Category Archives: Holocaust

All The Days of Your Life

I often feel terribly pampered. Especially when I think of my parents’ generation.

At the age when my father, z”l, and several others from the Novardok Yeshiva in Vilna were captured for being Polish bnei yeshivah and banished by the Soviets to Siberia, I was being captured by a teacher for some prank and banished to the principal’s office. When he was trying to avoid working on Shabbos as his taskmasters demanded, I was busy trying to avoid the homework my teachers demanded.

When he was moser nefesh finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga, my mesirus nefesh consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning for davening. Where he struggled to survive, my only struggle was with the mundane challenges of adolescence. Pondering our respective age-tagged challenges has lent me perspective.

And so, while I help prepare the house for Pesach, pausing to rest each year a bit more frequently than the previous one, thoughts of my father’s first Pesach in Siberia arrive in my head.

In his slim memoir, “Fire, Ice, Air,” he describes how Pesach was on the minds of the young men and their Rebbi, Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941. While laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid. This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous. But the Communist credo, after all, was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” and so they were really only being good Marxists. They had needs, after all, like matzah shemurah.

Toward the end of the frigid winter, they retrieved their stash and ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzos to ensure their thorough baking. In the middle of the night, the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which they fired up for two hours to make it kosher l’Pesach before baking their matzos.

And on Pesach night they fulfilled, to the extent they could, the mitzvah of achilas matzah.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Pesach experience of, l’havdil bein chaim l’chaim, my wife’s father, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well. In his own memoir, “Destined to Survive,” he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzah. All the same, he was determined to have the Pesach he could. In the dark of the barracks on the leil shimurim, he suggested to a friend that they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted Mah Nishtanah, other inmates protested. “What are you crazy Chassidim doing?” they asked. “Do you have matzos, do you have wine and food for a Seder? Sheer stupidity!”

My shver responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a mitzvah d’Oraysa – and that no one could know if their “Seder” is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

We in such places can glean much from the Pesachim of those two members – and so many other men and women – of the Jewish “greatest generation.”

A passuk cited in the Haggadah elicited a novel thought from Rav Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach, “so that you remember the day of your leaving Mitzrayim all the days of your life.”

Commented the Slonimer Rebbe: “When recounting Yetzias Mitzrayim, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his own life – the miracles and wonders that Hashem performed for him throughout…”

Those who, baruch Hashem, emerged from the Holocaust and merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that. But the rest of us, too, have experienced our own “miracles and wonders.” We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and chassadim with which we were blessed. But that reflects only our obliviousness. At the Seder, when we recount Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the personal gifts we’ve been given.

And should that prove a challenge, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

© 2019 Hamodia

Polar Vort

“Not as cold as Siberia.”

That’s what my father, a”h, would say with a laugh if I complained over the phone about the frigid weather in Providence, where my family lived in the 1980s. And indeed it never was that cold. In the work camp east of Irkutsk where he and a small group of Novardok talmidim and their rebbe, Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, had been exiled by the Soviets, winter temperatures could reach minus-40 Celsius.

When I was transcribing the memoir I convinced my father to write, some ten years ago, I asked my wife to check what that would be in Fahrenheit, the system we in the U.S. use. I imagined it was somewhere around zero, when, after a few minutes, my ears, and even gloved fingers, lose all feeling.

After some research, she reported back: “That’s where both scales converge. Minus forty Celsius is minus forty Fahrenheit.”

I write as the edges of the polar vortex have chilled the air outside to single digits (as I set out for Shacharis this morning, the thermometer read zero), and 27 below was what my friends and nieces and nephews in Chicago were enduring.

As you read this, the weather will have warmed. But unless you live in Australia (where it was recently 99 degrees Fahrenheit), you will recall last week’s deep freeze with a shiver.

Arctic blasts always recall to me not only my father’s droll comment but the experience that qualified him to make it.

The ten young men – boys would better have described them; my father was all of 16 – and Rav Nekritz, his wife and their two daughters reached the work camp at the end of July, 1941. They thought the Siberian summer was insufferable, with its hordes of stinging gnats and mosquitoes (though my father, always seeing the good, remembered beautiful butterflies too). And, as the exiles felled trees and harvested potatoes and onions, the brown bears in the forest were also on their minds.

But when the first winter arrived, well before Rosh Hashanah, the new arrivals discovered what “Siberia” conjures in most minds.

