During the Dense Darkness – The Saving of the Mir Yeshiva
(Continued from last week)
THE DAVID KESTENBAUM STORY
David Kestenbaum also had a busy family, business and philanthropic life. He and Gisella raised seven boys, all born in Leipzig, Germany, and all graduates of Mesifta Torah Vodaath. My grandparents, Elias and Leah Rachel Kestenbaum, left Tarnow for Leipzig in 1914 just before WW I and got into the flourishing fur business. With their five children, they lived a productive and religious life. Son Yakel migrated to New York in 1922 and established a regional office in the fur trade while son Yisrael migrated to London and also built a fur business.
David and the boys attended two Leipzig synagogues—the Broder Shul, a narrow Orthodox synagogue attached to neighboring buildings, a shul that remained intact through Nazism and Allied bombings–and the Eitz Chaim Synagogue. Rabbi Ephraim Carlebach, grand uncle of the famous singer/guitarist Reb Shlomo Carlebach, was the spiritual leader of both these shuls. He was the mesadeh kidushin of my parents’ wedding in 1918. At the same time David was a devoted follower of the Kozhnitze Chassidic movement, Years later in Crown Heights he was an active congregant of the 7th Kozhnitzer Rebbe, the tsaddik Rabbi Israel Hopstein, on President St., Brooklyn.
The good years in Leipzig ended with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi movement. Read the book Lest We Forget by Rabbi Shlomo Wahrman about Leipzig in the Nazi period between 1933 and ’39. You can look at it later.
Elias and his sons were closely monitoring the changes in both the German government and people’s attitudes toward Jews. David was an inveterate newspaper reader; even after arriving to the US in 1936, following his private Talmud lessons, he launched into devouring The Herald Tribune with breakfast. He kept himself informed.
Back in the early ‘30s there was no shortage of press and radio information in Leipzig to lay bare what was happening day by day. His activism at the synagogue and at organizational meetings identified him as a leader in the Leipziger kehilla.
Even before the Gestapo was set up, the German civil police arrested him in the street and brought him to the station house. It was right after Hitler came to power when he sat in the sparse station house near the city’s edge waiting to be registered. One of the cops went outside for a smoke and the other went to the bathroom. David saw his opportunity; he got up, quietly opened the screen door and walked out. The Nazis never caught him.
Meanwhile, on the Keilstrasse, Elias was on his terrace on a warm Shabbat afternoon singing zemirot. Suddenly he felt a cloth draped on his shoulders. It was the Nazi flag with the accursed swastika. After Shabbat, he called his lawyer to prefer charges on his upstairs neighbor whereupon his lawyer informed him “Herr Kestenbaum, zie haben ganishts mer keine rechts in diesem landt” you have no more rights in this country.
It was then in 1933 after the elections that Zeida Kestenbaum knew then that it was time to leave Germany. At one point while he and Bubba Leah Rochel were in London, Gestapo thugs were waiting for them in their apartment. Zeida then gave the order to all his children to drop everything and leave Germany.
We obeyed his orders, left everything and moved to Holland and then to France. There were no suitable yeshivas in either for the boys so we migrated to England from where, in 1936, we boarded the SS Washington to New York Harbor. (See photo) Here is a photo of papa and mama and the seven boys.
The family moved into the house on Ave. J and Ocean Parkway, the stately house with the big stone lions in front. David was busy raising his family with Gittel, building a fur business and being active in Jewish affairs. We davened at the Young Israel of Flatbush. At the same time Reb Dovid was monitoring the ominous situation in Europe. He corresponded with cousins and friends who stayed on, urging them to get out immediately. He recalled the Chofets Chayim’s warning at a lecture in the 1920s in which he said, “there will come a time soon when a war will break out that would make the last war look like child’s play.”
A MIZRACHIST TURNED YESHIVA ACTIVIST
With the clouds of war threatening overseas, Reb Dovid, who had once been an active Mizrachist, turned increasingly to activism in the American yeshiva movement. He saw our talmidei chachamim (torah scholars), our yeshiva students and frum people, due to their appearance, dress and lifestyle, as being the most visible targets of Hitler’s evil racial policies and pronouncements.
In 1938 Reb Dovid met with Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, founder of Mesifta Torah Vodaath, and began working to raise funds for the school and help build Camp Mesifta, the institution’s summer retreat in the Catskills. He also began a close association with Rav Aharon Kotler, founder of the Beth Medrash Gavoah in Lakewood, NJ, now among the world’s two largest rabbinical seminaries.
The Vaad Hatzallah functioned through the war years and the DP period (Displaced Persons) after. There was no mitzvah more urgent in the minds of David Kestenbaum and Vaad Hatzala activists than the saving of lives and the rescue of Jewish captives singled out for ghettoization, humiliation, starvation and disease, for Jews rounded up for transport to concentration and death camps.
As most of the world turned away from the deteriorating fate of the Jews, David Kestenbaum worked tirelessly to help provide affidavits to families and individuals for their rescue through the committee and on his own. He was a man of broad shoulders, of statesmanship and of drive for the job ahead. Much of that drive stemmed from his profound sense of hakoras hatov, thankfulness to Hashem for the insight and ability to escape early with his family and warn others based on his experiences with the Germans and the prediction made long before by the Chofetz Chaim.
The most comprehensive collection of the works of rescue before, during and after the war is found at Yeshiva University’s Vaad Hatzala Collection. It summed up its contributions as follows: “The Vaad did succeed in actually bringing out thousands of Jews from concentration camps and transporting them to Switzerland in 1945, transmitting great sums of money to their agents to negotiate with German officials.”
David Kestenbaum remained active in the Vaad Hatzala until it wound down its activities in 1949. In 1952, David and Gittel travelled to the new State of Israel and soon invested in establishing a refrigerator plant in Haifa.
Of the seven Kestenbaum boys three are still with us. Leonard Kestenbaum of Lawrence and Yerushalayim, former President of Hapoel Hamizrachi of Crown Heights, is the true legator of the Kestenbaum chessed v’emunah. Rav Efraim Kestenbaum, a chemist and producer of oat matsot for wheat allergic people, migrated to Aretz from England some 10 years ago and now lives with parts of the Kestenbaum family in Ramat Beir Shemesh, may they all be happy and live the full life in Eretz Yisrael.
And I, a former journalist, writer and editor at The Jewish Voice, radio newscaster and chazzan, am now a real estate agent in Queens.
David Kestenbaum passed away at age 62 in New York in March of 1957 and is buried in the family plot in the Young Israel of Flatbush tract in Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, Long Island, near the Queens border.
When the seven Kestenbaum boys arrived in New York Harbor in 1936, The Daily News carried a center-fold picture of the smiling family. But what they have been remembered for in the community was their activism in Jewish life and their snappy, harmonic Shabbat zemirot. The sons and grandchildren remember their father or zeidie and his devotion to each one of them. May the memory of his great works and character be a segulah, a treasure trove, to us and to Ahm Yisrael.