One day I'm going to write an article just about Mr. Chaim Weinrib. He deserves it. If for nothing else, just being 94, a survivor of the crematoria of Auschwitz, and patriarch of an incredible family would qualify him for some overdue public recognition and accolade.
But today is not that day. It is a day when Reb Chaim (as he is affectionately known) will play a starring role in this sterling, yet simple saga, and then abruptly retreat to the background to allow others to shine and teach us an unforgettable lesson. It is, in fact, a role he has played to perfection all of his life.
You know, you can sure learn a lot from just standing in the corner. And so, there I was. The meal was over, that glorious Friday night a few weeks ago, and the guests were milling about -- too stuffed to move quickly and too happy to want to leave. I surveyed the scene and reflected on the evening's events. It was as special as we thought it would be.
The bride and groom, married all of one day, radiated with novelty and joy. The Shabbat candles, tall and majestic, danced like it was yesterday. And the speeches, obligatory and plentiful, were actually rather poignant and personal. Who could ask for anything more?
We are not related to the celebratory family, but sometimes friends can be closer than relatives and this was certainly a case in point. We always revel in a Weinrib wedding or Bar Mitzvah or Bris and one of the highlights is sharing some quality time with Reb Chaim.
We were privy to a world nearly totally forgotten and never to be fully understood.
In years past, he would spin a few yarns from pre-war Poland, recount a heart-wrenching tale of horror from his tortured years in Auschwitz, or describe the simple life of immigrants living in Hartford, Connecticut in the 50's and 60's. Truth be told, the memories were never really that clear and his English was peppered with so much Yiddish that most of the club members could never really repeat any of the stories. But no one cared. The details were moot. We knew we were privy to a world nearly totally forgotten and never to be fully understood.
Certainly the 542 Jews of Pietrokov, rounded up into the city's main synagogue by the S.S. in 1942 could never have understood the events of that dreaded day when they seemed destined to meet their Maker. Reb Chaim, his father, brothers and friends recited their final prayers before they were transported to the forest to be shot in cold blood. It seemed out of nowhere that a certain Sender Gotthelf (ironically translated God's help), a Jewish overseer who had supervised factory operations for the Germans, told the S.S. guards that he needed two workers for his knitting mill. His factory was assigned to produce sweaters for the Nazi marauders. And Reb Chaim, sent out to work in his youth in pre-war Europe to help support his family of seven, had learned to knit sweaters. Tragically and incredibly, he and a friend were the only survivors that day.
Reb Chaim's miraculous survival was but a harbinger of a series of Heavenly interventions that allowed him to endure the horrors of Blizhin, Auschwitz, and Allach and eventually settle in the DP camps in Garmisch, Germany. It was there that he met and married Raiza, his soul-mate till today, and a woman of incredible strength and superlative character. In 1948 they were the first refugees in New Britain, Connecticut. They built a family, moved to Hartford, but never forgot the past or God's hand in their salvation.
"Did you see the numbers?"
Amidst the stories we heard from him, our encounters with Reb Chaim were always marked and punctuated by the numbers. Sometimes when he started, sometimes in the middle -- totally out of context -- and sometimes at the end, Reb Chaim would invariably roll up his left sleeve and display the permanent identification given to him by the Nazis, B-2730.
There was no avoiding it; we were never given a choice. Some of us winced, some of us gaped, maybe others cried, but everyone saw the numbers. This man did more than survive -- he thrived and he wore those numbers with immense pride.
For the most part, the years have been kind to Reb Chaim. He has enjoyed comparative good health and basks in the accomplishments of his extraordinary children and many exceptional grandchildren. But having entered his tenth decade, Reb Chaim's short-term memory is naturally, not what it used to be. Having lost an inch or two in posture, this already diminutive giant now shuffles about at family gatherings, quietly minding his own business and drinking from the fruits of his many years of self-effacing sacrifice and guidance.
Frequently he can be seen speaking softly and quickly, to no one in particular, commenting on a circumstance unfolding before him or a flashback from yesteryear. But no matter what his current discourse may be about, his focus shifts abruptly when anyone approaches. As soon as Reb Chaim detects the oncoming visitor, the sleeve goes up and B-2730 appears.
"Did you see the numbers?" he always asks.
More often than not, the visitor had indeed seen the numbers... many times... sometimes as recent as a few minutes ago. The more polite ones indulge Reb Chaim and look again, or pretend, before hurrying off. The majority just reassure him that they have seen the numbers many times before. And many, perhaps understandably, have taken to finding a detour to simply avoid a seemingly purposeless encounter -- human nature, I guess.
Among the aforementioned poignant and personal speeches, that evening, was the one delivered by Rabbi B. As a community leader and beloved teacher, Rabbi B is often besieged by his many followers and admirers to appear, if just for a few moments, at their special occasions. Unable to accommodate everyone, he always makes it a point to grace every Weinrib function.
Rabbi B's schedule -- educational, communal, familial, and social -- is beyond hectic; everyone knows that. Yet, he somehow manages to give the impression that wherever he is at the moment is the place he wants most to be.
I watched him from my corner that remarkable Friday night, marveling at his patience and amazed at his unique brand of warmth and compassion.
"He probably has three other events to go to and is fatigued beyond belief," I reasoned to myself. "And yet no one in this room would know it."
Finally he donned his coat and threaded his way to the front door. I felt glad for him. The pressure on him, though he never shows it, must be enormous. I watched him disappear past the small crowd of well-wishers, into the Shabbat night. It was only a few seconds later when I saw him coming back inside; a forgotten scarf, perhaps.
But no. Rabbi B was pointing his determined stride in the direct line of an elderly Holocaust survivor from Hartford, Connecticut, who was now sitting alone in a crowded living room. He wove his way past the guests he had just bidded farewell to, and approached Reb Chaim. Rabbi B extended his hand and grasped the frail hand of the startled man.
"Good Shabbos, Reb Chaim," he bellowed, loud enough for Reb Chaim to lift his head and notice.
He had nearly been out the door, but he couldn't leave without one final special greeting to someone who needed it.
But Rabbi B wasn't quite done with his mission just yet. He leaned down a bit closer, to be certain that Reb Chaim could hear him.
"Reb Chaim," he said, "show me the numbers."
Reb Chaim looked shocked. No one had ever asked to see the numbers.
Reb Chaim looked shocked. No one had ever asked to see the numbers. It was only four words, but it was a gift of the highest order possible. It was something most of us took pain to avoid doing. A radiant glow slithered across his weathered, but gentle face, as he slid up his shirt sleeve to reveal the badge of honor that defined him. I couldn't take my eyes off Reb Chaim and I couldn't get over the wisdom, the tenderheartedness, and the love of a man like Rabbi B.
Rabbi B examined B-2730 as if he had never seen it before. Then he lifted Reb Chaim's arm, brought it to his lips and kissed the numbers. I don't believe I have ever seen anyone who looked as grateful and as understood and as cared for, as Reb Chaim at that moment. A minute later Rabbi B was gone into the night.
It was a half an hour later when I began my long walk home. I thought about all the opportunities I had missed to go the extra yard to give someone a greeting, a smile, a touch, a kiss... or any expression of care.
B-2730. Numbers I will never forget.