[The following article appears in this weeks Yated. No part of this article may be reprinted without exclusive permission from the Yated.] –In Monticello, New York!! We kid you not. This past Shabbos, the famous Yossele Schumacher, whose struggle to live a Torah life galvanized the Jewish world in the 1960’s, came back to upstate New York for a visit, to meet with his adoptive family, the Gertners.
The visit was arranged by the “Tzeitshrift,” a popular Yiddish weekly magazine, which had been covering the Yossele Schumacher story in great detail for the past seven weeks. The historical story was a hit, receiving lots of attention and letters from those who personally remembered the details.
One thing led to another, and the “Tzeitshrift” decided to treat Yossele and his wife to a week’s vacation in the States, an unofficial reunion with the Gertners.
To the Gs’ surprise and delight, Yossele and his wife—they have retained their traditional name of “Shumacher,” readily accepted. After being picked up from the airport by the “Tzeitshrift,” Yossele was taken to the Catskills, where he spent a beautiful Shabbos in Relax Inn, a country hotel owned by Reb Moshe, the Gertners youngest son.
On their way to the Catskills, the entourage made a detour in Kiryas Yoel, where a wide-eyed Yossele was shown the large Bais Medrash and thriving community built around it. On Shabbos, the regular guests at Relax Inn were astonished to find that the G’s were hosting a secular Israeli couple, and treating them like royalty.
Soon word leaked out—this ‘celebrity’ was the famous Yossele, the subject of an intense manhunt by the Shin Bet, which turned the State of Israel upside down in the 1960’s. No longer the soulful little boy who had dominated the newspapers and media at the time, Yossele is now 53, a white-haired, paunchy father of three grown daughters.
Yet despite his intense indoctrination against Torah and mitzvos in the years after he was captured, Yossele showed an intense curiosity during his Shabbos with the Gs. He joined the minyan for shacharis, tried to sing zemiros at the seudos, and broke into an impromptu dance with Reb Chaim Elozor Gertner at the special melavah malka in his honor.
Though he repeatedly requested that the media keep its distance, Yossele was eager to share recollections and memories of those three fateful years, when his grandfather, Reb Nachman Shtarks, sent him to live with friends in the hope of keeping him frum. Sadly, three years of devoted effort came to naught when the Shin Bet abandoned all their ‘side’ projects, focusing only on capturing Yossele and restoring their wounded pride.
For those who are old enough to have grown up in the Sixties, when the song “Eifoh Yossele?” Where is Yossele, was on everyone’s lips, and the little girls on the block jumped rope in time to the tune, the story needs no elaboration. But for the benefit of the ‘youngsters’, we hereby reprint highlights of the gripping, sensational story, as serialized in the “Tzeitshrift.”
Yossele Schumacher was born in the mid 1950’s, in rabidly Communist Russia, the second child of Ida and Alter Schumacher. As was common in those poverty-stricken days, Yossele and his sister Tzinah were raised by their grandparents, Reb Nachman and Miriam Shtarks, devoted Breslover chasidim. Young Yossele was a precocious child, who absorbed knowledge like a sponge. His Zeide shepped much nachas from the five year old, and yearned to raise him as a proud Jew, without having to hide from the menacing KGB.
Eventually, after years of suffering under Communist oppression, Reb Nachman Shtarks, his wife, and son Sholom were granted visas to Eretz Yisroel. They soon settled in Yerushalayim, and waited for the rest of their family to join them. Three months later, the younger Schumachers were also given permission to emigrate, bringing ten year old Tzinah and five year old Yossele with them.
The first few months were difficult for the new immigrants, who had to acclimatize to a new and foreign environment. When Reb Nachman offered to raise Yossele and his sister, Ida eagerly agreed to get her children off her hands. Tzinah was sent to a frum boarding school, while little Yossele learned Torah at his Zeide’s knee. It was an idyllic situation, but tragically, not destined to last.
Sadly, Ida and Alter Schumacher, who had retained their Jewish identity in the midst of the Soviet oppression, had been resettled in a secular environment by the Israeli officials, who wanted to stamp out every last vestige of their Yiddishkeitand create a generation of “new’ Jews.
They had already robbed the precious orphans of the Six Million kedoshim of their Yiddishkeit in the secular kibbutzim, and now they wanted to do the same to the vulnerable Russian immigrants.
Alter and Ida’s smattering of Jewish knowledge was no match for the rampant forces of assimilation surrounding them. Within a matter of time, they had shed every last vestige of Torah and mitzvos, and decided to raise their children as secular Jews. Ida showed up at her father’s door one day and asked for her son, planning to send him to public school. (Some say she wanted to take him back to Russia and raise him as a Communist, but this point is hotly disputed by Yossele himself.)
