The ship set sail with over 900 Jewish refugees and was rebuffed by the United States and Canada.
During World War I, Max Loewe was a hero fighting for his country Germany and earning the coveted Iron Cross. Twenty years later, like Jews across Germany, he found himself in a very different country. Under Nazism, Jews were barred from virtually all professions and forbidden even to set foot into many public spaces.
In 1937 German authorities had built the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp near the picturesque German town of Weimar. At first primarily political dissenters found themselves imprisoned there, and in 1939 Jews began to be sent to the prison camp where they received brutal, often fatal, treatment at the hands of sadistic guards. Max Loewe was one of the many thousands of Jews sent to Buchenwald. He was beaten so severely by guards that afterwards he walked with a pronounced limp.
Max was released from Buchenwald and he and his wife desperately tried to find a way out of Germany. By 1939, only wealthy Jews could leave: they had to pay a steep fee to leave the country, and high payments to other countries that might be willing to offer visas to let them in.
Other countries also refused to take in large numbers of desperate refugees. In Britain, the notorious 1939 White Paper limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to just 75,000 over five years. One by one, the nations of the world shut their doors against the Jews.
One marked exception was Cuba. The island nation allowed tourists to visit without a visa. Cuba's corrupt director of immigration, Manuel Benitez, however, began issue "landing permits" to visitors that looked like visas. It was a money-maker for him and gave assurance to hundreds of desperate Jews that Cuba would allow them to visit, escaping the horrors of Nazi Germany. Max Loewe was one of the many Jews to obtain one of these so-called "Benitez visas".
Hundreds of other Jews were allowed to leave Germany on the condition that they pledged never to return. They agreed to draconian terms that if they were ever to come back to Nazi Germany, the would be thrown into a concentration camp once more.
Over 900 Jews, including Loewe and his wife, booked passage on the cruise ship MS St. Louis, departing from Hamburg in Germany and destined for Havana. The ship was a luxury liner but virtually none of its passengers were taking a vacation. Virtually all of the 937 passengers on board were Jewish refugees. On May 13, 1939, the ship set sail with great fanfare. A band played and friends and relatives lined the shore, waving goodbye. The passengers watched as their homeland became a small dot on the horizon.
Before setting sail, Captain Gustav Schroder called a meeting with his 231-member crew, explaining that the passengers were all paying guests and were to be treated with the utmost dignity, even though they were Jews. He ordered the large portrait of Adolf Hitler taken down from the ship's Grand Salon so that his Jewish guests would feel more comfortable.
That night, Cpt. Schroder recorded in his diary: "There is a somewhat nervous disposition among the passengers… Despite this, everyone seems convinced they will never see Germany again. Touching departure scenes have taken place. Many seem light of heart, having left their homes. Others take it heavily. But beautiful weather, pure sea air, good food, and attentive service will soon provide the usual worry-free atmosphere of long sea voyages. Painful impressions on land disappear quickly at sea and soon seem merely like dreams."
For two weeks, the passengers enjoyed the sensation of freedom that had eluded them so long back in Germany. Alice Oster, who was in her 20s during the journey, recalled the thrill of hearing an orchestra play Strauss, something denied to Jews in Germany.
They didn't yet realize that the "Benitez visas" that virtually all of the St. Louis' passengers held were worthless.
Unbeknownst to the Jewish passengers, anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish feeling was running high in Cuba, and the authorities were under intense pressure to stop allowing Jewish refugees to settle in the island. An anti-Jewish rally in May drew 40,000 Cubans, the largest crowd ever assembled in the country. On May 5, eight days before the St. Louis even set sail, Cuba's President Frederico Laredo Bru stopped honoring Benitez's landing rights. They didn't yet realize that the "Benitez visas" that virtually all of the St. Louis' passengers held were worthless.
Early in the morning on May 27, 1939, bells rang out on the St. Louis alerting passengers that they'd arrived in Cuba. At first, nobody was worried about the fact that instead of pulling up to a dock, the ship was anchored in the middle of the harbor. By afternoon, however, Cuban police officers stood guard at the harbors piers and the passengers began to realize something was horribly wrong.
