Retiring fighter looks back

Retiring fighter looks back

Abe Foxman looks back at a tumultuous childhood and 50 years at the ADL

Mr. Foxman walks on railroad tracks to Auschwitz on the March of the Living.
Mr. Foxman walks on railroad tracks to Auschwitz on the March of the Living.

Last Monday, July 20, 50 years to the day after he began his work at the Anti-Defamation League, its executive director, Abraham Foxman, retired.

Mr. Foxman, who lives in Bergen County, was born in 1940; fingertip arithmetic reveals that he must be 75 years old, although he comes across as a convincing 50-something. Although he grew up in the United States, he was born in Poland. “It was not a good time to be born as a Jewish kid,” he said. “Wrong time. Wrong place. Wrong kid.”

The story of his early childhood has not been filmed, but it is cinematic, if not actively operatic, in the extremity of the situation and the intensity of the emotions it evoked. The background could have been directed by Steven Spielberg, Europe at war, but the main story should have been a work by Ingmar Bergman — subtle, haunting, so very complicated.

Abraham Fuksman’s parents, Joseph and Helen, married in Warsaw. They both came from wealthy, Jewishly observant families — hers, straightforwardly Orthodox, owned a yarn factory; his, with chasidic tendencies, manufactured textiles. “My father was a journalist,” Mr. Foxman said. “He did it for fun — he didn’t have to work. He went from yeshiva to gymnasium to university. He was the editor of a newspaper, a revisionist Zionist paper.” His hero was Jabotinsky.

When the war broke out in 1939, Joseph and Helen Fuksman moved east, to Baranowicze. Helen was pregnant. “Those people who had vision, foresight, and luck, moved east,” Mr. Foxman said. Although money helped, “you had to have understanding, guts, determination.”

After he was born, his parents “saw that the Germans were coming, and they” — the two young parents, their baby, and the recently employed nanny — “continued to move east,” Mr. Foxman said. “The Germans caught up with us in Vilna.” It was 1941.

“The orders went out for all Jews to assemble in the ghetto,” he continued. “My nanny said to them, ‘You go. I’ll take care of him.’”

That’s what they did. They left the baby with the nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi.

Young Mr. Fuksman with his nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi.
Young Mr. Fuksman with his nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi.

“I don’t think that anybody at that time knew that it would be four years before we’d be back together. They knew what was going on — but they didn’t know. But they made the most fateful decision of their lives.”

He paused, imagining how unimaginably painful that decision must have been. “That’s the way we all survived,” he said. “The fact that they were separate, that they could make decisions and take risks that they couldn’t if they’d had an infant with them — that raised the chances of their survival. With me, they wouldn’t have made it. Without me, they had a mission — to reunite.”

His parents survived separately. “My mother escaped the ghetto,” Mr. Foxman said. “She spoke good Polish, and she established a false identity as an Aryan. Then she made contact with me. I knew her as my aunt.

“She provided for me. She worked, she stole, she did whatever she had to do.

“My father was sent from one camp to another. He hid in the forest, he was hidden by a Lithuanian, and in 1945 he came back to Vilna, looking for me. He found my mother, and we were reunited.”

Meanwhile, as far as the little boy knew, and as far back as he could remember, he was Catholic, the well-loved, properly baptized son of a single mother. He was named Henryk Stanislaw Kurpi — Stanislaw was his patron saint — “and I went to church every Sunday.”

When he was 5, Mr. Foxman was reunited with his family. “When my father came back and realized that everybody else was gone, they decided that they would go to Palestine,” he said. “They said to my nanny, ‘You are a member of our family. Come with us.’ But she said no.

“‘I raised him, and he belongs to me,’” Ms. Kurpi told the Fuksmans. “‘And he is Catholic.’”

It was true. He still was Catholic. “I learned to spit on Jews, and I cried when anyone called me a zhid.”

Meanwhile, his nanny, who was in her late 40s and had never had a baby, was not willing to give up the child she thought of as hers. “She tried to get rid of my father,” Mr. Foxman said. “She went to the internal KGB” — Vilna was under Soviet control — “and said that my father survived because he collaborated with the Germans.” As evidence, she pointed to the fact that there had been nearly 100,000 Jews in Vilna, and less than 30,000 or so survived. “They arrested him, interrogated him, and let him go,” Mr. Foxman said.