When Reb Nachman Shtarks realized the spiritual danger his grandson was in, he acted drastically. With the advice and blessing of several rabbonim, Reb Nachman hid young Yossele among friends, so that his precious einikel, his pride and joy, would remain an ehrliche Yid.
When Alter and Ida discovered that the child was gone, they were livid. They immediately contacted the Israeli police, who at first were not interested in the story. But soon the Israelis realized what this was all about—an elderly, ‘fanatic’ man who kidnapped a child in order to raise him as a ‘dati’, to spit in their faces and trample on their pride. A cry of anger was raised, as the media and the courts turned in fury upon the old man, in the winter of 1960, warning him to give back the child.
Instead of giving in to their demands, the determined elderly man summoned the inner strength he utilized in Russia against the Communists, and said, “I was not afraid of the heretics there, and I will not tremble before the heretics here!” His courageous proclamation rallied the entire frum world to his side. Many rabbonim announced that all ehrliche Yidden were obligated to help Reb Nachman in his mission.
The police now mobilized to scour the country in search of Yossele. It became urgent to smuggle the child abroad and find him surrogate parents.
Ruth Ben David, a righteous and talented convert, (later to become Rebetzin Ruth Blau, the wife of Rav Amram Blau,) agreed to carry out the mission, and went to meet with the boy in his place of hiding. After being inspired by the child’s courage, she resolved to find a way to spirit Yossele out of the country, a truly difficult feat, as his pictures adorned nearly every billboard in the State.
Ruth wasted no time in putting her plan into action. Her only hope was to disguise the young boy as a girl, but first she needed a passport for her imaginary ‘daughter.’
Since she held French citizenship, Ruth traveled to France with a picture of Yossele, in order to secure a visa for the child.
In Geneva she went to a touch-up expert, this was in the days before phot-shop, who transformed the picture of the pudgy boy into a cute little girl. Ruth took the altered picture to the Israeli consulate to obtain a tourist visa for herself and her daughter, “Claudine.”
It was not easy to board the ship with a nonexistent daughter and to pass through passport control, but to ensure Yossele’s safe passage, “Claudine” had to appear on the lists, and the passport had to be stamped with an exit visa. Ruth davened for Siyata Dishmaya, which was not long in coming.
As she boarded the ship, she told authorities her daughter was coming in a few moments, and waited anxiously as they stamped her papers. Trembling in fear, she tried to collect her wits, while whispering a fervent tefillah. Suddenly, she heard a mother calling her daughter, Claudine, one of her seven young children. Relieved beyond words, Ruth offered to watch little Claudine for the rest of the journey, and her mother eagerly agreed. Now Ruth’s alibi was complete.
In the meantime, the entire Eretz Yisroel was in turmoil. The police arrested Reb Nachman and tortured him, but he refused to say where the child was hiding. The media began to hound the chareidim, taunting them with the battle cry, “Eifoh Yossele?”
It was into this frenzied backdrop that Ruth arrived, to liberate the poor child who was hiding in a dingy cellar somewhere. Using her talents at disguise, Ruth cut off Yossele’s peyos, and dressed him as a girl. Then, only a week after she arrived from France, Ruth and her little daughter, Claudine, slipped onto a flight to Italy, under the noses of the unsuspecting Israeli border guards. From Italy, they took a train to Lucerne, Switzerland, where Claudine became a boy once more, known as Menachem Levy.
The child remained in Switzerland for a year, under Ruth’s care, and was then moved to France, because Ruth was terrified that the detectives would close in on their whereabouts. For seven months, young ‘Menachem’ learned in a yeshiva in Foubline, where the now-ten year old child was able to play with other boys his age.
But the noose was tightening. Soon even their hideout in France wasn’t safe. The Israelis were furious at their failure, and ordered the Shin Bet to abandon their other high-priority missions, (some say their mission to track down Dr. Mengele,) in order to focus on capturing Yossele. When Prime Minister David Ben Gurion would wake up in the morning, the first question on his lips was, “Has Yossele been found yet?”
The Israeli police eventually arrested the couple that sheltered Yossele during his months of hiding in Eretz Yisroel, and the name “Ruth Ben-David” was placed on high alert. Ruth realized she needed to act quickly. She knew a Chasidishe family in Williamsburg who would be perfect to shelter the child, now known as Yankele Frankel.
Yankele becomes Yossele
Wasting no time, they immediately traveled to the States, where ‘Yankele’ moved in with the Gs, who lived in a modest apartment on Penn Street. The eleven year old child was to remain there for only three months, hidden in the home and trembling in fear of being caught, before the noose finally tightened around its prey.
Ruth went back to France, where she made a colossal mistake. Nervous about being caught, she decided to place her house for sale, and buy an apartment in Eretz Yisroel. She contacted a realtor, who set up an appointment with a man named “Mr. Farber.”
