Shabbos Zachor will mark the first yahrtzeit of a legendary figure who devoted his life to the concept of Zachor — remember.
Reb Yosef Friedenson, z”l, miraculously survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald and four other camps. The son of a noted askan who was one of the founders of the Bais Yaakov movement in Poland, Harav Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, Hy”d, Reb Yossel’s life revolved around serving Klal Yisrael.
Reb Yossel was a prolific writer who wrote numerous books on the Holocaust, as well as countless articles for Dos Yiddishe Vort, a publication he established in a DP camp in 1946 and proceeded to publish for nearly seven decades. He was a pre-eminent Holocaust historian, whose keen understanding of the historical background coupled with an incredible command of names and details was a precious source for scholars and serious researchers.
Reb Yossel did much to connect our generation to the great Torah leaders of yesterday. Some 70 years after they were murdered al kiddush Hashem, Reb Yossel would still recite Nishmas using the unforgettable tune of the Kozhligover Rav, Hy”d, and relate how before his eyes he still saw Harav Moshenyu Boyaner, Hy”d, dancing as the Modzhitzer Rebbe sang during the second Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi in Sivan/June 1938.
He helped keep alive the memory of the great luminaries of prewar Poland, including the Zhichliner Rebbe, Harav Sadia Zhichlinski, Hy”d, who had urged Reb Yossel to marry in the Warsaw Ghetto, promising that he and his wife would survive the war.
More than anything else, Reb Yossel helped transmit to the next generation the real story of the Kedoshim. He helped tell the story of how the Amalekites of the twentieth century and their cohorts massacred six million Jews. But his primary message was how the Jews in the camps fought back against the forces of evil through the mesirus nefesh they exhibited to perform mitzvos under the most trying circumstances imaginable.
One of his oft-repeated stories was of the time he was assigned to the Garbage Kommanda in Auschwitz, a job which involved cleaning barracks and collecting garbage in various parts of the huge death camp.
One day, Aviezer Burshtyn, a fellow member of this kommanda, who had been sent to clean in one of several women’s camps, approached Reb Yossel and told him, “We have been presented with a great mitzvah.” He related that he had been approached by a young girl, 15 or 16 years of age, who had asked for sweater. Though it was only September, it was already quite cold in that part of Europe, and the malnourished girl, wearing only the concentration camp uniform, was shivering.
Obtaining a sweater in Auschwitz was a very difficult matter. The following day, however, they were assigned to clean an area where clothing was stored, and Aviezer was able to procure a ladies’ sweater. He put it on himself, and the two waited for the first opportunity to smuggle it to the girl. A few days later the opportunity came, and Aviezer went to bring it to her. He came back with eyes filled with tears.
“She didn’t want a sweater!” he emotionally told Reb Yossel. “She wanted a siddur!”
When he tried to give her the sweater, she had begun to cry. “It is soon Rosh Hashanah. I need a siddur or a machzor,” she told him. “I heard by the men there are siddurim…”
The young girl refused to accept the sweater, fearing that if she took it, the men would no longer try to bring her a siddur.
Reb Yossel didn’t know the name of the girl, nor did he know her fate. But he ensured that her tale, as well as the many other stories of spiritual heroism that he told, will continue to inspire Klal Yisrael for generations to come.
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding, Reb Yossel’s son-in-law, related that Harav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, once described his father-in-law:
“When people are embarking on a trip at a train station, and the station is packed full of people and there are children on the train, there is pandemonium. The station is filled with men and women, mothers and fathers, waving their farewells. Everybody is shouting, ‘Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…’ and as the train pulls out, one by one by one, one person leaves, another person leaves, another leaves, and another… and then the train is all the way down the tracks. However, there is one lady who is still waving her hand… just one. So the station manager comes over to the lady and says, ‘Everybody is gone. Why are you still waving your hand?’ She says, ‘Look, you see the train, there’s a red flag waving. Look at the window — someone is waving a red flag. That’s my son. As long as I can see the red flag, I know I can still wave good-bye to my son.’”
Harav Hutner said that Reb Yossel Friedenson is the red flag from the she’eiris hapleitah generation. As long as he was waving that red flag, we had a link to the kedoshim of the past.
We no longer have the merit that Reb Yossel should wave that flag in this temporal world. He has left it to a new generation to fill that void, but his lofty example will continue to guide us for many years to come.