(photo credit: Israel Police)
Forty-five years after six-year-old Yossele Schumacher's abduction shook Israel, he returned to New York this week from his home in Samaria for a reconciliation with the haredi family who hid him from his parents in their Brooklyn apartment.
The boy had been raised in large part by his haredi grandfather, who opposed his parents' secular lifestyle and claimed they were dedicated Communists who planned to return to the Soviet Union. In 1960, fearing for the boy's spiritual and physical well-being, the grandfather placed him with a haredi family in Bnei Barak. Fearing a police search, he was smuggled to Switzerland, dressed as a girl. He was subsequently smuggled to France, and then to the US.
Schumacher spent last Shabbat at a hotel in upstate New York with the children of Mrs. Gertner, now 89, the woman who hid him in her home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1962, and the two were reunited in Monsey on Monday.
"Mrs. Gertner was frozen, she was too shocked to say a word," said Weinberger, an editor at the Yiddish-language haredi magazine Tzeitshrft which, together with the Gertner family, arranged for Schumacher to come to New York. "She was still in shock and a bit afraid," he said.
The family gave Schumacher a religious text that had been his as a boy, inscribed with the name he took while living in Brooklyn, Yankele Frenkel.
The two met again on Wednesday afternoon and then had dinner at 126 Penn St., where Schumacher had been hidden. Though Gertner has moved upstate, one of her children still lives in the Williamsburg building.
Schumacher asked Gertner to explain her decision to hide him.
"I did what I was asked and I thought I was doing the right thing," she said.
At the time, many haredim claimed that Schumacher's parents were Communists who were planning to return with their son to Russia, which was not the case. Gertner, too, had been under this impression, she said on Wednesday.
Two months ago, Tzeitshrift began writing anew about the abduction of Schumacher. A renewed interest in the story convinced the magazine to research the story from scratch. People began to call in from around the world, contributing different elements. Among those who took an interest were the Gertner family themselves. "They read the weekly stories and were very emotional," said Weinberger.
The magazine kept in touch with the family in the months since it began writing a series of new stories, and together they decided to invite Schumacher for a visit. "So we got involved, and we contacted a person who knows Yossele, and said 'It's time to straighten things up,'" said Weinberger.
Previous attempts to bring Schumacher to New York for a reconciliation had failed, said Weinberger. But last Friday afternoon, in time for Shabbat, Schumacher, now 56, and his wife arrived in New York.
"He met with his old family. A lot of things were straightened out, and if he had any anger at them, it's in the past," said Weinberger. "For us, in the hassidic community, when you see a person who some have claimed we kidnapped, if he now is willingly to come back it's a historic event."
In 1960, Schumacher was hidden by his grandparents, Breslov Hasidim, to prevent his parents, who had recently immigrated to Israel from Russia, from bringing him up as a secular Jew.
After refusing a court order to return the child, his grandparents hid him first in Israel, and later smuggled him out of the country dressed as a girl (Claudine) with a French convert by the name of Ruth Ben-David (later changed to Ruth Blau). He spent two years in Europe, first in France, then in Switzerland.
In March 1962, when Israel began looking for him in earnest, Schumacher was once again smuggled out of Europe and brought to America, again dressed as a girl.
Once in America, Ben-David met Gertner, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who was willing to hide Schumacher in her apartment.
From March until August, Schumacher, whose name was changed to Yankele Frenkel, was kept alone in the house, unable to leave.
Meanwhile, a tempest raged in Israel. Schumacher's grandfather, Nachman Starks, was put in jail. The couple who hid Schumacher in Israel were arrested. And gradually other links in the chain of people tied to Schumacher were uncovered by the security services.
Then Ben-David decided to sell her home in France. She traveled there, notifying realtors she was putting her house up for sale. Days later, a Mr. Faber met with her to inquire about selling her house.
Only when she was at the attorney's office did she realize Faber was the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). After days of fruitless interrogations, Ruth was told that her son was under investigation and had turned her in (this later turned out to be false.) She began to cooperate.
One Saturday evening in August 1962, two men knocked on the door at 126 Penn St. The men, Shin Bet agents, asked to see Yankele Frenkel and his immigration papers, which Gertner didn't have. They took the child, and a few days later his mother arrived from Israel.
At the time, the case provoked uproar in Israel, causing tensions between secular and religious Israelis to reach an all-time high. Secular Jews were known to scream "Epho Yossele? (Where is Yossele?)" in the streets of Jerusalem.
The story broke just as the Mossad was trying to capture Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele. Some accounts claim that Mossad agents were pulled from the Mengele case to search for Yossele.
In any case, no one disputes the amount of resources and energy that were directed toward finding and returning the abducted child.
Now, Schumacher is a secular business consultant who lives in Samaria.
Last Shabbat, he and the Gertners reminded one another of stories that had long been forgotten.
One of the Gertner sons reminded Schumacher that as a child in Brooklyn he had once approached another boy who had been distracted from praying, and reminded him that the Mishna says, "Even a snake should not disturb you in the middle of davening."
Some have suggested that the Gertner family were still hoping that Schumacher would become religious so that they could believe that their efforts had not been in vain. On Wednesday afternoon, the Gertners gave Schumacher and his wife a set of Shabbat candlesticks. "Of course the Gertner family has interest in him being religious, that it should not have been for nothing," said Weinberger. "They can't force him, and don't want to force him, but if they spent Shabbat with him and he sang the zmirot [festive religious songs], it feels good for them to see it."