Later on, Cuban officials boarded the ship and marked the refugees' passports with a big "R" for return. The passengers panicked. Many had relatives already living in Cuba and their worried friends and relations chartered boats to come up to the St. Louis so they could shout messages at the passengers trapped on board. Four Spanish citizens and two Cubans were allowed off, as well as 22 Jews who had full Cuban visas enabling them to settle permanently on the island. For the over 900 Jews without the right papers, Cuba seemed like a distant dream.
Liesl Joseph Loeb, who travelled on the St. Louis as a child, later recalled the passengers' despair: "At the time we were in the harbor of Havana and things just weren't moving along. We had some suicide attempts, and there was near panic on board because...many of the men all had to sign they would never return to Germany and if we had returned to Germany, the only place where we would have ended up was in a concentration camp because we had no homes left. We had no money left and we had nothing left… The world just didn't care."
One of those passengers contemplating suicide rather than go back to Germany was Max Loewe. On the night of May 30, 1939, while the St. Louis was still docked in Havana's harbor, he slit his wrists then jumped overboard. Miraculously, he was fished out of the water by another passenger who jumped in after him and was rushed to the Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana, the only visa-less Jew to reach Cuban soil.
A group of passengers formed a committee to negotiate with the Cuban authorities, and a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee travelled to Havana to offer President Bru funds if he would take in the refugees. For a while, it seemed that Bru might accept money in exchange for the Jews. The Joint Distribution Committee had offered $125,000 to accept the Jews. President Bru insisted he wanted four times that, then broke off negotiations abruptly, declaring he would not allow the refugees to disembark.
Cpt. Schroder didn't want to give up. Instead of steering his ship back towards Germany, he headed north, to Florida. He anchored off the coast of Miami, hoping that negotiations could continue and that America would agree to take in his passengers.
The St. Louis passengers went into action. The ship's children mailed stacks of letters to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt begging her to take them in. The adult passengers sent a telegram to President Roosevelt reading "Most urgently repeat plea for help for the passengers of the St. Louis. Mr. President help the nine hundred passengers among them over four hundred women and children."
American newspapers covered the plight of the St. Louis extensively. Many noted that the ship was running low on food and water. Hollywood stars sent telegrams to Pres. Roosevelt urging him to accept the refugees, to no avail. The only official response from the US Government was to send Coast Guard ships and airplanes to follow the St. Louis to make sure it didn't make landfall.
Cpt. Schroder continued to try and find local islands in which to dock, but his search proved fruitless. For a while it seemed that the St. Louis might be allowed into the Dominican Republic, or into an island off the coast of Cuba. But he was never given permission and finally, on June 7, he started travelling - slowly and circuitously to prolong his journey - back to Germany.
The Joint Distribution Committee continued to work feverishly to prevent the passengers from returning to Germany. On June 13, with the St. Louis still at sea, they announced a deal. The Committee had pledged $500,000 to four countries, and in return the Governments of Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium agreed to take in the refugees. The ship was nearly back in Europe, and the passengers felt they'd had a sudden reprieve from near-certain death. Instead of Nazi Germany, they would surely now be able to build new lives elsewhere. On July 17, the St. Louis docked in Antwerp; from there the passengers were sent to their new homes.
England agreed to take in 287 refugees. One of these was Max Loewe; once he'd recovered enough to travel, he was forced to leave Cuba and moved to Britain. France took in 224 passengers, Belgium took in 214 and the Netherlands took 181. The refugees had no way of knowing that soon most of these countries would be part of the Third Reich and their Jewish communities destroyed.
