Not Unto Them Only: A True Account
by Mottel Baleston
The first week of September 1959 brought excitement to a five year-old boy growing up in Brooklyn. For several weeks it had been the topic of discussion in my family: I was starting school.
The location could not have been better. Public School 272 was on the block with a row of stores and a supermarket, in a self-contained neighborhood about 90% Jewish at that time. Isaac’s Barber Shop would be a required stop before my first day of Kindergarten. I was already familiar with the place, where everybody smiled when I came in with my father. Isaac and his
brother Yankel were both barbers. A group of elderly men seemed to be permanent fixtures in the place, even though I never saw them getting a haircut. They would speak to my father in accented English and Yiddish, using the same mix on me, just like my grandparents did. Then they’d stop me and ask, “Farshtayst?” “Yes, I understand,” I’d reply, even when I really only got half of what they said.
“Nu (so), Sammy, your boy starts school next week, yes? All the kinderlach (children) have been here to get haircuts for school.” Isaac said it loud enough so I would know I was just like all the other boys.
Isaac’s shop had two things that scared me. First, there was that long, sharp razor blade which Isaac slapped against the thick leather strap attached to the porcelain barber’s chair. He’d use the blade around your ears and sideburns to get that neat, clean, “first day of school” look.
The other thing that scared me was Isaac and Yankel’s arms. They would wear their usual smocks with short sleeves. I thought to myself, “Why can’t they wear long sleeves so no one sees the numbers tattooed on their arms?”
This is what I asked my father the last time we had been to Isaac’s. He explained that Isaac was born in Poland and had been in a concentration camp during “The War,” along with other Jews of his village. He was forced to work all day, breaking rocks and building roads. My father explained it in terms I could understand. “He only got one piece of bread and one bowl of soup each day. The Nazis took away his name and gave him a number instead, but don’t ask him about it. We don’t talk about the war.” Case closed.
The next few years I noticed many other adults in my neighborhood had numbers tattooed on their arms. There was the couple that ran the laundry. They had accents just like Isaac, and they both had numbers on their arms. When I went across the street to buy parts for my crystal radio, the man who ran the shop had a number on his arm. A new dry cleaners opened when I
was 10, and the couple who owned it had a son in my school. They were from Europe but were certainly too young to have been in the camps. One day I saw that my friend’s father had a tattooed number. I mentioned it to my father. “They put children in the concentration camps, too,” he said.
I began to understand the hold that “The War” had on my community when I was sitting in a luncheonette with my father while he ordered his usual, an egg cream. The man preparing it was old and frail, too old to work as far as my 10 year-old mind could reason. As I watched him
mix the ingredients, I noticed the number on his arm. When we left, I asked my father, “Why is he still working when he is so old? He paused and swallowed. “If he wasn’t given that job, he would have nothing to eat.” Pause. “Mottel, you can never allow a Holocaust survivor to go hungry.” My father was shaking.
Fast-forward forty years. Our local community in New Jersey was observing Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Jewish War Veterans had arranged a public reading of names to remember those who had been murdered during the Shoah. Everyone was invited to come to the town park and take part in the reading of the names. In our community I serve as
Associate Messianic Rabbi of Beth Messiah Congregation. I used to be a youth group leader, and one of the parents suggested that I go to the ceremony and volunteer our teenagers to take part in the reading.
“Great idea” wasn’t exactly the first thought that came to my mind.
I wasn’t eager to subject myself and our kids to the looks of disapproval from the mainstream Jewish community. Many of them consider Messianic Jews to be misguided traitors, while we are proud to be Jews, appreciative of our heritage, and very grateful that the eternal God of Israel has sent Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) - just as the Jewish prophets foretold.
But I knew it was the right thing to do, so we announced the event. I was delighted when eight of our Messianic Jewish teens showed up at the park entrance. Together we walked toward the bandshell. I had expected a few dozen to be present, but there were only three participants; the
officers of the Jewish War veterans, who were taking turns reading the names of the Shoah victims, plus another two or three watching the proceedings.
We joined them and they appeared delighted that one of the local synagogues had brought their youth group. They asked the name of our congregation, and I responded cautiously, “Beth Messiah, the Messianic Jewish congregation.” The response was, “Oh. Hmmm. Yes, we’ve
heard of you. Well, okay, you can read the names.” But his contempt for us was clear.
One by one, our teens were handed a sheet of paper, stepped up to the microphone and started reading names that would sound strange to most Americans: Berel Greenbaum, Yitzhak Rozenblit, Yetta Bialystok, Mottel Feld, Olya Dubrovsky, Alla Faerman, Mottel Kaplan, Reuven
I froze. Out of eight names, two were Mottels. I so rarely hear anyone else with my name and here were two Mottels, both sent to the death camps. The sheets listed the home town of each person who was sent to the gas chamber. One of the Mottels was from Kommenetz-Podoltz, a
town in the Ukraine just 20 miles from my grandmothers’ Jewish village of Felshtin.
If my grandmother had not left in 1908, I would have been one of the Mottels on the list, murdered only because I am from the race that God established to bring the world the Holy Scriptures and the Messiah, Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth. In a sick irony, the people committing the murders would typically be in church on Sunday, singing hymns about a Jesus they knew almost nothing about. On Monday, they would resume the savage murder of Jesus’ own
Jewish people. I would have been killed regardless of the fact that I believe in Jesus, as history records that a quarter million of the Jews who died in the Shoah were believers in the Messiah.
The Passover Haggadah states: In every generation each individual is bound to consider himself as if he personally had gone forth out of Egypt. My ancestors were enslaved in Egypt and we survived. My family was deported to the death camps and we survived.
As we say in Hebrew, our Jewish people are Am Echad, One People. Those of us who love our Jewish heritage and our Jewish Messiah are unwilling to give up either one. We may be misunderstood by the larger Jewish community, yet still we raise our voice to remember the six million:
|May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which He has created according to His will. May His Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.
* * *
Mottel Baleston serves as Associate Messianic Rabbi at Beth Messiah Congregation,
Livingston, NJ, and is a founding Board Member of
The Association of Messianic Congregations.
This article appeared in the Messianic Times of May-June 2008, Volume 2, Number 3, and is
republished by permission. Other fine articles and features may be found at
the Messianic Times website, www.messianictimes.com.
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