Cantor Leo Fettman passed away on April 22 at age 96. He is survived by his wife, Annette; children Jack, Aviva, Renana, and Rachel; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Cantor Fettman was born in Hungary in 1925. In 1944, when he was 19 years old, he and his family were taken to Auschwitz, where most of his family perished. After the end of the war, he immigrated to Canada where he studied at the Maor Hagolah Rabbinical Yeshiva. It was there he was ordained as rabbi and cantor.
In 1960, he immigrated to the United States. He met his wife, Annette, in Gary, Indiana. They moved to Madison, Wisconsin where he was a cantor and educator from 1963 until 1975. He was then hired by Beth Israel synagogue, where he served as cantor and Director of Education. He also provided kashrut supervision.
“I met Cantor Fettman in 1979 or 1980 at Beth Israel Synagogue after returning home to Omaha after college,” Don Gerber said. “At that time, Cantor Fettman was a vibrant young energetic man who was concerned with bringing "Yiddishkeit" to all that he knew. It did not matter what age you were. From very small children to the elderly, he tried to reach out to all with his warm smile, quick wit, and it goes without saying, always the very funny jokes. In truth, he was always thinking of ways to help bring Jewish education into people's lives and one way he did that was by constantly asking people to come to his home for Friday night Shabbos dinner as well as a constant willingness to help people with whatever they needed. He also helped coordinate Friday night Shabbos family UTTO dinners at the Synagogue as well. He helped so many countless people kosher their homes that we used to joke that his calling card should be: ‘Have blow torch, will travel’.
Cantor Fettman spoke widely about his experiences during the Holocaust. With his wife Annette always at his side, he went to countless schools and churches in Omaha as well as outside the Omaha area outside of Nebraska to educate and lecture about his first-hand experiences. “In spite of all he had been through,” Don Gerber said, “he never lost this unswerving commitment and dedication to help teach and educate.”
In his book Shoah, Journey from the Ashes, Cantor Fettman recalled:
“Am I a bitter old Jew? No. Old, perhaps, and hopefully wiser, but not bitter. Still, there are many ways in which the Holocaust affected, and continues to affect, my life. There is the memory of gnawing hunger that returns still. Not one week goes by that I do not dream I am still in a concentration camp. Am I a bitter old Jew? No, but I recognize that as a human being, it is my responsibility to make certain that the personal accounts of the survivors live on and to counter those who are trying to revise or deny the facts of the Holocaust.”
He was liberated, he told his audience, but “not free.”
“The end of World War II was not the end of the Holocaust survivors’ nightmare,” Cantor Fettman wrote. “We who survived were forced to live with memories that could never be fully described or understood. But instead of living in bitterness and hatred over the past years, many have created a record of determination and accomplishment.”
Cantor Fettman certainly did that; not only through educating countless others about the past, but by teaching the next generation to be proudly Jewish: “I remember those who so needlessly perished and speak out on their behalf,” he wrote. “And, as a cantor and a rabbi, I try to reach into the hearts of all Jews wherever they are and rekindle within them the spark of Judaism.”
Bill Schwab knew Cantor Fettman during his days at Beth Israel Center in Madison, Wisconsin:
“I remember when he gathered all the Talmud Torah students to teach us a new tune for Ayeh Mkom K’vodo in the Kedusha, explaining how the meaning was enhanced by placing the question at the beginning of the phrase rather than in the middle. He then had us practice the melody multiple times. During Shabbat, we were brought upstairs for Jusaf, which wasn’t typical in those days because our fidgety presence was felt too disruptive to the expect solemnity of the service. When it was time for the Kedusha, Cantor turned to us and we joined him in busting out the new tune. I recall him beaming with approval. We have maintained that melody here ever since. The warmth of that moment is part of what makes Musaf feel meaningful to me. It is a special thing to recall a man of substance, who made a lasting contribution that has been heard, sung and enjoyed by thousands of people over the decades as they more deeply experience prayer. His memory is a blessing.”
“Several times after he retired,” Don Gerber said, “he was asked to help the Synagogue when there was no clergy and he always graciously accepted. He was truly a giant among men and will not be forgotten. He will always be remembered for the good deeds and Mitzvahs that he did and for being the Mensch that he was.”
Cantor Fettman was buried April 23 in Omaha. Rabbi Dembitzer of Beth Israel officiated. Memorials may be sent to the organization of your choice. May his memory be for a blessing.