The passengers of the St. Louis weren't entirely typical of European Jews, and their survival rate was higher than for many of their compatriots. Many had relatives abroad and some were able to receive visas to other countries. 87 of the original passengers were able to emigrate out of Europe before Germany took over most of the continent in 1940. Virtually all of the passengers resettled in Britain survived the war, and they were aided by the American Joint Distribution Committee financially so they did not become a burden on the state. However the passengers forced to live in France, the Netherlands and Belgium faced the full fury of the Nazi killing machine. 254 St. Louis passengers were murdered in the Holocaust, most in Auschwitz and Sobibor.
My grandfather lived in Vienna and was only able to escape Nazi Europe after going into hiding in 1940. He was in Germany in July 1939 when the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe and he always used to tell me that was the worst day of his life. He listened to Hitler on the radio, ranting and raving that it wasn't just him, it wasn't only Nazis, who hated Jews. "See, the whole world hates the Jews" my grandfather recalled Hitler screaming.
Knowing that the St. Louis with its cargo of over 900 Jews had been rebuffed, not only by Cuba and the Dominican Republic, but by the United States as well, my grandfather, for the first time, felt that the whole world was indeed turning its back on Europe's Jews.
10 Trips of a Lifetime Everyone Should Take
Mar 1, 2019
Even if you start with the premise that all travel is good travel, as we tend to around here, there are still those rare trips that well and truly rock your world. Not just while you're on them, using the mind blown emoji for every photo you share—but long after you're home. And quite possibly, for all time.
There's no fixed list of essential ingredients, granted, but it probably includes a location that's not right around the corner ( really getting away is key), plus dreamy scenery, cultural riches, immersive experiences—and obviously, life-altering food.
When the elements align, there's an indefinable bonus quality—a certain otherness—that adds the perfect pixie dust. We're talking about travel that makes you stop and think about how big—and small—and insanely gorgeous the world is. And while half the fun is figuring out the exact right mix for yourself, we're at least giving you a head start: Check out these 10 stellar options.
From Rome to Monte Carlo
Start to finish, this is a trip of mosts: You'll begin in one of the most ancient outposts on earth, you'll end with one of the most decadent—and in between, you'll pop into some of the most exquisite ports. Yes, we're talking about a cruise here—but a very specific kind: on a ship that's small enough to shimmy into the places the big boys can't. (Or big girls, if every ship's a she to you.)
Then, taking a small ship from the nearby port of Civitavecchia, make your way up the Mediterranean coast. Soon, you'll be face-to-façade with the yellow, pink and ochre fishermen's houses that line Portofino's harbor, where you'll see why many a crooner hasfound his love here—and why Hollywood has, too. Stop into the long-time celeb favorite Hotel Splendido, where the house pesto is a must (and that's saying something in Liguria, the sauce's spiritual birthplace).
At a certain point along the coast—whether in chic St. Tropez or old-timey Sanary-sur-Mer (where Jacques Cousteau had a place)—you'll suddenly realize that you're very relaxed, and life, as the T-shirts say, is good. To go full-tilt grand, however, head to Monaco, the tiny principality with glamour to spare, where you can catch the Grand Prix if you time your trip right. Whenever you visit, hit the opulent 18th century casino (does it look familiar—perhaps from Goldeneye or Ocean's Twelve?), where you can try your hand at Twenty-One—or just the Roulette prix fixe at Salon Rose.
Venturing through Vietnam
If immersion is what you're after—and it should be on a trip of a lifetime—Vietnam's capital ensures that no other outcome is possible: Step into the streets of Hanoi, and you're sucked into a glorious vortex—scooters whizzing past you from every direction, pagodas and palaces encircling you, and the scent of some of the world's best street food giving you a contact culinary high. Spend at least a couple of days soaking in the mix of Southeast Asian, Chinese and French influences here; eat all you can—including at the Parts Unknown pilgrimage site Bún chả Hương Liên, whose owners have enshrined the table where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama shared lunch conversation and beers. And don't leave without trying the local egg coffee at the hidden away Cafe Pho Co, where you'll also get rooftop views of the Hoan Kiem lake. You'll also want to hit Hang Gai, the silk street, for lush textiles and custom-tailored clothes before you start making your way down the length of the country.