The Fuksman family at a DP camp in Austria
The Fuksman family at a DP camp in Austria

“Next, she said that he was stealing from a government factory where he was working. They arrested him, interrogated him, and let him go.” The third time, she stole something and accused him of theft. “Eventually, the KGB said to my parents that we don’t have the time for these games. You have to resolve this in court.

“So I became the first custody battle in Soviet-liberated Europe, and my parents won.” The case hinged on whether Abe Fuksman, then 5, was old enough to choose whether he wanted to be Catholic. “There was a Catholic saying, ‘Give me a child until he is 6, and he will be a Catholic for life,’” Mr. Foxman said. “The judge said that I would stay with my parents because I was under 6.”

To add an extra fillip of oddness, “I stayed at the judge’s house during the trial,” he added. “I had to stay somewhere!” After the trial, though, the nanny continued to live with the family. The Fuksmans decided to end the oddness by going back to Poland. Ms. Kurpi followed. “She kidnapped me, and my parents kidnapped me back,” Mr. Foxman said. They escaped Poland for a displaced persons’ camp in Vienna in 1947, pretending to be Greek; 6-year-old Abe had to pretend to be deaf because Greek was not among the many languages he spoke.

“It was in the DP camp that I became Jewish,” Mr. Foxman said. “Later, I realized how smart my father was. I was raised in faith — I was a devout Catholic — and my parents continued to raise me in faith.” You don’t explain theology to a 6-year-old, and Joseph Fuksman didn’t. “I used to say my prayers every night, before I went to sleep, in Latin, and I used to kneel. My father taught me the Shma. I didn’t understand the Latin, and I didn’t understand the Shma, but before I went to sleep, I prayed. And then my father told me that I didn’t have to kneel any more.

“The first time my father took me to shul — it was very wise — was on Simchat Torah,” the holiday marked by its singing, dancing (and, in times and places that allow for it, joy). On the way there, “we passed a church, and I crossed myself. We passed a priest, and I dropped my father’s hand to kiss his. And then we went to synagogue.

“When we got home, I said, ‘I like this church. I like the singing and dancing.’

“My Jewishness became natural in the DP camp,” he continued. “All the kids there were Jewish.”

At that first Simchat Torah, Mr. Foxman remembers, there was a Soviet officer there, “who went over to my father and asked him,” about young Abe, “‘Is he Jewish?’ My father said yes, and the officer, who was Jewish, said that he had traveled many hundreds of kilometers and hadn’t seen a Jewish child. ‘Could he take me?’ the officer asked.

“My father said yes, and he took me and danced with me, and he said, ‘This is my sefer Torah.’”

A few years ago, Mr. Foxman added, he told that story at a Birthright tour of Yad Vashem, and an undergraduate there, taken with the story, decided to research it. The officer moved to the United States and became an Orthodox rabbi, she learned. Mr. Foxman was able to meet Rabbi Leo Goldman, then 91, at his home in Detroit in 2010, a few years before he died.

Mr. Foxman has vivid visual memories of Ms. Kurpi because his father managed to take photos of the nanny with the family. It was a risky thing to do, and I asked my father why he took that chance. “‘I was not sure if you would remember her, and I wanted to be sure that for the rest of your life, you would have her image before your eyes,’” his father told him.

“I asked my father once why, if she loved me so much, there was so much hate. He taught me that everything in excess is no good, even love.” That was the model by which Mr. Foxman, a deeply committed moderate, has lived.

He never got to say goodbye to Ms. Kurpi, though, and they never spoke again. They never heard from her again, but in a one-sided way the relationship continued until 1959. “My parents kept sending her money and packages, and she had to sign for them, although she never otherwise acknowledged them,” he said. “We just got the return receipt. And then, we were told not to send any more. She had passed away.”

From Austria, in 1950, the Fuksmans went on to America (where they became Foxmans). They decided to go there rather than to Israel because “my father was a revisionist Zionist, and he headed up the Irgun in Austria, so when the state of Israel was established, it was not necessarily the best place for him,” Mr. Foxman said. Instead, relatives sponsored them, and they moved to a furnished room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, close to them, and Abe enrolled in Ramaz. “But my parents weren’t comfortable there, so we moved to the Lower East Side, which was wonderful. There was a lot of Yiddish.” He went to a yeshiva there.

“And then we moved to Tom’s River, to a chicken farm funded by the Jewish Agricultural Society, and I went to yeshiva in Lakewood.” He took an Atlantic City-bound bus to the very small school. “When I was sick or there was a Jewish holiday, my father would flag the bus down and say don’t stop.”

