Truly, a good Jew

In over 60 years at the Joint, Abramovitch has helped Jews in DP camps, Morocco, the FSU and Iran.

By
February 2, 2009 21:07
Truly, a good Jew

Abramovitch 248.88. (photo credit: Maya Spitzer )

It's been nearly 74 years but Stanley Abramovitch still vividly recalls the night in March 1935 when he bade farewell to his friends, twin brother, younger brother and mother and left his native Poland for England. "There I stood, aged 14, saying good-bye to them, but I was much too young to really understand the implications of it all," remembers Abramovitch, his voice calm but tinged with sadness. "My mother pulled me toward her and said: 'Try to be a good Jew.' I nodded but never thought that would be the last time I'd see her, and I'm sure she did not think they would be her last words to me either. But they were and ever since then, I've tried my hardest." For Abramovitch, who is slowly winding down more than 60 years of service at the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), those words have served as a driving force behind his efforts to aid Jews in the furthest reaches of the globe. In fact, from the establishment of a displaced persons camp in postwar Germany to providing thousands of Moroccan Jews with the tools to reach the promised land to literally putting food in the mouths of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, there is unlikely anyone else who has worked harder to be a good Jew, and the 88-year-old Abramovitch still can't imagine a life without "making a contribution to the Jewish people." "This work is what gives me strength and creates meaning in my life," says the dedicated husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather of an ever-growing brood. "I can't see myself retired and sitting at home. I've been active for so many years that it would be difficult for me not to be doing something." Although cutbacks at JDC, which runs a gamut of health and social-welfare programs here and around the world, pushed Abramovitch to officially retire last summer, he says that his direct boss has asked him to stay on as a project consultant for the multimillion-dollar nonprofit organization. "I'm just glad that I'm still doing something useful," he smiles. As well as contributing time to guide projects in the FSU, Abramovitch has also taken on the task of putting his memoirs into print and last year, with backing from the JDC, published his first book: From Survival to Revival: A Memoir of Six Decades in a Changing Jewish World (Gefen Publishers). "I've already started to work on my second book," states Abramovitch matter-of-factly. "It's a collection of short stories recording some of the events that happened to me. It's the stories behind the stories." We are sitting in his office in Jerusalem, and Abramovitch picks up a copy of his colorfully covered book. He flips to the pages of photographs and taps a black-and-white image of a man labeled: "Jewish dentist and head of the community in Rafsanjan, Iran." "Take this person for example," he says. "It was June 1952 and we were visiting the southeastern areas of Iran on our way to a place called Kerman." Accompanied by Meyer Herman, an Irish Jewish doctor, and Israel Szyf, the JDC's education consultant in Iran at the time, Abramovitch recalls spending Shabbat in a small village called Yazd and sleeping on "shaky beds on a shaky roof of the local Jewish schoolhouse." "We'd asked the school cook to make us rice and sour milk, a traditional Iranian dish, but when it arrived it was covered with sand and a layer of dust," describes Abramovitch, obviously a natural at storytelling. "The doctor advised us not to eat it and he abstained, but Szyf and I didn't listen. We left Yazd the following night and by the time we reached our next destination, Rafsanjan, it was the doctor who had come down sick with dysentery and we were fine!" He laughs and continues the yarn. "We arrived there early the next morning and knocked on the door of the head of the Jewish community, a dentist and opium addict, who invited us to join him for breakfast. He was the dentist for about 10 to 15 surrounding villages, but all that meant was that he knew how to pull teeth and make new ones from metal plates." The dentist was in a panic because his six-year-old daughter had suffered severe burns from boiling water, and the doctor, despite his delicate medical condition, agreed to examine her. "Her arm had already started to turn gangrenous," says Abramovitch, building up to the story's moral. Disregarding his own ill-health, the doctor went straight into town and bought penicillin and syringes. He gave the child her first injection and then guided the family on how to administer further doses. "We then left for Kerman but two weeks later, we got a photo from this little girl holding flowers and a note saying 'thank you'; we'd literally saved her life," he finishes. While Abramovitch speaks modestly about his own achievements, preferring to highlight the good work of others, he is cognizant of his role as a conduit in bringing together Jews to help each other in difficult times. "There is more goodness in the world than we imagine," he philosophizes. "Human beings are basically good and one should not write them off too quickly. There is always a way to touch a person's soul; you just have to know how to talk to them." Talking to people is clearly Abramovitch's gift. His aptitude for reaching out to others is obvious from the opening pages of his fascinating memoir, which he says he wrote totally from memory. "I'm person who used to write a report after every single trip I made. There must be hundreds of my reports in the JDC archives but I never had the patience to sit and reread them. "I guess you can learn from that how impressed I was with my job. I wasn't working, I was living the job, and that meant I remembered everything about the people I met and everything they said to me." And his ability to get people to share their stories, he says, lies in the fact that his "work went well beyond the office. I was constantly in people's homes or at their weddings and bar mitzvas, that is how I got to know so much about them." In addition, says Abramovitch: "Wherever I was, I always made a point to learn the local language. In Russia, I learned Russian; in Morocco, I spoke French; and in Iran, I became fluent in Farsi. If I hadn't known the local languages, then I never would have been able to communicate with them." CONDENSING into a book (or even a newspaper article) 63 years of service to an organization that has helped change the face of international Jewry - including facilitating and preparing large communities for immigration to Israel - is a near impossible task, so really the main question is what chapter of his life Abramovitch views as most significant. "I would say it was the time I spent in Germany after the war," he responds without hesitation. "I think this was also the heroic period of the JDC." Originally sent to Germany as a volunteer for the JDC, Abramovitch was tasked with establishing Jewish educational programs in Foerenwald, a DP camp for young survivors near Munich. "As the war ended, many young people [in Britain] started to prepare to help those who had survived, although we did not really know what to expect," he recalls. "The Jewish Relief Unit was created and there were many volunteers. Most went to the British zone, but I ended up going to the American zone because the JDC needed extra helpers." While the work was obviously aimed at those who had survived, Abramovitch says that he found himself on a personal mission too. "My mother and two brothers [whom he left behind in Poland in 1935] did not survive the Holocaust," he explains. "I'm sure that at some point they ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto, because my mother sent me a letter through the Red Cross. In that letter, she mentions only that my twin brother, Baruch, urgently needed oranges. Oranges usually meant that someone was sick and I can only assume that he died of typhoid in the ghetto. My mother and my youngest brother ended up in Auschwitz." Despite this Abramovitch continued to hope that one of them might have survived, until one day in the camp a man knocked on his office door. "His name was also Abramowitz, he was about 45, and was also looking for surviving family members," he recalls, the sadness returning to his voice. "He'd come all the way from Italy because he'd heard there was an Abramovitch in the camp. Unfortunately, I had to disappoint him but this also ended my search too. "I know that I was there helping strangers, but at the same time I couldn't help feeling that what I did, the people that I helped, was also in some way helping my own family too." It was those months in Germany, claims Abramovitch, which helped to shape the rest of his life's work and keep him dedicated to aiding distressed Jewish communities and "being a good Jew." "I was trained to become a rabbi," he reflects, "but man proposes and God disposes. I never thought that I would end up helping people the world over through an agency that, as a youngster, I did not even know existed." But that is exactly what happened. BORN as Yehoshua Abramowicz in Kalisz, Poland, on Pessah 1920, Abramovitch (who anglicized his name when naturalized as a British citizen following World War II) was the fourth of seven sons born to Moshe and Adela Abramowicz. As well as being a twin, he had two older brothers, who survived the war in London, and younger triplets, who sadly never saw adulthood. With his grandmother, several relatives and, later on, his father living in England, Abramovitch was fatefully permitted to leave Poland as a teenager in the years preceding the war and gained a place at London's Etz Chaim Yeshiva. "When I started there I knew nothing [about religious studies] but I moved up the ranks very quickly," says Abramovitch, who eventually received rabbinical ordination at Jews' College. Despite his aptitude for religious studies, Abramovitch's career as a minister was short-lived when "the head of my yeshiva told me I'd never be a rabbi. He asked me, 'Can you play cards?' and I said no. He asked, 'Can you dance with women?' and I said I couldn't dance at all. 'Then you'll never be an English rabbi,' he told me. And I never was." Instead, the yeshiva head urged him to try accountancy and even arranged an internship for him at a London firm. "I thought about a life adding up numbers and realized quickly that it would be a fate worse than death," exclaims Abramovitch, who at the same time pursued secular studies eventually obtaining a BA degree. "I like to be creative... My forte is definitely as a communicator. I like being with the people." INDEED, it is glimpses into the lives of real people that have kept him dedicated during all these decades of work, says Abramovitch. As JDC director of former Soviet republics of Asia, he finishes off our interview describing a visit to the home of a Jewish Sunday school principal in a small Kazakh town. "It was only a small apartment but one of the rooms was covered wall-to-wall with books. The man told me there were 10,000 in all and that he refused to go to Israel without them, but the Jewish Agency would not allow him to make aliya with them." Abramovitch set about trying to find a solution. "I contacted libraries here but none were interested in bringing the books over. Eventually I did find a donor who was willing but by then the man had agreed to leave them behind in a local library. "It's acts like this that really touch me. To meet such people is a rewarding experience and is what has made my work worthwhile." He also makes a point of highlighting the "miracle" of Soviet Jews, who managed to cling onto their religion with only a small spark of recognition. Of course, he admits, there has been a price to pay for being so committed to his work -- like not being around all the time to see his children grow up or leaving his wife, Noemi, alone for months on end while he travelled. "However, I can honestly say that my life has been rewarding despite what I had to pay for it. One way or another you pay in your life, but when we make the final account... there is not really a final account to be made because as a religious Jew I believe that I am always being guided to be a good Jew."


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