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By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood (08/10/2012)
When Rabbi Meyer Juzint died in 2001 at the age of 77, Chicago Jewry lost one of its most longstanding and, by all accounts, greatest teachers.
Now a former student and close friend of Juzint’s has published a book of his writings detailing his Holocaust experiences and philosophy that will allow those who didn’t know Juzint to hear his unique voice.
Juzint, a Holocaust survivor, scholar and poet, taught at Chicago’s Ida Crown Jewish Academy from the 1940s until his retirement in the late ’90s. He was also on the faculty of the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie for many years. Thousands of students were influenced by his scholarly yet warm and gentle teaching methods, those who knew him say.
Rabbi Louis Lazovsky, the longtime spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Kesser Maariv Anshe Luknik in Skokie, was a student of Juzint’s and later developed a close relationship with him – so close, in fact, that Juzint, who never married and lost all his family in the Holocaust, asked Lazovsky to say Kaddish for him.
“In some moments he would say, ‘You’re my Kaddish.’ That showed the closeness, trust and reliance he placed in me,” Lazovsky said in a recent phone conversation.
Lazovsky wanted to repay that trust and bring Juzint’s teachings to an audience beyond Chicago’s Orthodox community. He knew that Juzint had written a manuscript based on his Holocaust experiences.
To remember all that happened to him in four horrendous years of hiding, living in ghettoes and concentration camps and working at hard labor under the Nazi regime, he wrote down his experiences on little scraps of paper that he hid in various places, sometimes in the clothing of murdered victims, to be retrieved later on. “If the Nazis caught him, they would have killed him,” Lazovsky says.
He knew that Juzint wanted his stories published and had approached various publishers over the years, but nothing ever came of it.
“He wanted the teaching of mussar (instruction or discipline) to be perpetuated in memory of the martyrs of the Holocaust,” Lazovsky says. Juzint graduated from one of three great European “mussar yeshivas,” he explains, the Slobodka yeshiva in Lithuania.
“For many years, he taught all the great works of mussar,” Lazovsky says. “At the 10th anniversary of his death, one of the best things we could do was not just teach the mussar of others, but to actually teach his words.” Lazovsky, his sons Ben Zion and Eli and other members of his congregation set out to do just that.
The result is “The Chain of Miracles: Divine Providence in the Midst of Nazi Persecution,” a slim volume of Juzint’s writings, with an introduction by Lazovsky and published through the efforts of members of the congregation.
Each of its 22 chapters details a terrifying experience Juzint underwent at the hands of Nazis and their Lithuanian henchmen and the miraculous way he was saved from death: by receiving a blow to the head, refusing an invitation, eating a rotten potato, having a horse kick him, deciding to go to one place when his friends went to another.
“I call this book ‘The Chain of Miracles’ because from the first day that I lost my dear parents, brother and sisters, from the minute that I was imprisoned in the cruel cage that the murderers built for me, the Almighty forged a ‘chain of miracles,’ enabling me to come out unscathed from their contemptible, bloody hands,” he writes in the book’s introduction.
The reason he was spared, he believed, was so he could be “a living witness of the greatest misfortune to befall our people.”
At the end of each chapter, Juzint reminds the reader that the experiences detailed made up “another ring in the long chain of miracles that caused me to live to see the liberation” and tell his story.
With his strength nearly gone, semi-conscious and so weak he was ready to die, Juzint was liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.
Bringing the book to publication was no easy task, Ben Zion Lazovsky, Louis Lazovsky’s son, says. The original manuscript was in Yiddish, and he gave samples to several different translators, finally selecting a Chicago woman, well-known Yiddish teacher Khane-Faygl Turtletaub.
“I didn’t know Rabbi Juzint too well, but my father felt (her translation) sounded most like his voice,” Lazovsky says. The manuscript went next to Alan Rosen, an editor in Israel who read the manuscript in both Yiddish and English and did some editing work. Ben Zion Lazovsky supervised the production and printing.
He even found corroboration for some of the stories in the book from a California man whose father worked with Juzint in the Kovno Ghetto and who gave testimony to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project that detailed some of the same experiences Juzint wrote about.
Ben Zion Lazovsky says he felt that bringing the book out was especially important for people like himself, who never had Juzint as a teacher.
“My father talks about him all the time,” he says. “People like me only heard about him second hand, and this way there would be something tangible that people could hold in their hand.”
In addition, he says, “it’s very important that everyone knows about what happened during the Holocaust. Every survivor has a unique story. In four years of wanderings (Juzint) experienced a lot of things in a lot of places. He worked at an airport in Latvia – I had never heard of Holocaust survivors in situations like that. The story helps put more pieces in place for us to understand, aside from the barbarism of the Nazis, the strength of the human spirit.”
Juzint survived, and by surviving was able to influence thousands of young people, he says.
The stories also provide even more proof of the Holocaust’s existence for those who would deny it, he says.
