By Rabbi Moshe Bamberger
My father, HaChaver R’ Zvi HaLevi (Bjorn) Bamberger, hareini kapparas mishkavo, was taken from us on the fourth day of Tishrei at the onset of this year. A man who possessed great charm, wit, wisdom, and leadership, my father may best be described as an ish matzliach, someone whose many activities on behalf of the Jewish people were blessed with Divine success.
My grandparents, HaChaver R’ Moshe and Mrs. Chava (Clara) Bamberger, had three boys and one girl; my father was the youngest, born on the second day of chol ha’moed Pesach 1931 in his ancestral city of WÃ¼rzburg, Germany. Descending from the royal lineage of Rabbi Yitzchak Dov HaLevi Bamberger, the illustrious Wurzburger Rav (1807—1878), who was one of the leading gedolim of Germany and a world-renowned posek, the Bamberger children were raised with the awareness that they were expected to uphold the highest Torah standards of their forebear. Of the Wurzburger Rav’s many sons and students who themselves became great rabbinic personalities throughout the European continent, the son chosen to succeed him in the Wurzburger rabbinate was Rav Nosson, my father’s grandfather.
In 1933, with the rise of Hitler, yemach shemo, in Germany, my grandparents presciently decided to relocate to my grandmother’s native Denmark to raise their family in relative safety. In downtown Copenhagen they established their home, a large edifice containing living quarters which housed a 200-year-old family shul in which minyanim were conducted daily. My grandfather led these services, faithfully following the precious family minhagim.
The Germans occupied Denmark in April 1940 but acted with surprising restraint against the Jewish citizens for some time. Erev Rosh Hashanah 1943, my grandmother was preparing for yom tov, setting the ornate table in the dining room and peeling potatoes and dicing vegetables in the kitchen for the festival meals. Suddenly, word circulated throughout the Jewish community of Copenhagen that Hitler was secretly planning to round up the roughly 8,000 Jews that evening.
My father’s family, as well as most of the Jewish community, fled their homes immediately and went into hiding. Several days later, thanks to the heroic efforts of the Danish underground and the honorable non-Jewish citizens of Denmark, virtually all of the Danish Jews were smuggled across the sea on fishing boats to the safe shores of neutral Sweden. My father would recount this miraculous rescue innumerable times, but never as movingly and detailed as at the Pesach sedarim, which he would regally lead in his white kittel. At the section of the Hagaddah, V’hi she’amda la’avoseinu, in which we express gratitude to Hashem for His deliverance from the hands of our mortal enemies, his children and grandchildren sat spellbound year after year, absorbing every word of this remarkable story.
The Bambergers lived in MalmÃ¶, Sweden, throughout the duration of the war, until May 1945. Upon returning to Denmark, my grandparents were greeted with an additional miracle. Their home and synagogue, containing sifrei Torah, ancient sefarim, and priceless family heirlooms, were intact and unscathed. They discovered a table still set for Rosh Hashanah, and a forest of vegetation growing from the deserted potatoes and vegetables in the kitchen!
My father came to America, enrolling in Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, where his oldest brother, Rabbi Dr. Ib Nathan Bamberger, also studied diligently. He would become close to the mashgiach, Rav Dovid Kronglass, whose saintly demeanor and profound mussar made an indelible impression upon him. My father would clearly remember many of R’ Dovid’s mussar schmuessen over a half century later. Rav Shimon Schwab, who served as a rav in Baltimore at that time, would often invite my father for Shabbos seudos, discussing at the Shabbos table the sugyos being learned in yeshiva. Their close relationship continued when my father, along with his parents, moved to Washington Heights and became active members in Khal Adath Jeshurun, where Rav Schwab would later serve as spiritual leader of the Breuer’s community.
My parents married in 1965 and moved from Washington Heights to Long Beach, NY, in 1971. Long Beach was a beautiful oasis in which to reside; the climate and the neighborhood were most inviting. The rabbanim and lay leaders in Long Beach consisted of leading roshei yeshivah and rabbanim, a head of the Va’ad Hatzalah after the war, presidents of national Jewish organizations, and major philanthropists. These towering figures embraced my father and confided in him. The shuls and yeshivos in Long Beach were (and are) extraordinary.
My father, with my mother at his side, played a leading role in presiding over the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, rescuing it from financial peril at a critical period in its history; became a key supporter and friend of the Mesivta of Long Beach; and built and maintained the beautiful Long Beach mikveh. My father, despite being a man of great elegance and formality, would personally wash and dry the used towels of the mikveh, set the temperature, and place the proper chemicals in the mikveh–this was his honor, to tend to the needs of the Jewish people. As the epitaph of the great Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s grave reads: A servant to the servants of Hashem.
My father also presided over the Hebrew Free Burial Association, an old American organization whose mission is to bury indigent Jews, free of charge. Under his tenure, every aspect of the management of the affairs of the tzedakah, from fundraising to personally engaging in the details of individual cases of meis mitzvah, were provided for. The organization continues to do its vital and holy work until this day.
The primary passion of my father’s life was the perpetuation of the German Jewish mesorah. The sacred gedolim, minhagim, and traditions of Ashkenaz were of paramount import to my father, and he became one of the principal champions of preserving this heritage for future generations. He collected countless unpublished manuscripts of the Wurzburger Rav and printed them in two massive volumes entitled Kisvei Rabbeinu Yitzchak Dov HaLevi Mi’Wurtzburg. The first volume is completely sold out, and the second is also in great demand. These works are a source of the Wurzburger Rav’s chiddushim on Shas and Shulchan Aruch, minhagim, correspondences, as well as a fine biography of his life and times. These books are pored over by Jews of Germanic heritage and studied in the finest yeshivos in the world.
In order to further proliferate Toras Ashkenaz, my father was an advocate and sponsor of a masterful, multi-volume work, Shorashei Minhagei Ashkenaz written by Rav Binyamin Shlomo Hamburger, a noted scholar from Bnei Brak, head of Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz. In these classic sefarim are exhaustively detailed the sources for the precious minhagim of German Jewry, from the Rishonim until today. A three-volume exceptional work by Rabbi Hamburger on the historic yeshiva of FÃ¼rth, Germany, published three years ago, was the brainchild of my father, and was entirely commissioned by him.
My father’s special chein, his generosity, and his friendship, were cherished by all who were fortunate to know him. He was disciplined yet spontaneous, serious yet humorous. He loved learning Torah, and had the same chavrusah for over three decades, Dr. Jacob Leibowitz. He had an awe and reverence for talmidei chachamim, and attended many shiurim of great lamdanim. A leading rosh yeshiva comforted the family by sadly repeating, over and over, “An emesse Yid,” a true, genuine Jew.
The final 17 months of my father’s life were full of yesurim shel ahavah. His body was racked with pain from the dreaded disease. What most distressed him was not the physical ailment, but his inability to serve Hashem and accomplish for K’lal Yisrael as he was accustomed to. Even during those final dark days, his radiance shone, as he encouraged and continued to lead his family in spite of his immense challenges.
On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, as I sat by his hospital bed, I sang the songs he would sing to me at bedtime, such as Levandovsky’s Shir Hama’alos. My father was slipping in and out of consciousness. Suddenly, he awoke and prayed to his Creator, “Hashem, you rescued me on the fishing boat to Sweden. Please, rescue me again now! Ana Hashem Hoshia Na!” This would be the final statement of faith I would hear from my dear father, and it brought his life full circle. From Rosh Hashanah 1943 until Rosh Hashanah 2012, my father lived a life of unswerving emunah and love of Hashem. His name, Zvi, is an acronym of the apt words of Chabakuk, tzaddik b’emunaso yichyeh, the tzaddik lives by his faith.
He is sorely missed by his family, community, and K’lal Yisrael. Tehei nishmaso tzerurah b’tzror ha’chayim.