This week marks the fiftieth yahrtzeit of Elimelech Gavriel (Mike) Tress. Mike almost single-handedly transformed a loose federation of a handful of Shalosh Seudos clubs for young men into the modern Agudah movement in America. For today's yeshivah- and Bais Yaakov-trained generation, the story of how a clean-shaven, college-educated businessman, with no yeshivah background, brought Agudath Israel of America into existence through the sheer force of his magnetic personality is too improbable to be believed.
His background should have made Mike a much more likely candidate for the fledgling Young Israel movement, created by English-speaking young people raised in religious homes. Yet the vision of Agudath Israel drew Mike. Seeking to increase his Jewish learning in the Brooklyn Public Library, he stumbled upon an article by Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim describing Agudath Israel as the representative of the collective body of Klal Yisrael united around Torah and under the leadership of gedolei Torah.
Mike became enchanted with gedolei Torah, and conveyed that reverence to his young followersMike became enchanted with gedolei Torah, and conveyed that reverence to his young followers. Rabbi Shlomo Rotenberg, who grew up in Antwerp and had, unlike Mike, actually seen many of the great European Torah giants, found tears coming to his eyes listening to Mike speak about the gedolim.
When Rabbi Aharon Kotler arrived at Grand Central Station in April 1941, the large group of young people on hand to greet him was eager to accept his leadership because they had heard their first hero, Mike, pronounce Reb Aharon's name and those of the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Chaim Ozer, the Gerrer Rebbe, and the Chortkover Rebbe so many times and with such awe. He invariably pronounced the names together, as if there were no differences between them. In that naivete lay a deeper truth: That which unites the greatest Torah leaders is much greater than what distinguishes them.
MIKE BUILT THE AGUDAH MOVEMENT from the youth up. He started Pirchei, and even during the war years, when he was frequently in Washington D.C., he ran a Pirchei or Zeirei meeting almost every night of the week. "He taught us that Judaism was not just a tradition, but our most precious possession, a possession for which we had to be prepared to fight and pay a price," remembers Rabbi Moshe Wolfson. (Until the late '40s, the most active branch of the Agudah movement in America was named Zeirei Agudath Israel of America, of which Mike served as president, albeit without a salary in the early years.)
Gershon Kranzler, a German refugee and the first national director of Pirchei, has brilliantly captured Mike's impact on his young followers. He describes a Melave Malkah "in some forsaken old shul loft for a newly formed Pirchei group":
Mike shook hands with each child, and their eyes lit up. The dreariness of the place, and the frost from without and within, melted away with the warmth of the contact... They were glued to his face as he stood there before them and said, "Chaverim...."
In that cold loft above the old shul, he set their souls and hearts aflame. When he addressed them seriously and sincerely, the ragged little children were lifted above their small, confining worlds, just like the huge crowds I heard him address so many times at mass meetings and conventions. . . . His sincerity struck home when he waved the magic wand of his "chaverim." They were never the same after he ignited their spirit with his words.
MIKE TRESS IS BEST REMEMBERED today for the wartime rescue work of Zeirei Agudath Israel. Up to 2,000 Jews owe their lives to visas obtained through Zeirei, and seventy leading gedolim and their families came to America on Special Emergency Visitors Visas procured in large part through Mike's efforts, including one dramatic Shabbos trip to the State Department on behalf of Rav Aharon Kotler.
Through Mike's Washington D.C. contacts – even Breckenridge Long, the State Department official who directed consulates abroad to use every means possible to delay issuing visas, personally liked him – he was involved in every rescue scheme hatched by the Vaad Hatzala or other rescue activists: the procurement of 900 fake Latin American passports for inmates in the Vittel concentration camp in occupied France; wire transfers (many illegal under wartime restrictions) to finance Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl's rescue schemes and to support refugees in Shanghai; the use of diplomatic pouches to obtain information about the Nazi implementation of the Final Solution, news of which President Franklin D. Roosevelt was suppressing.
After the war, Mike utilized the Army Post Office (APO) to send items that could be resold for large sums on the black market – e.g., cigarettes, chocolate, stockings – to still starving refugees in the Displaced Persons Camps. Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum and other Orthodox US soldiers whom Mike had befriended through the Jewish Servicemen's Bureau, created by Zeirei in the midst of the war, were the conduits. Those American soldiers also collected names of the survivors and reported on the daily humiliations to which they were still subject in the DP camps.
