When I was a little girl growing up in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, I was surrounded by a community of Holocaust survivors (aunts, uncles, and extended family and friends who were more family than friends). With this came a certain amount of emotional baggage, as it was hard for them to acclimate themselves to a country so far removed from their ken. Sometimes they made life-altering decisions that led to unforeseen consequences, and some of those decisions were made from fear and ignorance but were always well intentioned.
My family didn’t come from the shtetl. My father and his surviving brother grew up in what is now the Ukrainian city of Munkacevo (Munkacs), a fairly sophisticated town in the Carpathian Mountains that was then about the size of Teaneck today. My aunt, came from a small town on its outskirts. My mother was raised in Warsaw, a large city by any standard. They and their families were raised with a certain amount of sophistication and awareness, but when it came to imperfect children in their communities, parents and siblings suffered alone and in pain, in silence, and in hiding after all, how can you make a good match if there is something wrong with your blood?
Many people weren’t able to cope with their physically or mentally challenged children before the war. The European generation now in their 80s who lived in cities and went to high school and universities grew up hearing all about "blood" and genes and inherited traits. It was after all, the "reason" for the Holocaust to cleanse European blood of its Jewish contaminants.
Imagine, then, an ultra-Orthodox Auschwitz survivor after the war looking forward to bearing a son. Then imagine her giving birth in happy anticipation only to be told that her baby boy has Down’s Syndrome and will probably die before he is ‘ years old. This happened to my aunt and uncle when our extended family was living in Union City. They named him Freddy and tried to take care of him for three months.
The doctors insisted that it would be impossible for the family to care for him. They said he was going to die. My aunt and uncle listened. They had a life they needed to build, other children to care for. They signed on the dotted line, and for virtually every Sunday after that traveled downstate to visit him. I think I was 11 years old before they took me to see Freddy. He was in a wheelchair in a huge state institution, and I didn’t hear anything about him again until a few years ago.
My uncle and aunt were visiting my home in New Milford for the first time. They mentioned in passing that they had just arranged to have Freddy moved from Bergenfield to a group home in Fair Lawn run by the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities. I had no idea that Freddy was local. The secret had been buried so deeply that only his immediate family members ever went to visit, and then only sporadically, especially as his parents aged and grew frail. His older sister moved to Jerusalem 40 years ago. His younger sister lives in Brooklyn, and his nephew from Passaic visits him often.
I decided to meet Freddy at the home, which is really like a home. We’ve become pretty good friends and I have come to admire J-ADD and the work they do.
Freddy, now in his early 50s, has lived much longer and functions better than the doctors predicted. His has the mental acuity of a 5-year old and works part time. He loves to take pictures, dance to the oldies, and watch TV. His favorite president is Richard Nixon, so we don’t talk politics. I try to get to Fair Lawn whenever I get a chance, which is not very often, but Freddy has attended our family lifecycle events, Passover seders, and Fourth of July Jewish War Veterans barbecues. I invited him for Thanksgiving this year, but he wasn’t well.
He’d been admitted to Hackensack Medical Center for gastrointestinal distress, a recurring problem. No one knew what was wrong, but the people at J-ADD were there to help, I was nearby in case the family needed anything, and when I went to see him, Freddy was in good spirits. We played with some magnetic fish, colored, and watched some TV.
He went home a few days later and is doing fine. And I heard that all his nurses loved him. No surprise there. There is a simple joy in Freddy. Everyone at J-ADD loves him. He loves many of them too, as he says to the people he likes, "You’re a good one. You’re a keeper. Thank you very much."
The other day, Menachem Daum, the filmmaker, told me a story about a congregation in Europe that "tolerated" the presence of Yankel, a mentally impaired person. When the rabbi entered the sanctuary, everyone would stand up, except Yankel. Finally another congregant complained to the rabbi: "Everyone is required to stand up out of respect for you. Why don’t you force Yankel to get up?"
And the rabbi replied: "When a person dies and goes to heaven, his soul comes back as another person. That is because that soul is not complete, and so man is obligated to do certain things to complete it. Yankel has no such requirements. His soul is complete."
As far as I’m concerned, Freddy’s soul is complete; it’s a good one, a keeper.
Thank you very much.