By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
It really was the end of an era, and not just for our family. When he left this world on 29 Tishrei, my father was one of the last survivors of the group of yeshiva students that fled Europe during World War 2 and managed to find refuge in Shanghai, China. As a child, I never realised what my dad had been through in his early life. He never spoke much about it. It wasn’t until my adolescence when I began reading Holocaust literature that it dawned on me what he must have gone through and how heroic it was that he actually succeeded in rebuilding his entire family from scratch. Imagine a teenager one day waking up and realising that he is all alone in the world. His whole family had been wiped out by the Nazis. Thank G-d, he had his yeshiva friends, most of whom were in the same position as him.
My father, Reb Shimon Goldman, ran away from home at the age of 14, soon after the Nazis invaded the town of his birth, Shedlitz (Siedlice) in Poland, in 1939. He would be a wandering Jew for the next six years. Though he came from a distinguished lineage of Gerer Chassidim, a descendant of the “Chidushei HaRim”, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, (1799-1866; himself a descendant of Rashi and the Maharam of Rotenberg) and the “Yid HaKodosh”, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowitz (1766-1813; student of the Chozeh of Lublin and teacher of Reb Simcha Bunim of Pshischa), my father joined the Lubavitch Yeshivah in Vilna.
In Vilna, he and his yeshiva friends managed to obtain transit visas to Japan via the noble, heroic diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who was based in Kovno. Sugihara issued thousands of transit visas, many against the instructions of his government in Tokyo. He saved many more Jews than Oskar Schindler (the movie is, apparently, in the pipeline).
Armed with these life-saving visas, they travelled by train to Moscow, from there across Russia to Vladivostok on the Asian side of the country. Then it was a journey by ship to Kobe, Japan where they spent a year. When Japan joined Germany in the war, the Jews had to leave and went to Shanghai, China which was an open port. They would spend the next five years in Shanghai where several yeshivas had escaped, the biggest of which was the Mir. Eventually, after the war, they received visas for America.
Traveling via San Francisco and Chicago, he joined the Lubavitch Yeshivah in Brooklyn, New York in the days of the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, obm. In 1949, he married my mother, whose father, Reb Yochonon Gordon, was a shochet and the gabbai of the central Lubavitch Shul in 770. (My zayde was a lantzman of our own beloved late Rabbi Yirmiye Aloy.)
My dad was a qualified rabbi and shochet, but decided to make his living as the proprietor of a kosher butchery in Brooklyn throughout his working life. Still, he made time to be a very committed and dedicated communal worker having served on the board of the Central Chabad Girls School, Beth Rivkah, operated a big Gemilus Chesed Loan Fund from our house together with my late mom, and also volunteered for a variety of other community services.
He was from the old generation. Although he spoke a fluent English, Yiddish would always remain his first language. He was renowned for his stories and vertlach. He never missed an opportunity and he always had an appropriate story or vort to share, no matter the occasion.
At shiva, we received hundreds of visitors, prominent rabbis and communal leaders, customers of his butchery and/or customers of his gemach who were recipients of the popular Free Loan Fund, as well as countless beneficiaries of his and my mom’s legendary hospitality. I used to joke that my folks’ home in Brooklyn was a veritable “South Africa House”, as over the years they had hosted so many South Africans for Shabbos, Yom Tov, dinners, and the like.
His funeral procession travelled from the Chapel in Boro Park, past the Beth Rivkah Girls Schools in Crown Heights where the students came outside and recited Tehillim for the soul of a man who selflessly dedicated many days and nights over the years for their school’s well-being. It then stopped for a few minutes outside the iconic 770 Eastern Parkway, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Shul, where my father davened for decades, and hundreds came by to pay their respects. He was laid to rest in the Moses Montefiore cemetery in Queens, New York, a short walk from the Ohel of the Rebbe and his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe.
The very first words on his tombstone are a phrase from the Prophet Zechariah, Ud Mutzal Me’eish – “an ember rescued from the flames.” There is also a slab below bearing the names of his martyred parents and siblings who, of course, never received a burial in Treblinka and Majdanek.
I did ask him once how he didn’t lose his faith like many others who experienced such immense tragedy. He answered that he had always felt the guiding, protective hand of G-d leading him from station to station, city to city, and country to country as he fled Europe. That he never lost his mind, his faith, or his sense of humour is an unbelievable achievement and what, only in retrospect, made him a superhero to me.
When we published the book of his life story in 2004, “From Shedlitz to Safety” (it’s out of print but I think it may be available on Amazon), the back page had a photo of his 11 great grandchildren at the time. We wanted to demonstrate that he had won, not Hitler, yemach shemo. When he passed away in October 2016 at the age of 91, he left well over 100 blood descendants, including over 80 great grandchildren! As I write these lines, the most recent arrival (my brother Shmuly’s grandson) had his bris during the shloshim in New Jersey and was given the name Shimon, the first name after my father.
My dad was an unlikely hero. He wasn’t the daring, adventurous type. He was respectful and it was, in fact, completely out of character for him to have run away from home. But G-d had a Higher Plan. So, I learned that superheroes don’t need masks, or capes, or swashbuckling bravado to achieve the impossible. I learned that sometimes ordinary people can become superheroes when they act with courage and commitment, faith and fortitude, despite everything that conspires against them. G-d bless his soul.