Migrant Voices – Nehama Werdiger

Yeshivah College, East St Kilda

My name is Nehama Werdiger and I am the daughter of Yehoshua Shneur Zalman, of blessed memory. Many people have told me that my father's life story is worth a book. If it is ever written, it will reflect the great drama of the history of the Jewish people in our time. I would like to share with you a few scenes from this drama, as you follow a remarkable man's journey: from the Old World of Eastern Europe to the New World of Australia.

Throughout this journey, there is a constant theme. What binds it all together are my father's core beliefs. No matter the circumstances, no matter the hardships, his commitment to Yiddishkeit and education never wavered. My father's story falls broadly into three periods. From his birth in the Ukraine under the Tsar in 1904 to the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath in the pre-war Soviet Union. From the pre-war period through World War 2 and its aftermath in Eastern, then Western Europe, and from our arrival in Australia in 1949 until his passing in 1991.

The time is 1949, just a few years after the end of a terrible war for the Jewish people. An uncertain Israel is just one year old. The Australian Jewish community is poised between assimilation and its pockets of Yiddishkeit. A couple of hours drive from Melbourne, Reb Moshe Feiglin, of blessed memory, was the patriarch of an Orthodox-Chasidic family of nine children in Shepparton. Determined to create a viable Jewish community based around the orchards, farms, and timber forests in the area, Moshe Feiglin, wrote to the then Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, in New York, looking for a Shochet (a ritual slaughterer) and teachers.

The Rebbe sent six Lubavitch families to Australia, of whom ours, the Serebriyanski family, was one. So in 1949, having survived the war, we all arrived in Shepparton, in our case directly from Paris. It was, to say the least, a bit of a shock to the system. My father tried to start a Yeshivah. But a Yeshivah needs students. And they were not readily available. My eldest brother went to work for the Feiglins to support us. But my father had dedicated his life to Jewish education. My second brother sat down to learn, by himself.

Soon word got down to Melbourne, and some six young men came up to Shepparton, including Jonathan Sheink, Alfie Slonim, and Leibel New, some staying and some commuting. The Feiglins provided accommodation for the students; my mother and I did the cooking; and my father did the teaching until 1951. That was when my father decided that Shepparton would not attract sufficient students and that he had to move to Melbourne. So a committee was established. Mendel New and Nathan Werdiger, later to become my husband, were on it, and they bought an old house in Burwood to be the Yeshivah's new home.

There were certainly more students. But not enough to satisfy my father's aspirations. And so those early Lubavitch families sold the land to Mount Scopus College and acquired the property at 92 Hotham Street, East St Kilda. The Yeshivah day school started, and from the early 50s, the Lubavitch founding fathers and mothers never looked back. I could say the rest is history, and finish there. But I want to tell you something about my father's contribution to it.

My father was a gifted pedagogue, and he knew how to communicate knowledge. But he also had a great talent for instilling a love of Judaism and decency, or menshlichkeit. He was what today we call 'a people person' and it meant he could get on with Jews and non-Jews of all backgrounds and beliefs. But he had a special empathy for the Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors, many of who were searching for spiritual guidance and education for their children, while they worked incredibly hard and long to secure a livelihood. He listened attentively and patiently to them, to their problems, and to their complaints.

In today's more affluent world, it is sometimes hard to recall the humble beginnings of so many of those early post-war Jewish families that were drawn to the Yeshivah. But I certainly remember. My parents lived a simple life. They did not seek to acquire material goods or comforts. Nevertheless, their home was always full of guests and my mother was an expert at making gourmet meals from very little. My father's day started very early. At 6:00 AM. he was already giving lectures and he taught late into the evening hours. I have to admit that, as children, we sometimes felt that our father devoted more time to others than his own family. But I also knew that I could come to him with whatever was on my mind and he would be there for me.

In 1957, my father had his first heart attack, and my husband Nathan, who was already traveling to New York, was asked by the Executive to go and see the most recent Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn.

He pleaded with him to send my father an assistant, and he specifically asked for Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner. Rabbi Groner had been here a few years earlier and he knew Australia, and those here loved him even then. When he came, Rabbi Groner became the Yeshivah's director. But the Rebbe never let my father officially retire. He continued teaching actively until 10 days before he passed away in 1991.

