"The Rebbe, he lives here?" the old man asked the Chassidic Jew.
The Chassidic Jew eyed his distraught co-religionist and summed up the man's plight in an instant.
No, it wasn't the man's clothes or the way he spoke. It wasn't even the way that he nervously kept folding and unfolding the slip of paper that he gripped in his hands. It was all in his eyes. All it took was one short look. And one short look was all that the Chassidic Jew could take; who could look longer into those eyes the eyes of a Holocaust survivor and not be overwhelmed by the sight of so much pain?
"The Rebbe lives four doors down. Come, I'll take you there."
The man followed the Chassidic Jew. No one paid them any attention as they walked down Henry Street. A Chassidic Jew leading a dazed looking man to the home of Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, the Kopycznitzer Rebbe, was a common sight during the years immediately after the war.
It was no accident that the Kopycznitzer Rebbe became an "address" for newly arrived survivors. As his name proclaimed, the Rebbe was a descendent of Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta, also known as the Ohev Yisroel (Lover of Jewry) because of his great affection for every single Jew.
The Kopycznitzer dynasty emulated its illustrious ancestor and became renowned throughout the Ukraine for its ahavas Yisroel. When the Rebbe's father, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir, had to flee from the town of Kopycznitz after the Russians invaded Poland in 5674/1914, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir reestablished his court in Vienna. In that grand and imperial city, he humbly continued to look after the welfare of his fellow Jews, until his pure soul ascended to Heaven on Rosh Hashanah of 5695/1934.
It was during those darkening days, while the storm clouds were starting to gather over European Jewry, that Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel reluctantly accepted the mantle of leadership that had been thrust upon him. His home became a nerve center for the increasingly anxious Austrian Jews, who looked to the Rebbe for advice, reassurance, and as times got worse monetary assistance.
After the German Anschluss in 5698/1938, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel was targeted by the Nazi regime for "special treatment." Although he was arrested and the Nazis tried to humiliate him, the Rebbe only agreed to leave Vienna after it was clear that the majority of his followers had already fled, or had been deported.
Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel escaped from Europe in 5639/1939. Yet, even though he didn't experience the full wrath of the Holocaust, he had experienced enough of it to understand what the survivors had been through and to be sensitive to their unique needs. Therefore, when the distraught Jew stood before him, too upset to coherently put his request into words, the Rebbe knew how to soothe the man and gain his trust.
"It's my wife," the man finally managed to say. "They won't let her out."
"Who will not let her out?" the Rebbe gently probed. It was still unclear if the man was talking about something in the present and a still living person or something that had happened in the past, back in Europe.
"Those people," replied the man, as he pointed with his finger to somewhere in space. "They say she's too sick. They don't need people like her here."
After a few more questions, the Rebbe understood what had happened. The man's wife who, thank G-d, was still alive had been refused admittance to the United States because of her ill health. She was still interned on Ellis Island, and the immigration authorities were threatening to send her back to Europe.
"If they deport her, I'm going to kill myself," the man cried out. "How can I live without my wife?"
The Rebbe hastened to calm down the man, who was sobbing hysterically.
"Don't worry," said the Rebbe. "Trust me, please. There is absolutely nothing to worry about. By this time next week, your wife will be here with you. I promise."
As soon as the man heard these words, an amazing transformation took place. He immediately quieted down and wiped away the tears that had been streaming down his cheeks just moments before. "Thank you, Rebbe," he said simply, and then he left the Rebbe's room.
One of the Rebbe's disciples had been in the room at the time, and he was troubled by what he had heard. "Rebbe, you know how strict they are at Ellis Island," the Chassidic Jew protested. "Your promise it was almost like promising that a miracle would happen. What will happen if the miracle doesn't occur?"
"My first task was to comfort that unfortunate man and bring some peace to his tortured soul," replied the Rebbe. "If his wife is deported, Heaven forbid, it is true that, perhaps, people will say that I am a liar. And if they do … well, at least I have eased the burden of a fellow Jew for a week."
Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel had spoken those words tranquilly.
However, when he turned to his Psalms and began to recite the sacred words, tears started to stream down his face and his whole body began to tremble. Then the Rebbe whispered something with intense emotion, and the Chassidic Jew had to strain his ears to make out what the Rebbe was saying.
"Aibishter [Heavenly Father], please understand why I said what I did," pleaded the Kopycznitzer Rebbe. "I was only trying to help that unhappy Jew. Please do not let me be a liar. Please help that man and his wife."
The Rebbe continued to plead and cry for many hours. Not long afterwards, he received good news. The woman had received permission to stay in the United States. She and her husband could finally start rebuilding their lives.