We could not have been more surprised when Rabbi Harold Schuster got up to speak for the very first time. It was mussar seder in Yeshiva and we were told that a Rav who had lived in Waterbury for many years would be speaking to us. Apparently he has learnt under Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer we were told but we did not know much more about him. It was the first year of Yeshiva Ateres Shmuel, and Waterbury was not yet the spiritual center that it has now become. To find an old world Jew, who lived faithfully according to the Torah and traditions of his ancestors was remarkable to us. Rabbi Shuster, for the next several years gave mussar shmoozen in Yeshiva, made a siyum every year on erev pesach, and met with government officials with whom he was very connected, in order to help the Yeshiva and Jewish community in any possible way. But, although most of us did not know it then, there was a hidden greatness in Rabbi Schuster as well. Behind his kind grandfatherly eyes, and warm exterior was a deep and great man, built from years of suffering and struggle.
Rabbi Schuster’s father, Rabbi Mayer Schuster, spent his early years as a teacher in the German city of Ichenhausen, and learnt under the dayan, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Goldberg, the author of the sforim Mkor Habrachos on Meseches Brachos, and Kisvei Paz, on a variety of Torah Subjects. Rav Goldberg was close talmid of the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel (Ziv) Boride to whom he was also related, and imparted his teachings to his talmidim. After some years, the dayan chose this star talmid of his to marry his sixth daughter, Rivka. Avraham Yehoshua Schuster, who would be known as Harold, was born on August 15th of 1921, just one month after his saintly grandfather passed away, and was given his name. Two years later, his sister Felice (who went on to write her memoirs in a book entitled Beacon of Light, Targum) was born. His sister remember him as a good natures lad, who let he have any of his toys that she wanted. When the children were young, the family moved to Ellingen Germany, in Bavaria, where Rabbi Schuster took up the position of Rabbi, teacher, baal koreh, and shochet for Ellingen and the surrounding areas.
The anti-Semitism came to the smaller German towns last. The families were friendly, and the Jews were known by their neighbors. Rabbi Schuster’s sister recalls an incident that occurred before Hitler was elected. In a conversation with a Gentile girl, she asked her what she thought would happen were Hitler elected. She replied, “Hitler will kill all the Jews.” But then one child pointed to her and asked, “What’s going to happen to her?” “Nothing,” said an older child, “Why not?” “Because we know her.” Little Harold remembered brought their German mailman a package of Matzah as a present as they did every year, for he normally gladly accepted it! But in 1934, he turned pale when he answered the door, and said that he could not accept it. He told the boy that the matzah contained the blood of Christian children, and he knew this to be true for he read in the newspaper Der Sturmer. Rabbi Schuster was then barely Bar Mitvah and tried his hardest to persuade the mailman to take the gift, but it was fruitless. The tide was changing quickly.
Already in 1935, when many still did not grasp the horrific danger that faced the Jewish people, Rabbi Schuster was urging his congregants to flee Germany. Due to his influence, all but one family managed to escape Germany.
They left Germany via Switzerland as a family, and crossed the alps into Italy. They then boarded a ship, the Gerusalemme, that led them to Haifa. The Broide family, to whom they were related lived in Musrara Jerualem (the small neighborhood between Mea Shearim and the Kotel) and took them in. Life was not easy in Jerusalem in those times – there was tremendous poverty, and it was all that they could do to manage to eat every day.
Rabbi Meyer spent his time trying to arrange visas, and do everything and anything possible to save his brethren, but it became clear that the place that he could be of most help was not Israel. This led him to Havana, Cuba, where he stayed in the home of a Cuban Jewish Businessman, who was well connected, and knew which officials could be bribed, and for what sum. He managed to bring thousands of Jews to Cuba, saving their lives.
The family could not remain apart any longer, and they began a trek to rejoin their Father. They went from Israel to France, and the plan was to go from there to New York, and then Cuba. But the ship out of France was delayed a bit, and the wail or air raid sirens and impending disaster made the need to get out of France immediate. They managed to draw an alternate route, which would take them through the Caribbean Islands, on a much smaller ship. The ship was full of Jews and Spaniard who were fleeing the Spanish Civil war, and who were simply happy to be alive. Kosher food was scarce, but there were no complaints. On one stop in Haiti, they disembarked for a short while to try to purchase some fruit and vegetables. There, they met a Jewish business owner who explained that he was one of six Jewish families in the entire Island of Haiti. He took them home and gave them a delicious meal, and warm reception. Everywhere they went they saw a remarkable degree of siyata dishmaya.
They arrived in Cuba, met up with their father, and watched the world that they once knew crumble and disintegrate; doing everything they possibly could to save a precious few.
Rabbi Mayer Schuster, went on to write a sefer which bore the haskomos of Rav Moshe Feinstein z”l, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l. His son, Rabbi Harold Schuster lived his life completely dedicated to his community, and the Yeshiva that it eventually built. As Erev Pesach approaches, and the siyum of the firstborn takes place in Waterbury, there will not be dry eye, as people recall the man who made that siyum every year in his unassuming and yet great manner.
First Published in Yated Neeman, Connecting with Waterbury Page, May 2008