Jewish History in a Bottle: An Interview With Mr. Feish Herzog

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The story of Klal Yisrael’s glories, challenges, and perseverance is often presented by focusing on a particular event or period. While it may appear an untraditional vehicle, the tale of the Herzog family and the empire of wine and food companies they have established seems equally apt at capsulizing part of the story of the modern history of the Jewish People.

After decades of leading a prominent spirits business in Vrbové, Slovakia (about an hour by car, north of Pressburg, today Bratislava), the family suffered several close brushes with death during the Holocaust, only to miraculously survive and replant themselves in America, where they went on to establish one of the nation’s largest kosher food and beverage businesses. Beginning as a small winery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Kedem’s growth and diversification tells as much about the Herzogs’ own business acumen as it does about the blossoming and development of Klal Yisrael and the kosher market it created on American shores.

Hamodia visited Kedem’s headquarters in Bayonne, New Jersey, and met with one of the company’s patriarchs, Mr. Feish Herzog, to hear firsthand about the Herzog story.

Kosher Wine Fit for a Kaiser

The Herzog family brewed beer and manufactured slivovitz and other Hungarian-style hard liquors as far back as the early 19th century. Using grapes that grew in the region, they also produced relatively small amounts of wine for local Jewish communities.

“In Poland and Lita [Lithuania], it was very hard to get wine. Most of the time they used honey wine, mead, for Kiddush, or raisin wine, but around Hungary there were good grapes and they were able to make dry wines,” said Mr. Herzog. “Even so, it was a small business that we had; it wasn’t Kedem.”

The name of the company’s high-end wine brand, Baron Herzog, is not just a marketing gimmick. According to family legend, the title was given to Shraga Feish Herzog, z”l (the present Feish Herzog’s great-grandfather and namesake), by Austro-Hungarian Kaiser Franz Josef to whom he supplied wine. The elder Shraga Feish’s entry into the business was born of tragedy, but elicited a brachah which has followed the family ever since.

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Shraga Feish was studying in the yeshivah of Harav Yehudah Assad, zt”l, when he received news of his father’s passing. With a home full of children to raise and marry off, his mother pleaded with him to return home and take over the family’s brewery, distillery, and winery, but he insisted that he did not want to leave the beis medrash. The two agreed to discuss the matter with Rav Assad, who, after hearing both arguments, sided with the widow. The Rosh Yeshivah instructed that it was Shraga Feish’s obligation to support the family, and he made his talmid promise to set aside times to learn Torah every day among other points to fortify his commitment to Yiddishkeit. In exchange, Rav Assad offered a brachah that they should have “parnassah b’revach dorei doros — ample financial means for many generations.”

Baruch Hashem, we now have nine generations who have worked in the business,” said Mr. Herzog.

Weathering the Storm

By the eve of the Second World War, the Herzogs’ business had been taken over by the next generation, comprised of Yonah Herzog, z”l, the present Feish Herzog’s father, and his brothers. With the Nazis’ incursion into what was then Czechoslovakia, their lives became increasingly threatened.

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Yonah Herzog, zt”l

The Nazis seized all Jewish property and reappropriated it to gentiles. Fortunately, Reb Yonah was able to arrange for the business to be transferred to two kindhearted and honest non-Jews with whom he had dealt in the past. Throughout the war, the pair continued paying Reb Yonah a portion of the profits as if he were an equal partner, something they did at risk to their own lives. The money not only gave the Herzogs income to live on, but afforded them funds for the many maneuvers that would ultimately save them from the Nazis’ clutches.

In 1942, the family was sent to a ghettoized city, from which transports to Auschwitz were being sent two to three times a week. Through a series of connections and bribes, Reb Yonah worked to free his family from the fate that seemed to await them. Yet, his efforts were to no avail. He, his wife, their five children, as well as his own siblings and their children — some 30 people in total — found themselves slated to be sent on the dreaded train on Motzoei Yom Kippur.

Having exhausted worldly means of saving the family, Reb Yonah sent a messenger to his Rebbi, the Galanta Rav, Harav Yehoshua Buxbaum, Hy”d — who was in Hungary — to daven on their behalf. The messenger mentioned the Herzogs’ plight at the beginning of each tefillah that Yom Kippur. At Ne’ilah, when the messenger approached, the Rav responded that he felt the Herzogs had been saved.

