Category Archives: Holocaust

Seeing Privilege As A Pain

Sometimes a first-person account is just so sad you could cry. And when the writer seems oblivious to the sadness, well, then it’s sadder still

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently offered a piece written by a Jewish woman explaining her and her husband’s decision to forgo having children.

“As a Conservative Jew raised in the Midwest,” she writes, “I always assumed I’d have kids… In my mind, being a grown-up meant having children.”

During her college days, she stopped in at the Brown University Hillel House and met a young man.  Eventually they began to date.

When marriage came up, they discussed how “religiously” to raise their children, and found that they had different opinions.  Her partner wanted to observe the Sabbath but she did not.  And, if they each did his or her own thing she feared the “inevitable” questions their children would have about their mother’s level of observance.

Then, she writes, “It occurred to me that our potential problems would vanish if we just skipped parenthood.” Problem – at least if she could get her boyfriend on board – solved.

As it happened, after the young man became her husband, he began “losing his religion.” They were busy with their careers and, she writes, “reproducing was the farthest thing from my mind.”  Then she found websites of people who had decided not to have children, and shared them with her husband.  They laughed together “at jokes about sleep-deprived parents and children misbehaving in public.

So other people, too, they realized, “lacked the drive to make and raise babies, and were they ever happy,” the woman recounts. “They described enticing benefits, one of which particularly stood out for me: having their beloved to themselves and cultivating a devoted, satisfying relationship.”

And so she and her husband decided that “life would be better without kids.”

The couple’s mothers were not happy, as one might expect.  His was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and had told her son in his youth that “If you don’t raise Jewish children, you’re letting Hitler win.”

“There is no coming back from aiding Hitler,” observes the writer, and “so we all avoid the topic.”

But, she insists, she and her husband are happy.  They have each other entirely to themselves, without any pesky little people intruding on their relationship. And they owe it all to Judaism, the writer explains, without which she and her husband would never have met at that Hillel House.

“Ironically,” she concludes, “If it weren’t for Judaism… it may never have occurred to me not to have children at all.”

The writer knows, of course, and acknowledges, that Judaism favors children; indeed, she may even know, there is a Torah commandment to be fruitful. But she and her partner have made a conscious decision to reject their religious heritage.

What’s more, the husband and wife are depriving themselves not only of an important mitzvah, and not only of the life beyond death that is a son or daughter, but of the sublime joy of being parents.  Sleepless nights and misbehaved children?  Some of the most difficult or embarrassing parental situations, any parent could tell the writer, morph with time into some of the most meaningful, even wonderful, memories imaginable.

Is it hard?  Of course.  What worthwhile endeavor isn’t?

Do parents experience trying times?  Yes.  Life is trying; that’s its point.

Will it all have been worth it, in fact many millions of times over?  Yes again.

And if the writer and her husband really think that their relationship to each other would suffer, rather than be strengthened, by their sharing the privilege of forging a new generation, they are astoundingly naïve.  The greatest boon for any relationship is not a shared taste in music, nor a shared desire for childlessness; it is a shared challenging but meaningful endeavor.  And when the endeavor is something as momentous as creating and guiding new lives, the bond that can result is most powerful.

Time will tell whether the writer’s and her husband’s bond of mutual desire for childlessness will itself prove sufficiently strong to maintain their relationship.  But one thing is certain.  The couple’s assumption that the mutual nurturing of a new generation is a mere pain rather than an unparalleled privilege is a sad mistake.

Made all the more sad by the couple’s utter unawareness of the fact.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

 (For a decade-old essay about the Jewish choice to have children, please see here.

 

Defining History Down

Under siege by some of his countrymen for seeming to have acknowledged the Holocaust, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tried to walk that Chihuahua back at a forum this week sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society. Asked to clearly state his stand on the issue, he chose to condemn “crimes by the Nazis during World War II [including the killing of] a group of Jewish people.”

