Reb Meyer Birnbaum, universally known by the title of his 1993 memoir Lieutenant Birnbaum, passed away last Erev Shabbos. He was 94.
Meyer Birnbaum's long life encompassed, as both participant and witness, a large slice of American Jewish history. Part of the enduring popularity of Lieutenant Birnbaum, one of ArtScroll's all-time best-selling titles, is that it helps explain to later generations of yeshiva and Bais Yaakov-educated youth where they came from, and how their grandparents built today's vibrant Torah world.
Reb Meyer had no early yeshiva education – nothing more than afternoon lessons from a melamed, who peeled potatoes, while teaching his charges the aleph-beis. What he did have, however, was a mother, who retained her rock hard faith from Europe. She arrived alone in America, and was immediately told by her older siblings who had preceded her, "Shabbos does not exist in this country. Expect to work on Shabbos if you want to live because you have to earn a living to buy bread." She did not listen. Of the 10 siblings from her Chassidishe home Europe, she was the only one to remain religious. That too is part of American Jewish history.
Mrs. Birnbaum used to accompany her oldest son every day to Mincha-Maariv, where he was the only youngster in the shul. When a well-to-do uncle offered Meyer a well-paying job that would have entailed working on Shabbos, his mother told him, "We'll starve to death before Meyer works on Shabbos."
From the age of ten, Reb Meyer would stand outside the Biltmore Theatre in New Lots, trying to convince boys coming out of the movies to join a Shabbos youth group. Many of those whom he won over became lifelong friends, and their ranks include the fathers of some of today's leading roshei yeshiva.
The Young Israel of New Lots became the center of the lives of Reb Meyer's group of young idealistic friends. They lost their original home in the basement of an existent shul when they placed stink bombs in the shul to protest a Motzaei Shabbos performance by Moshe Oysher (who ate on Yom Kippur) and a female chorus from the Yiddish theater of the day.
Reb Meyer and his friends -- all of them public school students -- were zocheh to hear Friday night Chumash shiurim from Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner. And after the War, the members of the Young Israel of New Lots welcomed Rabbi Leib Malin and the other giants from the Mirrer Yeshiva in Shanghai to their neighborhood. Moshe Swerdloff, Reb Meyer's closest lifelong friend, became, in time, the most active baalebos connected to Rabbi Malin's yeshiva Bais HaTalmud.
Rabbi Avraham Pam was the unofficial rav of the Young Israel of New Lots for a number of years, and Rabbi Yisroel Perkowski, one of the roshei yeshiva of Bais HaTalmud, later served for many years as the shul's Rav. Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Shurkin, a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim and Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, gave a twice weekly Gemara shiur.
The match between the group of earnest, temismidik young Americans and the few Torah giants who survived the European inferno is another important part of American Jewish history.
Another figure who had a large impact on the young men of the Young Israel of New Lots was Mike Tress, the dynamic leader of Zeirei Agudath Israel, and like them an American-born, public school product. Prior to World War II, the Young Israel of New Lots, won an award as the leading Zeirei chapter, despite its institutional affiliation with the Young Israel movement.
LIEUTENANT BIRNBAUM IS NOT A PROPER AUTOBIOGRAPHY. The bulk of the book is a memoir of Reb Meyer's five years in the U.S. Army, from shortly after Pearl Harbor through the six months he spent in the DP camps, after he was already entitled to return to the United States and be discharged.
I'm not aware of another such complete account of the challenges confronted on a daily basis by Orthodox soldiers in the U.S. Army in wartime – keeping kosher, putting on tefillin, observing Shabbos. Shortly after the Normandy landing, Reb Meyer learned that his younger brother Eli had been killed in the same landing. He had one hour to sit shiva, and then had to return to leading his unit.
Above all, Reb Meyer left us the most extended account of the state of the survivors immediately after liberation, through the eyes of an optimistic, relatively sheltered American soldier – albeit one who had seen much death and dying. The survivors were closer to dead than alive. At one point, Reb Meyer was pressed into service as a chaplain to speak to liberated Jews on the verge of death. He approached the bed of one hospitalized Jew, who appeared to be an emaciated adolescent. (He was actually 23, but looked younger because of starvation.) Reb Meyer asked him when he last prayed to Hashem Yisborach, and the man replied, "I always pray to Hashem Yisborach."
Reb Meyer did not remember Vidui, and so urged the young man to recite Shema with him. At that point, the latter smiled, as he realized that the American officer assumed he did not have long to live. But the young Jew had other ideas. That Jew was Yosef Friedenson, zt"l, the great Yiddish writer and chronicler of pre-War European Jewry. He and Reb Meyer subsequently became friends in the DP camps. Ironically, they passed away within a day of one another last week.