“We were davening Ne’ilah, you can imagine what such a Ne’ilah looked like, and a telegram came that the Herzog family should not go with the transport,” said Mr. Herzog. “There was no explanation and no one took credit for it. My father said it was purely the Rebbe’s tefillos.”

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Shraga Feish Herzog, zt”l

The family was saved from immediate danger. But they knew the tremendous peril they still faced. Reb Yonah paid several non-Jews to smuggle each of his children across the border to Hungary, which was still unoccupied, and where each was lodged with a different Jewish family. Meanwhile he and his wife remained behind, with papers that protected him as an essential worker.

“My father followed Yaakov Avinu’s strategy against Esav and always split us up — he never let us go together, and we are maybe the only entire family from Slovakia that survived the war,” said Mr. Herzog.

In 1944, the Germans took over Hungary and the country quickly ceased to be a safe haven. Reb Yonah brought his children and other relatives back to Slovakia, which had become somewhat less dangerous, and got each of them documents that identified them as non-Jewish orphans with a plan to have them housed with gentile families. The Nitra Rav, Harav Shmuel Dovid Unger, Hy”d, advised against the move, but the Stropkover Rav, Harav Menachem Mendel Halberstam, zt”l, told him, “Send them to gentiles right now. I, myself, would hide in a non-Jewish home if I could.”

Reb Yonah heeded the Stropkover’s advice, but also took council from the Nitra Rav, who cautioned him to send a detailed list that shows where each child is and send it to a relative in Switzerland. The family’s children spent the final 11 months of the war in the homes of gentiles, while Reb Yonah and his wife hid in a bunker.

“The Ribbono shel Olam saved us,” he said. “When my father came to pick me up, I didn’t recognize him and I said that it’s not my father, [because] he looked totally different than what I remembered. I came home, and didn’t recognize my mother either. It was not an easy adjustment.”

All 30 Herzogs survived the war and were reunited with their families, but looked around at a world destroyed. Reb Yonah hired a tutor to re-teach his children all they had forgotten during the hardships of the war. After a few months, he sent his sons to board in Pressburg (a long journey in those days) where a Talmud Torah had been established for survivors.

“They had real mesirus nefesh,” said Mr. Herzog. “We had been home for two or three months and they sent us away to learn Torah and make sure that we stayed ehrlich.”

Just as Reb Yonah began to reestablish himself, in 1948, Soviet-aligned communists seized power over Czechoslovakia in a coup. Seeing little hope for Yiddishkeit or his business under communism, Reb Yonah and his family headed for America, with little but the shirts on their backs.

“Once the communists took over, my father said he wasn’t staying for one minute,” said Mr. Herzog. “When you left they took everything, even the watches from kids’ hands.”

A few months later, young Feish celebrated his bar mitzvah in Williamsburg.

An Orchard Sprouts From the Lower East Side

A new life in America did not come easily. Reb Yonah was already 50 years old and attempts at several professions were unsuccessful. One night, the Galanta Rav (who had perished in Auschwitz) appeared to him in a dream wrapped in his tallis and advised his broken talmid, “Wine remains wine, you should remain with wine.”

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The Satmar Rebbe, Harav Yoel Teitelbaum, zy”a, urged Reb Yonah to heed the dream’s message and he secured a job as a truck driver with Royal Wines, a small winery on the Lower East Side.

“The owners were Poylishe Yidden and they thought, OK, he knows wine, he’ll help us out. They ended up making him a salesman. The business was not doing well and, one by one, he bought out the partners for very little money. But he worked 18 hours a day and wouldn’t give up,” said Mr. Herzog.

At the time, a glutted market of the heavy, sweet, cream Malaga and Concord wines that could be produced in New York made the kosher wine business a rough one. It was not a product that one used for more than a reviis for Kiddush and of the six or seven wineries that existed, few turned significant profits.

“My father had an idea that we should make grape juice, because even if we couldn’t make too much money on it, it would set us apart from the other companies,” said Mr. Herzog.

