It is difficult to put into words the story of a young American Jew who gave up his business and his everyday living in order to save the physical lives of those who cheated death at the hands of the Nazis and the spiritual lives of those who came to the land of opportunity, ready to throw away their entire past and embrace a foreign future.
Elimelech Gavriel (Mike) Tress was an American-born businessman, a partner in a highly profitable company, whose life was changed when he met Rav Elchonon Wasserman during the latter’s trip to America. He threw himself into the effort to save Yidden in Europe, using all his connections in the business and government worlds. He was the right-hand man of the gedolei hador in America and one of the founders of Agudas Yisroel of America.
Those who are old enough to remember him recall how he was instrumental in changing the landscape of America by helping Yidden in myriad ways. He was a father and a brother to countless Holocaust survivors who came to a new country with just the shirts on their backs. He set up a shelter in the Agudah office on Bedford Avenue and extended his hospitality to his home, where the door was open for anyone, anytime. If you were a Yid and you needed help, he rolled up his sleeves and did what he could. From obtaining visas, to securing lifesaving medicine available only from the US Army, to buying a specific shirt size for a needy child, he helped yochid after yochid. He did not seek honor for his work, nor did he take compensation. He had a mission to help Yidden and he did just that.
Due to a heart condition, Mike had no choice but to slow down his lifesaving work when he was only in his late 40s, and he eventually passed away at the young age of 56. But the impact that he made on Klal Yisroel only grew stronger after his petirah. Hundreds of families have been established, tens of mosdos of chinuch were up and running, the Agudah was effective, and Torah was being taught by talmidim of American yeshivos to the next dor of yeshiva bochurim. His superhuman efforts paved the way for the next generation of Yiddishkeit to flourish on these shores.
The younger generation learned more about his amazing life only years later, with the publication of the classic “They Called Him Mike” by Yonasan Rosenblum (ArtScroll, 1995). But his life’s work continues with the next generations, as his askanus “gene” was passed on to his children and grandchildren, who are emulating their patriarch, following in his ways of helping the klal.
As we approach his 51st yahrtzeit, I spoke to his three sons, R’ Shmuel Boruch, R’ Zvi and R’ Mendel (a fourth son, R’ Avrohom Gershon, was niftar in 1984), who recalled the selfless life of their father and some memories of growing up in the home of a giant in chesed.
R’ Shmuel Boruch: “We grew up without a phone. My father didn’t want anyone to call him for help and hear, ‘We’re sorry, Mr. Tress is not available.’ The words ‘not available’ did not exist for him. He was always ready to help anyone. He wanted people to feel free to come into our house and ask for help, which they did. My father was always very busy with helping others and his work in the Agudah.
“When he was home and available, he was always there for his wife and children. I remember that at the Friday night Shabbos seudos, he would always be the one to set up, serve, and clear off the table. He knew that my mother worked so hard during the week raising the family while he was out of the house for most of the day, and he wanted my mother to relax during the seudos. In the Tress mishpacha, it became somewhat of a ‘minhag’ that the men serve at the Friday night seudah.
“He cared a lot about our learning. He would come every Sunday to Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, where we learned, to speak to our rabbeim. We knew that we would have to behave or he would be quite upset. We had a PTA every Sunday! He took a tremendous interest in our learning and our shteiging.
“Occasionally, he would take us to Clove Lake Park in Staten Island, an excursion requiring traveling by subway to the ferry, and then taking a bus from the ferry to the park, where we enjoyed a day of playing in the beautiful park, along with rowing on the lake.
“Even after all these years, my wife and I marvel how many people we meet who have such a feeling of hakoras hatov to my father. When I was recently in Florida, a man saw my tallis and approached me. ‘Di bist ah zeen fun Meilich Tress? Are you a son of Meilich Tress?’ When I told him that I am, he started to hug and kiss me, with tears filling his eyes. He said that he was a survivor, and a relative of his brought him over from Europe to New York to live with him, promising to take care of him. He arrived in Ellis Island and eventually went to the East Side, where he lived with this relative. After two months, his relative apologized and told him that it was simply too hard for him to continue supporting him. He had a family of his own and was not making a lot of money. Now, he found himself without a roof over his head. People told him to go to speak to Mike Tress. He walked across the Williamsburg Bridge and went to the Agudah office at 616 Bedford Avenue. He asked the first man who he saw, ‘Can I speak to Mike Tress?’ My father answered with his usual, ‘How can I help you?’ He set him up with a room in the Agudah office, which also served as a shelter for anyone who needed a place to live. He found him a job, a shidduch, and an apartment. Even after he got married, my father insisted that he come over for seudos.