Once you're off, you'll find yourself in a whole series of otherworldly settings—from the limestone outcroppings you'll want to boat through in Halong Bay to the terraced rice fields you'll want to bike around in Nam Cang village. Hike through hills and cardamom fields, kayak across mountain-ringed lakes, and watch the water buffalo go by. Once you reach Ho Chi Minh, take a day trip to the extravagantly painted Cao Dai temple, home to a unique blend of Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism. But whatever the belief system you subscribe to (or don't), you can't help but feel transported here.
London to Paris
Pair two grandes dames—especially two that have so much going on this year—and you've got one epic European culture-fest. On the English side of the Channel, you'll find a yearlong 200th birthday party for Queen Victoria—to say nothing of the literal birth day revelry that awaits the newest member of the royal family, Baby Sussex. At the museum named for the child's great-great-great-great grandparents, you have the rare opportunity to catch the brand new Mary Quant exhibit along with the already sold-out Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibit (for which a limited number of extra tickets will become available daily). Also be sure to see the Tate Britain's Sixty Years, a retelling of the story of modern British art through a female lens—and the museum's biggest show of the year. On a more somber note, the city will be commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day with special exhibitions at the Churchill War Rooms, among other Imperial War Museums.
Of course, you shouldn't spend your entire visit in museums: Drink in the views (plus a bit of bubbly, if you book a tasting) on the London Eye, have tea at the Ritz or Savoy (don't skimp on the clotted cream with your scones), take in a show in the West End, check out Banksy's graffiti in Shoreditch, and stroll through Queen Mary's Rose Garden (12,000 rose bushes and counting) in Regent's Park before you jump on the high-speed Eurostar across the Chunnel to Paris.
Once you're done gaping at the Eiffel Tower and zinc-topped limestone buildings, hop a boat down the Seine and marvel at the gorgeous array of bridges that span the river. Go to Notre Dame, then line up for a small scoop of the famed nearby Berthillon ice cream. (Try the cassis sorbet. You're welcome.) Of course, you'll want to say hello to Mona Lisa, but don't miss the Courtauld Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton—or the Adventure of the Blue Rider at Musée de l'Orangerie. And this trip of a lifetime will obviously involve the cuisine the city is known for—whether a pull-out-all-the-stops meal at one of the city's oldest restaurants, or the prize-winning brioche feuilletée at Pâtisserie des Rêves, or hours' worth of glorious grazing at the Taste of Paris Festival.
The Galapagos Islands
Unleash your inner naturalist in one of the most storied spots on earth: The Ecuadorian archipelago known as the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin famously developed his Theory of Evolution. The animals still thriving here are the main attraction—you'll get up close and personal with sea lions, giant tortoises, mountains of iguanas and blue- and red-footed boobies, among other colorful characters—but the landscape itself is stunningly varied, with sugary beaches, brooding cliffs, black lava formations and water in every imaginable shade of blue. The way to go: a small ship staffed with naturalists who'll have you ready to defend a dissertation on wildlife conservation—and who'll get you out kayaking, hiking and snorkeling (ever seen penguins, tropical fish and hammerhead sharks over the course of a single swim?).
Don't miss a stop in Quito, Ecuador's Andean capital and a UNESCO World Heritage site—especially gorgeous after a years-long, $200 million facelift. The city is built on Incan remains and rife with Baroque churches and monasteries. Keep your energy up with maracuya (passion fruit) juice and addictive empanadas de viento (fluffy cheese empanadas dusted with sugar), and consider extending your stay at a recently opened hotel that encourages you to go local.
