It was the day after Yom Kippur in 2014. A financial advisor for over 20 years, just about fully recovered from the financial crises of a few years prior, I was looking to “give back” somehow, to make a difference, not knowing what to do but pray to HaShem, in my own words, “Ribono shel olam, help me help others.” I “googled” the word mitzvah and included the word Brooklyn to honor my grandparents from Brooklyn, Belle and Morris Weinstein, and my great grandparents, Anna and Morris Kestin, immigrants from Pinsk, Russia, who came before 1900, seeking a better life in America, free of pogroms and religious intolerance. Within seconds, my search led me to Michael Cohen’s Mitzvah Man organization, dedicated to “Gemilus chasadim,” acts of kindness for the community (www.themitzvahman.org). I signed on as a Volunteer and later with Connect2, Friendly Visiting for Holocaust Survivors (www.connect2ny.org) a project of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island (www.jccgci.org). Previously, my experience with Coney Island was limited to long ago rides on the Cyclone, walks on the boardwalk, and trips to the aquarium.
When I asked how I could possibly help as a financial advisor an hour away on Long Island, Michael Cohen recommended that I visit Ludwig Katzenstein, a Holocaust Survivor in Midwood, Brooklyn. I learned how Ludwig’s Father got the family out of Eschwege, Germany before Kristallnacht, and had tickets on the RMS Queen Mary which was docked in Cherbourg, France. As the family of four was trying to escape by train from the Nazi Germany, they were held up by the Gestapo at the French border, taken off the train and temporarily put in a border jail cell. Ludwig’s father asked the train master to telegraph Captain Robert Irving and asked him to wait for the Katzenstein family of four and the Captain actually held the ship for six hours. Search http://www.youtube.com “Ludwig Katzenstein Queen Mary” for the amazing video).
I had purchased books and DVDs about the Holocaust, but this time it was different, as I never met a Holocaust Survivor face to face before Ludwig. Over the next few years, I would travel many Thursday evenings after work and Sunday mornings, to visit more than twenty five survivors. I heard many amazing stories from those who wished to talk about it, and from those who didn’t, I respected their wishes. Holocaust Survivors such as Rebecca Fried in Borough Park, who was a refugee on the ship Exodus 1947, where the British did not allow the more than 4500 mostly Holocaust Survivors to get off in Israel. The British sent passengers on 3 ships to France, where they refused to get off, then back to Germany, where they were sent to Displaced Persons (DP) camps. This historic event received worldwide media attention and lead to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
I heard testimony from Frances Irwin, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a Holocaust Survivor of Auschwitz and several camps, who also survived the “death march.” While in Auschwitz, Frances assisted five women, including Roza Robota, known to have smuggled schwarzpulver, black gun powder in the Sonderkommando prisoner revolt in 1944 and blew up a crematorium The five women were caught and hanged. Please see http://www.ushmm.org/learn/timeline-of-events/1942-1945/auschwitz-revolt.
I was able to help Herman Grauchlich, a Holocaust Survivor from Poland, celebrate his 101st birthday, many years after his career as a barber in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Herman cut the hair of hundreds of Crown Heights boys and men, including Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Obm, the 7th “Rebbe” of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic Dynasty, known as the “Lubavitcher Rebbe,” or simply, “The Rebbe” by his followers. Although I never met him, there is no doubt in my mind that he was fond of Herman and blessed him for a long life.
From my visits with the Holocaust Survivors, I learned about perseverance, about “Emunah,” faith in HaShem, and about good people striving to rebuild after the horrors of the Shoah. I learned about some of the children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren of some of the Holocaust Survivors. I learned of the loved ones lost and those that became successful, as well as those that never really rebuilt broken lives, some living near poverty even to this day. The Torah tells us to avoid sadness and depression, and it was many of these survivors who showed me the way. I even met Holocaust Survivors, who were just children and who had true “mazal, ” the good fortune, of surviving the Shoah and who helped teach the world to “never forget.”
Along the way, I visited Orthodox synagogues in neighborhoods from Brighton Beach to Borough Park, from Coney Island to Crown Heights and Williamsburg, and started photographing their interiors, first with a Samsung smart phone and later with a Nikon Digital DSLR camera, learning the art of photography week by week. My fascination with new York orthodox synagogues later led me to Queens. Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. I especially enjoyed being in the different neighborhoods and seeing diverse synagogues of immigrants in Brooklyn, from countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Russia, Syria, and Yemen.
In Queens, I found immigrants from places like Afghanistan Iran, Iraq, Persia, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. On the Lower East Side, I found Jews originally from Bialystok Poland, and in Washington Heights, I found German Jews at Khal Adath Jeshurun, descendants of the famed Kehilla of the world famous scholar and Torah personality Rav Sampson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt am Main Germany.
In 2016, I went on a men’s trip to Israel with Aish HaTorah, where I saw many historic synagogues in Jerusalem and Hebron. Upon my return I decided to publish a book, “Ten Times Chai; 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City,” including 100 existing synagogues in Brooklyn, 35 in Manhattan 35 in Queens, 5 in the Bronx, and 5 in Staten Island. The book includes exactly 613 color photos, one for each of the mitzvot in the Torah. I dedicated my book to the more than 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, as well as the special few I met personally as a Volunteer for Connect2 and the Mitzvah Man organizations.
Of the more than 25 I met, starting in 2014, sadly only 7 are with us. Tragically, some who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, and other death camps, fought their battle with the Corona Virus and lost. Baruch Dayan Emet, May their Memory be for a Blessing.
I would strongly encourage anyone to get involved with Connect2 (http://www.connect2ny.org), Mitzvah Man (www.themitzvahman.org), Aishel Shabbat (www.aishelshabbat.org), Bikur Cholim, Guardians of the Sick (http://www.bicco.org or http://www.bikurcholimCH.org), or Selfhelp Community Services in Brooklyn (www.selfhelp.net), to name a few. In other boroughs, there are also many ways to help. Bikur Cholim (www.bikurcholimqueens.org, Masbia Soup Kitchen Network (http://www.masbia.org) World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust & Descendants (www.holocaustchild.org), UJA Federation (www.ujafederation.org), JCCs, and synagogues will show you ways to help. Time is running out for our precious Holocaust Survivors, let’s do what we can to assist them and may we never forget the horrors of the Holocaust.