“My father would help every Yid who needed help, whether he was affiliated with the Agudah or not, whether he was chassidish or litvish, religious or not.
“We lived across the street from the Satmar Rov, and my father arranged for him something unique. In order to gain citizenship, you had to appear before a judge. My father, with his government connections, was able to arrange for the judge to come to the Satmar Rov in his house, so that he would not have to go to court.
“While he was the CEO of Lampert Brothers Textiles, he used his position to do chesed for others. A woman named Mrs. Eisenbach once met him in Williamsburg and tearfully told him that her brother’s chinuch was at risk. Her parents were unable to work, so she was working to pay tuition for her brother. She lost her job and could no longer afford tuition. My father immediately told her that she has a job at Lampert and she should come on Sunday and start. She came in on Sunday to a room full of people working and looked a little lost. The manager walked over to her and asked her what she is doing there. ‘Mr. Tress told me that I have a job,’ she replied. ‘I don’t know what he was talking about!’ the manager retorted. ‘There no room here for you to work!’ Just then, my father came into the room, shlepping a desk-chair, and he placed it in a corner. ‘Here is your desk,’ he told her. ‘You can work here!’ Her brother’s tuition was paid, and he ended up becoming a big marbitz Torah.
“One of my sisters asked him if he had charatah over walking away from Esquire shoe polish company after his partner refused to close it on Shabbos. ‘Charatah?’ he asked rhetorically, ‘There was no thought in my mind to stay with a mechallel Shabbos! Once I made that decision, I never thought about it again!’
“My father gave up everything to save Klal Yisroel. When Rav Elchonon gave him his shlichus, he believed him and accepted his mission. When Rav Elchonon was leaving, a group of American bochurim went to the port and tried to block him from getting on the boat. They all, including Rav Elchonon, knew that he was returning to Europe, into the kivshan ha’eish. Rav Elchonon told my father that the future of Klal Yisroel in America now rests on his shoulders. My father accepted the responsibility.
“In the 1940s and 1950s, he felt the extreme necessity to create Pirchei and Bnos Agudas Yisroel, along with Camp Agudah and Camp Bnos. His goal was to create a Torahdike place for the American public school-attending youth to assemble and be introduced to bnei and bnos Torah who were their mentors and counselors. Many children switched into yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs after their camp experience, having been exposed to true Torah values and hashkafah. His devotion and concern were so sincere that ultimately the bank used his personal collateral as payment for the mortgage for Camp Agudah after the Agudah did not have the funds to pay. This was something he was always proud of.
“He never spoke about what he did. He didn’t feel that he had to. When someone went to him, he responded, “How can I help you?’ He never felt the need to say how he helped people in the past. It was irrelevant. He helped out so many yechidim.”
R’ Tzvi: “It is hard for me to give you exact personal reflections, as I was young at the time of my father’s petirah. He slowed down his askanus in the years preceding his petirah as well due to his heart condition. I will tell you some of what I have heard over the years, but the perception we have of him was something that we started to understand more over time. The stories and insights we heard about him over the last 50 years fit in exactly with what we saw and it all came together.
“While my father was alive, I never realized how great he was or how much he did for Klal Yisroel. Yes, whenever he walked in the street, people always stopped him to talk to him. Yes, there was a constant stream of people coming over to the house. But how did I know that my friend’s fathers were not the same way? Many gedolim would frequent our house as well. When he made simchos in our house, I remember Rav Aharon [Kotler], Rav Yaakov [Kamenetsky], Rav Moshe [Feinstein], Rav Leizer Silver, the Kapytshnitzer Rebbe, the Boyaner Rebbe, the Bluzhever Rebbe, and many gedolim coming over, but I never suspected that my father was different than any other man. My father never came home and spoke about what he did. Yes, he was busy, but when he came home, he acted like a regular father.
“Something amazing about my father is that 50 years later, people still talk about him with tears in their eyes. The name ‘Mike Tress’ ignites certain memories that people still talk about him and his amazing way of helping people even after all these years. There were many askanim over the last century who did great things for the klal, yet they are spoken about by a few relatives and maybe mentioned a few times. But Mike Tress is someone who is still spoken about and a name that conjures up so many memories even after all these years. It’s simply amazing.
