In shock and disbelief, I noted to myself, the man who was the epitome of “zachor” had passed away just moments before the end of Shabbos Zachor.
Rabbi Friedenson, just last Thursday, you were in contact with us here at Hamodia, regarding an article that I was looking for about the Kozhiglover Rav, Hy”d, that had appeared in Dos Yiddishe Vort. You were so upset that you couldn’t find it. “It’s okay, we will manage without it,” we said, and you replied, “If I can still do something, then I want to do it!”
Two weeks ago Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau came to visit you. Rabbi Lau presented you with the sefer Kiddush Hashem, written by his father, Hy”d. Hamodia had the privilege of recording and photographing that meeting, where you two “Buchenwald graduates” met and shared memories of your father and his father, Hy”d. The meeting moved you so much, you were so proud at how far the young survivor of Buchenwald, the son of your father’s dear friend Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, Hy”d, had come.
When we commented to you about the video and the article which appeared in the weekly paper, you told us that you were planning to publish another issue of Dos Yiddishe Vort and wanted to include the story about your meeting with Rabbi Lau.
Several months ago, I shared with you my plans to publish a special supplement for Pesach marking 70 years since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. You tried so hard to help, to take part, it was so important to you. Despite your precarious health, you didn’t let anything stop you. Always encouraged by your dedicated children and supportive wife, you continued your work.
To you, Dos Yiddishe Vort represented the stage from which to “remember,” to continue to relate, to make sure that the post-Holocaust generation will understand the loss and that will drive them to continue to rebuild. A year ago, you were scheduled to speak at a Project Witness event on the Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto. A day before the event, you were suddenly rushed to the hospital. But you were not one to give up. From your hospital bed, you addressed the audience via telephone. No one would have guessed how weak you were and how much effort it took for you to speak. That was so typically you, Rabbi Friedenson; there was just no stopping you.
You began writing in the DP camps, and continued printing Dos Yiddishe Vort from then on.
Even losing most of your vision didn’t stop you. Your major concern was what would happen to your writing. Under no circumstances could you forego your holy work. So you showed me a large magnifying machine that was installed in your home that you learned to live with. When it became impossible to write, you dictated. Your phenomenal memory served you very well.
“Ich bin a tzvei un tzvantziker” you would say. While you were referring to the year you were born, 1922, to me it also meant that you were as full of energy as a 22-year-old.
You knew history and lived that history, and carried the mission of being the emissary of a generation that is no longer. Had those who were burned in the crematoria been able to select an emissary to perpetuate their memories and their messages, they could not have found a more suitable person than you. You were the man who served as their mouthpiece; who remembered and reminded. You were the one who helped revive the world that had been destroyed.
In conversation with you, Jewish Poland came to life. You never tired of speaking about your parents’ home, about your father, Reb Eliezer Gershon, Hy”d, about his askanus, about the chinuch he gave you.
I will never forget how you told me the story that I have repeated so many times in lectures about what happened that fateful day in Lodz at the beginning of the war. Your father had gone to daven Minchah. There was a secret minyan on the fifth floor of the building where you lived. Your mother, Esther Baila, Hy”d, being the wise woman that she was, had prepared a sum of money to bribe the Nazis in case they would burst into the house.
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened. You were home with your mother when they came for your father. They almost swallowed the bait of the bribe, when one of them suddenly pointed to the Gemaros in the bookcases and said, “What’s that?”
“Talmud!” you replied in German.
“Talmud?!” They howled in reply. In one second, those two Nazis turned into vicious beasts. They didn’t see the silver or the crystal. All they saw were the Gemaros. One by one they pulled the Gemaros from the shelves and tossed them on the floor. They tore them, stamped on them and threw them out the window, in virtual hysteria. Only when they were done did they calm down somewhat, take the bribe and leave the house.
When your father returned, the devastating sight of the destroyed Gemaros greeted him. You, who were so traumatized by what had happened, asked, “Why, Tatte?” You wanted to understand this animalistic behavior. “Mein kindt,” your father replied. “The two worlds of Naziism and Talmud cannot coexist. If the Talmud exists, the Nazi beast cannot, and if the Nazis exist, the Talmud cannot.”
“You see who won?” You asked me, Reb Yossel.
And thus, you taught me a valuable lesson in hashkafah.
You spoke of prewar Gedolei Yisrael with such reverence, and when you spoke about their work on behalf of Agudas Yisrael, it seemed as though you were still there, a part of those hundreds of thousands of Agudah Yidden. You continued to live that life as though it had never been interrupted.
In your stories, you not only recounted, you relived the flight from Lodz to Warsaw at the outbreak of the war, and your relocation to the ghetto. Your testimony about the Warsaw Ghetto brought to life many hallowed figures, such as Reb Yehudah Leib Orlean, the Kozhiglover Rav, the Zichliner Rebbe, Reb Alexander Zushe Friedman, the Piacezne Rebbe, Reb A.M. Ragabi, and Harav Stockhammer, just to name a few, Hashem yinkom damam, as well as countless other Rabbanim, askanim and writers.
You were their mouthpiece, you recounted their stories, and you made sure that their memories would not fade from ours.
You were a master at describing the simple Yid, the “amcha,” the chassidic Jews, their lives, their challenges and tragically, their bitter end.
Who like you, an Agudist in heart and soul, knew and understood the proper hashkafah, how to express what the Gedolim of the previous generation wanted to achieve, and the true significance of Agudas Yisrael. Who like you knew how to appreciate the struggle for the existence of Torah-true media, the fight for for the right hashkafah and principles in the media, the power of the written word, and thus, the responsibility of Jewish media?
You were a dear, loyal friend of Hamodia, always eager to help.
And it was all done with such refinement, and unmatched nobility; whether you were healthy or ailing you insisted that you had to continue. And you kept your word until the last minute. Alas, who will identify the people in old pictures for us now? Who will help us recall details of specific events?
How happy you were with our daily paper! In your eyes it was part of the revenge against the Nazis. “They didn’t succeed in silencing us!” you proclaimed.
You never thought you deserved any honor, respect, or appreciation for your efforts. Even the honorific “Rabbi” seemed exaggerated to you. “Nu,” you smiled forgivingly, “apparently at a certain age you can be called Rabbi even if it isn’t justified.”
Now Reb Yossel, you have left us, you who were the epitome of remembrance, passed away on Shabbos Zachor.
We have no doubt that in the World-to-Come, you were warmly welcomed. All your friends and acquaintances from times gone by came to greet you; the residents of Lodz, Cracow, Warsaw, and many Polish communities all came to welcome you, and at the head of the procession were the six million kedoshim who you so loyally represented.
Reb Yossel, just last Thursday you said that you were “planning the next Dos Yiddishe Vort. Yes, I am weak, but Hashem will help, I’ll gather up the strength and then I will write.”
Regretfully, we will never see it, but we are confident, Reb Yossel, that from your new place, with your golden heart and golden pen, you will write one issue for us. You will write about all our challenges and achievements, our suffering and our struggles. You will represent us there just like you represented the kedoshim here.
Yes, Reb Yossel, you have honorably completed your mission, with loyalty and devotion.
We pledge to continue.
on behalf of Hamodia
and Project Witness staff