But most important for him, Ben Zion Lazovsky says, is Juzint’s unshakeable faith. “Some Holocaust survivors, through their sufferings, say, ‘Where is G-d? There must not be a G-d.’ Rabbi Juzint had the exact opposite approach. He says, G-d saved me. Every moment in the camps, in the ghetto or the forest is a miracle for him.”
Juzint’s discourse, early in the book, on the different types of miracles “show his mastery of the subject, what a great teacher he was. There are many different complex ideas about miracles and he can simplify these items for us to understand,” he says.
The book demonstrates a small part of Juzint’s character, he says. “He taught his students through experience and he made an impact on their lives. They were able to feel his deep belief in Hashem (G-d) from the stories he told and the care he put into (teaching) his students.”
To describe Juzint’s character, Louis Lazovsky refers to two historic schools of mussar: “There is the notion of the greatness and majesty of man or the nothingness of man,” he says. “The greatness is when man serves G-d and other people. Rabbi Juzint lived up to that. He gave over his whole life to teaching Jewish children. He taught for over 50 years and shaped the hearts and minds of so many, rabbis and lay people, boys and girls.”
In his teaching, “he wanted to speak about how life was a miracle – he went through miracle after miracle during the Holocaust. The life of a human being is one miracle after another. When you understand that, you understand how to serve G-d and other people.”
Lazovsky saw Juzint’s teaching style first-hand at Ida Crown, where he was Lazovsky’s Talmud teacher and spiritual advisor.
“He took the eternal wisdom of the sages and brought it down to an individual level,” he says. “He would do all sorts of outreach. He would work with kids who didn’t have a strong background or were not necessarily the most interested. It was never ‘you learn this way or else’ with him,” he says.
Rather, Lazovsky says, Juzint would say, “’You do your best and let G-d do the rest.’ We are always in G-d’s hands; we are never alone. He taught students to take solace, comfort and inspiration from that.”
Rabbi Moshe Averick, a Chicago rabbi who also taught at Ida Crown and has written several books on religious subjects, was another student of Juzint’s. After high school, he studied individually with him and at one time collected money to buy the teacher a gift set of Talmud – “He only had a tiny little set,” he recalls.
“At the academy (Ida Crown), there were all kinds of kids, some more, some less observant,” Averick says. “Everyone there, whether or not they were observant, had an instinctive respect for him. They understood he represented something that was holy. There were kids who were not so interested in learning, but for him they would stand up. He really was a Talmid chachem (Torah scholar). He sort of radiated from high, but it was not something he demanded from people.”
Juzint kept his psychological scars from the Holocaust well hidden, but they were ever-present, Averick says.
“He was very very pleasant to talk to, but when you got to know him, you realized there was a sort of tortured part of him inside that was like an open wound that he tried to keep hidden. You realized it was there and he had to deal with it all the time – the anger at what he had gone through,” he says. “He was an extraordinary individual but to say he wasn’t human – he was. He carried that pain around and had trouble with it. Part of what he achieved as a human being was despite having that all the time.”
That pain may have been the reason he never married, Averick theorizes. Spending life alone was difficult for him as well, although he remained close to many former students, he says.
When Averick’s sister, also a former Ida Crown student, had difficulty becoming pregnant and had finally decided to adopt a child, Rabbi Juzint told her father not to worry, that she would have a baby. Almost nine months to the day, she did. The same thing happened again with a second child.
“How do you explain it?” Averick says. “I talked to him – where was he getting it from? I don’t know, but I stand behind those facts 100 percent.”
As for “The Chain of Miracles,” Averick says there are sound reasons for people to read Juzint’s book.
“One question that always comes up is, how can you believe in G-d in light of the Holocaust? There are a lot of different answers. Some people who went through it did lose their belief, some maintained it, some found it,” he says.
For Juzint, “I don’t think it was ever an issue. He saw the hand of G-d throughout the whole thing. It is an eloquent living statement of the way a person can see G-d no matter what happens. If for no other reason than that,” the book should be widely read, he says.
Juzint “didn’t leave a family. This is his only legacy, and people should know about it,” Averick says.
Rabbi Lazovsky says of Juzint that “many people thought of him as an angel on this earth. He was able to transmit profound and deep ideas from Kabbalah and (other works), to redact them and put them into easily understood ideas. He would talk about Kabbalah, the Talmud, Maimonides and say them almost matter-of-factly. That was part of his strength as a rebbe, teacher and father figure for so many.”
In Juzint’s last years, with no family except for some distant cousins in Israel, it was his former students who took care of him, he says.
Lazovsky says that the intensive labor he and others put into Juzint’s book has all been worth it. “I hope when people finish reading this book they will be changed, look at life differently, live their life differently, treat their fellow man differently,” he says.
Even though many of the events depicted in the book are almost unbearably brutal, “they are not told in a brutal way,” Lazovsky says. One of the most tragic stories in the book, about the rape and murder of several young girls “is told from (the point of view of) someone imbued with mussar. It is told from the eyes of someone who believes in G-d. That outlook in life is something that is often missing. He lived to perpetuate that outlook, and we wanted it to be in writing.”