The survivors poured out their tales to Reb Meyer for hours on end. He noticed, however, that most had no more tears. They cried, but their eyes remained dry – the wells of tears were fully exhausted.
The survivors' stories have penetrated deeply into the consciousness of all who want to understand the Holocaust through Lieutenant Birnbaum. Who can forget that of the sixteen-year-old Hungarian Jewish boy, who begged Reb Meyer for help in doing teshuvah, and would not be consoled by Reb Meyer's assurance that his slate was clean? A sadistic Nazi commandant had held a Luger to the boy's temple and ordered him to kick the chair out from underneath his father, who had a hangman's noose around his neck. The boy refused, until his father screamed at him to do so, in order that one of them might at least survive.
Because of Reb Meyer the American Orthodox world knows of the Klausenberger Rebbe's heart-rending drashah the first Yom Kippur after liberation, in which he went through the Ashamnu confession one by one, and pronounced the survivors innocent of each one. Of what then, were we guilty? the Rebbe asked. Of envying our friend's who died all around and thereby gained release from their suffering, of reciting HaMapil and adding a silent prayer that it would be our last, he answered.
Reb Meyer was not just an observer of great events, but a participant. He landed at Normandy, though not in one of the first waves off the ships offshore. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the last desperate offensive of the Nazis, ym"sh, and was trapped in the besieged city of Bastogne, whose American commander refused to surrender, despite having almost no food or ammunition.
After the liberation of Buchenwald, the American commander, rightly fearful of the spread of typhus, wanted to dump the hundreds of bodies of Jews mowed down by the Germans in the final hours prior to liberation into one mass, unmarked grave. Reb Meyer asked him for a day to bring them to a proper Jewish burial. He commandeered the local German population to dig hundreds of individual graves, into which each murdered Jew was placed with his concentration camp number as a marker, so that there would be a record of their passing.
Lieutenant Birnbaum served as the interpreter for General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied High Commander, on the latter's visit to Buchewald, and later when Eisenhower was introduced to the Klausenberger Rebbe on Yom Kippur in the Feldafing DP camp.
Above all, said Rav Don Segal in his hesped, Reb Meyer "blew the breath of life into those who were nothing but bones." Because of Reb Meyer's presence in the DP camps, Mike Tress and his dedicated band of volunteers were able to send thousands of packages via the Army Post Office (APO) to survivors. Lieutenant Birnbaum had an army truck assigned to him, which he used to deliver a thousand packages a week. He also gathered as much information as possible on the survivors to help them locate relatives in the States.
Besides listening to the stories of the survivors, Reb Meyer gave them encouragement that they still had a future in front of them. He would tell them that he owned a big factory in civilian life, and would provide them jobs when they reached America. Subsequently, the great activists Irving Bunim and Mike Tress made good on those promises.
Wherever Reb Meyer went the rest of his life, grateful survivors came up to him and hugged and kissed him. In the midst of his levaya, a very old man entered the hall sobbing. He kissed the niftar's feet, and then cried out, "These are the same tefillin."
This old Jew and two friends had escaped from a Nazi prison camp in the last days of the War. Freezing in their skimpy prisoners uniforms, they put on the uniforms of slain Nazi soldiers whom they found lying in the woods. The Jew in question subsequently encountered an American convoy while wearing the uniform of a high German officer. When he reached into his pocket, the American soldiers thought he was grabbing a grenade. They were about to shoot him, when he cried out, "Ich bin a Yid." Fortunately for him, Lieutenant Birnbaum understood what he was saying, and ordered his men not to shoot. In the Jew's pocket was a pair of tefillin that he had been moser nefesh to guard throughout the war – the same tefillin he brought to Reb Meyer's levaya.
For his part, Reb Meyer could never fully understand the gratitude of the survivors. He viewed serving them as the greatest privilege of his life. Their faith, despite what they had been through, never ceased to awe him. He fully subscribed to the Satmar Rav's advice to someone seeking a berachah, "Just go to a shul and pick anyone with a number tattooed on his arm putting on tefillin."
THE WAR WAS NOT THE END of Reb Meyer's public activities. On his first visit to Israel in 1966, he learned from Rabbi Yosef Liss of Bnei Brak of the horrible situation of rampant autopsies. Israel was at that time the only country in the world in which no consent was required from the families of a deceased person to perform an autopsy, and such autopsies were routinely performed for research purposes. Israel boasted that its policy on autopsies placed the country at the forefront of epidemiological research. Religious Jews refused to go into the hospital, even when very sick, for fear that if they died, their bodies would be used for medical research.
