(Note: The following transcript is from
an interview of Milton Fechter by Eliezer Zalikovski for
My Encounter With The Rebbe, a video project by JEM.)
I worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard from January 1943 till June 1945. A
retired admiral came to City College and said that they were desperately in need
of engineers for the Navy Yard. They were building the battleship Missouri there
-- that's the battleship on which afterwards General MacArthur accepted the
surrender of the Japanese in Tokyo Bay after the war -- and they were also
working on a smaller battleship, the Idaho, and one of the aircraft carriers,
but I forget the name for that one.
So they gave me my diploma early and I came to work there, in Building Three,
on Flushing Avenue -- Flushing and Vanderbilt. The building, it's a giant
building, is still there. It was a huge operation -- there were 77,000 people
working there -- and our section had about fifty engineers and craftsmen, evenly
divided between Jews and Gentiles. I mention this because at that time, that was
one of the things that was on the Gentiles' mind, always to look who is a Jew.
New York City in 1943 wasn't like today. Up in the Bronx, for example, was an
Irish man named Joe McWilliams, he was a big anti-Semite and he had an
organization called the Christian Front. Half the New York City police were
Irish, and many belonged to the Christian Front. And they created a lot of
trouble for the Jews in the Bronx. In Brooklyn, Ridgewood, you had the Germans,
and before the FBI broke up what they called the "Bund," they used to march at
night in Hitler uniforms on Bushwick Ave.
There was this guy I went to school with for five years -- I was three years
with him in high school and then two years with him in City College. A fellow
from a good family, with money. I'm sitting next to him in class. It's Friday,
June 1940, the professor comes into the class, and he had a long face. Gentlemen,
he says, I have some very sad news to report, it just came over the radio, that
France had surrendered to Hitler. My heart fell all the way down.
This guy sitting next to me, turns around to me and his eyes are blazing
hate. And here is what he says to me: "You'll get yours next." I tell you, I
couldn't say a word. I was so stunned. Five years I go to school with him, and
didn't know what was in him...
I'm trying to give you a picture of the times. It's different today. It's
completely different today. Then, you're in a room with 50 people, everyone
knows who the Gentiles are and who's a Jew... The fact that people were so busy
working on the war effort, that had dampened a bit the anti-Semitism that had
raged in New York City for a number of years prior to the war, but it was still
Our section was separated from the electrical section by a wooden fence about
three feet high. And that section had about three hundred men sitting at
drafting tables. So I turn to the man next to me, and I said, what are they
doing there? And he said they are all doing wiring diagrams for the ships,
mostly the Missouri. So much electrical wiring goes into a ship, you have no
I take a look, and you have three hundred people in white shirts, because in
those days most people wore white shirts. And in the middle is sitting a guy
with a black beard, earlocks, a black hat and a black suit.
So I turn to the guy next to me, I said who is that? He says, "He's a rabbi,
and he is also an electrical engineer, a graduate of the Sorbonne." I looked
over there, and I said to myself, boy I've got to give this guy credit. If I
were sitting among all three hundred, I couldn't wear earlocks and a beard, and
feel comfortable. He sat there serene as if he was sitting amongst his chevra,
and that really struck me.
So, I went over and introduced myself. He told me his name is Schneerson. But
he didn't tell me he was the son-in-law of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and I didn't
ask him. Nobody knew, as far as I knew.
He spoke quietly, he was a gentleman and he had two very smart eyes. He was a
very self-contained individual. He wasn't interested in what someone on the left
thought of him, or someone on the right thought of him. He was content with
himself and he obviously had a lot of inner strength. It was very illuminating
to me, to see a person in a hostile milieu to be so serene.
Friday he left early because of the Shabbos. And Saturday he didn't come in,
Jewish holidays he didn't come in. He was the only guy that got that
accommodation. Nobody else left for Saturdays or Fridays or holidays. Only one
I came up there a couple of Sundays to see some people there and I'd see him
sitting there all by himself in that vast hall. Oh, it was more than a block
long, that building. You take a look at it. It was quite a building.
He came in Sunday, I guess because he didn't come in Saturday. And he worked
all by himself Sunday. And, I'll tell you one thing, the rabbi had a lot of
courage, to be there all alone on Sunday. The rats that ran around there were
about that big. And he sat by himself, drawing the wires for the various
electrical wiring that goes into a ship. You couldn't give me a million dollars
to sit there by myself on Sunday.
I didn't see him very often, because he never came to the cafeteria. He
wouldn't go to the cafeteria; it wasn't kosher. So I didn't speak to him that
much, only about three times altogether. But as I say, I was very impressed with
his serenity. You see, if he'd sat among three hundred guys with beards and he
was perfectly at ease that would be one thing. But to sit among three hundred
goyim, completely oblivious to everything around him, that was something
that struck me.
Later, when I read in the paper that he became Rebbe, I wasn't surprised
because I saw that he was a very bright man and he obviously he had a lot of
inner strength. He could have continued working as an engineer. He had the
capabilities, the math he knew more than most of us there. Sure he was an
engineer but that wasn't his life, he didn't make it top priority with him. His
life was rabbinical and not engineering. He had hobbies, and engineering was one
of them, but he was a rabbi at heart. Sometimes he was an engineer, but the
Rebbe was always a Rebbe.