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History and love

Remembering Moshe Avital, 1928-2020

Moshe Avital is surrounded by Israeli soldiers, including his grandson Yair Slasky, behind and to Moshe’s left. His grandson Eytan Slasky, a freshman at the Frisch School in Paramus, is in the front row.
Moshe Avital is surrounded by Israeli soldiers, including his grandson Yair Slasky, behind and to Moshe’s left. His grandson Eytan Slasky, a freshman at the Frisch School in Paramus, is in the front row.

It was a life shaped by history — and a sudden love that disrupted it.

Dr. Moshe Avital was a Holocaust survivor, an illegal immigrant to Palestine, a Haganah fighter, and a Jewish educator. He also was the long time cantor at Congregation Sons of Israel in Leonia and the author of many books. He lived in New Rochelle, and died last month at 92.

In a life filled with turning points, it was a ride from Crown Heights to Flatbush — far from the gaze of history — that was the sweetest, launching a 64-year love affair and marriage that settled his life into America. When he died, he left his wife, Anita, three children, 11 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. A third great-grandchild has been born since.

Moshe Avital was born in 1928 in Bilke, a village in the Carpathian hinterlands, then of Czechoslovakia, now in Ukraine. There were 2,000 Jews — mostly, like his family, chasidim — and 8,000 gentiles. Moshe was the youngest of the 11 children of Yehoshua Doft and Pearl Lipschitz. Yehoshua Doft was a shochet and a chazzan, one in line stretching back five or six generations. On the holidays, the six boys would sing along with their father as a choir.

In 1937, his older brother Shmuel Tzvi, then 23, left the village for Palestine.

“When he was growing up in cheder, he learned a lot about Israel,” his daughter Sheara Arbit of Englewood said about her father. “The chasidim were usually not supportive of having a state before the moshiach came, but they were still taught the love of Israel, the love of Zion. The whole idea of Israel really attracted him, and he looked up to his brother.”

Moshe was 11 when Hitler sliced up Czechoslovakia in 1939; Hungary grabbed a piece of it, with Hitler’s assent, and that piece included Bilke. His older brothers — like all the Jewish men between 18 and 50 — were taken off to labor camps.

In 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary. That Pesach, the Jews of Bilke were deported to a ghetto. After six weeks there, they were told to gather their possessions; they were being relocated. They were packed into trains, stuffed into cattle cars that slowly made their way to Auschwitz in Poland.

“He was with his parents, in their 50s,” Ms. Arbit said. “With his oldest sisters, one who had five children and one who had one child — their husbands had already been taken away — and with three other sisters and one brother.

“They were stuffed into these boxcars, with no air to breathe, no food. People died in the cars. They arrived in Auschwitz and had no idea of what it was. They rushed them out of the box cars and separated the men and the women. That was the last time he saw his mother and sisters and their kids.

“He was sent the other way with his father and his brother Yosef, who was three and a half years older. His father had a gray beard. He looked elderly. He was immediately sent to the gas chambers, as were the married sisters, because they were holding children. The three sisters in their mid 20s were sent to work — they were seamstresses and worked either as tailors or in the munition factories.

“My father and his brother Yosef went before Mengele. My father was 14. Mengele hesitated when he came to him, and then sent him with his brother to hard labor, where he was for several weeks,” Ms. Arbit sait.

Then he was taken from Auschwitz to Płaszów, a labor camp where he was put to work “doing pointless labor like moving boulders back and forth,” she said.

“The brothers stayed close to each other — until one day they were separated. He never saw Yosef again. Then my father was really alone.” And then to a series of concentration camps.

Moshe Avital was a sixth (or seventh) generation chazzan; he was at Congregation Sons of Israel in Leonia for 25 years.

“In January of ’45, when the Allies were coming closer, the Nazis were trying to move all the Jews away from the front lines,” Ms. Arbit said. “He was one of 10,000 prisoners sent on a five-week death march to Buchenwald. It was winter. They had no coats. They didn’t have shoes. It would snow on them. When they got to Buchenwald, only 400 people had survived. My father was one of them.”

Moshe was in Buchenwald for several weeks. He was placed in the children’s barracks, alongside Elie Wiesel and Yisrael Lau, who later became the chief rabbi of Israel.

“My father always spoke about the barrack elder,” Ms. Arbit said. “He wasn’t Jewish. He was a Czech political prisoner who had been principal of a school. He took very good care of all the kids. He would get them extra blankets. He made sure they would learn. He did everything he could to keep them alive and well.

“Four days before my father was liberated, there was an order to liquidate the entire camp of Buchenwald because the Americans were approaching. There were about 80,000 prisoners left. They started taking everybody to the forest. They machine-gunned them. The soldiers just gunned them down, barrack after barrack.

“Then it was the turn of the children’s barracks. The principal went with them. He was telling them not to worry. They were marching to the gate. They were the next ones to be shot.

“All of a sudden, the sirens went off. The American bombers came and started to bomb around the camp.

“The Nazis ran. The principal told them to crawl back to the barrack. For the next couple of days, no one knew what to do. There were no guards. Everyone was scared to leave.