When I picture the Jews whom the Soviets forced to work outdoors in horrific cold, I can never avoid thinking about what I was doing at 16 years of age, when my biggest challenges were things like being unprepared, through every fault of my own, for a bechinah or math test. The contrast is always, pun intended, chilling.

In keeping with the Novardok derech, the yeshiva bachurim would try to find a few minutes to spend isolated in a far corner of a field, or among the trees of the forest, to think about who they were, who they should be, and how best to journey from the one to the other.

My esteemed friend Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, who has written about Novardok and the Siberian chaburah, has recounted how a non-Jewish resident of the work camp once asked Rav Nekritz why he thought that a respected rabbi and teacher of Torah like him had been reduced to the life of manual labor in the Siberian wastelands.

His response was: “So you and your friends would see that there is a G-d in the world.”

Novardoker that he was, he then added, perhaps to himself as well: “And so that we, too, would see that there is a G-d in the world.” And indeed, Hashem protected the group; all its members survived the war to rebuild their lives and establish families.

Rav Nekritz also once shared a thought with the young exiles.

“The Amora Rav Yitzchak Nafcha,” he pointed out, “was a blacksmith, a lowly job.”

“When we picture a blacksmith,” he continued, “we imagine someone with grossly muscular arms and an unrefined soul. Yet Rav Yitzchak Nafcha was an illustrious chacham, possessed of no less holiness and refinement than any sage whose good fortune was to spend his days in the beis medrash

“Yes, our situation here is very different from what it was in yeshivah. But we can strengthen ourselves so that our surroundings and labors do not negatively affect us. One can be a woodchopper and simultaneously develop an exalted, refined soul, as exalted and refined as that of anyone who spends his entire days in deep introspection. Hatchets and saws need not leave their marks on our neshamos.”

It’s a message not bound to any time and place. For those of us today who are no longer ensconced in yeshivah or seminary, it’s as important to hear as it was for the Novardokers in Siberia.

© 2019 Hamodia

No, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Did Not Sin Against The Memory Of The Holocaust

We do no favors to the memory of the Holocaust when, for political  purposes, we unfairly accuse people of dishonoring it.

Whatever one may think of incoming Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she did not compare the victims of the Holocaust with the migrants at the southern border.  A piece I wrote on the issue is at the Forward, here.

Poland Isn’t Denmark

 Poland has a point.

The country’s legislature passed a controversial bill last week aimed at quashing the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” for Nazi extermination enterprises built and operated by the Third Reich across Poland. The bill, which Polish President Andrzej Duda later signed into law, also bans referring to “the Polish Nation” as “responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes,” on penalty of fines or a maximum three-year jail term.

Poland was indeed an occupied country during that dark time. In addition to murdering 3,000,000 Jews, the Germans also killed between two and three million non-Jewish Polish civilians.

More than 6,700 Poles, moreover – more than citizens of any other nationality – have been honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem for their bravery in resisting the Nazis.

So one can understand how using “Polish” as the adjective modifying “death camps” might rankle Poles today. “Nazi death camps in Poland” is a more accurate description of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

But Poland, all said and done, was not Denmark. The Danes, whose country was also occupied by the Nazis, famously refused to give up their Jews to the Nazis. When, in 1941, Danish authorities were told by their German overlords that a roundup of the country’s Jews was imminent, they immediately informed the Jewish community and, with the help of the citizenry, hid many Jews and spirited many more to safety in Sweden.

By contrast, and with all due and richly deserved recognition of the risky heroism of thousands of Poles during World War II, Jew-hatred was no German import to their land.

Religion-based anti-Semitism was entrenched in Polish society well before the Nazis invaded Poland. There were blood libels and widespread promotion of the stereotype of Jews as disloyal and worse. By 1939, hostility towards Jews was a mainstay of the country’s popular right-wing political forces.

My father, a”h, recalled being warned by his parents in their Polish town of Ruzhan to not venture outside around Pesach-time. Church sermons, he wrote in his memoir, “spurred our Gentile neighbors to try to kill Jews.” He and his siblings would peek through the window to see angry townspeople marching with banners, looking for victims.

Polish-born historian Jan Grabowski notes that approximately 250,000 Jews fled the liquidated ghettos in 1942 and 1943, yet only 35,000 survived the war.  His conclusion: more than 200,000 Polish Jews were betrayed by their countrymen to the Germans or the Polish police beholden to them.

