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By B.A. Van Sise

“At night, every night, at Bergen-Belsen the lights were out, but God sent every star in the sky to come and watch over us.”

Portrait of Mottel Berkowitz by B.A. Van Sise
Portrait of Mottel Berkowitz by B.A. Van Sise

Mottel Berkowitz remembers his life as a little boy in a concentration camp as through a mirror dimly, hardly remembers the life he lived until American soldiers liberated the train to Terezin he and his parents had been placed on. Their family was not always particularly religious; his father was in the Hungarian Army, his grandfather was clean-shaven, and in fact the religion his family was imprisoned for was only truly embraced by him in America.

They’d wanted to stay in their Budapest, but returning home found their house had been given away. A return to the army was a choice, but not for long: “My father said I am sick of war, I have had enough war. Let’s go to America.”

What little Mottel remembers of the camps is replaced by later memories: watching the Statue of Liberty in his pajamas, the hum and whir of cars down the West Side Highway. They moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, and by 1953 Mottel had fallen in with the Chabad movement, a Brooklyn-based Hasidic sect.

He met, he married, and he and his wife opened a candy shop. “We struggled, and we made no money. I had a friend who had a job inspecting kosher butcher shops. He told me about a place called Pennsylvania. It was beautiful. Pennsylvania, wherever it was, was up in the mountains. They had fresh air.”

Mottel became a butcher, an inspector, a manager of butcher shops, commuting from Brooklyn to Pennsylvania, wherever it was, for decades to oversee the kosher slaughter of animals, which demands as little suffering as possible. He did it for decades, back and forth, back and forth.

In his supposedly free time, he was volunteered into a position as a cantor at Chabad’s main Crown Heights synagogue. “I had a loud voice. That was enough. It carries. I was not asked. I was told. And the first time I had to do it, my stomach turned inside out. I was so nervous. I never took voice lessons, either. I opened my mouth and thought my tongue was cement, but the music came out. And then I did it for thirty years.”

Today, he and his wife live a quiet life in Florida, a massive family to their credit. The commute is over. His voice still carries. Sometimes, he says, he misses Pennsylvania.

“I never missed a day of work,” he shrugs. “I was like the Pony Express. Thank God, though, I was the rider, and not the pony.”

Stories Survive is made possible by the Goldie and David Blanksteen Foundation.