I once heard Rabbi Moshe Eisemann of Yeshivat Ner Israel describe the virtues of an older generation of German Jews. Few of those who came to age before the World War II had any yeshiva background. By the standards of today, they were not learned. Yet when their yeshiva and Bais Yaakov-trained children returned home with new dinim, they immediately immediately started acting in accord with the new dinim without question. And they produced children who are a crown of glory.
Mr. Julius Halberstadt, who passed away recently, in his nineties, personified that generation of German Jews. I had the privilege of being the Halberstadts’ next door neighbor in Israel for more than twenty years. On their visits to Israel, they served as surrogate grandparents for our children and instructors in the art of child-raising for my wife and me.
Mr. Halberstadt’s early years were rich in great deeds – deeds of which no one who knew him in his later years would have had any suspicion, so little inclined was he to talk about himself. At the beginning of the War, he was interned in the Gur detention camp near Marseilles. The inmates were allowed to leave the camp only one day a week. Many used that day to travel more than an hour to the U.S. consulate in Marseilles to try to arrange visas, but by the time they arrived, the lines were already too long to get in.
On one of those trips, Mr. Halberstadt caught the attention of a distinguished looking gentleman, who turned out to be the consul-general. Mr. Stevenson gave him a pass to come to the consulate every day, and to bring with him the papers of another 30 inmates for processing. The hundreds of visas thus obtained were lifesaving. All those in the Gur detention camp when the Nazis invaded were eventually sent to Auschwitz.
After being warned of the imminent German invasion, Mr. Halberstadt traveled by ship to the United States from Northern Africa. He returned to Europe two years later as a medic in the U.S. Army, participating in the D-Day landing at Normandy. As one of the few German-speaking soldiers, he was given the task of interrogating German POWs. One morning, he overheard one German POW tell another that he had a grenade hidden under his armpit. He immediately pulled out his pistol and told the prisoner to spread his arms. The grenade fell to the ground and disaster was averted.
In the waning days of the war, Mr. Halberstadt traveled to Brussels, where his parents had spent the war in hiding. He had learned their address from a relative in London and surprised them by appearing unannounced at their door in his army uniform.
The Jews of Brussels were then on the verge of starvation. Mr. Halberstadt used his army connections to provide them with desperately needed food. He also used the army postal service to connect Jews in Brussels to their relatives abroad and to receive letters and packages for them.
IT WAS, HOWEVER, MR. HALBERSTADT’S ERLICHKEIT, not the deeds of his youth, that makes him a model for others. His physical appearance – tall, thin, and ramrod straight – mirrored the man: absolutely straight. His children never saw him in tefillin at home. Upon arriving in Israel, his first order of business was always to find out the times of all the nearby minyanim. When in Eretz Yisrael, he would remain at Shachris long after anyone else reciting Tehillim.
No minyan in which he davened started before he arrived. If he wasn’t there, it was not yet time. As he once explained to me, he had a clock at work, a clock at shul, and he knew how long it took between one and the other.
Mr. Halberstadt’s meticulousness about minyanim was an expression of something much deeper. He did not cut corners with the Ribbono shel Olam. His children saw someone who personified, "Shevisi Hashem l’negdi tamid – I have placed Hashem constantly before me."
Ostentation of any kind was anathema to him. Just convincing him to buy a new suit, as long as the old one could be worn, required all his wife’s, yblct"a, persuasive powers. Making money easily held no allure for him. The only money he ever wanted was that he earned with the work of his own hands. Before the War, his mother presciently advised him to learn a trade that would be useable everywhere, and for 67 years, he earned his living as a skilled maker of dental fixtures. Any profits from the business were placed in low interest savings accounts.
That lack of concern with the material world served as a complete protection against all forms of envy and gave the Halberstadts an unequalled ability to participate joyously in others’ simchas. Every day in Israel, they seemed to be going to the simcha of some nephew, niece, greatnephew or greatniece, all of whom they knew by name. A steady stream of family came to visit when they were in the country.
Perhaps the traits that I’m describing seem like small things. They are not. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner once pointed to Mr. Halberstadt on a Shabbos morning in Yeshivat Chaim Berlin and said, "You see that Yid; that’s true aristocracy."
A rabbi who runs a hotline for troubled chareidi teenagers once told me that the best protection parents can provide their children is yashrus (being straight). Your word must be a word. Don’t have your children tell someone you are not home when you are. And above all, never let them suspect that you do not yourself believe the educational messages that you are giving them. In short, no shtick.
The Halbertadt children knew that their Torah education was their father’s most important concern. After joining our Shabbos table once, Mrs. Halberstadt gently reproofed me for not involving my younger children more in the Torah discussion. She shared with me all the ways that her husband had always found to hold the interest of their children in the parashah discussion.
It is thus no surprise that the Halberstadts were blessed with exemplary children. Both sons are menahalim of major yeshivos. And a son-in-law is a maggid shiur. Several grandsons are already known figures in the yeshiva world. At Mr. Halberstadt’s levaya in Eretz Yisrael, the large crowd was almost exclusively comprised of bnei Torah – either family members or talmidim of his sons’ yeshivos.
That itself was the greatest tribute to an erliche Jew, who did not have the chance to learn in yeshiva himself but left behind generations of bnei Torah.