Commercial grape juice had never existed for the kosher market and in the mid-1950s, Feish, who had by then entered the business, traveled with a small group that included the Tzelemer Rav, Harav Levi Yitzchak Grunwald, zt”l, to a grape juice plant in Buffalo to make their first run. The attempt was not a success.

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The Tzelemer Rav, zt”l, spent weeks at a time in California as mashgiach for Kedem.

“The worker that ran the steam valve wouldn’t let us operate it because it’s a very sensitive piece of machinery and we were not trained to use it. Now, the steam doesn’t touch the juice itself, but the Tzelemer Rav wouldn’t agree to make the juice unless we could do everything,” said Mr. Herzog. “We tried to convince him, but he asked one of the people there, ‘Who are you a Chassid of?’ and the man told him, ‘The Klausenburger.’ The Rav said that when we make this grape juice, ‘I want your Rebbe to drink it and if he hears that the steam wasn’t done by a Jew, he won’t touch it.’”

Undeterred, the Herzogs decided to try making juice in their own winery.

“We put it up in a steam kettle,” said Mr. Herzog. “We couldn’t make much and when we went to sell it, there was a line around the corner so we had to ration it.”

It was also through the Herzog brothers’ vision that dry and higher quality wines first made their way to America’s kosher market. As early as 1949, Reb Yonah went to California with the Tzelemer Rav to produce wines from the variety of grapes that grow there.

“He saw there would be a new generation that would want something besides the wines that they used to joke about that you could cut with a knife,” said Mr. Herzog.

As the saying goes, the rest is history. Kedem diversified its wine offerings and became synonymous with kosher grape juice. In 1985, the Baron Herzog label was created to produce a higher-end selection from California grapes. In 2005, the company established its own winery in Oxnard, California, under the Royal Wines banner. Royal also has for some time produced and distributed wines from Eretz Yisrael, Italy, France, and other locations.

“Demand for better wines started to grow in the 1980s, but it exploded in the 2000s. A lot of the yungeleit today really know wine,” said Mr. Herzog.

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As the company grew, the Herzogs became involved in food production and distribution under labels they developed, such as Gefen.

Yochanan Herzog, Reb Feish’s son, who joined the interview, said that little has changed in the company’s principles — just that it keeps moving to a different scale.

“We’re still very much a family business, but we work hard to stay ahead of the curve,” he said. “Just recently, canned wine became a popular thing, so we jumped in. We’re very proud that kosher wine in general has taken such a prominent place in the world of wine connoisseurs. What was once looked down on is now getting top ratings. Of course it’s our parnassah, but if more secular Jews can drink kosher wine because it’s more available and its high quality, we’re very happy about that. As my father says, ‘We’re not just in the Kiddush business; we’re in the kiddush Hashem business.”


CARS FOR THOUGHT

Mr. Herzog and other Holocaust survivors discuss Jews driving German automobiles

For most Jews growing up in America, buying a German car was something off limits or at least highly controversial.

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Forced labor in the Lodz Ghetto. (Witness to History)

Even as a new generation emerged in Germany, unconnected to Nazi crimes, and as a long list of smaller ticket items like the Bosch mixer became de rigueur in Jewish homes, the overt statement of driving around in a Mercedes, BMW, or Volkswagen was still a line that few were willing to cross.

Yet, Mr. Herzog says that as a Jew and a survivor, it bothers him deeply that this sentiment seems to be waning as he sees more and more successful young Jews unperturbed by the message it sends.

“There’s a mitzvah in the Torah to remember what Amalek did to us. There never was an Amalek like Germany that killed six million Jews, men, women, and children,” he said. “If you go around in a Volkswagen, you’re showing that you have no problem showing off Germany’s fine products. Not so long ago, your zeide could have been forced to make this car.”

Besides the visibility of a car, the German auto industry was highly tainted with Nazism and dependence on slave labor, an active role in the nation’s war effort, and the image of Nazi society.

Volkswagen stands out perhaps more than others as it was founded in 1937 by Hitler’s regime itself in order to be the “people’s car.” The Nazis envisioned that the car would be their version of Ford’s Model-T that would make auto ownership available to the vast majority of Germans. Mercedes holds the dubious distinction of having been Hitler’s car of choice and, in most images of him riding in an automobile, the VW trademark is visible.

