It has been almost exactly twenty years since I last spent much time in the home of Mrs. Hinde Tress, a"h, who passed away last week. It's easy for me to figure out exactly how long: My youngest son is named Elimelech Gavriel after the legendary Elemelech Gavriel (Mike) Tress, whose biography appeared soon after his birth.
Over the three years I spent working on the They Called Him Mike, I was a frequent visitor in Mrs. Tress's home. Many a day was spent with piles of documents on Mrs. Tress's dining room table or rummaging through the file cabinets in her basement. Some of my happiest hours were going through the file cabinets, which had been organized by the noted historian David Krantzler. One treasure trove was a collection of dozens of letters sent to Mike from Orthodox GIs stationed near the GI camps in Allied-held Germany. They captured first-hand the feelings of survivors, as poured out to Yiddish-speaking American soldiers, and they told another dark tale as well – how American soldiers often treated German civilians better than the Jewish survivors, many of whom were still living on below subsistence diets. I realized that I would likely be the last person ever to read these letters, and I better tell the story right.
Mrs. Tress was extremely solicitous of my every need, though she still spent many hours a day at a job in some Torah institution, even as she approached eighty. Often she would take out an album in which were contained some of the very special photos and documents of her husband's Klal career. I remember there was a copy of a letter from Rav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy"d, to Mike on the occasion of his wedding. Reb Elchonon offered his prayer that "the bond be an everlasting one, for many good years" and signed it "one who is bound to his soul, one who honors and respects [him], who always seeks his peace and welfare." Mike carried the letter in his wallet for the rest of his life.
The chasanah of Mike Tress and Hinde Bagry took place in June 1939. Virtually every major figure in American Orthodoxy of the time was present. The meal was entirely pareve so that everyone could eat without compunction. It was the first chasanah anyone could remember Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the menahel of Torah Vodaas, staying for the meal. (A few years later, Reb Shraga Feivel related a dream at his Tehillim shiur at the 616 Bedford Avenue headquarters of Zeirei Agudath Israel. In his dream, Mashiach asked him who was the clean-shaven fellow standing at the back of the room filled with all the gedolim of the time, and Reb Shraga Feivel answered, "That's the one who brought you.") The wedding was one of the very few at that time to be graced with a mechitzah. After the chasanah, the kallah shocked everyone by putting on a sheitl, something almost unheard of among young women of the time, even those whose mothers covered their hair, as did Mrs. Tress's mother.
With his marriage to Hinde Bagry, Mike had entered into the greater Drebbin clan of Philadelphia (by way of Poltava), among the fiercest defenders of the mesorah at that time in America. (Mrs. Bagry's maiden name was Drebbin.) In his choice of a life partner, Mike succinctly demonstrated how far he had traveled since the day eight years earlier when he – a newly minted college graduate – first walked into the Zeirei Agudath Israel minyan on Rodney Street next to the Stoliner shtiebl.
Mrs. Bagry's mother had married Rabbi Yerucham Diskin, son of the famed Maharil Diskin, after the passing of her first husband. And the values of the greater Drebbin/Bagry/Ackerman family were very much those of the Old Yishuv of Jerusalem. Hinde and her sisters were not allowed to attend coed high school, as was the norm in those days, and instead were enrolled in commercial school courses. Tremendous emphasis was placed on Yiddish as the spoken language and the use of Hebrew as a spoken language was anathema. (Mrs. Hindy Krohn, Mrs. Tress's first cousin and named after the same grandmother, has beautifully evoked the ethos of the Drebbin clan, including the family patriarch Uncle Kalman Drebbin, in her memoir of her Philadelphia childhood The Way it Was.)
In later years, the Bobbe (Mrs. Bagry) lived next door to the Tresses, In her eyes even Agudath Israel, of which her son-in-law was the president, was a bit suspect, and she forbid her older granddaughters from attending the newly opened Bais Yaakov Seminary because she felt that was too much emphasis on learning Hebrew.
MIKE ESTABLISHED HIMSELF AS A LEADER almost from the moment he walked into the Zeirei minyan, Initially, he organized athletic events for what was primarily a young man's social club. But by 1939, all that was long behind him. Already by late 1937, he had met Reb Elchonon Wasserman in person and embarked on creating a national Zeirei movement. By the time of his marriage, he was about to abandon a successful business career for the great undertaking of his life, the heroic rescue and relief work of Zeirei Agudath Israel during the war and in its immediate aftermath.
But all that Mike achieved in the public sphere depended on his wife being a bulwark of strength and calm on the domestic front. The family grew rapidly, while the substantial savings with which Mike began his full-time work at the head of Zeirei (in the initial years without drawing any salary) were rapidly depleted, as Mike often personally covered the expenses of Zeirei's life-saving rescue work.
In the war years, Mike was frequently in Washington D.C. pleading with State Department officials for life-saving visas, or traveling to build the Zeirei movement nationally or to solicit contributions. After the war, he spent two months in the DP camps sleeping on the floor on straw together with the survivors. Throughout his public career, there were long stretches of time, he rarely returned home to eat his supper until 11:00 p.m. at night. His young children would hop out of bed even at that late hour and vie for the honor of helping him off with his coat. And the during the last six years of Mike's far too short life, he was largely an invalid due to coronary disease that had likely been exacerbated by those two months in the DP camps. When he passed away in 1967, the youngest Tress child, Mendel, was only eight, and only a few of the children were married. Though Mike knew well how to make the most of his time with his children, his schedule dictated Mrs. Tress's primary role in child-rearing.
