My grandfather William Verstandig (z”l) was one tough dude.
After escaping the Nazis as a teenager, he was diagnosed with cancer and given less than a year to live – a diagnosis he promptly rejected, declaring he would go when he was ready and living years longer than the doctors anticipated. My grandfather lived on his own terms, shouldered the tragedy of the Holocaust with dignity and grace, and left an enduring legacy of commitment to Jewish community and causes. There are valuable lessons to be learned from his approach to Judaism.
March 18, 2021, would have been my grandfather’s 100th birthday. I wrote this homage on April 28th (16th of Iyar), the 23rd yahrzeit of his passing. We called him Opi (German for grandfather) and I miss him every day. Moreover, in late 2020, Opi’s younger brother — my Great Uncle Henry “Unkie” Verstandig (z”l) died at the age of 96. For our family, Unkie was the last of a special generation and a devoted man of Torah; his death, coupled with what would have been Opi’s 100th birthday, naturally has caused some reflection about how my generation measures up.
A few words about Opi
Opi’s story was, in many ways, sadly commonplace – born in Germany, barely fleeing the Nazis, losing family members along the way, and making it to America to start a new life. In other ways, his life was extraordinary – arriving in our country with nothing but rising, with his brother, to a prominent role as one of the leaders of New York City’s Diamond District, building a business in Israel, supporting Jewish institutions, and creating a family where all of his six grandchildren attended day schools and Camp Ramah.
When he was 17 years old, Opi lived through Kristallnacht in his hometown, Dusseldorf. There are many stories about that horrible episode, but my family chooses to focus on an uplifting one. The morning after the riots ended, Opi saw a Maccabiah Games flag in an alley, damaged and discarded by the Nazis. He grabbed the flag and smuggled it with him to New York – years later, he would donate it to the Maccabi Museum in Ramat Gan, Israel. I like to think of it as one of Opi’s many acts of revenge, a declaration of Am Yisrael Chai, the Children of Israel live.
While, to me, Opi was larger than life, he was no different than any other man – full of positives and negatives, flaws and foibles. I tend to remember his mischievous side, surprising my siblings and me in a pool at the Tel Aviv Hilton during our family’s first trip to the Promised Land or flashing a Cheshire Cat grin when asking me if I met any cute girls during my Ramah trip to Israel. Chivas Regal was his drink of choice, and during times like this, I find myself raising a glass in his memory.
The Six Million
While Opi was lucky to survive, six million of our brothers’ and sisters’ lives were stolen. Let’s consider the repercussions. There were approximately 16 million Jews in the world prior to World War II. Today, there are close the same number. But for the Holocaust, we likely would have somewhere close to double that number today – in other words, we are missing half our team. Think of all the Torah and mitzvot that are not being sent out to the world as a result. Think of all the synagogues, day schools, and Jewish summer camps that never were built. We must consider this reality as a reminder to do all that we can to pick up the slack and double down on our Jewish people and institutions. The Holocaust was a near-death experience for the entirety of our Jewish people. Yet today, barely 75 years later, our collective feet have come off the gas: day school enrollment is trending down, as is synagogue attendance and overall Jewish communal involvement. If Opi were around, he undoubtedly would push me to eschew comfortable complacency and to act with a greater sense of urgency.
Commitment to Israel
I can barely fathom the experience Opi and others enjoyed at the founding of the modern State of Israel. After finding their footing in America, Opi and Unkie were among the early American Jews to build businesses in Israel. In many ways, these men were pioneers, leading the way for generations to come. They rushed to support the fledgling Jewish State, doggedly caring for her as though she were their own child.
I am sure Opi would agree that Israel’s existence is something too many American Jews take for granted. He would lament the BDS and other anti-Israel movements, be frustrated by the media’s indifference, and stand proud in her defense. My wife and I find ourselves reminding our children that it was not that long ago that our families had no place to go when fleeing for their lives. We share this perspective with them not to scare the next generation, but as an call to arms and to remind our children of their sacred responsibility to the Land of Israel.
Dedication to the Jewish people – Creating Sinai moments
In 1964, my Uncle Steven celebrated his bar mitzvah in Queens. On its face, the event likely resembled myriad other b’nei mitzvah – some Torah, some hora, and, of course, some pound cake. Opi, however, used the simcha as an opportunity to reunite my grandmother’s remaining family for the first time since the Holocaust. Her parents and other relatives perished in the Shoah – fortunately, my grandmother and her twin sister made it to New York, her brother escaped to then-Palestine, and her older sister to Australia. Opi arranged to bring them to New York for an emotional reunion. It was a mini-Mount Sinai moment – connecting Jews for a holy purpose in the aftermath of catastrophe. I believe that for Opi, it was another act of revenge to mark a new generation of Torah learning.
Despite the tragedies of this past year, we must ask ourselves how history will judge our response. Perhaps one response is to work to create more of our own Sinai moments. The pandemic has robbed us of so much – from the sublime to the mundane, whether a lavish wedding or an ordinary Shabbat morning kiddush. While I doubt all worldwide Jewry will gather in the Egyptian desert anytime soon, we can seize opportunities to bring members of our tribe together. A Jew truly succeeds when he works together with fellow Jews. By design, we pray together as a minyan, we mourn together during shiva, and we dance together at b’nei mitzvah and weddings.
Opi’s wrestling with God
We are the Children of Israel (B’nei Yisrael), named after a man, Jacob, whose name was changed after his divine encounter to Yisrael —Israel – “one who wrestles with God.” There is much to say about this choice, including the Torah’s fundamental acknowledgement that each of us has a personal relationship with the divine, and that as in any relationship, it is fraught with struggle.
As for Opi, I cannot pretend to comprehend his personal wrestling with God. In many ways it must have been a steel cage match: surviving the near annihilation of our people, rebuilding from scratch in a strange land, and losing his beloved, my grandmother Martha, at too young an age. But what I can comprehend – and admire – is the that no matter how difficult, he and so many others of that heroic generation held their heads high and discharged their duty to ensure that the Torah was passed from generation to generation (dor l’dor). It was never about them or their personal travails; it always was about the future of our people, building the modern State of Israel and a vibrant American Jewish community.
They stared down the angel of death, suppressed their personal demons, and emerged to rebuild and rededicate our collective temple.
As a then 24-year-old, I had the privilege of sitting beside Opi mere hours before he passed comfortably in his home. Just before telling him I loved him and saying goodbye, I assured Opi that I would do everything in my power to make sure that the words “Never Again” would be branded on my soul and flow through my veins – that Jews would never again be hunted for extermination or afraid to walk freely upon this great Earth. In hindsight, it was a moment of extreme hubris and delusional grandeur, as if I would have any say in how history unfolded. But in many ways, it is the solemn vow each of us must make to the memories of the six million – to fight with all our might for our people’s future.
During non-pandemic times, I commuted to Manhattan. I would arrive at Port Authority and trek to my office on 52nd Street – deliberately planning my route to pass by 47th Street, where Opi and Unkie had their office, so I could metaphorically tip my hat. By the time I reached my office, inevitably something would distract me from the moment. But oftentimes all we need is a second to remind ourselves that there are things more important than whatever work we are about to do on a particular day – namely, the people who made it all possible for us to be here, and their commitment to causes greater than themselves.
Ari Berman is a partner at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. He lives in West Caldwell and is a member of that town’s Congregation Agudath Israel.