A Child Witness To History

Mrs. Edith (Yehudis) Bloch was present as a young girl when the Frierdiker Rebbe arrived by boat to the shores of America. She remembers the chassidim’s excitement, and the impression the Rebbe made when he arrived a year later.

Here’s My Story

Mrs. Edith (Yehudis) Bloch (1928-2019) was an educator who was also involved in numerous communal organizations in Crown Heights. She was interviewed in the My Encounter studio in May, 2014.

We had heard rumors that the Previous Rebbe was coming to the United States, but nobody believed them. It was wartime, 1940, and the Rebbe – I’m referring to the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn – was still trapped in Europe.

“The Nazis won’t let him out,” I heard my father crying after coming home one day. “Oy! He has to come here. He must!”

Although I was born in Israel, to a mother who was a sixth-generation Jerusalemite, my father, Rabbi Eliahu Nachum Sklar, was originally from the town of Zhlobin, in today’s Belarus. Papa was a very special person, a real tzaddik, and after we emigrated to America, he went on to play a leading role in several important Chabad communal institutions. When he was a young boy, he went off to learn in the yeshivah in the town of Lubavitch with two other boys from his town, who both later became prominent chasidim.

At the time, the Previous Rebbe was the administrator of the yeshivah in Lubavitch, which had been founded by his father, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, who was still the Rebbe. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak would often come in to check on the students, with whom he was very close. “Every student,” he would say, “is like my own child.” And so, ever since then, my father became very attached to him.

When we finally heard that the Rebbe’s ship would be coming into New York, Papa was so excited he could barely breathe. I just cannot describe his excitement.

I was still a little girl, but my father brought me along to the pier. The Hebrew date was 9 Adar II – Tuesday, March 19, 1940 – and I was jumping up and down: “I’m going to see the Rebbe! I’m going to see the Rebbe!” I shouted.

We got there early, and the ship was late coming in. When it finally docked, my father wanted to go on board to greet the Rebbe, but he wasn’t allowed. “Stay back!” they announced. But I managed to run up on the ramp to the ship, and then my father had to run after me, and so he managed to get a little closer to the front.

The crowd began pushing, straining to catch sight of the Rebbe. By then he was in poor health. The police officers tried to disperse the people: “Don’t push!” they shouted – but it didn’t help. It was a highly emotional occasion, and everybody wanted a chance to see.

Finally, the Rebbe disembarked. He came down in a wheelchair, but stood up once he was on the pier.  I saw the Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, known as “Rashag” who had made the voyage with him. And, among the hundreds of people greeting them, I made out the Kramers, a wealthy, distinguished American family who were involved with bringing him over.

At some point, when I was running around near the ship, I got separated from my parents. I could have fallen into the water and drowned, but fortunately, one of the sailors spotted my red hair, and he stopped me.

My mother was hysterical. “Where’s my Yehudis?” she cried.

But the Rebbe calmed her down: “Don’t worry, she will grow up just as she should,” he said. My parents, as you can imagine, were thrilled to hear this.

In the period following his arrival, the Rebbe began holding gatherings at a hall on Franklin Avenue, in Brooklyn, which we would all attend. However, when he came to live in 770 Eastern Parkway not long after, it got a little harder to get in. You see, there was less room in 770 back then. But we managed to get in anyway. The Rebbe would sit in the dining room, and the men would join him there, while the women went into the next room. There, the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Nechama Dina, led the proceedings.

On account of his health, the Rebbe did not frequently take private audiences. We did, however, manage to have one with him.

When one went into the Rebbe’s room, one sensed the holiness of the place. I was still a young girl, but I felt like I was in paradise. The Rebbe had difficulty speaking at that stage, but his assistant, Rabbi Elya Simpson, would repeat his words to us.

My father began telling the Rebbe about me, and that every week I would go all over the neighborhood, organizing mesibot Shabbat – children’s Shabbat programs.

The Rebbe smiled at this, and said, “I know, I know. She will do yet more good activities like this.”

The year after those scenes on the pier, in 1941, there was another important arrival in Crown Heights. One day, I was in the office on the ground floor of 770, when I saw a stately-looking man. Impressed, I asked a boy who happened to be there who the man was.

“That is the Rebbe’s younger son-in-law,” he told me. “He recently came from Europe.” In those days, he was known as “Ramash” – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The name of the boy I asked was Leibel Groner.

Nearly a decade after that, in 1950, the Previous Rebbe passed away, and after that there was a year in which the Rebbe did not yet formally accept the role. But in time, chasidim asked Ramash to accept the position, and in particular to start delivering chasidic discourses – maamarim – as all of the Chabad rebbes who preceded him had. Then, on the first anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, Ramash recited an original maamer – which meant that he had formally consented to become the new Rebbe.

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