Under the auspices of UNRWA, Mike travelled to the DP camps. Eschewing the hotel accommodations offered him, he chose to sleep in the DP camps with the survivors. Those closest to him felt that he never recovered from the experience of sleeping on straw mattresses on concrete barracks floors. He returned from Europe a haunted, broken man, with only the items of clothing he was wearing – everything else had been given away.
In a February 10, 1946 speech to an overflow crowd at Hotel Pennsylvania, he described his experiences among the "lager Jews" – e.g., trying to comfort a young boy crying "Mama, Mama"; watching a man wandering around at night looking for his murdered family with a candle and crying, 'Zel zenen nisht dah! Gevald, ich hab zei alein farbrent! – They are not here! Oh no, I burned them myself!' "
He spoke also of happier moments – of forty young men celebrating the yahrtzeit of the Sfas Emes; of another group of forty learning from a single blatt of Gemara. "I saw men trying to act human, grasping at every straw to try and live like a normal human being," Mike said.
When he finished, there was no applause – only stunned silence. It was moments before the audience regained its collective breath.
To everyone Mike met in the camps and whose story he recorded in the notebook he carried with him, he made one promise: You will not be forgotten. And they were not.
Zeirei was busy bringing as many survivors as possible to America. In the first year after the conclusion of the war, Zeirei procured 4,000 affidavits of financial support. Above quota exemptions for clergymen and academics were exploited to the maximum and beyond. Another 250-300 young Jews came to America on temporary visas for Agudah-sponsored conferences. Zeirei headquarters was the first port of call for many of the new arrivals.
THE BUILDING of the Agudah movement and wartime rescue work were not two separate activities: The two foci of Mike's life were intertwined. The manpower for the rescue work was drawn entirely from the ranks of Mike's young followers and his contemporaries in Zeirei. And the key to the rapid growth of Agudah as a movement was the idealism generated by the rescue work.
That idealism was Mike's hallmark. Soon after walking in the Zeirei minyan at 157 Rodney Street in Williamsburg for the first time, he organized a Shabbos campaign to convince Williamsburg stores to close down on Shabbos.
His constant message was responsibility for Klal Yisrael. "He was always demanding something from you," Rabbi Yisroel Belsky ztz"l remembered. "He lifted people up and pushed them to do things. Everything he did rang with import."
Much of the rescue work was tedious – e.g., filling out four copies of a six-foot long visa application form on an old manual typewriter and before the days of copying machines; packing food for starving, typhus-ridden Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland from 1939-41and after the war once again packing endless boxes for those in the DP camps. Meanwhile, Mike and his contemporaries, like the Septimus brothers, sought affidavits of financial support for would be immigrants from among the small group of Jews capable of showing adequate resources in those days.
Yet even when the work was numbingly dull or proved futile, as was the case with most of the visa applications, the volunteers always had before them the motto on the Zeirei letterhead: "He Who Saveth a Soul in Israel Createth a World." And that filled them with energy.
Remarkably, in the midst of the wartime rescue work, when funds were in such short supply that repeated dunning letters were sent for reimbursement of twenty-five cent telegrams, Mike founded Camp Agudah. Few of the campers in those days were even learning in yeshivah: The purpose of the camp was to convince campers to register for yeshivah. Orthodox Youth, which subsequently became the Orthodox Tribune, was the precursor for The Jewish Observer decades later, as an ideological journal for the Agudah movement.
One of the greatest challenges of our own day is recreating the idealism of that earlier period and inspiring today's youth with the vision of "doing for Klal Yisrael" as Mike did for that founding generation.
I once asked one the young teenagers (a great-grandmother today) who worked at Zeirei headquarters at 616 Bedford Ave.in Williamsburg typing the six -foot-long visa applications which was better: Then or today, when we have flourishing schools, much higher standards of kashrus, tzniyos, etc.?
"How can you compare?" she replied. "Then we really lived; today we only compete."
One of the questions the story of Mike Tress raises, but does not definitively answer is: Do only momentous times, even tragically momentous times, summon forth great leaders and all our innate idealism and passion? Or can it even be done in our day?