Foxman’s first work for the ADL: He translated, for $15 each, Yiddish articles on the attacks on the ADL.

He collected eggs and learned about chickens. “In the summer, I would vaccinate them. You lift a wing and stick the needle in. You’d do it when it was still dark; you’d take the chicken from one coop and then throw it into the other when you were done, so you’d know.”

Soon, though, the family realized that their heart was not in their chickens, and they moved to Brooklyn, where Abe went to the Yeshiva of Flatbush, funded by a “secret scholarship — I never knew who paid it.” The Jewish National Fund sent him to Israel right after graduation. “There were 300, 400 kids on a boat, and every day we got closer to Israel. When we landed, we stayed up all night, singing and dancing.”

Dr. Joseph Lichten, a Polish-born Jewish lawyer and diplomat who specialized in the relationship between Catholics and Jews, “at the end of his career taught canon law at the Vatican,” Mr. Foxman said. “Dr. Lichten wrote a pamphlet called ‘In Defense of Pope Pius’ that stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Jewish world.

“My father got a call from someone at the ADL, asking him if he would be interested in translating attacks on the ADL in Yiddish and Hebrew on the subject of Pope Pius. My father said, ‘No, but my son might be interested.’ So I translated for the ADL, for $15 each, articles on the attacks on the ADL.”

Soon, he was offered a job at the ADL — “there were three assistantships available, in law, in discrimination, and in fact-finding.” He was offered the choice of all three, “I took law — and the rest is history.”

In 1967, Mr. Foxman married Golda Bouman, from Montreal. The pair met in a Jewish summer camp, Camp Herzl in Webster, Wisconsin. She worked at the waterfront, and he was a Hebrew educator. “I am a great advocate of Jewish summer camps,” he said. The couple lived in Brooklyn; Ms. Bouman was a schoolteacher. Soon, she took a job as a fifth-grade teacher in Harlem, a job she held for 40 years. Her trek from Brooklyn was daunting, and the couple looked for a home closer to her school.

Mr. Foxman met Nat Kameny at an ADL retreat in Atlantic City. Mr. Kameny was “a major figure in Bergen County,” Mr. Foxman said. “He started the Jewish federation, was one of the early founders of the community. He asked us, ‘Why don’t you consider living in New Jersey?’

“We said, ‘What? New Jersey? But we came out, and we looked, and we liked what we saw.”

About six months after that idea was born, in 1968, Abe and Golda Foxman moved to Bergen County. They have lived there ever since.

With Ariel Sharon
With Ariel Sharon

Jewish geography as always was at work as well. Moshe Dworkin, the force of nature who was a founding publisher of Moment magazine and a presence in Jewish publishing and culture, had known the Foxmans for years; in fact, it was Mr. Dworkin who recruited them to work at Camp Herzl. “He lived across the street from us,” Mr. Foxman said.

The couple had two children. Michelle, an intellectual property lawyer, is the mother of three children. Ariel, who worked at the New Yorker, now is the editor of InStyle. His wedding, to Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, was covered by the New York Times in a story that includes photographs of seemingly effortless fabulousness. At his son’s wedding, “I thanked my son and my son-in-law for providing us with the opportunity to appreciate and be sensitive to various aspects of life that we would not have been aware of except in the abstract,” Mr. Foxman said.

The Foxmans have seen the Jewish community in Bergen County grow over the last 40-plus years. Michelle and Ariel went to Moriah and then to Frisch. The family belonged to Bnai Yeshurun. “At that time, it was the synagogue. That was it. Then there was a little shtiebel that became Beth Abraham. My son became bar mitzvah at Bnai Yeshurun. I said kaddish for my parents there.

“The community grew by leaps and bounds. It was primarily traditional then, but not Orthodox. Traditional. Then, we used to go to Brooklyn or Washington Heights for kosher food. Today, everything is here. Restaurants, mikvahs, synagogues, schools. We watched this exciting growth. Today, you have a choice.”

Famously, Mr. Foxman broke with Bnai Yeshurun; he wrote a column, “more in sadness than in anger,” he said, about that break. It was a result of a move to the right that the passionate moderate could not make. But when the rabbi there “changed the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel, and then talked in a way that almost justified the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin — I know that he is a great scholar, but nobody said anything when he said those things.

“That’s not acceptable. That’s not a part of our tradition. I talked to some people, and nobody wanted to say or do anything, so I decided to leave publicly.