“We will under no circumstances,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in reaction to the new Polish law, “accept any attempt to rewrite history.”

Yad Vashem decried the legislation too, as did a U.S. Congressional taskforce on combatting anti-Semitism, which said that the law “could have a chilling effect on dialogue, scholarship, and accountability in Poland about the Holocaust.”

Polish leaders and media expressed dismay over the Israeli and American reaction. Poles, understandably, don’t like to be tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism, neither in their past nor in their present.

A 2017 survey by the Polish Center for Research on Prejudice showed that more than 55 percent of Poles were “annoyed” by talk of Polish participation in crimes against Jews.

Telling, though, were some expressions of that dismay and annoyance.

Like those on a program that aired last week on a mainstream Polish television channel, TVP2.

The program was hosted by Marcin Jerzy Wolski, and his guest was Polish commentator and author Rafal Aleksander Ziemkiewicz. Shortly before the program, Mr. Ziemkiewicz posted a thought on social media:

“For many years I have convinced my people that we must support Israel. Today, because of a few scabby or greedy people, I feel like an idiot.” “Scab” is a Polish slur for “Jew.”

The posting was later deleted, but first thoughts are often the most revealing ones.

Then, on the program itself, Mr. Ziemkiewicz offered further wisdom.

“If we look at the percentage of involvement of countries that took part,” he suggested, “Jews also were part of their own destruction.”

Mr. Wolski emphatically agreed. “Using this terminology, linguistically,” he offered, “we could say these were not German or Polish camps, but were Jewish camps. After all, who dealt with the crematoria?”

Got that? Since Jews were forced on penalty of death to burn their relatives’ remains, their prisons were “Jewish death camps.”

It has to make one think. What in the world could so pervert a human mind to equate collaborators with victims? To compare those abetting evil with those who suffered its horrible designs?

Only one answer readily comes to mind.

© 2018 Hamodia

Statement of Agudath Israel of America on Polish Holocaust Law

February 2, 2018

 

Statement of Agudath Israel of America on Polish Holocaust Law

 

The thousands of Polish citizens who courageously hid and aided Jews during the Holocaust are legend, and deserving of the deepest admiration.

But, according to eyewitnesses and historians, many thousands of Jews who fled liquidated ghettos in 1942 – 1943 were handed over by other Polish citizens to the Germans or those beholden to them.

To attempt to legislate a ban on speaking that truth is a betrayal, too, of those victims of the Nazis, and of history itself.

# # #

 

Remarkable Bordering on Incredible

Senator Orrin G. Hatch’s announcement of his retirement at the end of the year brought me back to the summer of 1995. That’s when I returned to my family’s former home of Providence, Rhode Island to visit, for the last time, the Utah senator’s former speechwriter, one of the most fascinating people I have had the fortune of knowing.

A scion of the Zhviller Chassidic dynasty, Rabbi Baruch Korff lay on his deathbed.

It was back in the 1970s that the erudite, eloquent Rabbi Korff worked without fanfare for Senator Hatch. To this day, the Mormon lawmaker, whose affinity for the Jewish people and Israel is legend, wears a “mezuzah” necklace given him, I believe, by Rabbi Korff.

Rabbi Korff was best known to the American public as “Nixon’s rabbi” – a title given him by President Richard Nixon himself, with whom Rabbi Korff developed a deep personal relationship. It is widely believed that the rabbi had an influence on Nixon’s strong support for Israel and on efforts to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate.

When the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, Rabbi Korff staunchly defended Mr. Nixon, founding the National Citizens Committee for Fairness for the Presidency. He admitted that Nixon had “misused his power” and that Watergate was “wrong,” but felt that the president hadn’t committed any crime and deserved to remain in office.

But Rabbi Korff’s early years were even more remarkable, bordering on incredible.

In 1919, a pogrom was launched by Christian residents of his birthplace, the Ukrainian city of Novograd Volynsk. Jewish homes were ransacked and Jews killed where they were found. Five-year-old Baruch’s mother Gittel fled with him and three of his siblings.

The little boy watched in horror as a rioter ripped his mother’s earrings from her ears and then murdered her. Writing 75 years later, Rabbi Korff averred that he had branded himself a coward for being too frightened to protect his mother. “My life ever since,” he wrote, “has been a quest for redemption from that charge.”