During Mike's prime, the Tress home was a constant beehive of activity and chesed. No family in Williamsburg had more Shabbos guests. Mike would inform out-of-town visitors that they were joining him for a leil Shabbos meal, not invite them. Young men from out-of-town seeking shidduchim made the Tress home their base of operations. The home was filled with visitors, many of who stayed for months at a time. Once an invalid relative came to live for six months and was given the largest bathroom in the house. The rest of the family made due with a single smaller bathroom. After the war, two sisters who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust and were awaiting adoption lived with the family. They were still suffering from severe malnutrition and would awaken almost every night with horrible nightmares. Again almost the entire burden of this generosity fell on Mrs. Tress, who accepted it gladly.
Through good times and bad, the home was according to every one of the children an inordinately happy one, in which they were glad to spend as much time as possible. Mrs. Tress would dance with her daughters in the kitchen. She was alert to the individual needs of every child, and dealt with rambunctious youngsters with absolute calm. When Reb Shmuel Baruch, the oldest son, first brought his new kallah to the home, she could not cross the threshold because a couple of the oldest grandchildren had emptied two cartons of eggs all over the floor, breaking most of them. Mrs. Tress's only reaction: "Look at what a good time the kinderlach had."
The family had numerous special customs, which reinforced their sense of being one family unit. On Purim, the children formed an assembly line for Shaloch Manos – one cutting the cakes as they came out of the oven, another wrapping, a third packing, a fourth labeling and the rest delivering. Before Pesach, the placement of white organdy curtains in the living room signaled that Pesach preparations were complete. Erev Shavuos, hundreds of flowers were delivered to the home from a Manhattan florist. Mike himself would fashion beautiful gladiola arrangements to be sent to various neighborhood families and to decorate the Zeirei headquarters at 616 Bedford Avenue.
But as tight-knit as the family was, they were never seen walking together in Williamsburg. And there are no family portraits of all the children together – rather there is one photo of the girls and one of the boys. Mrs. Tress was extremely concerned about the eyn hara. I was warned early on in the project never to ask her how many children or great-grandchildren she had.
I still bear her lessons about eyn hara from my time in her home. Once I said to her, "I'm going down," and she immediately completed the sentence "to the basement." Later I told her, "This is the last time I'll see you," and again she filled in what I had left unsaid, "on this trip." Since then, I find myself completing all kinds of sentences of others and myself in the same way.
Mike once told a man who was boasting of his investment portfolio, "My children are my investments." And he fully appreciated everything that his wife did to nurture and grow his investments. On leil Shabbos, the rule in the house was that Mrs. Tress did not get up from her seat to serve or clean up.
The reverence of the Tress children for their mother was evident whenever you met them together – at conventions of Agudath Israel of America and once or twice in airports. They hovered near her to anticipate anything she might need and were ever eager to help her in any way. In her 47 years as a widow, only once did she spend a night in her home unaccompanied by a child or grandchild, and even that one time was due to a misunderstanding as to where she would be that night.
I heard many times while I was working on They Called Him Mike that the highlight of any wedding Mrs. Tress attended was her dancing with her daughters to be mesameich es hakallah. The grace with which they danced together was only part of it. (Mrs. Tress's half-brother Yehudah Ackerman, a Stolin-Karlin chassid, is world famous for enlivening chasanos with his beautiful dancing.) Beyond the beauty of the dancing itself was Mrs. Tress's ability to genuinely share in the simcha of others, and finally, the overflowing love of her daughters, and later her granddaughters, for her that made it such a uplifting sight to watch them dance together.
TO RAISE A FAMILY OF ELEVEN yesomim so successfully required much more than the goodness that was obvious in Mrs. Tress's smile and the twinkle in her eye. It demanded rock hard emunah evident in the way she davened and said Tehillim. She bore without complaint not only the early loss of her husband but also of her beloved son Rabbi Avraham Gershon Tress, in many ways the light of the family, at just 36.
The women in the Drebbin family had a certain steely resolve. It was obvious to me that must have possessed it as well from all that she had dealt with all the challenges life had thrown her. But I only saw it on display once. The whole Tress family had gathered around Mrs. Tress's living room table, each with a full copy of the manuscript of They Called Him Mike in front of them. The final family gathering is invariably my least favorite part of writing any biography, and that night was no exception.
Much to my surprise, however, it was Mrs. Tress herself who took the lead in suggesting changes. She would not allow any story in the book that could possibly be interpreted as derogatory towards any person mentioned or might cause anyone embarrassment – no matter how utterly far-fetched that result seemed. It did not matter what her children thought, certainly not what I thought. She taught me that the writing of Jewish history or biography can never excuse any deviation from the Torah's demands. (Happily, none of the changes were in any way material; nor can I remember a single one today.)
When They Called Him Mike was published, it received a predictably favorable review in The Jewish Observer. After all, an Agudath Israel of America publication was not likely to pan the biography of the figure who brought the modern Agudah into being. But still the reviewer did conclude with a complaint: I had not written enough about the remarkable Mrs. Tress. I will confess that comment rankled. Surely, the reviewer knew, I thought to myself, that Mrs. Tress would never have allowed anything beyond the most minimal discussion of her role in the book. More than that would have fallen into the category of embarrassing someone in writing, as far as she was concerned.
I now realize, however, that the reviewer was fully aware of that. And his ostensible criticism of me was only his means of paying tribute to a remarkable woman, who shunned the limelight, fully content to be surrounded by her hundreds and hundreds of descendants (not that she ever counted).
May her memory be a blessing