Freedom In Prison: A Story Of My Great-Grandfather
Posted by Aryae Coopersmith on Jul 7, 2020
-- Freedom in Prison: a Story of my Great-Grandfather --
As I knock on the door of Grandpa Max’s apartment on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx in the fall of 1956, I’m feeling a little nervous. This is an important visit, and the first time I’ve come on my own from New Jersey, without my parents, by bus and subway, to see him.
I’m flooded with memories of my early childhood in the 1940s. He lived in this same apartment back then, on the second floor, with Grandma Minnie before she passed away. My mom and dad and I and my little brother lived up on the fifth floor. When we went to visit them, we’d go to the elevator and press “2.” Then we’d get out, walk down the hall, and knock on their door. When Grandma Minnie let us in, we could smell the food in the kitchen.
Their living room had high bookshelves filled with books of all sizes and colors, hundreds of them. Grandpa Max never had any formal schooling beyond age 12 in the old country. At age 15 he was able to get a steamship ticket and traveled alone to America, not speaking a word of English, seeking a better life. By age 20 he was running his own successful business, a dress factory. He was able to bring his parents, and all of his brothers except the oldest, who wanted to stay in Europe, to America. Whenever he wasn’t working, Grandpa Max loved to read. He had an insatiable desire for books and learning.
Grandpa Max opens the door, smiles at me, puts his hands on my shoulders and invites me into the living room. We sit at the table, where he’s prepared fruit and cookies, club soda, and Coca Cola.
“You’re going to be bar-mitzvah soon,” he says, “so it’s time for us to talk.”
That’s when I learn the story of my great-grandfather. His Hebrew name is Shmuel, which translates as Samuel, or Shmiel in Yiddish. My brothers and I have been taught to call him Great-Grandpa Shmiel. He is over 90 and lives alone, not far from here, having outlived three wives. Every morning he walks to the nearby shul, where he spends the day studying Talmud, the 63-volume compendium of Jewish law and theology that was historically the centerpiece of Jewish life.
“When my father, your great-grandfather, was a young man in the old country,” says Grandpa Max, “in what was then Austria-Hungary, he had to leave home and earn his own living. The only skill he had was his learning in Torah and Talmud. So he would walk from town to town and offer himself as a melamed, a tutor, to the children of wealthy Jewish families.”
In one little town there was a pious family with three girls. In those days there was no formal education for girls, but their parents wanted them educated anyway, so they hired Shmuel. There was a spare bedroom in the basement where he could stay. He would teach them reading and writing, sacred texts from the Torah and prayers, as well the laws and customs that girls from pious Jewish families were expected to follow.
Shmuel got along well with the girls, especially with the oldest, Miriam, who was just a year younger than he. Sometimes, after the lessons were over, before her mother called her to do her chores, Miriam would stay for a few minutes to talk with Shmuel. They discovered they had a lot in common.
Then Shmuel would go to the synagogue to spend the rest of the day praying and studying Talmud with the older men there.
One day two officers from Emperor Franz Joseph’s army arrived. The army needed more recruits to send to the war front in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and these officers were traveling through the countryside to forcibly recruit Jewish young men and boys. They informed Hershel, the girls’ father, that Shmuel was required to go with them. Hershel pleaded with them, saying that they needed him here, and pointing out that Shmuel would not make a very good soldier. The officers pointed out that things didn’t go well for Jews in villages where people did not obey the emperor’s orders.
So Shmuel had to pack his belongings, go with the officers, and he was sent to the Bosnian front.
When he got there, they discovered that Hershel was right: Shmuel was really not great soldier material. So they made him a prison guard, in a prison where they were keeping Bosnian soldiers. And they made it clear: as long as no prisoners escaped, Shmuel would be free to run the prison as he liked. But if anyone escaped, he would be punished.
How was Shmuel, a naive young kid who knew nothing about prisons, going to run a prison full of battle-scared soldiers?
He offered the prisoners a deal. I’ll leave your cells unlocked and let you guys run the prison, he told them. But your part of the deal is, you’ve got to take care of each other, serve the food on time, keep the place clean, and make me look good. And by the way, don’t even think of escaping. You know what those guys with guns out there will do to you if you try.
And maybe when this war is over, we can all go home again.
The prisoners agreed. Shmuel, who had managed to pack a couple of Talmud volumes with him, spent his days studying the sacred texts. And when the officer in charge came to inspect, the prisoners would be back in their cells, everything would be clean and in order, and Shmuel would get high marks for his good work.
The European wars and intrigues of the late 19th century continued. Soldiers on all sides killed and died. Fall turned into winter, and winter into spring. Soon it would be Passover, the time when Jews everywhere celebrate the ancient story of our liberation from slavery in Egypt. Our rabbis and sages tell us: don’t read this story as being just about that generation; this is also about your liberation, and everyone’s liberation, right now.
As a devout Jew, Shmuel was very concerned. The most important mitzvah (spiritual practice) for celebrating our freedom is eating matzah on Passover, the way our ancestors did when they baked the dough on their backs in the desert. But there was no way to get matzah here at the front.
Shmuel worried and worried about this until finally he came up with an idea. He would slip away from the camp, hop a train, and go back to spend Passover with Hershel and his family.
