Often, I find myself talking about the courage of a person who transcended the sorrows of life or physical pain and continued to have a good life. I think about such people as heroes, for they lived good lives despite what life had thrown at them.In our time and place, to live a Jewish life is actually easier than ever, but we make it hard. To live a good Jewish life is to be someone worthy of respect.
So if I were to tell you that Charles Gelman lived a good Jewish life, you would understand what I meant. He was a Hazzan of this shul and other shuls, he was an honest businessman, he was a wonderful husband and father and grandfather and friend. And we would honor him for everything he did and everything he was.
But the man we honor today has heroic dimensions that the rest of us simply don’t have. Charles Gelman lost his family to the Nazi butchers but somehow, with a brilliance for survival, not only went on but contributed greatly and mightily to the resistance against the tyrants during the war. He wrote a book called Do Not Go Gentle: A Memoir of Jewish Resistance in Poland, 1941-1945. If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so. You will be rewarded not only with a fuller picture of who Charles was but also with an understanding of another side of the Shoah that does not get enough attention. And you will understand why I call him not only a hero, but a great hero.
Read the dedication page because it says everything. It begins with this sentence: “To my wife Sydonie, who by the Grace of G-d was spared the horror the Nazis proved capable of.” It is fitting that he began with Sydonie, because she has been the center of his life. They met on a blind date after he had had come to the United States and settled with the astonishingly wonderful family of Eli and Anna Zimmerman. Charles met Sydonie at Brighton Beach #5. They had everything in common; they understood what it was to lose your world and to start over again. After one week, they were engaged. They were married nearly 50 years and they built a beautiful life together.
I have been thinking about the fact that Charles went into the insurance business and that he was so successful at it. Here was a man whose world had been literally destroyed, and he made a living from giving people security and peace of mind. To me, this is very fitting, because no one should know what he knew about insecurity and tragedy and disruption.
The dedication continues: “To the memory of my father, my mother, my sisters, and my little nephew, who were brutally murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in the year 1942, during the Holocaust.” Charles’ father Yitzhak was a very brilliant man with a sharp, analytical mind, a scholar and a teacher who was called “a priceless pearl” by a visiting scholar. His mother, his sisters Ethel and Minna, his little nephew Shimshon, Minna’s baby, are all brought back to life by his loving invocation of their memories. Love is indeed stronger than death.
The dedication continues: “To the memory of my comrades in arms who perished fighting the Nazis.” His book brings them to life as well, their courage, their ingenuity, their resistance to the most horrible tyrants the world has ever known.
And then the dedication turns to his beloved children Phyllis and Irwin. Phyllis and Irwin have brought their father nothing but nachos. During one of my visits to Charles recently, he talked about nothing else besides his children and grandchildren. He not only knew every detail about their lives; he respected them, their accomplishments, their choices, and saw them as the fulfillment of his life.
And finally the dedication turns to his grandchildren Sarah, William, Audrey, Maris and Dana, who he calls “his pride and joy.” He concludes with this prayer: “May their world always be peaceful and incapable of cruelty.” He wanted only the best for his family and he reveled in everything about them.
I’d like to add a personal note: When I listened to him davven over the years, I heard the voice of another world that in many ways is no more. There was an authenticity to his chanting that cannot be learned; it can only be felt. I cherished not only his technical virtuosity but also his respect for his role. I picture myself standing next to him in front of the Ark, and while some of the enthusiastic davenners behind us might want to go at a different speed, he carefully and deliberately chants the prayers with reverence. It was that care, that respect, that understanding of what he was saying and doing that made him a great shaliach tzibbur, a great hazzan, a great Cantor.
Our shul, Temple Beth Sholom, owes Cantor Gelman something we can never repay. We honor him for what he was to us, for the hero that he was in his early years, for the righteous man he was in all of his dealings.
Charles finally met an enemy that he could not outwit. But he fought this last fight with calm, with resolve, and with reality. No one had more courage in such a fight. And no one had a wife who was so devoted or a family that was more caring.
During the war, Charles was in the forest, and the forest was dark. But he emerged from the forest into the light of freedom. Now he returns to G-d, Who is the greatest light of all. He has rejoined his loved ones that he lost, and they live in the light of G-d’s Presence.