On April, the American Third Army broke through the gates.

“Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who was a chaplain in the U.S. army, came to the barracks. They were very scared of people in uniform. He wore a little pin that looked like the 10 Commandments. He said, in Yiddish, ‘Jewish children, you are finally free!’

“They all broke down crying,” Ms. Arbit said.

“Of the 80,000 prisoners who had been there, on the day of liberation there were only 20,000 in Buchenwald. They had killed 60,000 in the forest with gunfire.”

Moshe was sent to France to recuperate. There he was recruited by the Jewish Legion to travel to Palestine.

“They went on a ship to go from Europe to Israel,” Ms. Avital said. “The ship was called ‘The Children of Buchenwald.’ They were so excited to be going to Palestine where they were going to be free and get away from Europe. As they approached the port of Haifa they were ecstatic.

Moshe and Anita Avital, surrounded by their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, are at a family wedding in Israel in November 2019.

“All of a sudden, four British ships surrounded their ship. ‘You are trying to enter Palestine illegally,’ the British announced. They took the ship to Haifa and took them forcefully from the ship and brought them to a place called Atlit. They went from one camp to another camp.

“They were there about four or five weeks and one night” — October 10, 1945 — “the Haganah came at night, tied up the British guards, and told everybody, ‘get up, we’re here to free you!’”

Moshe was one of the 208 detainees who escaped that night. The British imposed a curfew and tried to track them down, but the prisoners had been dispersed throughout the country. Moshe ended up at Kibbutz Yavneh, and later lived with his brother in Jerusalem.

The brothers did not know that three sisters and another brother had survived until the brother, in a hospital in Prague, met someone going to Palestine and asked him to send a note to his brother. “That was the first time my father and his brother found out there were surviving siblings,” Ms. Arbit said.

Moshe joined the Haganah — the illegal Jewish defense force — and when the state of Israel was declared and the Haganah merged into the Israeli army, he joined that as well. He fought in Jerusalem during the War of Independence.

The other siblings made their way to America. “They’re all chasidim,” Ms. Arbit said. “They settled in Crown Heights and Williamsburg.”

In 1950, one of the siblings got married, and Moshe got permission from the IDF to travel to the wedding. His family prevailed upon him not to return to Israel, but to get an education in America. He he enrolled at Yeshiva University. He went on to earn a masters in Jewish education there. (In 1977 he would earn a doctorate in Jewish literature from Y.U., writing his dissertation on the history of the development of the yeshiva as an institution.)

In 1956, the situation in Israel was getting tense. A war — the Sinai Campaign — was on the horizon, and Moshe felt he had to be part of it.

He went to pay a farewell visit to one of his professors, who lived in Boro Park. He lived in Flatbush, and there was no subway between the two. He told the professor’s wife that he planned to take a taxi home.

“You’re my guest,” his hostess told him. “I known someone who has a car. I’ll ask her if she can take you.”

That someone was Anita Hershman, who had moved to New York from Boston as a single woman at 25. She had a car she bought in Boston — “cah” was the word she used — and she brought it with her.

This week, Anita Hershman Avital told what happened next the conversation.

“She asked me, ‘If you’re not doing anything, can you drive a friend to Flatbush?” Anita recalled.

Moshe Avital as an Israeli soldier.

“I came to the house. I rang the bell. I walked in.

“As soon as I walked in and saw him, I really felt there was some strength in him, in his face. A certain something that really clicked with me.

“I drove him to Flatbush. On the way he says, ‘It’s a shame we didn’t meet earlier. This Friday I’m going back to Israel.’ He tells me he was in the army. I saw right away that this is a very Zionist person.

“I asked him how he’s getting to the boat. He said he’s going with his family, though he didn’t know how.

“I said, ‘Let me take you to the boat.’

“I drove him to the boat. On the boat we discussed that it’s a shame we didn’t meet earlier.

“He was on the boat for 14 days. He wrote me every day. When they landed at some port in Italy, he mailed all the letters he wrote me. One day I got a whole bunch of letters.

“We both knew something was there and eventually we would get married.”

Meanwhile, the war broke out — and Moshe fought in it.

“Eventually, in March of the following year, he wrote a letter to my father in Boston. My father was a very learned Hebraist. He wrote in Hebrew, telling my father about himself and that he would like to marry me.”

Ms. Arbit recently found that letter in her parents’ home.

“It was six pages, handwritten. A beautiful letter. He decided his job was to come back to America and to teach American Jewry. That there was a big role for somebody to make an impression on the Jewish youth of America and keep Judaism alive.”

A month after the letter, “He came back from Israel to make sure that I’m the one for him. We drove to Boston from New York to meet my parents. The following June we got married.”

The couple didn’t consider moving to Israel.

“At that time, Israel wasn’t what it was today,” Ms. Avital said. “It wasn’t developed. My parents would not let me go. But it was difficult for him to leave Israel because Israel was the country that took him in after the Holocaust.”