Another “defining down” of historical fact also recently appeared, this one emanating from a more respectable source, the New York Times, in a video on its website.  The background clip accompanied a print report about Jews who ascend the Har Habayis, or Temple Mount, thereby passively challenging the Muslim authorities to whom Israel has ceded oversight of the ancient Jewish holy site.  Those overseers forbid Jews from praying openly there; some of the Jewish visitors, apparently, dare to do so silently.

The second of the two holy Jewish national temples that stood on the mount for centuries, of course, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  It was more than 600 years later, after the Islamic empire spread to the Holy Land, that a small mosque was erected there.  An earthquake destroyed the mosque, and a second one was subsequently built on the spot, although it met the same fate shortly thereafter.  In 1035, the grandiose mosque currently occupying the Temple site was built, and thus far survives.

The Times article itself, as it happens, hinted at something that deserved more prominence in the piece, namely that the most respected Jewish rabbinic authorities have forbidden all Jews, in no uncertain terms, from ascending the Mount, both for halachic reasons and to not give the mosque’s overseers and other Muslims any excuse to engage in violence. Charedi Jews are often the focus of news reports from Israel. In an article presented to millions that speaks of religious Jews doing something that some regard as politically provocative, it would have been proper to point out that the Jews at issue are decidedly not charedim, and that the latter disapprove of their actions.

But what was truly disconcerting was the narration of the Times’ video expanding on the article.  It referred to the Har Habayis as the place “that Jews call the Temple Mount…” and that “Jews widely believe was the site of the Temples.”  Italics, of course, mine.

Such subtle casting of long-accepted historical fact as mere popular Jewish belief is of a sort with the subtle devaluation of “Judaism’s holiest site” the Old Gray Lady has perpetrated in the past – like when it bestowed that honor to the Western Wall rather than to the Temple Mount that lies behind it.

Fact: Objective students of history – of all ethnicities – see no reason to not accept the Bible’s account that, approximately nine centuries before the beginning of the Common Era and nearly 1500 years before Mohammed’s grandmother was born, King Solomon built the first of the two Holy Jewish Temples on that Jerusalem site.  And that sacrificial offerings, as the Talmud and Roman sources alike recount, were brought on the altar there on behalf of both Jews and non-Jewish visitors.

That that history derives mostly from Jewish texts and Jewish tradition is no deficiency.  The meticulous preservation of history is the nuclear strong force of Judaism, and is what has preserved the Jewish nation for millennia. Jews the world over just celebrated, on Sukkos, the collective memory of their ancestors’ Divine protection after the exodus from Egypt; that exodus itself is mentioned hundreds of times each year by every observant Jew in prayers and rites.

He or she recalls the ancient Jewish Temple too, every single day of the year, in each of the silent prayers – recited facing the Temple Mount – that are the backbone of Jewish religious life.

On holidays, moreover, the special Mussaf prayer includes a lengthy bemoaning of the Temples’ destructions.

The words “Jerusalem” and its synonym “Zion,” the city whose holiness derives from that of the Temple Mount, passed my lips at least ten times this morning.  Before breakfast.

And that repast was followed by the grace after meals, which includes an entreaty of G-d to rebuild Jerusalem – meaning the Temple.

That rebuilding, to be sure, isn’t a call to human physical force. The Third Holy Temple will be built by the hand not of man but of G-d, the object of our entreaty.  That is likewise evident in the passive form of our prayer elsewhere: “May it be Your will that the Temple be [re]built.”  But that collective Jewish prayer will be prayed – our spiritual contribution – until its fulfillment.

In the meanwhile, however much mullahs or media may seek to distort inconvenient historical facts, people devoted to truth will continue to know better.  They will know that, just over 60 years ago, millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their friends. And that, over 2000 years ago, a Holy Jewish Temple stood on the hill that still carries its name.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Musing: Message for a Maniac

New York’s tabloids and international news services alike took note of a New Jersey court appearance by Nazi admirer Heath Campbell, who named his first-born ‘Adolf Hitler’ (yemach shemo – although Mr. Campbell neglected to add that phrase to the name) and has had all four of his children removed from his home in the wake of violent incidents there.

The proudly fascist dad, who is seeking to have his children returned to him, appeared in court in an authentic World War II Nazi uniform, complete with medals, knee-high boots and an armband sporting a swastika.

