Remembering Rabbi Chaim Wilschanski with immense fondness and gratitude

Rabbi Wilschanski during my visit in June, 2001.
Rabbi Wilschanski during my visit in June, 2001.

These days it is not common to speak of someone who recently passed away and have it not be of COVID-19. That being said, a very special man in the Jewish world died a few days ago, and why should the fact that his death didn’t qualify as a tragedy like so many deaths we hear of today be a reason to acknowledge it any less?  The man I speak of is Rabbi Chaim Wilschanski, z”l, who passed away a few days ago at the age of 99.

I will start by telling you how my life became intertwined with Rabbi Wilschanski’s. In 1976 my parents of blessed memory, Holocaust survivors who were born and raised in Holland, were presented with an opportunity to move back to Holland from Philadelphia, Pa. where we were living at the time. Seeing as I was 14 years old, my parents had a decision to make as to what was the best course of action for me moving forward.  Philadelphia, albeit not New York when it came to Jewish population and influence, still had a strong Jewish community, and truth be told, the environment was more conducive to living and learning as a Jew than the entire country of Holland.  That, coupled with the fact that my no better than conversational Dutch would have set me back academically, found my parents with limited choices.  As I was the youngest child and only 14, I believe the geographical proximity of England to Holland, a mere 40 minutes by plane, made England, and ultimately London, the best choice.

For those of you who do not know, Northwest London was and is one of the main centers of Judaism in London.  Areas like Golders Green and Hendon dominated the NW London Jewish world, with peripheral areas such as Edgeware and Hampstead Garden Suburb with vibrant communities as well.  The main school for what Americans like myself would see as high school age for a more modern traditional to observant Jew, was Hasmonean Grammar School, located in North Hendon. This would be where I would end up becoming a student for 4 years, starting in the school year of 1976-77.  Through the assistance of the school’s administration, a home was found for me to live in as a lodger in Golders Green.  For various reasons of which getting into would be counterproductive and irrelevant to this story, that first home did not work out, and when the first year was over, my parents felt it was necessary to find me another place to live.

When I got older my parents used to share with me the fact that they felt guilt for as they put it, “sending me to London”.  I can say with some joy that long before they passed away I believe I was able to alleviate them of that guilt, because as I told them often, besides the fact that socially and in my ability to interact with others it may have been the best thing that ever happened to me, I also never felt like they had abandoned me. Nothing is more indicative of this than the action they took in the autumn of 1977, when after a brief 2 week stay at the house of my friend Jeremy Steinberger of Blessed Memory, they found me a new permanent place to live, the home of the Wilschanskis, in the neighborhood of Hampstead Garden Suburb.

As years roll on and people lose contact there is a fairly good chance that information may be somewhat inaccurate, so if some of what I say is incorrect I apologize, but the gist of it is based on solid personal experiences and memories and are written to share with you why I will always have a special place in my heart for Rabbi & Mrs. Wilschanski.  At the age of 15, I was old enough to notice and feel whether or not I was being treated fairly by people.  For 3 years I woke up to a family that fed me like I was one of their own, offered me support and comfort, a good bed to sleep in and the home I needed as a young teenager going to school.  The fact that I was not a good student and became a favorite unfavorable target of Headmaster Willie Stanton’s was not a reflection of the home I was living in, a fact that makes the memory of that fact far easier to deal with than had it been caused by an insecure home life.  To sum it up, it wasn’t Mom and Dad, but under the circumstances it was a really great alternative that ultimately developed into me seeing the Wilschanskis almost like second parents.

Rabbi & Mrs. Wilschanski during my visit in 2001

Rabbi Wilschanski was a teacher and the Rabbi at the Bishops Avenue Shtiebel.  A Shtiebel is a small, yet highly functioning synagogue that is usually in a house, and is generally seen as a no frills, to the point Orthodox service.  More often than not a Shtiebel is a self-functioning community, where the most regular congregants choose the structure and participation in the service, with the Rabbi there primarily for religious guidance and sermonizing.  The ideal Rabbi for a setting like this is one who is learned, comfortable with public speaking, and one who does not have a large ego.  No Rabbi could ever have been more perfect for this position than Rabbi Wilschanski.  He went to his Shtiebel to pray, to teach when required, and to enjoy the company of the congregants that attended.  I never heard one person say anything but good things about him, and I know that it was impossible to think about the Shtiebel on Bishops Avenue without thinking of Rabbi Wilshanski.

When it came to the rules of the house, Rabbi Wilschanski would always defer to his wife, often saying in his distinctive East German, British Jewish accent, “ask the Guvner”.  Mrs. Wilschanski, a woman of strong will and intelligence would be just fine with this, making and enforcing the rules of the house, none of which I remember as being unreasonable or painful, while always being a partner in the mutual respect she had with her husband.  Rabbi Wilschanski, although a man of strong and impeccable character was not an enforcer, which meant that even in the one rule I remember being important to him, he always approached it more with an attitude that resembled, “I’ll try my best to get them to do it approach”.  This “rule” was for his son and lodgers to go with him to the weekday morning services in the Shtiebel.  This also brings me to one of the funniest stories I know of Rabbi Wilschanski, and also speaks to one of the greatest things about him.  He didn’t take himself too seriously.

My first year under the Wilschanski’s “roof” I actually slept in a room across the street in the home that once belonged to Mrs. Wilschanski’s parents.  During that year, their son Michael and lodger Gaby who was from Vienna Austria were sleeping on the same floor in their actual house.  A year later when Michael would go to Israel, I would end up in the house on that floor for the next 2 years.  Every day Rabbi Wilschanski would wake up the boys to go to the Shtiebel with him. But he would always try to spice up the wake-up call by giving some sports update and clearly stating the time, walking outside their doors and saying in a loud voice something like, “Gaby, Michael vake up, it’s quarter to 7, England beat France 1-0 in the football match, get up”.  It was important to be up at 6:45 in order for Rabbi Wilschanski to make it to his Shtiebel’s service in time. Apparently one morning, and no one involved ever denied this story, he got up to make his usual announcements and began, “Gaby, Michael, vake up, it’s quarter to…(and then in a loud panicky voice) EIGHT!”.

The greatness in this funny story, is that when mentioning it to Rabbi Wilschanski, although he took his punctuality seriously, he chuckled at it, because although he was respected and taken seriously by others, he was a man of good humor who could laugh at himself as well as he could anything else.  He was a devoted Jew, husband, father, and respected leader in the community.  He spent 25 years of the earlier part of his life living in the English city of Gateshead where he would become a scholar and a Rabbi. The last time I saw him and Mrs. Wilschanski was in 2001, and I hope that when I did I made it abundantly clear to them how much they meant to me and how grateful I was for what they did for me at such an important time in my life.  May his memory be a blessing and may his family have the strength they need to deal with the loss of this wonderful man.

About the Author
David Groen is the youngest of 5 children and the author of "Jew Face: A Story of love and heroim in Nazi-occupied Holland"
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