Only when she arrived at the “attorney’s office” did Ruth sense something was amiss. Mr. Farber looked suspicious and way too sinister, not like someone about to close a sale on a home. Realizing it was a trap, she frantically plotted to slip away. As she stepped out of the car, she intentionally forgot her purse on the seat. “Take your purse with you,” commanded Mr. Farber in a stern voice.
Quaking in fear, Ruth realized the game was over. She was dragged up a narrow, winding staircase leading to a tiny room. Inside the room was the head of the Shin Bet, a fearsome man with a large head, dyed hair and dark sunglasses. His two assistants grabbed the purse from her hands, opened it and emptied the contents onto the table.
“Mrs. Ben David,” he barked. “You did not come here to sell your house. You came here with a far more important purpose in mind. Now tell us where Yossele is!”
Ruth was held and harshly interrogated for several days, during which she was told that her son had betrayed her, (a false accusation,) and that her family was in danger. The vaunted Shin Bet agent, Isser Harel, who achieved fame for tracking the Nazi Eichman, was flown in to crack her. The hard-nosed interrogators were quite good at what they did, and they were able to ply here with enough information which they had gleaned about the case to make it appear as if her son had spilled the goods already, anyway. They also promised to guarantee Yossele a religious education among other phony promises and played mind games with her until they got the information they were looking for.
In the meantime, Yossele was being held in Williamsburg, where no one, including his next door neighbors, knew of his existence. Late one Motzoei Shabbos the doorbell rang, and two stern men, who identified themselves as “immigration officers,” asked to see Yankele Frankel.
“Who brought him here?” they demanded, scrutinizing the quavering boy.
“Can we see the boy’s passport?”
“His mother has it.”
“Then we’ll have to take the boy with us to verify his identity.”
Ignoring his terrified cries, two Shin-bet agents forced the child to pack his belongings, and spirited him away, allowing Rabbi Gertner to accompany him. For days they ruthlessly interrogated their helpless prey, until they finally broke his spirit.
Preying on the little boy’s innocence, they painted a picture of his poor mother, crying for her only son back home. Yankele finally admitted that he was Yossele Schumacher, but pleaded that he wanted to stay in America and go to yeshiva.
While this drama was taking place, the Israelis were placing heavy pressure upon the American government to allow them to extradite Yossele, even betraying an American spy who had sought shelter in Israel—one of their own—in exchange. Yossele was the prize they had waited so long for, their ultimate triumph over the charedim.
Yossele’s Zeide, broken and battered from his years of languishing in jail, was let out of jail the day his grandson arrived back in Israel but was not permitted to see him. Yossele arrived in Israel to great fanfare. Thousands gathered that Wednesday at Lod Airport for a hero’s welcome. School children were bussed in and sand a special song which was composed especially for the historic spectacular moment. The grandfather stood on the side crying out “Yosele, Yossele,” but no one heard him. The media had a field day, photographing the ‘kidnapped child’ being embraced by his parents, who had never bothered or cared for him, foisting him on the Zeide. It was only when they were afraid that Reb Nachman would ‘steal his soul’ that they were so eager to have him back….
At first, Yossele was miserable, pining for his adoptive family and yeshiva, insisting on keeping Shabbos and kosher. However they got to him. He was turned over to a team of psychiatrists charged with the duty of wiping out his past. A month later triumphant pictures were published in the media of the new Yoseleh, shorn of his peyos and old religious identity.
The child forgot about Torah and mitzvos, and put his past behind him. The years went by, and Yossele Schumacher became a secular youth, the symbol of Israel’s ‘triumph over the backward chareidim.’ He joined the army, then married and raised a family, sadly never returning to his religious Jewish roots.
Decades passed. The sensationalism of the story began to fade away, and “Eifoh Yossele” was no longer the battle cry it once had been. The ‘glorious era of Zionism’ came to an ignoble end, as the new generation ignored the sacrifices of their fathers, wanting to be like all the nations.
As for Yossele? The secular businessman maintained infrequent contact with some of his former friends, though he preferred not to dwell upon the past. During all these years, he had never actually met the Gs, or relived the memories of when he was first captured.
And now, thanks to the efforts of “Tzeitshrift,” who used their contacts to offer Yossele and his wife a trip back in time, the original “Yossele Schumacher” met his former ‘brothers’ and joined them for an inspiring Shabbos. Several days later, in an emotional reunion, he met the elderly Mrs. Gertner, who had been his second mother so many years ago…
And then the visit was over. After just one week, Yossele went back to Israel, a lost Jewish soul who could have raised a family of Bnei Torah, another link on the chain of eternity, had not the Israeli government ripped that chain asunder in a battle cry of “Eifoh Yossele.”
How many Yossel’s are there still out there waiting for us to throw them a life line and discover their glorious Jewish heritage. Let’s not wait till it’s too late and reach out to them with love.
© 2007 Yated Neeman.