The Sage of Antwerp
In summer 2021, after almost 16 months of Covid, I was finaly able to spend some time with my Zeide, Chief Rabbi David Moshe Lieberman of Antwerp.
Zeide was a great scholar, just look at these much used books at his home office…
There books all over the house “my best friends”, he called them.
For the past several years, Zeidy has been suffering from macular degeneration, which greatly impaired his eyesight. But neither that, nor his 96 years of age, held him back from studying these books…
Throughout the day, people come and go – read, study, argue, learn, discuss, and argue some more.
It is amazing to witness the great respect Jews of Antwerp have for Zeide, “Der Ruv” or “Rav Lieberman” or “Opperrabbijn” as he is locally referred…
It is a beautiful synagogue…
Which was also targeted in the 1980’s by terrorists…
The great synagogue is used on high holidays and Shabbat, on the weekdays they use the smaller synagogue.
But Chaim played some Chassidic melodies on his violin…
Zeide grew up on these streets of Antwerp…
He was known to be a genius and a wonder child. He attended the great Yeshiva of Heide when he was just ten years old – the usual age of entrance was 14 or 15. Everyone was older than him, but “I was a good student” he said.
Then the war broke out and his Mother, Sarah Hinda, took the kids to France where the French locked them up in camps. He managed to run away and hide with his uncle Shmuel Yosef…
Zeide always points out that it was the French who sent them to the hands of the Germans! The uncle was murdered in Auschwitz…
A little child came to receive a blessing in honor of his first hair cutting ceremoney – accompanied by his siblings, parents and grandparents.
And a young couple came to consult with the Rabbi…
Another child came to receive a blessing before departing to his summer trip.
We also recorded Zeidy’s weekly Torah thought in English, which he did every single week for quite a few years…
Zeidy is a great orator. He speaks 6 or 7 languages, French, Flemisch, English, Hebrew, German, although, he says, he can express himself best in Yiddish. For years he took notes, as preparation for his speeches…
But as much as he is a great speaker, he never took the time to properly write down his talks and speeches… And today it is even difficult for him to decipher what are these code words mean.
Here is an example of Hebrew scholarly essay he prepared and delivered at a famous Yeshiva…
He wrote, “Answer 1. Answer 2. Answer 3. Answer 4.” so I asked him, what were the answers?
“They were so obvious for me at the time, I didn’t bother writing.”, he answered.
Although Zeidy can’t see, he is very much up to date on anything that goes on in the world… Thanks of course to the ever present BBC news…
Not only that he is up to date… But he disagrees with me, wholeheartedly when I tried to make a point…
Sometimes, especially in Europe, people feel that being a community rabbi and a Chabad Hassid (follower) is contradictory – I think that Zeidy is a great example of the fallacy of this argument… He says that this is a silly comment..
I am out of the room when community issues are discussed… Zeidy doesn’t usually go to his office these days, walking is difficult for him. But the work has to be done and a consultation with the Chief Rabbi is a must…
Zeidy was born in Koln, Germany in 1925 to his Polish immigrant parents from Mielc.
When in 1926, when he was about one year old the family moved to Antwerp, Belgium – his father Isaac was apparently a diamond merchant… Reb Isaac survived the second world war, ane later lived in NY and Israel.
Zeidy told me, “When I was a child they used to paint here on the walls ‘Jews go TO Palestine!’
Now the graffiti says ‘Jews go OUT of Palestine!’
So, where should we go, then?
Anyway we are still here, in Antwerp…
Zeidy is back with his “old friends” the holy books. Now with the help of modern technology – his computer reads the books for him.
The computer “reads” English better than Hebrew – the choice of books that interest this old scholar are fascinating. Because they include philosophy, Jewish law, history, Torah thoughts as well as a choice of dictionaries.
Why do you need to read dictionaries? – “Because words have a meaning and when you use a word in the wrong manner people can understand you wrong and may even act on it” he says…
But I’ll circle back to history….
As kids, Zeidy never spoke to us about what transpired during the war years. My mother, his daughter, knew nothing about Zeidy’s war years. It was a taboo. But with some nudging we got some info.Good morning friends… We will try to get more stories today.
Zeidy was already up at 6:15 and at 7:25 he is anxious to go to Shul.
“Nu, it is already late!”, he exclaimed.
While Zeidy is wrapping up – a few words on languages.
I have long believed that to get to “know” someone – one must first look at his bookshelves… The personal choice of readings tell us much about who the reader is… These are the books right behind Zeidy’s chair.
I was not surprised, that besides the very used us Talmud, the most used books are Zeidy’s collection of thesauruses and dictionaries.
Born in Koln, Germany to Jewish Polish – Yiddish speaking parents, made Zeidy’s first language the obvious Yiddish – in Yiddish he converses, argues jokes and teases Nechemia Shuldiner from the moment Nechemia walks in at 7:30 am
The language spoken today in the synagogue was also Yiddish. It has been quite a while since I last heard Jews arguing politics and business investments in flawless Yiddish.
When I was a little kid and we used to visit Zeidy here in Antwerp, it seemed to me then that French was predominant amongst the Jewish community, today signes in the synagogues are Hebrew and Flemish.