The activist life he lived reflected that quest.

In 1926, the surviving family members immigrated to the United States but, after becoming bar mitzvah, Baruch journeyed to Poland, where he studied in yeshivos in Korets and then Warsaw. Upon his return to the U.S., he attended Yeshiva Rav Yitzchak Elchanan, where he received semichah.

During World War II, Rabbi Korff, who had become an adviser to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, and to the U.S. War Refugee Board, petitioned European dignitaries, U.S. congressmen and Supreme Court justices on behalf of Jews in Europe. He even held clandestine negotiations with representatives of Gestapo head Heinrich Himmler, ym”s, about the purchase of Jews from Germany.

One of his wilder exploits took place in 1947, when, working with the militant Lehi group (derisively called the Stern Gang), he plotted to set off bombs in London (placed and timed to prevent human casualties) in protest of British policy in Palestine, and to drop leaflets over the city from a plane.

The leaflets began: “TO THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND! To the people whose government proclaimed ‘Peace in our time’: This is a warning! Your government had dipped His Majesty’s Crown in Jewish blood and polished it with Arab oil…” The pilot he engaged in Paris, however, tipped off authorities and Rabbi Korff was arrested. After a 17-day hunger strike, he was released, and charges against him were dropped.

After the war ended, Rabbi Korff continued his work on behalf of fellow Jews, presenting a petition with more than 500,000 signatures to the U.S. government, urging that Hungarian Jews be permitted to enter Palestine.

Eventually, he served as a congregational rabbi in several New England cities, and as a chaplain for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. I met him in his retirement, when he employed me to edit one of several books he had written about his experiences.

During that final Providence visit, he lay in bed holding a morphine pump, but was still engaged with the few of us who had gathered to pay our respects. I remember him asking us to sing Adon Olam, and we obliged.

And I remember, too, a phone call he took from Eretz Yisrael, from someone clearly distraught at the rabbi’s dire situation. When the choleh hung up, he explained that the caller was a kollel man whom he had been helping support for a number of years.

So Senator Hatch’s announcement brought me to the brink of a thought that I often think, about how astounding were the lives of some who preceded us.

© 2018 Hamodia

Window on the Warped

Interested in making a quick $14.88? Well, you might want to consider writing a racist or anti-Semitic article and submitting it to “The Daily Stormer,” one of the more famous neo-Nazi websites that sprout like noxious mushrooms on the internet.

The strange remittance amount the publication, run by a deceptively baby-faced man named Andrew Anglin, offers writers is intended to honor the 14 words of the far right slogan “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”; and the initials of “Heil Hitler” – “h” being the eighth letter of the alphabet. Those neo-Nazis are just so clever.

The site takes its name from the infamous Holocaust-era “Der Stürmer” weekly tabloid published by the notorious Julius Streicher, ym”sh, who was convicted for “crimes against humanity” in the 1946 Nuremberg Trials and hanged at Nuremberg in 1946.

Streicher’s putrid product was read by millions in wartime Germany, and regularly offered up things like a close-up of the deformed face of a man wearing a Jewish cap above the legend “The Scum of Humanity: This Jew says that he is a member of G-d’s chosen people”; a cartoon of a vampire bat with a grotesquely exaggerated nose and Jewish star on its chest; and another of a Jewish butcher sneakily dropping a rat into his meat grinder. He propagated the myth that Jews killed German young people for their blood, and advocated for the annihilation of all Jews.

Streicher famously cried out “Purim Feast 1946!” before the trap door opened beneath him on that Hoshana Rabbah. Having been apprehended serendipitously by a Jewish soldier after the war ended, in his final moment he apparently sensed something deep.

The late Nazi’s new American imitator is more subtle than his predecessor, but not by much.

The Daily Stormer’s stylebook was recently made public by a reporter, and it presents a wondrous window on warped wits.

The 17-page guide starkly states the site’s ultimate goal: “to spread the message of nationalism and anti-Semitism to the masses.” No obfuscation there.

In addition to assorted grammar and spelling rules, the guide helpfully provides long lists of offensive terms to use in the place of “Jews,” “blacks,” “Muslims,” “Hispanics” and “women.”

Still, “the tone of articles on the site,” the guide advises, “should be light,” since “most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred. The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not.”

