Last month, Beth Tfiloh Congregation lost one of its most prominent members. William Mazer, who died on May 3 at the age of 95, was instrumental in providing assistance to Holocaust refugees traveling to Israel in 1947 on the SS Exodus.
Mazer was working as an accountant in a fish store in Baltimore when the Exodus docked in Baltimore’s harbor to pick up food and supplies for its voyage. As recounted by Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg in a eulogy, Mazer and several others rushed to get as many fish onto the ship as they could in order to feed the refugees.
“For a living, Willie didn’t clean fish, and Willie didn’t unpack fish, and Willie didn’t sell fish,” Wohlberg said in the eulogy. “Willie really had nothing to do with the fish! He was the accountant in the back office. He didn’t have to be one of those who schlepped the fish. But he did. And that was what made Willie who he was.”
Wohlberg also noted that he told this story one year when Mazer’s family came to his Passover seder,
including some relatives from Israel. One of the Israeli cousins upon hearing the story cried, “My parents were on the Exodus and you helped feed them!”
In addition to his contribution to the Exodus, Mazer was also well known at Beth Tfiloh because his parents, Abraham and Tina, helped found the congregation in the 1920s when it was located on Garrison Boulevard. In a 2005 interview, Mazer recalled the first Shabbat service he attended there.
“The beautiful layout of the shul left me spellbound,” Mazer said. “As I stood in the middle of the shul … the bima was so beautiful, I could not take my eyes off of it.”
Mazer was born Dec. 24, 1919 in Kremenets, Ukraine — a village that was later destroyed by the Nazis in 1941. He immigrated to the United States when he was a year old and eventually settled in Baltimore. In 1927, his family moved into their home on Oakfield Avenue.
Mazer attended Hebrew Parochial School (now Talmudical Academy) as a child and later went to Forest Park High School, where he graduated in 1937. He then attended the University of Baltimore, where he earned a bachelor’s in accounting in 1940. Mazer got his first job in the accounting firm Berman, Golman & Ribakow, where he worked for a few months before taking a job at a lumber company. In September 1942, he and his brother, Morris, were called up for service. During the war he was stationed at a gunnery range in Kingman, Arizona.
Mazer married his wife, Sophie, in 1944 at Beth Tfiloh, where he eventually became so well known he was referred to simply as “Willie.” He became involved in the Brotherhood and the bowling league and also sat on the search committee that selected Wohlberg in 1978.
For his 80th birthday in 1999, several of Mazer’s friends and family members wrote letters of thanks.
“At a difficult time in my life when my mother was in a nursing home and dying, Willie called each day that I didn’t see him to inquire how Mom was and would ask if there was anything he could do to help,” his friend, Ernie DiPalo, wrote. “When Mom finally died, Willie was the first person to appear at the funeral home to express his sincere condolences.”
Mazer’s daughter, Roslyn Mazer, who is inspector general of the Federal Trade Commission, said Mazer and his wife established an endowment in the mid-1990s called the Chanukah Fund, which recognizes the contributions of Beth Tfiloh’s staff with an annual luncheon.
“Willie has always provided welcoming remarks, telling attendees about the old days and recounting the reasons why my parents wanted to have this special luncheon to thank those who make BT work every day,” Roslyn said. Roslyn added that the fund, along with the Sophie and William Mazer Scholarship Fund, will be her father’s greatest legacy to Beth Tfiloh.
“Beyond these particular endowments, Willie’s legacy will be the enduring love he shared with everyone in the Beth Tfiloh family over nine decades,” she said, “and the friendships and support that sustained this great circle of love.”
Roslyn cited her father’s humanity and said he could connect with a 4-year-old just as well as with a
94-year-old. She added that he was often the first person to arrive and help at a shiva or call a friend who was ill. One of Mazer’s trademarks was the stash of candy he would carry with him and distribute on Shabbat mornings. On Yom Kippur he would hand out coupons for candy.
“He was the person you could count on when you needed practical help, help navigating a family drama, or when you needed a sympathetic ear,” said Roslyn. “He was the person you could count on year in, year out, over decades.”