The Man I Thought I Knew
I thought I knew Reb Meyer Birnbaum, zt"l, who passed away last Friday in his 95th year. But I didn't know him at all.
Nearly twenty years ago, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, who had been a long-time neighbor of Reb Meyer's and often travelled with him on his morning drive to the Kosel for the haneitz minyan, had the idea of a book based on stories he had heard from Reb Meyer over the years. Reb Meyer would dictate his life story onto tapes and I would transform those tapes into a book.
Rabbi Zlotowitz envisioned the book centering on Reb Meyer's experiences during World War II as a frum soldier and officer – the Normandy landing, liberating Buchenwald, and then remaining in the DP camps for six months after he was entitled to return stateside and be discharged.
Reb Meyer initially resisted the idea of a first-person memoir. But Rabbis Zlotowitz and Nosson Scherman persuaded him that by talking about what he had witnessed and the great people he had known he would be removing the focus from himself, whereas a third-person book would suggest that he was someone of inherent distinction.
Next, certain members of his family opposed the book, but by now Reb Meyer was enthusiastic about the project. "If I can be mechazek one person," he told a son who objected to an autobiography in his lifetime, "it will be worth it." In the end, he was mechazek tens of thousands, and his son admitted that he had been wrong.
WHEN I FIRST MET REB MEYER, he was already 75-years-old. A tall man, he still stood fully erect, and would continue to do so into his '90s. At that first meeting, he told me to pretend I was trying to stab him, and showed me a few judo moves from his days in U.S. army. His grip was still vise-like.
Unfortunately, his financial condition was not equally good. He had once been the successful proprietor of Mauzone Foods, but the business had gone bankrupt, through no fault of his own. He did not even own a life insurance policy, and still had a number of children left to marry. His only marketable skill, at that point in life, was his recipe for an unrivalled, unsalted herring and delicious pickles. Though he lectured annually on his wartime experiences at a few seminaries, most prominently Rebbetzin David's BJJ, these were non-remunerative.
Then Lieutenant Birnbaum appeared, and opened another chapter of his eventful life. On the basis of the book, Reb Meyer was launched on an international speaking career. For the next fifteen years, until he was close to ninety, he held audiences across the globe transfixed for four hours or more, as he related his experiences.
For the rest of his life, Reb Meyer was known everywhere as Lieutenant Birnbaum. The name appeared in English on the Hebrew notices of his petirah, and the hapless fellow announcing the levaya going through Jerusalem's religious neighborhoods struggled mightily to pronounce the word lieutenant.
The title Lieutenant Birnbaum captured something essential about Reb Meyer. He was Hashem's soldier, in chapter after chapter of his life: as one of a group of idealistic youth in the impoverished New Lots/East New York neighborhood, in whom a passion for Yiddishkeit burned, despite their lack of any yeshiva education; in the DP camps after the war; and in his critical role ending the scourge of totally unnecessary autopsies in Israeli hospitals in the '60s. Before entering the hospital for the last time, he told his son Rabbi Akiva Birnbaum, "This may be my last fight. But I'm going to fight all the way."
Lieutenant Birnbaum struck a chord and quickly became one of ArtScroll's all-time best-sellers. Readers recognized a "normal" person like themselves, placed in extraordinary circumstances. Reb Meyer's life had not been a bed of roses. He experienced hunger as a youngster, the loss of a younger brother in the Normandy landing, divorce, and bankruptcy. Yet his simchas chayim, in the words of his daughter-in-law Rebbetzin Blimie Birnbaum, was palpable. He could put any problem on the shelf and not just carry on, but do so with boundless gratitude to whom Hashem. He felt himself to be the Ribbono shel Olam's beloved "ben yachid."
People in pain, wrote to him from around the globe. He kept thousands of letters from readers who had been uplifted by Lieutenant Birnbaum, and tried to answer all of them. Something about his story moved and gave hope to many who were suffering – abused wives, off-the-derech children – just as he had once given hope to those in the DP camps who thought they had nothing left to live for.
In the later capacity, said the renowned Mashgiach Rabbi Don Segal in his eulogy, he "blew ruach chayim (the breath of life) into those who were nothing but bones." He assured despondent survivors that he was a rich man and would provide them with jobs when the arrived in America. Though the first part was far from true, the great figures of that era, such as Irving Bunim and Mike Tress, made good on the promise. Wherever he went in his later years, he was accosted by survivors who remembered the tall American soldier who had delivered thousands of letters and packages to survivors sent through the Army Post Office.
The fame from Lieutenant Birnbaum allowed him to fulfill his favorite role – that of a loving father giving to his children. (He had sixteen children of his own.) In the heyday of Mauzone Foods, it was a factory of chesed. He used to put a long finger under the scale to hold it up, while measuring out the orders of widows and wives of talmidei chachamim. Only Rabbi Aharon Kotler's rebbetzin, ever caught him doing so.
For more than thirty years, he packed his car and later a Mitsubishi van in a manner that would have done credit to any college fraternity for his morning drive to the Kosel, where he had special permission, in his last years, to drive all the way to the entrance to the men's section. Later in the day, he would cruise the streets looking for people in distress to transport. Every Shabbos, the Birnbaum home was filled with either yeshiva bochurim or seminary girls eager to soak up his joy and hear his stories first-hand.
DESPITE ALL I KNEW ABOUT LIEUTENANT BIRNBAUM, nothing prepared me for the sight of hundreds of talmidei chachamim at his levaya just before Shabbos. Besides his son Rabbi Akiva Birnbaum, the maspidim included Rabbi Yitzchak Ezrachi of Mirrer Yeshiva, a long-time neighbor; Rabbi Tzvi Cheshin, the recognized ari shebe'chabura of Mirrer Yeshiva for four decades; and Rabbi Don Segal. Other major Torah figures wanted to be maspid, but time did not allow. Rabbi Ezrachi expressed his kinas sofrim for Reb Meyer's portion in the World to Come, and said that he did not know if there was another person in the generation with as many zechuyos (merits) as Reb Meyer.
In the midst of the hespedim, 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 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.
Gedolei Torah recognized greatness in Reb Meyer. He exemplified the temimus (simplicity/purity) that Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz used to say characterized his generation of Americans. His kavod for rabbonim was without limit. Reb Meyer and friends like the late Reb Moshe Swerdloff gathered around Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner upon his arrival in New York from Europe, and later did everything possible to help Rabbi Leib Malin and other great survivors of the Mirrer in Shanghai establish Yeshivas Bais HaTalmud.
Rabbi Beinisch Finkel, the late Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir, was famous for never accepting a favor from anyone. Yet he accepted a ride from Reb Meyer, from the very first day the latter started driving to the haneitz minyan at the Kosel, and would even ask Reb Meyer to drive him to various simchos. He knew that he was giving Reb Meyer boundless joy by doing so.
Every morning at the Kosel, Reb Meyer would read through pages of names of people in tzar before the start of davening. Once, in his last years, he exclaimed, "Ribbono shel Olam, I have no more strength, You have to bring Mashiach." His Rosh Hashanah berachah to his fellow mispallelim at the Kosel this past Erev Rosh Hashanah was: "Next year, may we be zocheh to gather on the other side of the Kosel."
May he continue to implore Hashem, Whom he always addressed as a beloved son speaking to his Father, on behalf of Klal Yisrael, from his high place on the other side.