“That’s when he attacked me. He said that he doesn’t need Jews like me. He has other, better Jews. So I moved over to Keter Torah, which was then Roemer. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but in good conscience I had to make it.

“When I saw Shimon Peres, he said, ‘You lost a seat at your shul, but you gained a seat at the peace table.’”

Mr. Foxman’s work has put him in the crosshairs of some very nasty groups’ rifles. He has been the subject of a large number of death threats. He takes them seriously but is used to them. In fact, he said, he owes his life to death threats.

It was the night of the second seder about 15 years ago, he said, when he started to feel unwell. Golda could see that something was wrong. “She didn’t like the way I was breathing,” Mr. Foxman said. A death threat had caused an off-duty police officer to be stationed out in front of his house. “She ran out to the security guy, said there was trouble, and he came running in with a gun. She said, ‘No. Not that kind of trouble.’”

Mr. Foxman was in cardiac arrest.

As it turned out, “a buddy, another police officer, had brought him a cup of coffee, and still was there. He had a defibrillator in his car.” Why? Because “a local doctor thought that his father might still be alive if the police had a defibrillator in his car, so he bought some for the police department.” One of them was in his car.

“So, if not for the anti-Semites who had threatened my life, I might have died,” Mr. Foxman said.

“I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know police chiefs and officers in many of the surrounding towns, people we don’t usually meet except God forbid in an emergency, and they are of very high caliber,” he added.

He has been deeply connected to the community, serving on many boards, speaking at many organizational functions, although he has pulled back in order to give younger people their turn, he said.

On his last day of work at the ADL, which has named him its executive director emeritus, Mr. Foxman looked back at the half century he spent there.

He brought up a quote from last week’s Standard, where a rally against the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” was said to be successful because it was not performed in any other opera house in the world.

“I made that deal,” he said. “I made the deal with the Metropolitan Opera to have it play only there, for six performances.

“I was called a Judas, a capo, a quisling; I was accused of selling out the Jewish people.

“Never mind that the Klinghoffer daughters were pleased that they would have a page in the program.

“I upset people on the right and the left. The left was upset because I limited the 2,000 performances, and the right was upset because I accepted six. From my point of view, 2,000 performance all over the world really would fuel anti-Semitism.

“It’s not popular today to compromise. It’s not popular to be moderate. Everyone wants you to be 100 percent plus 10 percent on their side.”

Moderation in all things. “We should be smart because we are a minority. We sometimes believe what the anti-Semites say, but we are not as powerful as they think we are. We are not as powerful as sometimes we think we are.

“I understand why the world thinks we are more powerful than we are,” he continued. Look at the history of the movement to free Soviet Jews. “The United States and the Soviet Union were at war — cold war or hot war — and it was basically the Jewish community that set the condition of the relationship between the two powers, and it was about the issue of Soviet Jewry.

“Jackson-Vanik set the standard about trade, commerce, cultural exchange.” The Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 trade act had to do with the trading relationship between the United States and countries that restricted the right to emigration, along with other human rights.

“The criteria for the relationships in Jackson-Vanik was how a country treated its Jews. If you are the ruler of a country and you take a look and see Jackson and Vanik, who don’t have major Jewish constituents” — Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson came from Washington State and Rep. Charles Vanik was from Ohio — “and yet you look at this amendment, you see why the world believes that Jews are so powerful.

“To us, it taught or reinforced that if we care enough, we can make a difference. If we take our God-given democratic rights in this country, and we lobby to a fare-thee-well, we can make a difference.

With New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan
With New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan

“We had a moral issue — religious freedom — and we made a difference. We had an impact on Washington and the rest of the world. It was a just cause.

“I don’t think that history will ever find a people that has been as persecuted, as reviled, as seen as conspiratorial, who have always been so close to extinction so many times, and yet survived, as the Jews.

“A few years ago, I went to a retreat at the Wye Plantation. The issue at hand was whether Jewish civilization will survive to the year 2025. There were American Jewish leaders, Israeli leaders. There were thinkers, scholars, and historians who were given the responsibility of distilling why Greek, Roman, Inca civilizations came and went and Jewish civilization survived.

“One difference, they said, is that after a major defeat or tragedy, the other civilizations all said, ‘No more.’ They said they didn’t want to be Greek or Roman or Inca anymore. But after each trauma, the Jews would pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and say they want to be Jewish again.

“The greatest miracle was that after the Shoah, one of the greatest tragedies a people could suffer, the surviving people — at least most of them — recommitted to being Jewish, and they built a Jewish state.

