Joseph with son David
May 5th - A Survivor’s Story
My father Joseph was liberated from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp by the US 11th Armored Division on May 5th, 1945. That day a pillar was erected on which rested a legacy of Jewish survival, and a model for hope of a better future. The pillar’s permanence was assured precisely 30 years later on May 5th, 1975 when my son Josh, Joseph’s first grandchild, was born. Recently, after a brief but turbulent struggle, my father lost his battle with cancer. Josh had the honor to be the leader at the last evening service of Shiva, the initial seven day period of mourning. After reciting the Kaddish prayer at the conclusion of the service, he selected as a thought for the day, a passage from Pirkei Avot, a text of Bible commentaries, which proclaims the world is supported by a triad: wisdom from the Torah scrolls, service to God, and acts of kindness. Josh chose well since the portion defined my father’s spirit during life. His story is a survivor’s story.
Joseph Greenfield’s life spanned most of the 20th century and continued to embrace the new millennium. Along the way, he worked to overcome every obstacle thrust in his path, and engaged every opportunity presented. He approached everything with his good nature, artistry, and the common sense Judaic wisdom he learned (as he used joke) at "Dombia College," a fictitious institution of higher learning he named after his diminutive Polish home town. He was a gentleman with qualities as beautiful as any of his multi-talents’ wondrous creations whether with camera & film, leather, or wood. At all times he maintained a "shem tov", a good name.
He was my hero, and I told him so.
So what was it like on that long journey?
He witnessed the transition of travel from using a horse and wagon to get to the neighboring town to manned flights to the moon and back. In the one room cheder (school) of Dombia he used a quill pen to write letters composed of the aleph, bet - the Yiddish alphabet. Decades later in his New Jersey home he used a computer to send email. He experienced the euphoria of the rebirth of a Jewish homeland after 2000 years of dispersion. But in the years leading up to declaration of an independent Israel, he was almost consumed, as most of his family was during the Holocaust.
Standing as a survivor at ground zero in post war Europe, he chose a path of light from the darkness he endured, and built a new life and family in his adopted country, the US. His life became enriched; rich with love for and love from his entire family, rich in the teaching and traditions of Yiddishkeit, and rich in artistry. He was touched by many and he touched countless others. In fact, I’ve given up tallying how many were graciously given at least one “Joe Greenfield” original wood crafted creation, creations he made with his hands but gave with his heart.
But long before being identified by artistry in wood, my father had a legacy of other tangible works…..
With a Leica camera bartered for 2 tins of canned fish, he became prolific as a photojournalist in the post war era documenting the emerging life around him in Jewish Displaced Persons camps of Allied Occupation Europe. Little did he know, 50 years later more than one hundred of his images would be selected for permanent archives of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Two of those photos were later chosen for the Museum’s special exhibit entitled, “Life Reborn – Jewish Displaced Persons 1945-1951” which portrayed the ingathering and eventual complete repatriation of hundreds of thousands of the DPs. Twelve “Life Reborn” images subsequently graced the pages of the commemorative calendar published by the Museum in the year of the exhibition. One of those twelve photos was from my father’s work.
Prior to his exodus from the ashes of Europe in 1946, my father was married in the Braunau DP camp in Austria. With the help of relatives in the States, the young couple, including their first child, me, resettled in New York in 1949. Joe’s active working years which followed were in the shoe industry. As a respected “Pattern Man,” he created designs, hand cut the leather, and assembled prototypes for countless shoes produced by the factory in Brooklyn where he was employed. If a completed shoe came off the assembly line with an imperfection, Joe, as he now liked to be called, was ushered in to identify where in production the fault occurred so it could be remedied. He was known as a premier “shoe-man!”
Creating fine woodcraft, however, was the constant that most closely defined my father’s artistic side. His portfolio included hardwood tables of all sizes with tops of inlaid veneer, ceramic or granite. There were wall & table clocks, and a myriad of Hanukah menorahs. He built his most cherished work, an aron kodesh, the ark that houses the Torah scrolls and stood taller than him, in his 86th year. It was to be among his last creations. My father had been approached by representatives of his congregation and asked if he would build a new ark for High Holy Day services. Needless to say, the words of the request still hung in the air as he began sketching a design. With experience gained in building a portable ark for Hadar, my son’s new congregation in NYC, he joyfully undertook construction. He worked with even greater zeal, fearing he would not complete the project, as his illness surfaced and began sapping his strength. When the ark was completed, ahead of schedule, my father received accolades and an outpouring of affection that stunned him. The rabbi would later comment, it was a work of art defined not only by its majesty, but by the love infusing every joint. The elation my father realized after completing the ark fueled his subsequent request to create a properly distinguished stand on which it would be displayed, and a Kiddush cart to convey the wine and challah for the traditional blessings at the conclusion of Sabbath services. These labors of love were to be an exclamation point at the end of the final chapter of the story of one man’s survival and accomplishments in life.
But, his amazing artistic creations notwithstanding, my dad's most enduring legacy is the one that will remain the longest. It is the example he set for all who knew him in how he treated and cared for everyone he encountered, and especially how he loved our family. If we each model at least a portion of our lives by how we saw my dad treat and care about people, even while gravely ill, that will truly be his greatest legacy.
Let me close with a personal vignette. Over the years there have been several quiet moments that I shared only with my dad when he might recount an experience as a boy in Dombia, or in one of many labor camps he suffered through during the war. My inclination was to stop him so I could get a recording device to capture these pearls. I soon realized that a pause ruined the purity of the moment, and I learned to just sit, listen and savor what I was hearing. While he was recently undergoing medical evaluation in Boston, one night we shared one of our last special, quiet times together. We were up late watching “On the Waterfront,” a classic film about hard life and rising above adversity. It was shot in the black and white photography we both loved, and featured several great actors, our favorites being Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger. In a pivotal scene Brando is in the back of a cab with his brother Charlie, played by Steiger. Brando is bemoaning the fact that he squandered opportunities to make the best of the tough hand he was dealt, and that his life was aimless, going nowhere. He unloads to his older brother, as only Brando could do, “I could’a had class. I could’a been a contender. I could’a been somebody…..” My dad was dealt a very tough hand, but he never complained, and yes, to be sure, he had class, he was a contender, he was somebody – somebody special – very special.
As I said, he was my hero.
David S. Greenfield