Languages are fascinating. I am typing this tweet, and editing the video while I go to buy food for #Shabbat here in Antwerp – I hear kids speaking Yiddish on my right and kids speaking Turkish on my left… But Zeidy is most fluent in:
Walking to Hoffy’s to buy food for #Shabbos I pass by the offices of Shomrei Hadas – the offices of the Jewish community of Antwerp.
But it is this plaque on the wall “Dedicated to the members of our city; men, women and children” who were brought here by the Germans in 1941 sent on trucks to Mechelen forced on trains to the death camps in Poland.
Zeidy’s words he once said in Budapest Holocaust Memorial dedication, on the banks of the Danube still ring in my ears… Just listen to these powerful words – and take to heart:
The war is ever present… Even if Zeidy is reluctant to talk about it and even though – Thank the Eternal – life goes on, yet, it hangs over life.
Every Mitzva every positive action, every display of Jewish life is just another victory in the great war.
I buy for Shabbos at Hoffy’s, great source of Heimishe food – Zeidy has to be careful with salt, potassium and bunch of other stuff, so I am careful with my choices – who are you? “Rav Lieberman’s grandson” I say. Mr. Hoffman’s eyes widen “Wow! What a Ruv, what a Zeide” he said.
“Did you left something in the store or you just bought everything?”, Zeide asked.
Since I was a little kid, I always knew that my scholar zeidy has a special affection to electric gadgets. It is amazing how modern technology is part of his life even when he can’t see!
It is the time to study the DafHa Yomi… We are up page 15th of Sukka. Zeidy and his Havruta Reb Sholom are arguing on the details of Kosher Sukka covering.
While at it Chaim and Eliezer went to visit the Antwerpen City Hall…
I wrote here about Zeidy, but before Shabbos comes – I want to also mention here Bubby Chaya Lieberman, may her memory be of blessing. Born in Kharkov – then in the USSR – she spent the war years in Uzbekistan and after escaping from the Soviets she married Zeidy in 1950…
Bubby was a very practical women – she made sure books were in order and she had to deal with scattered books scholars like Zeidy tend to leave around the house.
But what she was most concerned with was preserving of memories. Know where you came from, so you know who you are.
Bubby passed away in 2013, being practical she made sure that we all remember her ~
She bought Tefillins for all her grand children and great-grandchildren! (All with the same Tefillin bags so that they can identify each other as cousins in Yeshiva).
May her memory blessed!
“This visit was way too short” says Zeidy as he goes with Nehemiah down the elevator om the way to Shul. “We hope to be back soon” I tell him.
Indeed it was too short of a trip but a lifetime worth of lessons for Chaim and Eliezer.
To witness a thirst of learning and knowledge, to spend a few days with a legend, to learn that every moment that we have there is still something that can be done!
But it isn’t only about the knowledge. It is about fusing every step with spiritual purpose, feelings, meaning and the mindfulness that we connect to the Eternal, even when, or maybe more so, when it isn’t easy – and be thankful for it.
Speaking about thankfulness, I must say that it was astonishing to see the respect and devotion the community shows their Rabbi. Nechemia, Refael, Reb Sholom, and each and everyone (I was only able to see few, but there are many others). This too is a lesson rarely learned.
Thanks for sharing this picture of Zeidy speaking at the beautiful great synagogue in Antwerp just before Slichos last night.
While at it, here is a beautiful short clip pf Zeidy having an argument with the Dayan Rabbi Schmahl a few days ago after the morning prayers..
It is difficult to argue with Zeidy, even if you are able to read what it says.
At the Shabbos table Zeidy told us of the last days in the Rivesaltes camp, his mother Sarah Hinde knew that they are being deported. She sent Zeidy an emotional letter, written in German and her marriage ring. Two weeks later she was deported to Auschwitz.
“Let’s speak about Freliche, happy, things” says Zeidy. “What did you do with the ring?” Chaim asks.
“Oh, I gave it to Bubby when we got married. It should be here in the house somewhere”. He says and adds quietly “It always comes back to this” and his eyes fill with tears.
“This is what makes us whom we are!” I tell Zeidy. “Nu, nu” he responds and we start singing a Shabbos song.
Going up the steps for the Minyan, I ask Zeidy, “What is easier for you, going up or coming down?” – “When I go up, then going down is easier. When I walk down, going up is easier” Zeidy is quick to answer.
זכר צדיק לברכה.
Thousands of people turned to Zeidy’s funeral in Antwerp, which left the Van den Nestlei great synagogue.Thousands of people crammed inside…
Zeidy’s seat was empty…
Although it is not the Chabad custom, in Chabad we don’t deliver eulogies, to honor the community and Zeidy, some community rabbis have said some words of farewell…
The heaven were crying tears of rain as Zeidy, Chief Rabbi David Moshe Lieberman זצוק”ל of Antwerp, was laid to final rest next to Bubby. They passed away on the same day – 9 years apart – in the Hebrew calendar, the 25th of Shvat.
Here we stand in the Holy City of Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives, is where Zeidy’s body will rest until the End of Days.
But his spirit will remain alive with us, his physical and spiritual – children and grandchildren, forever!
זכר צדיק לברכה.