Last Sunday morning, about three dozen people sat in a circle in the daily chapel of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) to share warm memories of the congregation’s oldest and most beloved member, Josef Guttman, a soft-spoken Holocaust survivor who died last Thursday at the age of 94.
He was buried in Beit Shemesh, Israel, on Friday, between his wife, Goldie, who died more than five years ago, and his only child, an adult son, Henry, who succumbed to cancer some 15 years ago.
For almost 90 minutes on Sunday, neighbors and fellow congregants swapped personal stories attesting to Guttman’s religious faith and kindness to others.
One couple spoke of hosting Guttman at their seder table and Shabbat meals for many years. “It was an honor for us. He made it a holy room,” the woman said.
Others spoke of his meticulous devotion to daily prayer services at HIR and the early morning Daf Yomi daily Talmud class; his dignity of stature and shared practical wisdom; his daily swim and exercise sessions; his care for young children as “the candy man” on Shabbat morning in the synagogue; his concern for animals; his overall optimism and rooted faith.
One of the congregants pointed out that for all the suffering he endured at the hands of the Nazis, he made a point of telling people that he had a happy childhood.
One woman recalled how Guttman responded at a shiva house when the mother of the son who had died asked him how he managed to go on after the loss of his only child. He simply pointed to the nearby Torah.
Leslie Tugetman, a longtime friend and neighbor, noted that her grandson is named for Henry Guttman, Josef’s late son, who was kind and encouraging to her son over the years.
In recent years Guttman established “Abraham and Sarah’s Tent” in memory of Goldie and Henry, offering free Friday night dinner at HIR each week to any and all who choose to participate, and many do.
He was honored by the synagogue with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual dinner last year.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founding spiritual leader of HIR, described Guttman this week as “a comforting patriarchal figure” of the synagogue. He noted that “although Joe left this world without children, he had many children and grandchildren. There is a sentence in the Torah where Yaakov’s sons come to Yaakov and say “od Yosef chai” — against all odds, Yosef is still alive. Joe’s legacy will forever live.”
Lewis Bernstein, a close friend and neighbor of Guttman’s who made the trip to Israel for the funeral, noted in his eulogy that Guttman “cared for the physical needs of others throughout his life.” He said Guttman had told him that before World War II, in Bedzin, Poland, his parents had guests for Shabbat meals and he wanted to continue the tradition.
“He conducted his life with dignity, grace, strength and gratitude until the last breath,” Bernstein said.
Many in the community had heard Guttman’s stories of the hardships he endured from the day Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, when he was 15. He endured years of deprivation in Nazi work camps and was in the Dachau concentration camp at war’s end, amazed to have survived. His ingenuity in saving scraps of food helped his brothers survive in the camps as well.
After the war Guttman met and married, Goldie, and they lived for a short time in Germany before coming to New York in 1950. Guttman co-owned a small supermarket in Riverdale and had a reputation of being friendly and helpful to customers, encouraging them to eat healthy foods.
He was a link to the past at HIR, where he was active from its earliest days, and had great admiration for Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founding rabbi, and all of the clergy. Though the product of an Orthodox shtetl, Guttman was supportive of the synagogue’s inclusiveness and efforts toward gender equality.
On a Friday morning in late May, recuperating from a long hospitalization and still seriously ill, Guttman told his devoted caretaker, Annabelle Julian, that he wanted to attend Friday night services that evening to mark his 94th birthday.
“Though he could hardly stand, somehow he made it to shul,” Lewis Bernstein recalled, and when he walked into the sanctuary during the singing of L’cha Dodi, he was greeted with great joy by the congregation, who danced with him.
It was a memorable moment, congregants said, and his last time in shul.