“I want my children back,” Campbell told the Daily News.

And I want my grandparents back.  My uncles, aunts and cousins too.

Obama Comes Clean

Back in 2009, I was troubled by the reaction of many of my friends to President Obama’s speech in Cairo to the Muslim world.

I had shared the same concerns they had about Mr. Obama during his first campaign for the presidency – his Chicago politics background, his attendance of a church headed by a rabid racist, his association with other distasteful characters, the suddenness of his rise to political prominence.  But after his election (which happened somehow, despite my vote for his rival) I tried to focus not on the past but the present.  And I found his Cairo speech pleasantly surprising.

That he chose to address the Islamic world in itself did not disturb me.  Were I in his position, I reflected, were I a person of color who lived in a Muslim environment as a child and now the leader of a free world plagued by Islamic extremism, I would have made the same choice, seized the golden opportunity to try to reach the Muslim masses with a message of moderation.

And, continuing my thought experiment, I imagined myself saying much what the new president did.  He spoke of Islamic culture’s accomplishments, extended a hand of friendship and addressed some of the problems facing his listeners.

And not only didn’t he shy away from the topic of Israel, he seized it hard and fast.  To be sure, he reiterated America’s long-standing support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the position of even the Israeli government these days.  And he called for an end to new settlements, also reflecting long-established American policy.  But he declared too that “America’s strong bonds with Israel are… unbreakable… based upon cultural and historical ties, and that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

In fact, he decried Holocaust denial, so rife in the Muslim world, as “baseless, ignorant, and hateful,” and condemned the “threatening [of] Israel with destruction” and the “repeating [of] vile stereotypes about Jews.”  He poignantly declared that “Palestinians must abandon violence,” that it is “a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus.”

And yet some Jews were deeply unimpressed – because the president described the state of Israel as rooted in the Holocaust.  The Jewish connection to Eretz Yisrael, they complained, is rather older than that.  Indeed it is, of course.  But somehow I wouldn’t have thought it necessary or wise for Mr. Obama to quote from the Torah, particularly to an Islamic audience.

I suppose that the critics weren’t begrudging him quite that.  They just wanted to hear some reference to the fact that the Holy Land was holy to, and populated by, Jews before Muslims (or Islam for that matter) came on the scene. Even that, I thought, would have been unwise at that time and place, and I felt it was ungenerous to not at least give Mr. Obama credit for what he did say, clearly and unequivocally.  And I found the president’s subsequent actions on behalf of Israel, from pushing the Iron Dome project to intensifying the anti-Iran Stuxnet collaboration with Israel to his strong and quick intercession on behalf of Israelis held hostage in Egypt (and much more) as confirmation of  my judgment of the man’s commitment to Israel’s safety and security.

Now, on his recent trip to Israel, the president came clean, so to speak, on the issue of the Jewish connection to Eretz Yisrael.

“More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here,” he said, “tended the land here, prayed to G-d here.”  And he called the fact of Jews living in their ancestral land “a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.”

Needless to say, as the Zoharic prayer “B’rich Sh’mei,” recited by many when the Torah is removed from the ark, has it, we are not to put our trust in any man.  And the hearts of leaders, in any event, are in Hashem’s hands, and subject to the effect of our own merits.

So the future cannot be known by any of us.  But the present can, and we are obliged by our tradition, which hallows the concept of hakaras hatov, “recognition of the good,” to be thankful for both what President Obama has done and what he has said.

May we merit to see his continued support for our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.

 

 

Dos Yiddishe Mensch

If you’ve noticed a little less dignity, geniality and nobility in the world of late, it may be because we no longer have Reb Yosef Friedenson here with us.

Reb Yosef’s humble bearing, good will and astuteness would have been remarkable in any man.  But for a veteran of the Warsaw ghetto and a clutch of concentration camps to have emerged from the cauldron of the Holocaust as so shining a model of calm, forbearance and fortitude is little short of amazing – and something that deeply impressed all who had the privilege of knowing him.