A twirl through Tuscany
If you don't fall hard for Tuscany, you don't have a pulse, period. There are the beautiful rolling hills dotted with elongated cypress trees; the ubiquitous vineyards; the medieval hill towns—and everywhere, the most amazing food, from an otherwise lowly breadstick baked to perfection to the most decadent, truffle-topped creations. Start your journey in the Renaissance treasure that is Florence, where 2019 brings city-wide celebrations of native son Leonardo Da Vinci on the 500th anniversary of his death. Of course, you should also see such masterpieces as Michaelangelo's David at the Galleria dell'Accademia and the magnificent Massacio fresco tucked into the tiny Brancacci Chapel. Walk over the famed medieval Ponte Vecchio—and hey, this being a trip of a lifetime, pick up a bauble from Fratelli Piccini, one of the bridge's most storied jewelers (and if you're planning to propose to your travel partner in the foreseeable future, note that this the ultimate two birds/one stone opp).
While there's no such thing—ever—as getting your fill of Florence, an entire stunning countryside awaits, so pick up some rental wheels and head to Montecatini, home to regal spas that channel the areas thermal springs. Just half an hour away is Lucca, whose ancient city walls you can walk or even bike. Though it's known as the City of One Hundred Churches—with stunning cathedrals and chapels lining its cobblestone streets—Lucca is also home to what many consider the best gelato in all of Italy. Taste as many flavors as possible (in the name of thorough research, of course), but don't miss the gianduia. And superfoodies take note: You're just about two hours away from the top-ranking restaurant on the World's 50 Best List: Chef Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana (which in and of itself, would make for the trip of a lifetime, in many eaters' estimation).
Japan's Golden Route
Though magical under any circumstances, the so-called Golden Route is about to turn the most ethereal shade of pink—and if you act fast, you can get here for the legendary cherry blossom display along this trail between Tokyo and Kyoto.
The nation's capital is always a hive of activity, from early-morning auctions at the city's brand new fish market to late-night rounds at the izakayas (some big enough to serve 10 patrons, max), but cherry blossom season sends the city into hyperdrive. Hanami—the ritual of celebrating the blooms through picnics, strolls and general merriment—will fill the paths of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Ueno Park and Rikugien Garden, among others. But don't leave town without seeing the cherry blossoms at the iconic Sensoji Temple.
Making your way south, continue the sensory overload—and we mean that in the best way—with a stop at Yamanaka Onsen, a hot spring mountain, where you should stay in a traditional ryokan. At the nearby volcanic national park of Hakone, take a boat ride with epic views of Mt. Fuji. And as you travel through the countryside, stop at Nata-dera Temple, an ancient Buddhist complex of buildings perched on cliffs and tucked into caves. Once in Kyoto, you'll find plenty more cherry blossom viewing opps—Maruyama Park, the Philosophers Path and the Kamogawa River, to name a few—but leave time for the other neighborhood flora, too: specifically, the lush mountain forests of the Fushimi Iniri Shrine and the surreal Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. To see how bamboo shoots are used to exquisite effect in the local cuisine, head to one of the city's embarrassment of Michelin-starred restaurants in the storied Gion (read: Geisha) quarter.
Botswana may be landlocked, but when seasonal rains send water rushing into the legendary Okavango Delta, the place becomes an IRL Disney epic, with all manner of beast wading (or running, if a peckish lion's around) through these waters. So astonishing is the local ecology that UNESCO has added it to the World Heritage list: "An exceptional example of the interaction between climatic, hydrological and biological processes...the Okavango Delta is home to some of the world's most endangered species of large mammal, such as the cheetah, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, African wild dog and lion."
Seeking them out (along with their less endangered compatriots) will become your main objective as soon as you land. And though local safari vehicles are perfectly accustomed to waterlogged game drives, one of the most sublime wildlife experiences you can have—here or anywhere—is to boat out among the ellies, hippos and zebra, or go on a heli-safari. Back at your camp, the wildlife show typically continues, with creatures ambling by as you laze in a hammock or plunge pool. The luxe-leaning area lodges—i.e., the ones befitting of a trip of a lifetime—also offer everything from massage on your balcony to private barbecue dinners under the stars.