In 1960, not long after their eldest daughter, Leora, was born, Moshe decided he wanted to change his name to a Hebrew name. He had been going by Lipschitz — his mother’s family name — because his father never gained Czech citizenship when he moved to Bilke from Poland, and when the Nazis took power, it seems like going with the Lipschitz name might help. It didn’t.

His father’s name, Doft, means “dew.” So he chose Avital — meaning my father, dew — as the family name.

At first, they lived in Boston. Summers were a highlight of the year: He was a counselor, and then camp director, at Camp Massad in the Poconos. “It was a wonderful way of living,” Ms. Avital said. “Those summers were amazing. Everyone spoke Hebrew there. He loved running the camp. Because he had been in the army he was very strict about the camp being run properly and that everyone should speak Hebrew. The kids came from good Jewish homes where the parents were interest in their children living in an environment of love of Israel, love of Judaism, love of the Jewish people.”

Then he became director of Camp Yavneh, the Hebrew-speaking camp in New Hampshire that Anita had attended from the summer she was 10. “It was the highlight of my year,” she remembered.

The Camp Yavneh position came because Moshe Avital wore a Hebrew Camp Massad t-shirt on a drive from New York to Boston. “We stopped at a Howard Johnson,” Ms. Avital said. And ran into Camp Yavneh committee looking for a new director. “We had wonderful years at Camp Yavneh.”

In the course of his career, Dr. Avital ran Hebrew schools, headed the World Zionist Organization’s Department of Education and Culture in New York, preparing booklets and teaching materials for teachers throughout North America, and worked as executive director of the Forest Hills Jewish Center. He was director of the North American National Bible Contest, and in 1977 he was the official Hebrew-to-English translator for ABC during Anwar Sadat’s trip to Israel.

Moshe Avital in June 1945, a couple months after liberation from Buchenewald

And for 25 years, he was the cantor at Congregation Sons of Israel in Leonia.

“He had a magnificent voice,” Ms. Avital said. “I felt it was a combination of Yossele Rosenblatt and Richard Tucker. He sang with feeling. His nusach was absolutely amazing.”

He studied with a voice teacher who trained singers from the Metropolitan Opera. Yeshiva University placed him with cantorial jobs.

“For many years he just went for the high holidays,” Ms. Avital said. “Finally, he decided he would like to be in a community. They placed him in Leonia. We lived in Queens at the time. I didn’t want to uproot the family. So he would stay with the rabbi twice a month, because he wouldn’t ride on Shabbat. When the High Holidays came, we all went with him and we stayed with the rabbi as well.” That was Rabbi Zelick Block. “We developed a very close relationship. He had wonderful years as a cantor in Leonia. It was a warm, thriving community.

“Every other Friday he had to go on the Cross Bronx Expressway on a Friday afternoon. It took over an hour when it should be a 20-minute ride.”

And on at least one occasion, it took far more than that — and Friday night saw Rabbi Block filling in for an absent Cantor Avital.

In his last decades, Dr. Avital devoted himself to writing books — 17 — and speaking about his experience in the Holocaust. “He spoke over a thousand times in different places,” Ms. Avital said. “In synagogues and schools. He spoke for Novartis. People came from Japan to interview him.”

“He was very involved with the Westchester Holocaust center,” Ms. Arbit said. “They would bring 350 kids from all over the place. Some had never met a Jew before. They were so taken by him. Normally kids are fidgeting around. You could hear a pin drop. They were all listening so intently. Some of the letters they would send were really beautiful.

“It was so important to him that he impacted children. He told them, ‘There won’t be a lot of survivors, but you can say you met someone who survived and who told me his story.’

“I promised him I was going to continue speaking and telling his story and doing whatever I can do,” Ms. Arbit said. She is a lawyer, but she has begun auditing classes at YU’s graduate program in Holocaust studies to prepare her to pick up her father’s role as a speaker.

It wasn’t always easy being the daughter of someone who spanned history.

“On the one hand, it was very hard to feel like anything I did was significant, because everything he did was so significant,” Ms. Arbit said. “I felt my life was ordinary compared to his.

“On the other hand, after all he had been through, all he wanted was for his children to have a simpler life. I take comfort from knowing he really wanted us to have a life and a family and not to suffer. That was a great goal of his.”

In February, he spoke at the Chabad of Hackensack. That was one of his last public lectures. A scheduled talk in March at Chabad Woodcliff Lake was canceled because of covid. “He spoke on Zoom for Yom Hashoah,” Ms. Arbit said. “He did five Zoom sessions.”

During covid, he wrote his last book, “Can There Be Forgiveness for the Holocaust?”

“He finished writing it about three months ago,” Ms. Avital said. “Because of covid it took a long time to get published and printed and sent to us. Usually it didn’t take that long. He knew he was sick and he was praying the books should be delivered to him before he goes. I heard from UPS a few days before he passed away that the books were going to arrive on September 29. He passed on the 29th. We postponed delivery of the books to the following Monday.”

Before he died, Dr. Avital drafted a letter to the members of Young Israel of New Rochelle, his congregation.

“While my goal is Holocaust education, this book also speaks to many of the difficulties that society is grappling with now during this global pandemic, such as the precariousness and uncertainty of life,” he wrote.

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