I am among those fortunate souls, and I had the additional honor of working in the same offices as he, at Agudath Israel of America.  There were times here and there when he would ask me to do some minor research for him.  I tend to overschedule my days and, especially if I’m in a cranky mood, I sometimes feel put upon when asked to do something I hadn’t included on my day’s agenda.  But when the asker was Reb Yosef, no matter how grumpy I might have been a moment before, the very sound of his voice, which transmitted his modesty and eidelkeit (sorry, there’s no English word that can do the job), melted any cantankerousness I might have been nursing.  I was happy and honored to help him in any way I could.  Because of the person he was.

He was known as “Mr. Friedenson” but in fact was a wiser man and more of a rabbi by far than most who coddle that title.  He was not into titles but into work, on behalf of the Jewish people.

For more than a half-century – beginning in the Displaced Persons camps after the war’s end – Reb Yosef edited a Yiddish publication, which became the monthly “Dos Yiddishe Vort” – “The Yiddish [or Jewish] Word” – produced under Agudath Israel’s auspices.  Even as the periodical’s readership dwindled with the loss of Holocaust survivors over the years, he forged ahead and, until virtually the last day of his life, worked hard to produce the glossy monthly that regularly offered Orthodox commentary on current events, historical articles and rare photographs from the pre-Holocaust Jewish era and the Holocaust itself.  He approached his editing duties carefully and professionally, in the beginning of the venture recruiting top-notch writers and doing his own top-notch writing.  He once said about his father, Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, who edited the pre-war Agudath Israel newspaper in Europe, that he was “bristling with energy and ideas.”  It was an apt description of himself.

During his final years, Reb Yosef did much of the writing for Dos Yiddishe Vort himself, often under pseudonyms that were transparent to most everyone who read the publication.  (No one cared; his own recollections and writings were deeply appreciated by readers.)  And the issues increasingly focused on rabbinical figures who perished during the Holocaust, and on pre-war Jewish communities.  Special editions were devoted to the Jews of Lodz or Lublin, to the Gerer rebbe or the Chazon Ish.  And throughout, there were personal recollections of the war years and accounts of spiritual heroism during that terrible time.

That, in fact, was Reb Yosef’s overriding life-mandate: to connect new American generations with the world of Jewish Eastern Europe.  He didn’t harp on Nazism or anti-Semitism.  That there are always people who hate Jews was, to him, just an unfortunate given.  It didn’t merit any particular examination.

What did, though, was the decimation itself of European Jewry and the horrifying toll taken by the upheaval of the Jewish people on the Jewish dedication to Torah.  When he would reference the Germans it was usually to note their perceptive realization that Torah is the lifeblood of the Jewish nation.  They tried to drain that figurative lifeblood along with their pouring of so much actual Jewish blood.  But – and this was what yielded Reb Yosef’s victory smile – they failed.  He saw the ultimate revenge on the Nazis and their henchmen in the reestablishment and thriving of observant Jewish life, yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs on these shores and others.

He would sometimes call attention to a line from a prayer said on Mondays and Thursdays, the long version of Tachanun.  “We [Jews] are like sheep led to slaughter,” he would quote, and know well how true that has been over the course of history.   But, Reb Yosef would continue, the operative words, the secret to Jewish survival and Jewish identity, lie in the supplication’s subsequent phrase:  “And despite all that, we have never forgotten Your name.”

Reb Yosef never forgot G-d’s name, not in the ghettos, not in the camps, not in the office where he toiled for decades to remind others of the Jewish world that was, and that can be again.

And we, for our part, will never forget either him or his message.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Iron and Irony

A typical offering included a close-up of the deformed face of a Jewish man above the legend “The Scum of Humanity: This Jew says that he is a member of God’s chosen people.”  Another displayed a cartoon of a vampire bat with a grotesquely exaggerated nose and a Jewish star on its chest.  In yet another, a Jewish butcher was depicted snidely dropping a rat into his meat grinder and, elsewhere in the issue, the punctured necks of handsome German youths were shown bleeding into a bowl held by a Jew more gargoyle than human. At its peak in 1938, print runs of Hitler henchman Julius Streicher’s vile tabloid Der Sturmer ran as high as 2,000,000.