“Overwhelmingly, the consensus was that they wanted to continue being Jewish. That is the secret of Jewish survival.

“The question now is if we live in an era where there is less persecution, less prejudice, more openness, more assimilation, is this element of choice endangered? I don’t think it is. I think that in the American Jewish community and in Israel, there are creative, dynamic expressions of Jewish civilizations. We are recreating ourselves.

“There are many more new paths to being Jewish today than there ever were before. People make the statement that they want to be Jewish, in whatever sense Jewishness appears to them. As long as that desire to be reborn in whatever reincarnation a person sees as Jewish continues, we will survive.

“And, of course, anti-Semitism is still there to help reinforce it too, just in case we get too nervous that the good life will undo us,” he added.

As deeply devoted as he is to Israel, he acknowledged problems there. “There are issues in terms of respect for pluralism. Israel is the home of the Jewish people, and it is being hijacked by a dysfunctional political system. I think that the overwhelming majority of Israelis want religious pluralism and respect, but they don’t get to express their views because of that dysfunctional system.

“Israel doesn’t have political accountability because it doesn’t have proportional representation.” That is, they are elected purely by party, with no tie to any geographic base. “As long as elected officials are not responsible or accountable to the people instead of to a party, there will be a struggle about pluralism, especially religious pluralism.”

There are two big changes he has seen over the last half century, Mr. Foxman said. One is that although anti-Semitism has continued in Europe, “now you have the governments there condemning it, speaking out against it, and against Muslim extremism, and providing protection and security.

“That’s a significant difference,” he said. “Imagine if you had the rise of anti-Semitism and governments were indifferent to it.”

The second, and even more significant, change is the internet, which has revolutionized everything, including the dissemination of hatred. It used to be spread by retail, in churches, in printed materials, later by radio, but it could reach a limited number of people. Now, though, it reaches hundreds of millions of people, most of them sitting alone in their rooms, staring not at a living human being but at a screen. “Our paradigm always has been that you fight bad speech with good speech, but what do you do when the bad speech comes in a tsunami?”

The ADL has begun to talk with some of the biggest internet companies — Google, Facebook, and others — about how to handle it. “We have been saying to the geniuses in Palo Alto that there are unintended consequences to your genius. It is not your fault, it is algorithms, but you have to find an antidote. You have a responsibility to find the anti-algorithms.”

And how has he changed over the last 50 years? Mr. Foxman paused. At first, he demurred. “That’s for other people to say, not me,” he said. But then, he said, “a couple of things have changed.

“As I matured, the first scary thing was to wake up one morning and realize that people were listening to me. It can paralyze you. It used to be that you talk, blah blah blah, everybody talks. But then one day I came home and I said, ‘You know, they’re all listening.’

“It was a sobering, awesome thought. What you say matters. You have to think, and you have to stand behind what you say.”

The second thing grew from the first. “I had the realization that the worst thing that can happen is that I can say that I was wrong, that I made a mistake. That was liberating.

“Most people are afraid to make a mistake, and if they do, they aren’t capable of saying so.

“The first time it happened to me was when there was a riot at the Kotel, between Israelis and Palestinians. It was ugly. The Israeli government set up a commission of inquiry and said that Israel was blameless. A couple of weeks later, ‘60 Minutes’ did its own reportage and said that Israel was not blameless.

“I went after ‘60 Minutes’ in a big way. I accused them of bias. Six months later, Israel had another commission of inquiry, and found that the first commission was wrong. In fact, Israel was not blameless.

“I wrote a letter to Mike Wallace and to Don Hewitt. I apologized. I said I was wrong, and I said that if you want to make this public, make it public.

“Mike Wallace spoke at a synagogue a couple of weeks later and gave the honorarium to the ADL, but the Jewish community was angry. They said, ‘Why did you have to apologize?’ ‘Why did you have to say you were wrong?’

“But the ability to say that you are wrong enables you to be more outspoken. It is a feeling of liberation.”

Now, Executive Director Emeritus Abraham Foxman has left his full-time position at the ADL, but “I will not retire. I will rewire,” he said. “I will not give up my voice. I think it’s an asset that I should not throw away.

“I will continue my relationship with the ADL, and I will act as a part-time consultant. At the same time, I will establish a platform through which I will have the ability to have a voice on the issues that I have been involved with. Maybe it will be an academic institution, maybe a media entity.

“I will continue to be a voice on issues that have been and are important to me. When they call on me, I’ll be there.”

read more: