By Dr. Alex Sternberg
We buried my friend Eli Schwartz on Tuesday. Eli was the kind of friend with whom I was still close, even if we didn’t see each other for years. In fact, I didn’t see or meet with Eli for many, many years.
I had met Eli shortly after I came to the U.S. and landed in Boro Park. That was back in the early 1960s. Eli, a son of Holocaust survivors, as was I, was attending Yeshiva Toras Emes on 43rd Street in Boro Park. We became friends after my father enrolled me at the same yeshiva. Quite a few of us attended the storied yeshiva that had the larger-than-life principal, Rabbi Arnold Wolf.
I remember Eli as being a friendly, jovial kid, and we hit it off from the very beginning. Like me, Eli was mischievous and often we got into trouble together.
By 1964 I had switched to Torah Vodaath, and Eli followed me for a short time.
Often I went to his house to hang out under the watchful gaze of his pretty stern mother. His father, Shalom, a tough survivor, was, it seemed, more relaxed.
Eli bounced around to several yeshivas, including Ner Yisroel in Baltimore but graduated from Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, better known as RJJ in Manhattan. Sampling numerous yeshivas attested to Eli’s irrepressible spirit that made him forge his own road. Some called him a “difficult student.” But as I knew him, Eli was a tough kid who didn’t enjoy being pushed around.
He enrolled in Brooklyn College, the preferred college for all of us from Brooklyn. Very few of us, children of Holocaust survivors and immigrants, aspired to faraway Ivy League type of schools.
Eli also attended Cornell University.
He was married to Barbara and they had a son, Yonatan. After that marriage dissolved, he married Dena who had four daughters. Eli was instrumental in helping raise his four stepdaughters, along with his Yoni.
Early on, Eli took over the family business, a travel agency, and was involved with that enterprise until he left it for personal reasons. He then became a brand manager for Alle and Mon Cuisine.
He also was responsible for getting kosher food to Jewish prisoners, coordinating with the Bureau of Prisons. Undoubtedly, this grew out of some of our experiences when we were locked up for some demonstration or other and the police purposefully supplied us with ham sandwiches.
In 1968, I heard about this nascent organization called the Jewish Defense League that did some demonstration on behalf of Jews. Shortly after, Eli contacted me that Rabbi Kahane had heard about me and wanted to meet me. Eli accompanied me to a small shul in Boro Park where I met Kahane for the first time. Eli had already been establishing a relationship with the rabbi. During the next four years, Eli was arrested numerous times, from demonstrations to much more serious charges. He was not a thug but an intelligent ideologue. Eli loved Israel. Like a select small group of us, Eli was willing to put his freedom and safety on the line for the cause. Eli was one of the leaders who mobilized action on behalf of Soviet Jews that at times landed him in jail. As children of Holocaust survivors, we took the JDL motto “Never Again” literally. While not an expert in karate as I was, Eli could be counted on in a tight pinch (as I did many times).
As time passed, we slowly drifted apart in contact but never in thought. When you spent time with someone in the trenches in a private war, faced charges, and visited jails, you don’t have to hang out all the time. The bond established never breaks apart.
I spoke with Eli about a year ago. He told me he was sick and that the end was nearing.
Rest in peace, my friend. No one who knew you will ever forget you.
Baruch Dayan HaEmes.
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored “Recipes from Auschwitz–My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on the development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor. Read more of Dr. Sternberg’s articles at 5TJT.com.