Juzint writes at the end of the book that, after he was liberated, he went to a site of mass graves to say Kaddish for the anonymous victims there. Then, “I took an oath to immortalize in writing the heroism that those holy martyrs showed and the cruelest experiences they that they experienced.” He has accomplished that, Lazovsky says.
For himself, Lazovsky says, Juzint was “a mentor, an inspiration. He and Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik passed away just a few days apart – a profound loss. They were both very modest and humble but bigger than life. You couldn’t believe they could ever pass away. It was like they would always be around.”
Lazovsky was one of many students and former students who helped care for Juzint, he says. “When he needed a desk, I gave him a desk that belonged to my brother, a family treasure. There was never a second thought about it in the family. A lot of different students cared for him, loved him and sustained him throughout the generations, because there were a lot of people throughout the years who were inspired by him.”
Even though Lazovsky’s sons didn’t know Juzint well, they were inspired by him, Lazovsky says, in Eli’s case beginning in third or fourth grade when he interviewed Juzint for a school project. “They’re the reason why everything is published,” he says. “They devoted themselves to this.”
Juzint’s book, Lazovsky says, “is a worthy book to be in all Holocaust libraries, universities, schools. All the Chicago schools teach Holocaust studies programs, and I would personally love to see this used. The schools have assemblies to commemorate the Holocaust, and they show these horrific movies. Juzint would get up to speak and it would transform the whole room. You could see how beauty, goodness and purity could emerge from such horrific circumstances.”
His particular strength, he says, was “his ability to take these stories and be able to see G-d in all the horror, brutality and barbarity. That’s a unique attribute. We can all see G-d when we get a big promotion, a new car, but to see G-d in the destruction of the world takes a special soul, a special person. I don’t think there is any person who shouldn’t read this book, young or old. We could all benefit from the outlook of seeing all of life as a miracle.”
Juzint, Lazovsky says, “personified the true greatness of people: to love G-d and to serve others. He left some wonderful students to perpetuate his memory and thoughts and a mussar he found so lacking in the world today.
“If the world had a few more people like Rabbi Juzint around, how different the world would be.”
Rabbi Meyer Juzint was born in Shadeve, Lithuania, in 1923. For his Bar Mitzvah, he recited the talmudic tractate Kesubos from memory. Later he was a student in the famous Slabodka Yeshiva, which was known for its emphasis on Mussar, improving one’s moral character.
With the outbreak of World War II, Rabbi Juzint was enslaved by the Nazis. Through many Divine miracles, Rabbi Juzint was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust; he was liberated by British troops from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on April 15, 1945.
Soon thereafter Rabbi Juzint was appointed to the faculty of the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL, and was principal of their Rogers Park campus. Later he was the Spiritual Advisor and faculty member at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy. Thousands of Chicagoans were directly influenced by Rabbi Juzint.
In 1994, Rabbi Juzint endowed a Bait Hamussar, an institute for the study of Mussar, at Kesser Maariv, in memory of his parents and siblings.
Rabbi Juzint passed away on the second day of Sukkot, 5762 (2001). He left a large collection of written materials – some in Hebrew, some in Yiddish; memoirs and Torah thoughts. Kesser Maariv has been preparing one of his Holocaust memoirs, documenting the many times he was saved from certain death, as well as his Mussar thoughts on the Parsha, for publication in English. We hope this will not only be a tribute to Rabbi Juzint’s memory, but an everlasting legacy so that Rabbi Juzint will continue to influence and teach new generations in his inimitable style and with his unique perspective.
Sample from Nechamas Meyer
ותיראן המילדות את האלקים ולא עשו כאשר דבר אליהן מלך מצרים ותחיין את הילדים
"The midwives feared G-d and they did not do as the King of Egypt said to them, and they kept the children alive."
There appears to be a difficulty here: Did the midwives save the children only because they “feared G-d?” Should they not have had compassion and saved the children out of the goodness of their hearts?
This can be explained as follows: There is a great distinction between being compassionate and between aiding another because the Torah commands us: ואהבת לרעך כמוך “Love your fellow like yourself”. One who helps out of the goodness of his heart will only help others provided he has "more than enough" for himself. However, when he too is in need, and is barely able to provide for himself and his family, it is questionable whether he will give his fellow from the little he has.
This is not the case when referring to a G-d-fearing individual who fulfills mitzvos bein adam lachavero (between man and his fellow man) simply because Hashem has commanded him. He will be willing to give everything he has to his friend in need, possibly leaving nothing for himself. He will be willing to go so far as to risk his own life in order to save his fellow.
The passuk can then be understood thus: “And the midwives feared G-d.” Although they were aware of the danger that Pharaoh could kill them should he discover that they violated his decrees, nevertheless: “they kept the children alive,” - it was their fear of G-d which prompted them to risk their own lives in order to save the lives of others.
A lesson for us: One must work on himself to ascend to such a high level that he fulfills even basic laws of human decency only because the Torah commands us. He will then help his fellow even when it involves great mesirus nefesh.