“All our struggles are in vain,” Streicher told a Nazi student organization in 1935, “if the battle against the Jews is not fought to the finish.  It is not enough to get the Jews out of Germany. No, they must be destroyed throughout the entire world so that humanity will be free of them.”

We approach the Jewish holiday focused on the blessedly ill-fated plans of a Jew-hater of old, the Amalekite whose name we will greet with raucous noise each time it’s read from Megillas Esther on Purim. Even a passing familiarity with the Purim story is sufficient to know that its villain’s downfall is saturated with what seem to be chance ironies; Haman turns up at the wrong place at the wrong time, and all that he so carefully plans eventually comes to backfire on him in an almost comical way – a theme Megillas Esther characterizes with the words v’nahafoch hu, “ and it was turned upside down!”

Such “chance” happenings are the hallmark of the defeat of Amalek, the would-be nemesis of the Jewish People – a fact reflected in the “casting of lots” from which “Purim” takes its name.  Chance, Esther teaches us, is an illusion; G-d is in charge.  Amalek may fight with iron, but he is defeated with… irony.

As was Julius Streicher.  In the days after Germany’s final defeat, an American major, Henry Plitt, received a tip about a high-ranking Nazi living in an Austrian town.  He accosted a short, bearded artist, who he thought might be SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, and asked him his name.

“Joseph Sailer,” came the reply from the man, who was painting a canvas on an easel.

Plitt later recounted: “I don’t know why I said [it, but] I said, ‘And what about Julius Streicher?’”

Ya, der bin ich,” the man with the paintbrush responded.  “Yes, that is me.”

When Major Plitt brought his serendipitous catch to Berchtesgaden, he later recounted, a reporter told him that he had “killed the greatest story of the war.”  When he asked how, the reporter responded “Can you imagine if a guy named Cohen or Goldberg or Levy had captured this arch-anti-Semite, what a great story it would be?”

Major Plitt recalled telling the reporter “I’m Jewish” and how “that’s when the microphones came into my face and the cameras started clicking.”

Another happy irony in Streicher’s life involved the fate of his estate.  As reported in Stars and Stripes in late 1945, his considerable possessions were converted to cash and used to create an agricultural training school for Jews intending to settle in Palestine.  Just as Haman’s riches, as recorded in Megillas Esther, were bestowed upon his nemesis Mordechai.

There is a good deal more of interest in the life of Julius Streicher to associate him with Jewish traditions about Amalek.  But one of the most shocking narratives about him concerns his death.  Streicher was of one of the Nazis tried, convicted, and hanged at Nuremberg in 1946.

During the trial, Streicher remained true to ugly form.  When the prosecution showed a film of the concentration camps, a spotlight was left on the defendants’ box for security reasons. Few of the defendants could bear to watch the film for long.  Goering nervously wiped his sweaty palms.  Schacht turned away; Ribbentrop buried his face in his hands. Keitel wiped his reddened eyes with a handkerchief.  Only Streicher leaned forward throughout, looking anxiously at the film and excitedly nodding his head.

Although no proof was found that Streicher had ever killed a Jew by his own hand, the tribunal decided that his clear-cut incitement of others to the task constituted a war crime; and so he was sentenced, along with ten other defendants, to hang.

And hang he did.  But not before taking the opportunity to share a few final words with the journalists present at the gallows.  Just before the trap sprang open, he blurted out: “Purim Feast 1946!” – an odd thing to say in any event, but especially on an October morning.

The “Amalek-irony” of the Nuremberg executions doesn’t end there, either.  The Book of Esther recounts how Haman’s ten sons were hanged in Shushan. An eleventh child, a daughter, committed suicide earlier, according to an account in the Talmud.  At Nuremberg, while eleven men were condemned to execution by hanging, only ten were actually hanged.  The eleventh, the foppish Goering, died in his cell hours before the execution; he ingested a cyanide capsule he had hidden on his person.