“I was davening in the Kerestirer vosikin minyan in Miami a few years ago when an elderly man walked over to me. Having seen my name on my tallis battel, he asked me in Yiddish, ‘Are you related to Meilich Tress?’ When I responded that he was my father, he told me the following story with tears in his eyes: ‘I was a Satmar yungerman living in Williamsburg,’ he began. ‘I lost my job because I refused to work on Shabbos, and I was in a bad situation. I didn’t have money to support my family. Someone suggested that I go see Mike Tress in the Agudah office and he will help me. Being affiliated with Satmar, at first I refused to go to the Agudah, and I definitely won’t go speak to any ‘Mike’! But after a few weeks, there was literally no money and I had nothing to feed my family, so I went to your father. When I entered his office, he looked at me and said, ‘How can I help you?’ I told him of my situation. He asked me what I do and I told him that I am a glazier. He immediately took a piece of paper and wrote something on it. ‘I happen to know someone who is looking for a glazier!’ he exclaimed. ‘Take this paper to this address. Bring it to the owner of this company. He has a job for you.’ I was taken aback by his immediate response, but I followed directions. True to his word, that person gave me a job on the spot and I was paid later that week. It was amazing. All of a sudden, my matzav changed. There was food in the house and there was food for Shabbos, and my family was functioning again.’
“The man pauses and tells me, ‘But the story isn’t over. About two months later, my boss gives me my paycheck and tells me, ‘Go tell Mike Tress that he doesn’t have to pay your check anymore. You are a good worker and I will start paying you myself!’ The man’s hands were trembling as he finished his story, and I could see his emotional feelings of hakoras hatov were still there as he finished.
“Can you imagine what kind of presence of mind my father had to have? He had to make a quick cheshbon how to help this Yid in a bakavodike way, in a moment, without him realizing. Only one who truly cares about fellow Yidden would have the presence of mind to do that.
“There is a woman in Toronto who used to talk to me about my father. She had a beautiful family with children and grandchildren who are bnei Torah and talmidei chachomim. A few years ago, I received a phone call from her children, who said that she was in the hospital. They insisted that I come down to see her. She was very sick and nearing the end of her life. When I entered her hospital room, she asked her children to leave and only I remained in the room. She began telling me her story. She was a young adult from Detroit and decided that she was going to pursue a career in journalism. She enrolled in a school in New York and arranged for an apartment to live in. Since typewriters were very expensive and she was not able to afford one, she knew that she would have no choice but to use the typewriters available to the public in the local library. However, the only day possible to use the library typewriters was Shabbos. She accepted her new reality that she would be mechallel Shabbos. After all, this was the only way she could pursue her career. Before she left, she stopped by someone in Detroit to say goodbye. He told her that he has a good friend, Mike Tress, who works in the Agudah office, and if she ever needs anything, she should stop by his office. When she arrived in New York, she settled into her apartment and stopped in to my father. As my father was speaking to her, she mentioned that she won’t be keeping Shabbos anymore. My father was aghast. ‘Why can’t you keep Shabbos?’ he asked her. She explained to him that the only day possible for her to type was on Shabbos, and since she did not own a typewriter, she would type in the library on Shabbos. My father looked at her and pointed to the bulky, heavy typewriter sitting on his desk. ‘You need a typewriter? Why should you be mechalel Shabbos? We have an extra typewriter right here in the Agudah office!’ He got up and carried the bulky, heavy metal typewriter down the stairs and a few blocks to her apartment.
“Without a question, there was no other typewriter in the Agudah office and he gave away the last typewriter. ‘I am only shomer Shabbos today because of your father,’ she finished with tears in her eyes. The next day, she was niftar.
“I once called Rav Moshe Aharon Stern to ask him for a favor for a family member. He told me that the least he can do is a favor for a son of Mike Tress. When he was a bochur learning in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, he wanted a visa to go to Eretz Yisroel. At the time, there was a very limited number of visas given out by the English, but my father told him, ‘If you promise me that you will make a difference to Klal Yisroel, I will get you a visa.’ His move to Kamenitz Yeshiva was only possible with the help of my father. He also told me that he was in the Agudah office in 1943 when many askanim were working tirelessly to try to gain the release of Rav Menachem Ziemba from the Warsaw Ghetto. When they heard the tragic news of the murder of Rav Zeimba, everyone let out a big krechtz. But my father fainted on the spot!
“I met a Yid in Eretz Yisroel who told me that when my father came to visit the survivors following liberation, he arrived with a few pairs of tefillin, and when they were already given out, he gave away his own. He literally gave the shirt off his back to the survivors. When he was leaving back to America, they noticed that his army uniform was buttoned up all the way to the top, and he was wearing shoes without socks. He had given away his shirt and his socks.