Joking, though, Mr. Anglin is not. He states that, all kidding aside, he seriously would like to “gas Jews” – though he replaces that last word with a slur.

Astute observers of the modern (or, for that matter, not-so-modern) world have long suspected that a strange rule was being observed, one that The Daily Stormer guide declares outright: “Always Blame the Jews for Everything…As Hitler says, people will become confused and disheartened if they feel there are multiple enemies. As such, all enemies should be combined into one enemy, which is the Jews.”

“This is pretty much objectively true anyway,” the guide takes pains to add, “but we want to leave out any and all nuance.” Nuance, to be sure, isn’t much evident on the site.

“There should be a conscious agenda to dehumanize the enemy,” the document continues, “to the point where people are ready to laugh at their deaths.” Then, to simplify things for readers overly challenged by that sentence, the document boils it down: “Dehumanizing is extremely important.”

And the dehumanized, while they include other groups, must above all be “the Jews.”

“What should be completely avoided,” the guide cautions, “is the sometimes mentioned idea that ‘even if we got rid of the Jews we would still have all these other problems.’ The Jews should always be the beginning and the end of every problem, from poverty to poor family dynamics to war to the destruction of the rainforest.”

Didn’t know rainforest destruction was our doing? Welcome to the twisted world of The Daily Stormer.

Mr. Anglin claims that his site’s popularity is soaring, despite numerous internet domains’ refusals to host it. (He has reportedly moved it to the “dark web,” a part of the internet favored by the worst sort of criminal elements and accessible only with special software.)

We’re well accustomed to witnessing more “refined” forms of Jew-resentment, often cloaked in leftist “social activism,” anti-Israel rhetoric and United Nations votes.  It’s more rare to see the workings of entirely self-aware, unabashed anti-Semites.

But they’re out there, and their malice confirms the Torah’s predictions about Klal Yisrael’s galus and, ultimately, of our uniqueness.

© 2017 Hamodia

An Impossible Pretzel

Some people, it seems, like some dogs with teeth planted firmly in mailmen’s legs, just can’t let go.

Take Peter Beinart.

I have no problem with the columnist and former The New Republic editor’s expressing liberal Zionist views, much as I may disagree with some of them. There is room in this world for different perspectives.

Nor am I particularly vexed by his longtime opposition to President Trump; the president has certainly left himself open to criticism on many occasions. Mr. Beinart’s past insinuation that the president harbors tolerance for anti-Semitism was a silly and unfounded charge, but there are always plenty of those to go around.

What’s more troublesome is the columnist’s refusal to give Mr. Trump credit when it is due, like after the president’s speech last week at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred at the museum, and belying once and for all accusations of his insensitivity toward the Jewish people, the president spoke of how “the Nazis massacred six million Jews,” how “two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered in the genocide.”

Addressing survivors present, he said, “You witnessed evil, and what you saw is beyond… any description,” and asserted that, through their testimony, they “fulfill the righteous duty to… engrave into the world’s memory the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people.”

He also spoke of Israel as “an eternal monument to the undying strength of the Jewish people.” And he deemed Holocaust denial “one of many forms of dangerous anti-Semitism that continues all around the world,” concluding with the words: “So today we mourn. We remember. We pray. And we pledge: Never again.”

Enter Peter Beinart. Well, not into the museum, but into the pages of the Forward, where he cited Mr. Trump’s recounting of the story of Gerda Weissman, who, in 1945, as an emaciated 21-year-old veteran of Nazi work camps and a death march, was liberated, and elated to see a car sporting not a swastika but an American star. Her liberator turned out to be a Jewish American lieutenant, Kurt Klein, and they eventually became husband and wife.

Mr. Beinart reflects on “how [Mr. Trump’s] views might have affected people like Gerda Klein had he been president back then.” The original “America Firsters,” war-era isolationists, he contends, “shared a mentality” with the president – to protect the United States’ “shores and its people” and to “not squander money and might safeguarding foreigners in distant lands.”

“It is this mentality,” he asserts, “that earlier this year led Trump to propose a budget that cuts U.S. funding for the United Nations in half,” which could bring about “the breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it.”

The postwar Displaced Persons Camps, Mr. Beinart goes on to remind us, were administered by a U.N. commission, and paid for largely by the U.S. President Trump, he confidently states, “would likely have seen it as a prime example of other countries ripping America off,” and would “surely have disapproved,” in 1946, when anti-Semitic pogroms in Poland “sent tens of thousands of Jews streaming across the border into U.S.-administered DP camps in Germany,” of allowing any of them onto our shores.