Even more striking is something reportedly noted by, among others, the late Belzer Rebbe, the Kedushas Aharon. In the Megilla, the names of Haman’s sons are written in two columns, an unusual configuration.  Odder still, three letters in the list are written very small, and one very large.  The large letter is the Hebrew character corresponding to the number six; the small letters yield the number 707.  If the large letter is taken to refer to the millennium and 707 to the year in the millennium, something striking emerges.  According to Jewish reckoning, the present year is 5773.  The year 5707 – the 707th year in the sixth millennium – was the year we know as 1946, when ten sworn enemies of the Jewish people were hanged in Nuremberg, like ten others in Shushan more than two thousand years earlier.

What’s more, the Megilla inexplicably refers to the hanging of Haman’s sons in the future tense, as if to presage some hanging… yet to happen.

The Holocaust was the tip of an unimaginable iceberg of evil, stretching far and deep into the past.  The evil, of course, persists today.  But a time will come when Divine irony will end it forever.

© Am Echad Resources

Our Own Private Passover

One day during my teenage years I began to think about what my father, may he be well, had been doing at my age.  The thought occurred too late for me to compare his and his family’s flight by foot from the Nazis in Poland at the outbreak of World War II to my own 14th year of life – when my most daunting challenge had been, the year before, chanting my bar-mitzvah portion.

But I was still young enough to place the image of his subsequent years in Siberia – as a guest of the Soviet Union, which deported him and others from his yeshiva in Vilna – alongside my high school trials for comparison.  At the age when I was avoiding study, he was avoiding being made to work on the Sabbath; when my religious dedication consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning to attend services, his entailed finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga; where I struggled to survive the emotional strains of adolescence, he was struggling, well, to survive.  As years progressed, I continued to ponder our respective age-tagged challenges.  Doing so has lent me some perspective.

As has thinking about my father’s first Passover in Siberia, while I busy myself helping (a little) my wife shop for holiday needs and prepare the house for its annual leaven-less week.

In my father’s memoirs, which I have been privileged to help him record and which, G-d willing, we hope will be published later this year, there is a description of how Passover was on the minds of the young men and their teacher, exiled with them, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941.  Over the months that followed, 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 spiritual needs, including kosher-for-Passover matzoh.

Toward the end of the punishing winter, they retrieved their stash and, using a small hand coffee grinder, 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 matzohs to ensure their quick and thorough baking.  In the middle of the night the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which, as the outpost’s other residents slept, they fired up for two hours to make it kosher for Passover before baking their matzohs.

On Passover night they fulfilled the Torah’s commandment to eat unleavened bread “guarded” from exposure to water until before baking.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Passover experience of my wife’s father, I.I. Cohen, may he be well.  In his own memoir, “Destined to Survive” (ArtScroll/Mesorah, 2001), he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzoh.  All the same, he was determined to have the Passover he could.  In the dark of the barracks on Passover night, he turned to his friend and suggested they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted the Four Questions other inmates protested.  “What are you crazy Chassidim doing saying the Haggadah?” they asked.  “Do you have matzohs, do you have wine and all the necessary food to make a seder?  Sheer stupidity!”

My father-in-law responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a Torah commandment – and 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.

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

A Chassidic master offers a novel commentary on a verse cited in the Haggadah.  The Torah commands Jews to eat matzoh on Passover, “so that you remember the day of your leaving Egypt all the days of your life.”

Rabbi Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim, commented: “When recounting the Exodus, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his life – the miracles and wonders that G-d performed for him throughout…”

I suspect that my father and father-in-law, both of whom, thank G-d, emerged from their captivities and have merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that.  But all of us, no matter our problems, have experienced countless “miracles and wonders.”  We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and benevolence with which we were blessed – or even the wonder of every beat of our hearts and breath we take.  But that reflects only our obliviousness.  At the seder, when we recount G-d’s kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the gifts we’ve been given.

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

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Accidents Don’t Happen

With time, those with open eyes come to recognize that life is peppered with strange, small ironies – “coincidences” that others don’t even notice, or unthinkingly dismiss.

The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung puzzled over such happenings, which he felt were evidence of some “acausal connecting principle” in the world.  In a famous essay, he named the phenomenon “synchronicity.”