During the Holocaust, Bavarian Motor Works (BMW) was owned by Gunther Quandt, who became a prominent member of the Nazi Party after its rise to power in 1933. Hitler personally named Quandt “Wehrwirtschaftsführer (defense economy leader)” — the leader of Germany’s armament industry. The network of businesses under Quandt’s ownership expanded significantly during the 1930s as he acquired many businesses seized from Jews under the Nazi policy of “Aryanization” of the economy.

As with businesses in all participants in the two world wars, car manufactures played a major role in providing weaponry, transportation, and other supplies and machinery for the war effort. Due to the nature of Nazi Germany, however, this also made them a partner to genocide and the effort for world domination. All profited handsomely and actively sought out whatever military contracts were available.

As with most major German industries, auto companies took full advantage of the plethora of slave labor made available to them through the enactment of Nazi-ideology-based policies.

Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum said that slave labor was designed to play a long-term role in the Nazi economy.

“The Final Solution had no budget and the plan was for it to be financed by the victims themselves through a combination of their property and their labor,” he said. And “700 million Reichsmarks were invested [in] slave labor relating to Auschwitz alone. By design, Germany built concentration camps near factories and factories near concentration camps. This was a major capital investment that they could not have expected to recoup quickly. They expected slave labor to be a permanent part of the Nazi economy.”

Volkswagen employed some 12,000 slave laborers through the war years. Its record was further besmirched by its incarceration, abuse, and murder of thousands of child laborers. Daimler, Mercedes’ parent company, employed some 40,000 slave laborers, and companies under Quandt’s ownership had some 50,000.

Moshe Katz, a survivor who has lectured extensively on the Holocaust and authored the book Nine Out of Ten, about his wartime experiences, said that the phenomenon of more Jews’ willingness to look at owning a German car as they would any other automobile is just a small sign of a greater problem.

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A boy works at a machine in a Kovno Ghetto workshop. (Witness to History)

“To too many Jews, the Holocaust has become a dead issue, they don’t want to hear about it anymore, and fewer younger people even know some of the basics,” he said.

Mr. Katz recalled an incident about 40 years ago, when teaching a biweekly class about the Holocaust at a yeshivah. He realized that the father of one of his students drove a German car.

“I brought my younger brother who was in Auschwitz to talk to the class and he told them how he packed sacks of human hair that were shipped to car manufacturers to stuff the seat cushions of the most expensive cars,” he said. “‘Tell your father,’ he said to this boy, ‘he might be sitting on your grandfather’s beard and peyos.’ You can imagine what a call I got the next day from the father.”

While hanging on to a blind hatred for all things German, Mr. Katz said, was no longer rational, he felt that certain symbols should not be discarded.

“Our boycott of German cars will not hurt Germany, and maybe that doesn’t need to be our goal because today’s Germans could be as good as anyone else, but the message it sends to us is important to hang on to,” he said.

Sam Beller, who survived a death march from Auschwitz, felt strongly that Germany’s national crimes must never be forgotten, but did not feel that whether one did or did not purchase their products needed to play a major role in that cause.

“If someone buys a German product, he’s doing it because it’s better or cheaper; I don’t think it has to do with how anyone looks at what Germany did,” he said. “We shouldn’t let that distract us from the main point which is to never forget what happened and to make sure that parents and grandparents tell their children about it.”

In the years since the Holocaust, German car manufacturers joined some other major companies in attempting to deal with their role in Nazi crimes. They have paid millions of dollars toward reparations and allowed historians access to their wartime files to tell the story of their part in Hitler’s genocidal plans. Volkswagen is looked at as a leader in this movement, having hired its own team of researchers and sponsored the publication of a history of its Nazi-era activities.

Still, Mr. Herzog felt that the fact that more Jews feel comfortable buying German automobiles has less to do with a decision about the appropriate attitude toward modern-day Germany and more with the Holocaust being absent from many in this generation’s conscience.