Because Mr. Trump is president, Mr. Beinart concludes, “the Gerda Kleins of today are unlikely to see America’s symbols the way she did.”

One needn’t be a proponent of a Mexican wall to recognize that there is no comparison between, on the one hand, caring for people who narrowly escaped a multi-national genocidal effort only to face murderous pogroms, and, on the other, welcoming every foreigner seeking to improve his economic welfare.

Nor need one like Mr. Trump’s immigration ban to understand that, justified or not, the fear of terrorists infiltrating our country is somewhat more plausible today than it was regarding Jews in 1946.

Mr. Beinart, though, insists on twisting Mr. Trump’s sentiments into an impossible pretzel, into something cynical and hypocritical.

“He praises Holocaust survivors today,” the columnist writes about the president, “because it’s politically expedient. But his actions desecrate their memory. Had he more shame, he would not have spoken at the Holocaust Memorial Museum at all.”

But Mr. Trump, Mr. Beinart surely knows, isn’t currently running for office. And if there’s one thing most everyone agrees about, it’s that he expresses things bluntly, as he believes them to be. Had Peter Beinart more shame, he would not have written his article at all.

© 2017 Hamodia

Loss and Legacy

Like so many of his generation in Europe, he had an all too short childhood.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was 14, he found himself, along with his family and others from the small Polish shtetl of Ruzhan, fleeing the Nazi invaders with only what they could carry on their backs. Soon enough, the refugees were apprehended and locked in a shul, with a neighboring home set ablaze and the flames growing closer. The din, he recalled, was deafening. People were shouting out the Shema with all their might, crying bitterly, saying Viduy. Then they were suddenly, miraculously saved before the flames reached the shul, by, they suspected, Eliyahu Hanavi, in the guise of a high-ranking German officer.

Then, in a miracle of will, the boy decided to leave his parents to journey to Bialystok, to join the Novardoker yeshivah, a dream he had been promised, before the war, he would be able to fulfill.

The yeshivah, though, wasn’t there anymore, and so the boy jumped onto a train to Vilna, where many Polish yeshivos had relocated. Lithuania was still independent.

It wasn’t long, though, before the Soviets took over, and he and his chaverim and rebbe were sent to Siberia, where they spent the war years, enduring long 40 degrees below zero winters.

He once came close to death there. One of the other young men even trudged for kilometers through the snow on a mission, the trudger thought, to bury the boy, who was rumored to have succumbed.

At war’s end, the group made its way to Germany, were smuggled into Berlin’s American sector and set up a yeshivah in a town called Salzheim. Eventually, the boy, now a young man, was able to sail to America, where he married a respected Baltimore Rav’s daughter, who taught him English and helped him pursue his career, first as a rebbe in Baltimore’sYeshivas Chofetz Chaim and then as a shul Rav, a position he held for some 60 years. They had three children.

He was my father, hareni kapporas mishkavo. And his actual kevurah did not happen until more than 70 years had passed since that day his friend expected to inter him. It took place just before the start of Chanukah.

For all who knew and loved my father – and it is a very large group – his petirah was a wrenching personal loss. But it represented a tragedy for Klal Yisrael, too, and not just in the sense that an oved Hashem and marbitz Torah left this world.

It was a national tragedy for another reason, too, because, among all the many men and women whose lives my father touched and who came to the shivah house or called or emailed their nechamos – a group that included an astonishingly diverse spectrum of Yidden, from talmidei chachamim to the not-yet-frum – not a single one was from my father’s European chevrah.

That dearth, of course, was not unexpected. But it was an unhappy reminder, all the same, that the generation that witnessed the Jewish Europe that once was, and the horror and hashgacha of the Holocaust years, the generation that was our living link to that place and those days, is ebbing.

The only member, in fact, of my father’s Novardok chaburah in Siberia still alive is Reb Herschel Nudel, may he have a refuah shleimah, the man who endured that long, frigid walk to “bury” my father so many decades ago. Considering his astounding chessed, his arichas yamim, isn’t surprising.