Island-hopping through French Polynesia
Raise your hand if you shoulda, coulda, woulda gone to the South Pacific on your honeymoon. For anyone still dreaming of those hidden turquoise coves, cascade-filled jungles and powdered sugar motus, we say go get 'em—and go big: There are so many unreal islands to choose from, don't stop at one. Look for cruises that string together at least three of the Society Islands (a perfect trio: the pointy-peaked Bora Bora, the Edenic Moorea, and the vanilla-scented Taha'a).
If you've got a bit more time, try to tack on the Tuamotus as well (divers love Rangiroa, while the shallows of Fakarava are so full of marine life that snorkelers do particularly well in this UNESCO biosphere reserve). And if—in the trip-of-a-lifetime spirit—you want to go for broke, add the Marquesas, too. On Hiva Oa alone, you'll find the archipelago's largest tiki, a series of impressive petroglyphs—and the graves of Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel.
Spain's dynamic dos
On its own, Madrid makes for a stellar getaway. Ditto for Barcelona. But combine the two—and throw in some major local happenings—and you've got one for the books. Start in Bohemian Barcelona, where the Mediterranean makes for a gorgeous, if familiar, backdrop—while the completely original architecture of Gaudi transports you to another realm. His tile-covered structures in Parc Guell will convince you that you've wandered into a Dr. Seuss drawing and the Sagrada Familia—having just received the permits to complete construction, 136 years into the job!—will simply awe you. Also spend time on Las Ramblas boulevard, the pulse of the city, where you'll find street performers, cafes, and La Boqueria—a jaw-dropping food market, filled to the rafters with all manner of meats, cheeses, pastries and candies. Visit the Gothic Quarter, the oldest part of town, and join the locals for afternoon churros and hot chocolate, an especially welcome treat if you're here in the fall or winter.
Next stop, after traveling first class on a high-speed train (now's no time to skimp): Madrid, where a global cultural icon—the Museo del Prado—happens to be celebrating the big 2-0-0. Though the museum's exact birthday will take place in November, you'll find various commemorative exhibits all year. If you are here in November, also note that one of the city's patron saints—the Virgen de la Almudena—gets a big fiesta on the 9th, with a procession, mass and traditional costume and dance parties in the street.
You'll also want to visit the Reina Sofia museum (home to Picasso's Guernica); the stunning Royal Palace, and Botín—not just Madrid's oldest restaurant (where Goya once waited tables!), but the world's oldest, according to Guinness World Records.
A deep dive Down Under
Yes, Oz is dauntingly huge—what with it being the world's only country and continent. But this journey being a trip of a lifetime, grant yourself a couple of weeks, and you can cover a shocking amount of gorgeous ground (internal flights, even to the boonies, are both plentiful and reasonable in Australia). Of course, you want to check out Sydney, the harbor, the Opera House, maybe a nearby vineyard and the surfers at Manly Beach. Or perhaps your idea of the perfect city stay is Melbourne, with its art-filled alleys, cult-favorite restaurants and nearby natural wonders. Point is, once you've had a taste of Australia's most celebrated cities, get out into the wild.
Consider a flight to Alice Springs, in the nation's stunning Red Center (or Red Centre, as locals would prefer), where just standing before Uluru merits the transoceanic flight. Hike around the massive, ancient and locally sacred rock—but not up it. Catch Bruce Munro's recently extended—utterly surreal—light installation at the site, either over dinner or at dawn. Learn about Anangu dot-painting—and maybe even take a class in it—from local masters. And don't miss a hike through Kata Tjuta's Valley of the Winds or Walpa Gorge. If you stay at Longitude 131, as you'll want to consider under these trip-of-a-lifetime circumstances, ask that your bespoke outdoor daybed be made up for at least one overnight under the stars (there will be a fire, liqueur and treats at turndown, FYI).
An inspiring true story about two Chaims and the miracle of life.
My wife Chavi and I were visiting my folks in California. We picked a random Shabbat to go out there and went to the local Chabad for services. A family from out of town was also there that Shabbat celebrating their daughter's Bat Mitzvah. We stayed for the Kiddush and the dynamic Rabbi Mendy Cohen led the entire community in singing, inspiring Torah learning and some hearty l'chaims. The party continued until late in the afternoon.