So he rounded up the prisoners and told him his plan. “All you need to do is keep running the prison the way you have been,” he told them. “With God’s help, I should be back in a couple of weeks, and everything will be fine.” And he gave them the keys.
When Hershel saw Shmuel at his doorstep, he nearly fainted. “What are you doing here?” he said.
Shmuel explained his situation. “Can I stay with you for Passover?” he said.
“What! Are you crazy? Do you have any idea of what Franz Joseph’s soldiers would do to us all if they find you here?”
They talked. Hershel could see that this young man didn’t have much choice. “Look,” he said finally. “Stay with us here for the week of Passover. Eat matzah with us. Join us for our Seders (ritual Passover meal). And maybe while you’re here, you can teach the girls some rabbinic commentaries about Passover. But please lay low, and don’t let yourself be seen by the neighbors. And at the end of the week, you must go back.” Shmuel agreed.
One evening as the week was coming to an end, Shmuel and Mariam found themselves alone outside the house. By themselves, away from everyone else, standing under the stars, the world felt peaceful. They had both been thinking a lot about each other in the months he had been away. And even though they had never talked to each other about love, they both knew now: they loved each other and wanted to be married.
“I’ll ask your father tomorrow,” he said.
The next day Hershel nearly exploded. “What, are you crazy?” he said. “You have to get back to the front, and you have to do it now!” Miriam was standing quietly at the other side of the room, looking down.
“I’ll tell you what,” Shmuel said. “What if I leave quietly now, go back to the front, and stay there until I’m properly discharged. When I come back, may I marry your daughter Miriam?”
Hershel looked across the room at Miriam. She looked up at him. “If you can manage to stay out of trouble, and come back in good health and with no problems with the army, and if Miriam wants to wait for you,” he said looking at her, “then I will consent and bless the two of you to be married at that time.” Miriam smiled at her father, and at Shmuel.
“So a couple of days later, your Great-Grandpa Shmiel was back at the prison,” says Grandpa Max. “The prisoners were all there, and everything was fine. They handed him back the keys. And the next day, as he sat down at his table, took out his Talmud book, and studied, the prisoners prepared breakfast.
“Four years later he was discharged. When he showed up at my grandfather Hershel’s doorstep, my mother Miriam was still waiting for him. The next week they were married. Soon my oldest brother was born.”
Grandpa Max is done speaking. We both sit there in silence. For the moment, there’s nothing more to say. In a way that I still can’t articulate, even today, he had prepared me for my bar-mitzvah.
A couple of months later, after the religious service at Congregation Sons of Israel in Palisades Park, New Jersey, family and friends are streaming into the festivities room in back of the sanctuary, to congratulate me on my bar-mitzvah.
The mood is festive, a celebration not just of me, but of the Jewish people. My parents and most of their generation here are the children of immigrants who came from Europe, like Grandpa Max did, in the early years of the 20th century, before World War I. My parents and their friends and relatives here are well dressed and well-off, working hard to be successful.
We are the fortunate ones, the ones who avoided the Holocaust. But most of us also have family members who were not so fortunate, like Grandpa Max’s oldest brother, the one who stayed in Europe, who died in a concentration camp just two months before I was born. Our people have been through so much trauma and suffering, generation after generation, century after century. So the most important thing now is the new future ahead of us here in America.
Then I see Great-Grandpa Shmiel. He came to my bar-mitzvah with Grandpa Max. He’s walking toward me, a little unsteadily, with a wrapped present in his hands. I walk up to him and give him a hug. His hands are shaking as he gives me the present.
“Open it,” he says. I nod, and lead him with me to a table, where we both sit down, and I open the present. I see that he has given me is a pair of tefillin. These are ritual leather boxes that contain tiny scrolls, with the most sacred Hebrew prayers, inside. And the most sacred of all:
God is God
God is One
Traditional Jewish practice — once we are bar-mitzvah — is to say the morning prayers every day and tie one of these to our arm, so that God’s Oneness will be present in all our actions, the other between our eyes, so that we will see God’s Oneness in others, and everywhere we look in this world.
Great-Grandpa Shmiel looks at me and smiles. “I hope you will wear them everyday,” he says.
Ironically that’s the furthest thing from my mind. As I’ve reached ritual spiritual adulthood, I no longer believe in the God I was taught to believe in as a child. I’m no longer interested in the traditional prayers and rituals. I need to wander on my own for a while, find my own way.
I put my arms around him and we hug each other. “Thank you so much Grandpa,” I say, “for connecting me with our history and bringing it into the present. I’ll do my best.”
It will be many years before I start to pray in Hebrew again, much less wear tefillin. But eventually, many years later, I will. Not in the same way he did. But together with so many others at this time in history, of my own faith and others, to continually seek and celebrate the Oneness of God which connects us all.
My great-grandfather’s tefillin today sit on a shelf right next to my bed. And whether I wear them or not, I see them every day. And when I see them I remember. I picture him studying his sacred books while the prisoners are running the prison. And remember that, regardless of any kind of prison where we may find ourselves in this world, we can choose, by tying the Oneness of God to everything we do and everyone we see, freedom.