His former students read like a Who's Who of the Jewish community. Prominent doctors, lawyers, educators, businessmen, and community leaders. What matters, however, is that regardless of their achievements they all remember Reb Zalman with love and respect. My father was a man, and a gentle man. And he had a basic philosophy of parenting. He always insisted that if you tell your children how good they are, they would turn out to be good adults. Admonish them by all means when they have done wrong, but never tell them they are bad.

We miss my father greatly. But his teachings and his legacy live on through the institutions he helped to create and through his family and students. I am sure that my parents are watching from above and looking down with pride, as they see our great-grandchildren go to the schools my father started, and our grandchildren involved as parents, as are all the members of our family, with the Yeshivah and all its activities.

As I've told his story so far, it would be fair to say that my father's life, by the standards he set himself, was eventually a success story and that he had reason for pride. But the Australian story cannot be understood or appreciated without some understanding of what came before in the Old World. After all, my father was already 45 by the time he arrived in Shepparton, and he had lived many lifetimes, and undergone many trials and tribulations, by then. Which is why I can only offer you the briefest of snapshots from the family album of the first half of the 20th century. But enough, I hope, to give you a sense of the Reb Zalman that came before.

My father was born in 1904 in Brahin, Ukraine. It was Russia ruled by the Tsars. He was the youngest of six children, with five sisters. As the only boy everyone spoiled him, but it didn't seem to harm him. Until the age of 17 he was educated in his home-town. He was highly intelligent and he was an ardent reader. The world of my father had been rapidly changing around him. In 1914 World War I had broken out, and in 1917, when Lenin came to power in the Bolshevik Revolution, my father was 14 years old. Three years later, in 1921, at the young age of 17, his parents sent him to Kharkov, in North Eastern Ukraine, where there was a Yeshivah.

He was 23 when he met and married my mother Brocha Futerfas of blessed memory. She was born in 1905 in Kharkov, the daughter of a very well known Lubavitch family, whose own mother, my grandmother, was widowed at the age of 28, while she was pregnant with her fourth child. Nevertheless, my grandmother managed to bring her family up on her own, educate them, and run a business.

In the Ukraine, before the war, my father worked long hours in a wine store and the only time I remember that we really enjoyed time with him was on Shabbat. Life was tough under the communist regime. But my parents never compromised their strong Jewish belief and practice. We were educated in secret, as it was forbidden to practice any religion. We spoke only Yiddish at home - we had to speak Russian when we were out of the house. Ours was a very strictly kosher home, and my mother was an expert in creating delicious kosher food, with whatever she could manage to buy. If there was no fish, she made gefilte fish out of walnuts. In 1938, my father was conscripted into the Russian army. Even in the army he managed to eat only what was permissible. If he only had potatoes, that is what he lived on.

His Tallit, which is exhibited here at the Jewish Museum, is what he wore under his uniform, and it most probably saved his life, as the winters were very cold in Russia. This is not the place to relate all our family's adventures and misadventures during the war that took us to such exotic sounding places as Tashkent and Samarkand, reunited us with our father in the midst of battle, and included periods of poverty, hunger, danger and serious illness for him and other family members. But we survived.

Now let me fast forward a little. When the war was over, the Russian Government permitted all the Polish refugees to go back to Poland. Everyones' dream was to leave Russia. So my father and my uncle Mendel Futerfass, who were very superior forgers, took Polish documents that were smuggled back in to Russia, changed the dates and names, and so helped 1000 families to leave Russia.

We were almost the last ones to leave before the border was closed. My uncle sent his family ahead and stayed behind to try to send out more families even as the danger grew. He was caught, and spent 18 years in a KGB prison. In 1965, he was finally reunited with his family in London with the help of then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, The reunion made world headlines, even on the front page of The Age.

As for our immediate family, getting to Poland was only half the battle in trying to find safe refuge. We stayed on in Poland longer than necessary, as my father found out that there were Jewish children there who had been left with gentile families or hidden in monasteries. He worked to rescue them, and with the help of the Agudah, transported them to Palestine. Eventually we went on to France. There with the help of the Joint, we established a temporary home, as we waited for our next destination.

It was, of course, to be Australia. And looking back, after all that he had been through, and after all that he had witnessed of Jewish destiny in our time, I think I can say that my father considered himself a fortunate man to have come here, and to be given a second chance to rebuild his family's life and strengthen the Yiddishkeit of the community.

Source: Suitcase Full of Dreams (Reproduced with permission)


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