At some point, I asked the father of the Bat Mitzvah where they originally came from and he told me he was from Mexico City and had converted to Judaism many years ago before he had his kids.
Rabbi Welton with Holocaust survivor Chaim Grossman while wearing suit hand-tailored by Holocaust survivor Martin Greenfield.
"So why'd you pick your Hebrew name of Chaim?"
He told me that he had once spent a Friday night Shabbat service at a synagogue in Westchester, NY back when he was just starting out on his spiritual journey. One of his Rabbis had told him that if he ever met a Holocaust survivor, he should remember these words:
"A Holocaust survivor who doesn't believe in God....is a normal person. A Holocaust survivor who does...is an angel."
During that Friday night service, as they were dancing around welcoming the holiness of the Shabbat Queen, he looked down at the arm of the person he was holding hands with and saw numbers. He felt overwhelmed that he was dancing with an angel and couldn't control the urge to ask the man his name.
The old man smiled and said, "Chaim." At that moment, this man from Mexico City decided that when it came the time to pick his Hebrew name, he would name himself after the angel he was lucky to dance with. Years passed and he never saw the man again.
I asked this father, "Is the survivor's name Chaim Grossman?"
His mouth dropped open. "How do you know that?"
I told him I'm the Rabbi of a synagogue in Westchester. One of my congregants survived Buchenwald, went on to become a pilot in the Israeli Defense Forces, and then immigrated to America. His name is Chaim.
This father began to cry. He didn't even known that Chaim Grossman was still alive. I leaned in close to him and told him that Chaim Grossman was very much alive and that I would be seeing him the following Shabbat. After Shabbat , we took this photo as this father wanted to send his love to his "Godfather."
The author with Chaim Valencia.
The next Shabbat, I asked Chaim Grossman to sit in the center of the synagogue as I began my sermon. I told him that 3,000 miles away there lived a man that carried his name and who was raising his family in a traditional, observant home.
"This is incredible," I said. "What is the probability that on the exact Shabbat, the only Shabbat in the entire year that we would fly out to California, it would be the same Shabbat of his daughter's Bat Mitzvah? What are the chances that after hours of celebrating, we would have that conversation about the origin of his name? And what are the chances that the Shabbat for which I would return to New York City to tell this story to his namesake would be the same Shabbat on which we read the Torah portion of Shemot. (Exodus) which literally means "Names," as our Sages teach that the way our ancestors broke free of their slavery was by keeping their Jewish names!"
I then pulled out the photo, printed and framed, and looked Chaim in the eye. As he raised his numbered arm to receive the photo of his "Godson," everyone began to cry. You see, Chaim had never been blessed with any children. And yet now he had a proud Jew halfway around the world who was carrying his name and who would pass it on to his children's children's children.
I will never forget the moment when Chaim stood up and blessed God.
I will never forget the deafening applause that followed.
And I will never forget the image of this holy Holocaust survivor hobbling out of the synagogue holding tightly onto the framed photo of a miracle.
As my father, Rabbi Benzion Welton, taught me, "Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous." I had thought I was going to California on vacation but I was really being sent to bear witness to a profound lesson about "Chaim" which means "Life." As the Talmud says, "If our descendants are alive, then our patriarchs are alive" (Taanit 5b).
Rabbi Welton's latest project is a historical fiction novel for teens aimed to teach Torah values through an exciting story of magic and adventure that takes place during the Spanish Inquisition. To help him, click here.
Rabbi Welton is a writer and educator raised in Berkeley, California.
A member of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Welton graduated from the Machon Ariel Rabbinical Institute in 2005 and from Bellevue University in 2008 with an M.A. in Education. Having served Jewish communities in San Francisco, Sydney and Montreal, he currently resides in New York and specializes working with youth and young adults.To find out more, visit www.RABBIWELTON.com