“We knew of his greatness, but we didn’t realize until later on how great he was. He excelled in helping individuals, but on a huge scale. 50 years later, we are still talking about his lifesaving and unbelievably selfless work for Klal Yisroel.”
R’ Mendel: “I was only 9 years old when he was niftar, so I can only tell you what I hear from others. But I have met many people who told me such amazing things about my father.
“Two years ago, when I was in Miami, I was davening in the Carriage club, when a Yid approached me. He asked me if I was related to Mike Tress, and when I responded that he was my father, he started to hug and kiss me. He had tears in his eyes and said, ‘I was in the Felderfing DP camp when your father came. He walked in and hugged us. We immediately could tell that he was not just there as a formality, as a Jew from some federation, but he really cared about us. He didn’t go back and sleep in a hotel, but slept on the same piece of wood as me in the camp. He became like a father to each and every one of us and promised us that he would do his utmost to bring us all to America. He lived up to that promise and made sure that I arrived in America. He set me up with a job. He set me up with a place to live, and he gave me money to get married. I owe my entire life to your father!’
“My bar mitzvah was held in the shul of your elter zaide, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, in Monsey. My father was no longer alive, and my mother arranged the Kiddush, catered by Mr. Apeldorfer, the cook in Bais Medrash Elyon. After Shabbos, my mother sat down with him to make a cheshbon of how much she owes for the Shabbos. When she finished and was about to pay, he told her, ‘I can’t take money from you.’ He related the following story: ‘When I was in the DP camps, your husband came and he was giving out tefillin. He brought along about eight pairs from America and was distributing them to the survivors. When it came my turn, there were no tefillin left. Realizing that I wanted a pair also, he then took his own tefillin and said, ‘There are still more,’ and he handed them to me. I never paid him for those tefillin, and this bar mitzvah was a payment for those tefillin.
“My father lived with the belief that every Yid’s problem was also his problem. Rabbi Moshe Sherer once noted that my father died young because he carried the entire Klal Yisroel’s problems on his heart. Everyone’s tzaros were his tzaros.
“He was the COE of a big textile company, Lampert Brothers, and a wealthy man. With his position, he was able to secure many jobs for many girls without them having any problems with working on Shabbos. Later on, he was a partner in the Esquire Shoe Polish Company, which was later sold to Revlon for millions of dollars, but he left the company after his partner refused to close on Shabbos. At that time, Rav Elchonon Wasserman was in America, and he told my father that he wants to make a deal with him with a kinyan chalipin. ‘If you give up your businesses for Klal Yisroel, and work to ensure that Yiddishkeit can survive and thrive in America, I guarantee you that all of your children and ainiklach will be shomer Torah umitzvos.’ My father accepted. He sold everything and spent the rest of his life working tirelessly on behalf of the klal. When Rav Elchonon left back to Europe, my father accompanied him to the dock, and Rav Elchonon told him, ‘I am leaving Yiddishkeit in America with you as a pikadon. Make sure to take care of it!’
“He always kept a picture of Rav Elchonon with him in America, remembering his promise. He literally gave away all his money for his fellow Yidden. He remortgaged his house three times in order to survive. When Camp Agudah bought its campus in the Catskills, the bank wanted collateral. He already gave everything away, and the only thing he had left was his life insurance policy. The bank accepted that as collateral. Later on, the Agudah was not able to make the payments on the campus and the bank took his life insurance policy. He was niftar with an empty bank account. There was literally no money in the house. My mother had to go out to work as soon as he died just to make sure that there was food to eat.
“He instilled in us the care that you must have for another Yid. Our Shabbos seudah was always open to whoever wanted to come. All types came to eat with us. I remember once that a man who was not refined at all came to eat with us. He was eating quite repulsively, spitting half his food back onto his plate. I was quite disturbed and I made a face. My father looked at me and motioned for me to leave the room. Later he reprimanded me, ‘Do you know who this Yid is? Do you know what he went through? How can you make a face at him?’ It was a lesson that remained with me my whole life. My father taught us how to care about every single Yid.
“We still don’t know how it was possible for him to accomplish so much in his short years. But he put his whole life into saving Klal Yisroel at that time, and he helped out so many yechidim that his chesed is still resonating loudly 51 years later.”
Yehi zichro boruch
The author thanks Yossi Basch, a great-grandson of Mike Tress, for providing the pictures published with this article