaidy, we had never heard it. We sobbed harder.

My Zeidy used to challenge those who thought that the Holocaust and all the occurrences during the Second World War was a proof that Hashem did not exist and that He was not looking out for His own People. In the dozens of times I heard him speak in public he always related the following thought. He would ask “How did I survive? How did other people survive? It is well known that the Germans had enough manpower and ammunition to really carry out their plan of annihilating every single Jew. There was no one who could stop them. The British couldn’t stop them, the Russians couldn’t stop them. How did I and so many others survive?”  He would say that the answer is simple. He said that “there was an obvious Hashgacha Elyona in which, at a certain point, Hashem said ‘Enough.’ And that is exactly when it stopped. That was when the Russians came and liberated Auschwitz and the Americans came and liberated Buchenwald. Enough was enough. It was clear to him that the RIbono Shel Olam had his plan and the plan included that, at a certain point, He said ‘Enough'” He was always so emotional and strong about this point that it was clear to all how much he believed that this indeed was the truth. It was a message that he spent his life giving over to the next generation. We must never forget. True, we must never forget the horrors and the barbaric acts of the last generation but we must never forget the courage, the emunah, the unwavering faith, the Hashgacha Elyona that took place during those times. “Those” he would say “are as big of a lesson for the next generation, as any.”

May his lifelong work of passing on this message continue to be a zechus for him, his family, and all of Klal Yisroel and may he be a Meilitz Yosher for all of us.

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  1. Thank-you for sharing about such a choshuveh yid. I have to tell you that I heard him speak at a conference in Baltimore about seven or eight years ago. He told the story about the melaveh malkeh in Strachovitz (but I don’t think he sang the song). He then said, “whenever I tell this story there is always a grandchild of R’ Beirach Rubinson in the audience. Is there one today?” I raised my hand and he said, “you see, there always is one”.
    Thank-you again for sharing.

  2. Simply incredible! very appropriate for pesach and emuna in Hash-ems nissim! will never forget this courageous man and his emunah despite it all!