A Holocaust survivor who bore witness to Nazi atrocities and dedicated his life to the future of the Jewish people has died at age 91.…
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the date for next month’s memorial service.)
A Holocaust survivor who bore witness to Nazi atrocities and dedicated his life to the future of the Jewish people has died at age 91.
Isaac Neuman, a global figure and spiritual leader of Champaign-Urbana’s Jewish community for 40 years, died Monday afternoon. In keeping with Jewish tradition, a short burial service was scheduled for 1 p.m. today at Mount Hope Cemetery in Champaign.
A larger memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 18 at the Sinai Temple in Champaign, where he served as rabbi from 1974 to 1987.
Rabbi Neuman, who counted Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel among his friends, helped re-establish Jewish communities in Germany, educated rabbis across the United States, Europe and Latin America, and served on the board that created the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Most of all, he was a messenger of hope, choosing to remember acts of kindness even during one of history’s darkest times as “sparks of holiness.”
“Here’s a person who endures this unimaginable human suffering, modern-day slave labor that he’s subjected to because of his religious faith. Instead of reacting with bitterness and anger, he says, ‘I want to be a part of ensuring a future for the Jewish people,'” said his son, A. Mark Neuman of Champaign and Washington, D.C.
Rabbi Neuman was lauded by friends and colleagues Monday for his wisdom, leadership and inspiration.
“He just had an indelible imprint on any number of us, for who he was, and the way he lived, and his unique story as a person, coming out of Eastern Europe and the concentration camps and creating a whole new life for himself in America,” said longtime friend Stanley Levy, a former University of Illinois administrator and past president of Sinai Temple.
Isaac Neuman was born Dec. 4, 1922, in Zdunska Wola, Poland. He received a traditional Jewish education in prestigious Talmudic academies in Lublin, Kalisch and Warsaw, centers of Jewish learning for centuries that were destroyed by the Nazis.
He was 17 when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. He was forcibly separated from his family and spent four years in Nazi death camps in Poland and Austria — Junikowo, St. Martin’s, Fuerstenfelde, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Fuenfteichen, Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen, Wels and Ebensee.
He lost nearly his entire family to the Holocaust, aside from an older brother: his parents, six sisters, younger brother, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and countless cousins. His left forearm was tattooed with his number from Auschwitz: 143945. When the Ebensee camp was liberated by the Americans in 1945, he weighed 80 pounds.
He emigrated to the United States in 1950, deciding to become an American rabbi because he saw it as important for the future of Jews, his son said. He was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1960 and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Cincinnati.
He later worked in Latin America, teaching and recruiting rabbinical students in Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Panama. He worked as a rabbi in Dothan, Ala.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Carmel, Calif., before moving to Champaign in 1974. He was rabbi at Sinai temple for 13 years, and later returned as rabbi emeritus.
Rabbi Alan Cook of Sinai Temple said Rabbi Neuman’s death is “a tremendous loss,” calling him an “elder statesman” of Champaign-Urbana’s Jewish community.
“He’s just an incredibly wise and knowledgeable and inspirational man, and he’s been a blessing to us all,” said Randy Rosenbaum, current president of Sinai Temple.
At 91, Rabbi Neuman’s intellect was still razor sharp, and he continued to visit the temple and attend High Holiday services every fall, Rosenbaum said.
“People would go and visit him and ask him for advice in his home,” he added. “His door was always open.”
He had a great rapport with children, telling stories or working with them on their bar or bat mitzvah, said longtime friend Natalie Frankenberg.
Levy, who years ago lived in the same neighborhood as Rabbi Neuman, would often take evening walks with him, talking about Judaism or politics or the world at large.
“He was great fun to be with. He was just a very remarkable individual,” Levy said.
After retiring from Sinai Temple, Rabbi Neuman returned to East Berlin in 1987-88, the first rabbi there since the war, and established a congregation within walking distance of Hitler’s bunker. A Polish-born survivor of Auschwitz and other concentration camps “brings a message of hope and redemption to the center of the city where the plan to exterminate the Jewish people was formulated,” his son said. “Today, the fastest-growing Jewish community in Europe is in Germany. There is no posthumous victory for Hitler with Isaac Neuman.”
While in Germany, he also met his wife of 26 years, Eva Grunstein Neuman, who survives. Also surviving are his sons, David A. Neuman and A. Mark Neuman; his stepdaughter, Jeanne Grunstein; and his grandson, Amos Grunstein.
Rabbi Neuman was particularly adept at building bridges with other faiths and with the various sects within Judaism — the orthodox, conservative and reform movements, Rosenbaum said. Sinai is a reform temple but has a large number of conservative members, and Rabbi Neuman had close ties with Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel and his students at Chabad, the orthodox Jewish center at the UI.
Every Friday night when he was rabbi at Sinai, a different church group would visit the temple and “learn about who we were,” Mark Neuman said. “That was important to him: people need to know who we are and our relationship to our faith.”
He also participated in the historic civil-rights march in 1965 in Selma, Ala., with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He demonstrated “how you can see good and have hope when you’re surrounded by evil,” said attorney David Sholem of Champaign.
He never forgot the National Guard soldiers who liberated him from the Nazi death camps. As an auxiliary chaplain of Chanute Air Force Base for 25 years, he would host Passover Seders for troops and frequently invited servicemen home after Sabbath services, Mark Neuman said. He twice delivered the opening prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives, expressing his gratitude for the refuge he’d been given here.
Rabbi Neuman’s memoir, “The Narrow Bridge Beyond the Holocaust,” co-authored with Michael Palencia-Roth, was published by the University of Illinois Press.
He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in 1985 and attended the dedication in 1993. He was part of the delegation representing President George W. Bush at the dedication of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Neuman Fund at Sinai Temple of Champaign.