Reb Meyer was enlisted to accompany members of the Chevra Kadisha to three hospitals, and took photographs of deceased Jews turned into cadavers. The photos were subsequently smuggled out of the country by the Brisker Rav's son Rabbi Raphael Soloveitchik, who was leading the fight against autopsies. Those photographs played a major role in arousing an international outcry against the Israeli autopsy policy. On his return to the United States, Reb Meyer met with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to elaborate on what he had seen, and also met with a top Hadassah official, after the organization received unwelcome publicity for the autopsies carried out by its researchers.
WITH THE PUBLICATION OF Lieutenant Birnbaum, Reb Meyer embarked on new career as a highly sought after lecturer at the age of seventy-five. Until he was almost ninety, he travelled around the world relating the experiences that won him tens of thousands of readers, in speeches that went four hours and more. Those speeches were often punctuated by the sobs of his audience.
He told his son Rabbi Akiva Birnbaum, who initially felt that a memoir published in his lifetime was inappropriate, that it would be worth it if "I can be mechazek one Jew in pain." He was mechazek thousands, and Reb Akiva had to admit that his father had been right.
Lieutenant Birnbaum struck a chord. Readers felt that they were in a conversation with a "regular, normal guy" just like themselves, who had gone through his own pekel of tzaros – early poverty, the loss of his brother, divorce, the bankruptcy of his business, and whose faith had remained unshaken. He received thousands of letters from around the globe and tried to respond to each one.
To capture Reb Meyer's emunah peshute, Rabbi Moshe Schapira, who davened with Reb Meyer in the haneitz minyan at the Kosel for decades, quoted Rabbi Isaac Harif of Slonim's description of his father's emunah peshute as part of his very lifeblood -- a spiritual level that his son felt himself far from ever attaining. Reb Meyer's daughter-in-law, Rebbetzin Blimie Birnbaum, credited him with teaching her how to put any problem on the shelf and soldier on. That was the secret of his irrepressible simchas chayim. One of his favorite sayings was, "Don't tell Hashem how big your problems are: Tell your problems how big Hashem is."
It would have been easy to view Reb Meyer as a simple, not terribly learned Jew, who had the good fortune to be an observer to major historical events. But gedolei Yisrael saw much more. The late Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Beinisch Finkel was famous for never allowing anyone to do anything for him. Yet he not only accepted a daily ride with Reb Meyer to the Kosel for the haneitz minyan, but even allowed him to drive him to simchos he was obligated to attend. (Three shidduchim have taken place to date between Rav Beinisch's descendants and those of Reb Meyer.)
"Yehudi amiti," with the word amiti repeated several times, was Rabbi Moshe Schapira's summation. The maspidim included Rabbi Yitzchok Ezrachi, one of the Mirrer roshei yeshiva and a long-time neighbor; Rabbi Tzvi Cheshin, the lion of Mirrer Yeshiva for over four decades, whose father the famous mekubal Rabbi Velvel Cheshin and Reb Meyer were very close; and the renowed Mashgiach Rav Don Segal. "I envy his Olam Haba," said Rabbi Cheshin.
The gedolim saw in Reb Meyer someone who talked to Hashem like a beloved "ben yachid," which is how he truly viewed himself. Every morning at the Kosel, he would go through long lists of people in tzar, before starting his own davening. One morning he cried out, "Ribbono shel Olam, I have no more strength. You must bring Mashiach."
He never stopped shteiging and growing. He would pepper his son, Reb Akiva and Rav Moshe Schapira with kushiyot and was always looking for solutions. Reb Akiva knew that if his father called in the middle of the day, it was to share something he had learned or tell him a teiretz.
And he remained ever Hashem's soldier. At 88, he was going to a medical appointment at Bikur Cholim Hospital, when he saw smoke coming out of the building. After ascertaining the location of a fire extinguisher, he plunged into the fire to put it out, and emerged blackened from his efforts. When his son asked him why he had done something so dangerous at his age, he replied that he was thinking of the pain of all those whose medical records might be lost.
During his final weeks in the hospital, he awakened in the middle of the night and asked his aide to push him to the shul, where he remained from 3:30 a.m. until 7:30 a.m. Before going to the hospital that last time, he told Reb Akiva, "It's going to be a fight to mekabel yisurim b'ahava, but I'm going to fight."
He not only fought; he won. Now he can continue imploring Hashem to let His people gather on the other side of the Kosel, from his well-earned place close to the Kisei HaKavod.