As the American armed forces continued their march through Europe, liberating towns, villages, and cities from German occupation, they came upon numerous sites where atrocities had taken place, with the evidence in plain sight. Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum, ob”m, a religious Jew and member of the 59th Signal Battalion, United States Army, arrived in a camp named Ohrdruff, where death and destruction were everywhere. Apparently, in an attempt to “silence the witnesses” of their crimes, the Nazis forced all the inmates into the main appelplatz, where they summarily gunned down thousands of people in cold blood and left the bodies out in plain sight to rot. When the Americans arrived, only a pitiful few remained alive, and the enormity of the massacre was too much to bear, even for many of the brave American soldiers.
Unlike Ohrdruff, though, there were still hundreds of Jews left alive when the army reached nearby Buchenwald, and the good lieutenant asked his superior officer for permission to remain in the camp to supply the survivors with any assistance possible. Since all that remained of the war in Europe was the capture of Berlin, and it looked like the Russians were, in any event, going to get there first, the officer agreed.
It was not long before a gentile chaplain came running up to him in Buchenwald and wanted to know whether he was Jewish. After receiving an affirmative reply, the gentile chaplain asked if he knew how to administer the “last rites” to those on the verge of death. A makeshift hospital had been set up for the survivors, many of whom had little chance of living, and there was a shortage of chaplains. Although Birnbaum was a soldier, not a chaplain, and really had little idea of what to do by the bedside of a dying man, Jew or gentile alike, he assumed that no one else in the vicinity would know any better than he did and headed directly for the hospital.
Indeed, it was a sorry sight. Due to a lack of medical provisions, most of the weak and dying patients stood little chance of recuperating. The first bed that Birnbaum approached held what appeared to be an extremely emaciated adolescent. All that remained, it seemed, were two prominent eyes, cheekbones, and a protruding nose. Hesitantly, he approached and asked in Yiddish, “Du bist a Yid?” (“Are you a Jew?”) The young man nodded.
“Vos iz dayn numen?” (“What is your name?”) Birnbaum asked, and the sick man whispered that it was Yosef. Seeing that the conversation was off to a promising start, Birnbaum explained that he was a Yid as well, a Jewish officer in the American army, and that he had come to help him.
There was a pause, and the lieutenant was at a loss as to how to proceed. The man looked so sick that Birnbaum was sure he would expire in a matter of time, but he still felt uncomfortable just asking him to start reciting Vidui (the deathbed confession) with him, especially since he himself didn’t even know it by heart. “When did you last pray to Hashem?” he finally asked.
“I always pray to Hashem Yisbarach,” was Yosef’s simple reply, more eloquent than any profession of faith that Birnbaum had ever heard. He asked for something to eat, and the lieutenant gave him some bread. Anything else, the soldiers were warned beforehand, could be dangerous for these people in their emaciated state, as their stomachs probably couldn’t handle heavier food.
Yosef, lying in the bed, appeared to be not more that 17 or 18. Subsequently, Birnbaum learned that he was 23 and only looked younger because of the starvation. In fact, he was married – his wedding had taken place in a cellar in the Warsaw Ghetto not long before it was liquidated – and he had been interred in seven different concentration camps. This was no youngster, and the lieutenant had no idea what to do next. Slowly, hesitantly, he began to recite the words of Shema Yisrael, the basic proclamation of faith, a standard prayer one says before death.
The soldier was saying the words, but in the middle he paused. Yosef was looking at him curiously. With a smile, he asked why the lieutenant was reciting Shema with him. Obviously, Yosef believed he was far from dying and thought it a bit humorous that this soldier should be treating him in this manner. Embarrassed and having no answer to Yosef’s question, Birnbaum quickly switched the discussion to other topics.
He inquired about Yosef’s family and was told that his family name was Friedenson. His father, R’ Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, z”l, had been one of the leaders of Agudath Israel in Poland and the editor of the Beis Yaakov Journal from its inception in 1923. He was a close associate of Sarah Schenirer, the founder of the Beis Yaakov movement. Beis Yaakov was almost unknown in America at that time and Birnbaum did not fully appreciate what it meant to be a close colleague of Sarah Schenirer. Nevertheless, he did realize that he was talking to the son of someone of considerable stature in the pre-war Eastern European Torah world.
Fortunately, Yosef Friedenson defied the doctor’s predictions, and that conversation was only the first of many over the next 67 years. The two men, liberator and survivor, would meet again in the displaced persons’ camp in Feldafing, in Israel, and quite often in New York, where R’ Friedenson eventually became the editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort and one of the most prominent writers in the Jewish world. Their friendship lasted 67 years, but the two would meet up one final, everlasting time: They passed away less than three days apart, and in the Heavenly tribunal the lives of these two men, so deeply intertwined, were undoubtedly celebrated together.
Rabbi Dovid Hoffman is the author of the popular “Torah Tavlin” book series, filled with stories, wit and hundreds of divrei Torah, including the brand new “Torah Tavlin Yamim Noraim” in stores everywhere. You’ll love this popular series. Also look for his book, “Heroes of Spirit,” containing one hundred fascinating stories on the Holocaust. They are fantastic gifts, available in all Judaica bookstores and online at http://israelbookshoppublications.com. To receive Rabbi Hoffman’s weekly “Torah Tavlin” sheet on the parsha, e-mail Torahtavlin@yahoo.com.