And yet, the scene at my father’s levayah that most vividly remains with me was when the announcement was made that grandsons and great-grandsons of the niftar should come forward to carry the aron to begin its journey to the beis olam, where my mother, grandmother, uncles and aunts, my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, and my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zecher kulam livrachah, all lie, awaiting techiyas hameisim.

Those summoned came forth, but it took a while before the aron could be lifted. Not that it was heavy. My father wasn’t a physically large man. But it was a challenge for the many young men, all yirei Shamayim, who had heeded the call to find an empty spot to put their hands.

It was an aron, not a shulchan. But the words “Banecha kish’silei zeisim saviv lishulchanecha,” “Your sons, like olive shoots, all around your table” (Tehillim 128:3), even at that agonizing moment, rang like a melodic bell in my mind.

© Hamodia 2017

A Window into the Past

It’s barely visible. Taped to the inside of the front bay window of a neat, modest house on a nondescript street in Toronto is a photocopy of a spoon.

The window, off the living room, is dominated by two large, healthy banana plants that have thrived there for many years. But if you look closely at the window of the house near Eglington Avenue, where my dear in-laws live, you’ll see the reproduction of the spoon, and might wonder why it’s there.

The answer to that question has to do with my father-in-law, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well, an alumnus of a number of World War II concentration camps. And with Chanukah, too.

The spoon that was photocopied was one of the items he smuggled out of Auschwitz, when the Nazis moved him into “Camp Number Eight” – a quarantine camp, for those suspected of carrying typhus.

There were no labor details in that new camp, but the inmates were ordered to help in its construction, which was still underway. Having had some experience in the Lodz ghetto as a mechanic, my father-in-law helped the electrical technician install the camp’s lighting.

With his new access to tools, he brought his spoon to work and filed down its handle, making it into a sharp knife, which he used both to eat his soup ration and to cut the chunk of bread he and others were allotted and had to cut evenly to apportion it fairly. My father-in-law became the go-to person to wield his spoon-knife to help avoid disputes and maintain relative peace among the prisoners.

When winter came, he was transferred to “Camp Number Four” in Kaufering, a camp more similar to Auschwitz. Despite the terrible hardships the prisoners suffered daily, however, my father-in-law, a Gerer chassid, and other G-d-fearing Jews in the camp tried whenever possible to do what mitzvos they could, despite all the dangers that involved.

My father-in-law always kept mental track of the calendar, and he knew when Chanukah had arrived. During a few minutes’ rest break, he and a group of inmates began to reminisce about how, back home before the war, their fathers would light their menorahs with such fervor and joy. They remembered how they could never get their fill of watching the flames sparkling like stars, and basked in their warm, special glow.

And they spoke of the war of the Chashmonaim against their Seleucid Greek tormentors, who were intent on erasing Judaism from Jewish hearts. And how Hashem helped them resist and rout their enemy, enabling Jews to freely observe the Torah and mitzvos once again.

If only, they mused, if only they could light Chanukah candles.

One prisoner said he had a small bit of margarine he had saved from his daily ration. That could serve as our oil. And wicks? They began to unravel threads from our uniforms…

But a menorah. They needed a menorah.

My father-in-law took out his spoon.  Within moments, the small group was lighting their Chanukah lichteleh, reciting the brachos of “Lehadlik ner”, She’asa nissim” and “Shehecheyanu.” The prisoners all stood there transfixed, immersed in their thoughts… of Chanukahs gone by.

The small flame kindled in them, too, a glimmer of hope. As they recited She’asa nissim, the bracha about the miracles Hashem had performed for our forefathers “in those days”, but also “at this time,” they understood that the only thing that could save them would be a miracle. A “nes gadol,” in fact.

Non-religious Jews, too, stood nearby and watched the luminous moment in the darkness of their concentration camp lives. Who knows what difference it may have made in their own lives.

My father-in-law today, along with his eishes chayil, are filled with gratitude for his having been graced with a personal miracle and surviving those days – a harrowing story in itself, which he chronicled in his ArtScroll/Mesorah book “Destined to Survive.”

And they thank Hashem for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren He has granted them, kein yirbu, committed to lives of Torah and mitzvos.

A more elaborate menorah than a spoon is placed at their window each Chanukah. But the spoon, or at least a photographic reproduction of it, always shares the window space, a reminder of a Chanukah many years ago in a very different place.

And, somehow, the large, thriving plants that frame the window seem appropriate too.

© 2016 Hamodia