Remembering Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, z’l
For the past two years, I had been working with Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, z’l, to publicize and memorialize the life of the righteous gentile Raoul Wallenberg. Rabbi Tannenbaum liked to point out that Raoul Wallenberg was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as holding the record for saving more lives than any other person. He saved over 100,000 Jews from the Holocaust. Because of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie success about another righteous gentile, Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg’s name seemed to have been pushed to the sidelines. Rabbi Tannenbaum jumped into action and began a movement, which I had the privilege to be a part of, to tell the amazing and awesome story of Raoul Wallenberg.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Tannenbaum passed away in his sleep on Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon, on the first day of Adar. He came close to making the “motion picture,” as he called it, about Raoul Wallenberg that he dreamed about up until the last day of his life. He made it a point to always tell me about all the families that he personally knew that had been saved by Raoul Wallenberg.
Rabbi Tannenbaum was a complex individual. He was the head of the Igud HaRabbonim, which has over 1,000 rabbis to its credit. He was a true genius with an encyclopedic mind. He knew Torah backwards and forwards, and he knew the secular world. He was respected in the Agudah world as well as the chassidic world. He was the beloved rabbi of Congregation Bnai Israel of Linden Heights.
He wrote numerous articles for the Jewish Press and the Five Towns Jewish Times. His last article was a eulogy of Rabbi Chaim Yisroel HaLevi Belsky, of blessed memory, who recently passed away.
Rabbi Tannenbaum was born in a DP camp in Windsheim, Germany, to Hungarian parents from a long line of illustrious rabbis. He served for a short time with Rabbi Aryeh Levin of Jerusalem. He always offered his help to anyone in need. The family recalls how he helped save the life of an infant from a prominent Israeli family who needed open-heart surgery in the United States. The surgery was not available in Israel. Rabbi Tannenbaum made it happen, including getting a passport for the infant just in the nick of time.
Rabbi Tannenbaum also gained the respect of everyone he met in Hollywood in his attempt to make a movie about Raoul Wallenberg. James Brubaker, who had produced many hit movies, including Rocky III and Rocky IV, was in awe of him. The rabbi took Mr. Brubaker to an Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles, where he was greeted with open arms. Bruce Willis, the actor, greeted him warmly when they ran into each other. People responded with genuine warmth to Rabbi Tannenbaum wherever he went.
Soon after Raoul Wallenberg would have turned 100, Rabbi Tannenbaum spoke at the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates in his honor. He knew every detail of his life. The mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, at the same dinner, said that had there been 60 Raoul Wallenbergs, there would not have been a Holocaust. Denis Hamill quoted Rabbi Hochberg in the Daily News the next day.
A real highlight for Rabbi Tannenbaum was meeting the sister of Raoul Wallenberg in Washington, DC on July 9, 2014, at the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony for Raoul Wallenberg organized by Ezra Friedlander. Rabbi Tannenbaum was beaming. He was so happy to be able to thank the sister in person for all that her brother had done.
I will never forget our precious time together. His passing was a complete shock. He will be a powerful advocate in Heaven for the Jewish people. The family should be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim.
Joseph Frager, MD