With the observance of Tisha B’ Av almost upon us, a new biography was recently published by ArtScroll entitled Faith Amid the Flames, the story of Holocaust survivor Reb Yosef Friedenson, written by his son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Golding.
In reading though this fascination literary and historical work and the related reactions, I was most touched by the takes of two very distinguished people who have devoted their careers to the enhancement of our people’s history: Ruth Lichtenstein, and Rabbi Chaim David Zwiebel.
Mrs. Lichtenstein, a close personal friend of Reb Friedenson, relates, “Reb Yossel knew history and lived that history, and carried the mission of being the emissary of a generation that is no longer. Had those who were burned in the crematoria been able to select an emissary to perpetuate their memories and their messages, they could not have found a more suitable person than him.”
Rabbi Zwiebel’s passionate and eloquent take was as follows: “At a time when so many of his contemporaries, their lives shattered, redirected their hopes for a Jewish future to movements and lifestyles with no moorings in the Jewish past, Reb Yosef Friedenson believed in the capacity of klal Yisrael to rebuild from the ashes of Churban Europe upon the very same foundations that have sustained the Jewish people since Sinai.”
What follows is the introduction by the book’s author, Rabbi Yosef Golding, to this compilation of Reb Yosef’s memories. Titled “He Waved The Red Flag,” it is an apt and timely reading for Tisha B’Av.
He Waved the Red Flag
By Rabbi Yosef C. Golding
It seems incongruous that I, born and bred a Yankee, a second-generation American, should be the one to bring my shver’s (father-in-law) life-story to the reading public. After all, my father served in the United States Army, I never heard of the word “Holocaust” until my last year in high school, and I don’t even know of a distant cousin who perished in Europe.
Nevertheless, you are holding in your hands the “autobiography” of Reb Yossel Friedenson z”l; it is his handiwork, not mine. Every word came from him, not me; I just edited and compiled … edited and compiled … and edited and compiled some more (full disclosure: I did enhance the English somewhat). And that is why it is written in first person. They are his words; many of the accounts were originally written over the years, in Yiddish, and translated by various wonderful friends of his and printed in Hamodia, the Jewish Observer, Yated, Mishpacha, and numerous other publications.
Much of the material was also gleaned from hours and hours of video testimony given to the Spielberg Foundation, Project Witness, Torah Umesorah, the Rabbi Leib Geliebter Memorial Foundation, and others, as well as six hours of taped discussion between the two of us.
A behind-the-scenes significant contributor to this effort was my late mother-in-law, Mrs. Gittel Leah (Zylberman) Friedenson a”h, who stood by my shver’s side for close to 65 years, from their marriage in the Warsaw Ghetto until she passed on from this world in January of 2006; some of the material was drawn from her oral testimony to the Spielberg Foundation, as well as discussions over the years with her three daughters and sons-in-law: Esther and Chaim Gruenstein, Chana and Moshe Kahn, and Rosie and Yosef Chaim Golding.
There were two major themes that my shver espoused at every one of the simchos he took part in over the past forty-some years. The first was based on a pasuk in Tehillim (92:3), “L’hagid baboker chasdecha, ve’emunascha ba’leilos — To relate Your kindness in the dawn and Your faith in the nights.” Rashi explains the meaning of this pasuk: L’hagid baboker chasdecha: “During the time of redemption,” ve’emunascha ba’leilos: “During the oppression of galus, to believe and to safeguard belief in Your guarantee that all is good and proper.”
How often did we hear him quote this pasuk and how he, personally, witnessed this guarantee as clearly as the brightest day, even during the darkest of nights?
The second theme became somewhat of an inside joke, as we always knew he would preface every family gathering with the words of Hallel (Tehillim 118:1): “Hodu laHashem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo — Give thanks to Hashem for He is good, for His kindness is eternal.”
He believed this, internalized this, and felt it was his responsibility — despite his horrifying experiences during World War II — to impart this belief to his children, to his grandchildren, and to all future descendants.
When I first joined the Friedenson family, I heard the story of Harav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l, speaking about my shver: “When people are embarking on a trip at a train station and the station is packed full of people, there is pandemonium — especially when there are children on the train. The station is crowded with men and women — mothers and fathers — waving their farewells. Everyone is shouting, ‘Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye’ and as the train pulls out, one by one, one person leaves, another person leaves, another leaves, and another … and then the train is winding its way down the tracks.
“However, there is one woman who is still waving her hand … just one. So the station manager comes over to her and says, ‘Everybody is gone. Why are you still waving your hand?’
“She says, ‘Look, you see the train in the distance, there’s a red flag waving. Look at the window — someone is waving a red flag. That’s my son. As long as I can see the red flag, I know I can still wave goodbye to him.’”
Harav Hutner told our family that Reb Yossel Friedenson was the red flag from the she’eiris hapleitah generation. As long as he was waving that red flag, we had a link to the kedoshim of the past. Now, the train has turned the bend, and the red flag is gone.
And that is the reason why I accepted this labor of love: in order to keep that red flag waving for the next generation … and the next … and the next.