My friend Joe

He was born in Lublin Poland. His birth was listed as 1922, however no documents survived the war to verify the date of his birth. I remember the day of his death like it was yesterday. My friend Joe was gone.

I first met Joe when I arrived in Wellington New Zealand back in 1991. My family and I had arrived on a typical icy winter’s day in July. I had taken on the job as the senior rabbi of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation. Joe was the first to greet us and with a smile and a chuckle, which so characterised the man, he helped us with our first tentative steps in our new home.

Joe was a survivor. He did not have tattooed numbers on his arm because he had not been in Auschwitz. Yet he carried the trauma and the psychological scars of the holocaust throughout his life.

Joe and his father miraculously escaped the nazis during a roundup in Lublin, not before they witnessed Sima (Joe’s mother) and their relatives and friends being led away to their certain deaths.

Father and son ran for two days and nights. They found refuge on a farm owned by a gentile Polish farmer who hid them in a haystack by day. At night Samuel and Joe scavenged for scraps of food. It was only a matter of time before they would be discovered. Joe told me of how terrifying it was when on several occasions the dogs came sniffing around their hideaway. Somehow – Joe describes it as Divine Providence – they were not discovered.

But one night their luck ran out.

Samuel was a schneider, a tailor, who had taught his son Joe the trade many years previously. Joe had dropped out of school because of the severe economic hardship that the family faced and from his barmitzvah became apprenticed to his father. Both had a skill that was essential for the Nazi war machine. After a brutal interrogation the two of them were seconded as the personal tailors of the local Nazi commander.

Joe told me how he had to make shoes, belts and toys out of Torah scrolls.

One day a group of drunken soldiers came to the workshop and took Joe outside to the courtyard and ordered him to dig his own grave. I asked him how he felt. He told me that all he could think about was, “if this was what G-D had decreed then so be it”. He awaited his death. However it was not to be. An officer just returned to the camp and saved him literally at the last second. Joe still remembered the officer’s words as he stood over him with his finger pointed to the sky. “As long as I am here and you work for me, you will not go to Abraham.”

Somehow against the odds, they survived.

Joe told me that on the day of liberation he went into the crematoria at Maidenek and wept at the still warm furnaces. There father and son said Kaddish for Sima.

They left Europe, as so many survivors did, and travelled as far away as possible, arriving in New Zealand. All that Joe possessed was a pair of ‘gutkes’ worn-out long underware and a tattered shirt. That is how the two of them arrived in Wellington. There is a picture that I have of the two of them moments after their arrival.

Joe worked in Wellington alongside his father in their own tailor shop in the CBD. They were numbered in the few observant orthodox men in the city. After hours, Joe volunteered to assist the community as the masghiach – kosher supervisor. That position was held by Joe for fifty years.

I would never judge a survivor for having lost their faith or even becoming  an atheist after everything they had witnessed. I do not believe anyone could. But Joe was not in that category. This was a man of faith. Strong, solid belief in God and Judaism. Sure there were times when he cried and asked questions, but never did he hesitate a fraction of a second to do a mitzvah. This is how he lived his life. His credo was simple. We are Jews and we must live as Jews live. To do anything less would betray all those who went to their deaths in the holocaust.

Joe spent his life serving the Jewish community in Wellington in an exemplary manner. An unsung hero.

There are heroes and there are also role models. There are men and women who inspire others by they way they have chosen to live. Books have been written, statues crafted, and tales woven to immortalise these people. Yet the greatest of all are memorialised in the hearts of those who loved and cherished them. I have come across many worthy  people in the course of my profession and during my lifetime, but none of which stand in the same lofty place as my friend Joe.

May His Beloved Soul Rest In Peace.


About the Author
Rabbi Yehudah Brown was born in Rhodesia now Zimbabwe. Having served as an orthodox rabbi in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia he finally made aliyah with his family in 2013. He is the author of two acclaimed novels. He lives in Maale Adumim.