“If you stop a yungerman driving a German car and ask him how could he do such a thing, most will admit that they didn’t even think about it, but if you explain yourself, they’ll admit that you’re right,” he said. “Rav Michoel Ber writes in Min Hameitzar that there will come a time when people will say Hitler did not kill six million, he killed a few Jews, they’ll say. If we are forgetting what happened, what do we expect from the world?”

AN EVED HASHEM

Memories of Harav Michoel Ber Weissmandl, Zt”l

Much of Klal Yisrael’s story is marked by the great men who have led it. In the few years that he was a talmid at the Nitra Yeshivah in Mt. Kisco, New York, Mr. Herzog was privileged to know Harav Michoel Ber Weissmandl, zt”l, and to learn from his gadlus, phenomenal Torah knowledge and dynamism.

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Harav Michoel Ber Weissmandl, zt”l

After his efforts to save millions of Jews in the Holocaust through ransom payments was largely thwarted, and his entire family was murdered, Rav Michoel Ber was left a broken man. Yet, he founded a yeshivah for survivors who needed a Rosh Yeshivah and a father in one.

“He came in 1946, with 80 yesomim from Auschwitz. After all they had been through, they were very wild; I went as a kid and they would beat me up. Rav Michoel Ber saw they couldn’t learn a whole day, so he made a farm attached to the yeshivah. They would learn a few hours and take care of the farm the rest of the time. The amazing thing is that they all grew into talmidei chachamim. One of them whose job it was to feed the chickens became a Rosh Kollel,” said Mr. Herzog.

By the time Mr. Herzog joined the yeshivah in 1954, a new generation had come to Nitra. In the four years between then and Rav Michoel Ber’s petirah, he was able to observe the Gadol up close.

“He was a heartbroken person, and an emotional person in general. His davening was full of tears. When he leined the Haftarah for Shabbos Chazon it was like Yeshaya Hanavi was there. On Purim he could laugh and dance and sing with all of his kochos,” he said.

While eventually leaving the day-to-day running of the yeshivah to others, Rav Michoel Ber continued to say shiurim, but on any topic he chose and on his schedule. Whether the subject was a sugya or Chovos Halevavos, the talmidim were usually tested on the contents. His ability to deliver in-depth explanations on the gamut of Torah with little preparation was but one of many signs of Rav Michoel Ber’s gadlus in Torah.

As much as Rav Michoel Ber was caring, he was also demanding. On a tight budget, meals in the yeshivah were meager. Mr. Herzog recalled that breakfast was little more than stale bread and some oil — though sometimes with fresh eggs from the farm. On one occasion, the Joint Distribution Committee delivered crates of orange juice to the yeshivah, but a few days later Rav Michoel Ber said that he felt such a luxury had caused a weakening in the talmidim’s learning, saying, “You can’t expect to become a talmid chacham drinking orange juice.”

“The biggest embarrassment we had was when he decided that bachurim didn’t know what the words of davening meant and gave us a shiur and a farher of how to translate the siddur,” Mr. Herzog said.

Rav Michoel Ber’s concerns for his talmidim’s well-being hardly stopped at the beis medrash door. While building a framework designed to immerse them in Torah, he went to great efforts that each should have a plan as to how he intended to support himself after marriage — often helping to advise them on professions.

“He said a bachur has to be everything. He has to be a mentch; he has to be a talmid chacham; he has to be on time; he has to understand business. Rav Michoel Ber felt it was important for us to have all kinds of knowledge,” said Mr. Herzog.

Rav Michoel Ber himself exemplified such a model. His shiurim on the broadest of topics displayed his mastery of all areas of Torah. There was no shortage of occasions for the talmidim to appreciate his understanding of other areas of wisdom as well. Mr. Herzog remembered distinctly that, in 1957, when the Soviet satellite Sputnik orbited the earth, his Rebbi explained the principles of physics that made such a phenomenon possible and predicted that it would not be long before a man would walk on the moon.

Beyond Rav Michoel Ber’s vast knowledge, Mr. Herzog said that his insight was something that many only came to appreciate after his passing.

“We knew he was a tzaddik, but besides his gadlus, he was navi Hashem,” he said. “Someone once asked him what would be with Yiddishkeit in America. He said that Yiddishkeit will grow long and wide, but not deep.The hasagos would stay American hasagos.”