To those of us who believe in a Higher Power, synchronistic events, no matter how trivial they may seem, are subtle reminders that there is pattern in the universe, evidence of an ultimate plan.

My family has come to notice what appears to us to be an increase of such quirky happenings in our lives during the month (or, as this year, months) of Adar.

That would make sense, of course, since Adar is the month of Purim, the Jewish holiday that is saturated with seemingly insignificant “twists of fate” that turn out to be fateful indeed.  From King Achashverosh’s execution of his queen to suit his advisor and later execution of his advisor to suit his new queen; to Mordechai’s happenstance overhearing and exposure of a plot that comes to play a pivotal role in his people’s salvation; to Haman’s visiting the king at the very moment when the monarch’s insomnia has him wondering how to honor Mordechai; to the gallows’ employment to hang its builder…  The list of drolly fortuitous happenings goes on, and its upshot is what might be called The Purim Principle: Nothing is an Accident.

The holiday’s very name is taken from an act of chance – “purim” are the lots cast by Haman, who thinks he is accessing randomness but is in fact casting his own downfall.  He rejoices at his lottery’s yield of the month during which he will have the Jews destroyed: the month of Moses’ death.  He does not realize that it was the month, too, of his birth.

The contemporary Adar coincidences I’ve come to expect are often about trivial things, but they still fill me with joy, as little cosmic “jokes” that remind me of the Eternal.  One recent evening, for example, I remarked to my wife and daughter how annoying musical ringtones in public places are, especially when the cellphones are programmed, as they usually are, to assault innocent bystanders with jungle beats and rude shouting.  “Why can’t they use the Moonlight Sonata?” I quipped.

The very next day at afternoon services, someone’s cellphone went off during the silent prayer.  Usually my concentration is disturbed by such things but this time the synchronicity of the sound only made me more aware of the Divine.  Never before had I heard a phone play the Moonlight Sonata.

Only days later, my daughter saw a license plate that intrigued her.  It read: “Psalm 128.”  What a strange legend for a car, she thought.  That very night she accompanied her mother and me to a wedding.  Under the chuppah, unexpectedly, a group of young men sang a lovely rendition of… yes, you guessed it.

Other times, the Adar coincidences are more obviously meaningful, clearly linked to Purim.  A few Adars ago, a striking irony emerged from a new book about Joseph Stalin.  It related something previously unknown: that after the infamous 1953 “Doctors Plot,” a fabricated collusion of doctors and Jews to kill top Communist leaders, the Soviet dictator had ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Siberia, “apparently,” as a New York Times article about the book put it, “in preparation for a second great terror – this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent.”

Two weeks later, though, Stalin took suddenly ill at a dinner party and, four days later, it was announced that he had died.  His successor Nikita Khrushchev recounted how the dictator had gotten thoroughly drunk at the dinner party, which ended in the early hours of March 1.  Which, that year, fell on the 14th of Adar, Purim.

This year, too, I was synchronicity-struck by an unexpected piece of Adar information.  It materialized as I did research for a speech I was to give about the destruction of a small Lithuanian town’s Jewish community during the Holocaust.

The most famous extant document about Nazi actions in Lithuania is what has come to be known as the Jager Report, after SS-Standartenfuehrer Karl Jager (whose surname, incidentally, means “hunter” in German; “as his name so was he”: he hunted Jews).  Filed on December 1, 1941, and labeled “Secret Reich Business,” the report meticulously details a “complete list of executions carried out in the EK [Einsatzkommando] 3 area” that year.

It records the number of men, women and children murdered in each of dozens of towns and ends with the grand total of the operation’s victims – 137,346 – and the words: “Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK3…”

Standartenfuehrer Jager, however, only oversaw the operation; he didn’t get his hands dirty with the actual work of shooting Jews.  That he left to a “raiding squad” of “8-10 reliable men from the Einsatzkommando,” led by a young Oberstumfuherer called Hamann.  Joachim Hamann.

May his name, and that of his ancient namesake, be blotted out, and our days be transformed, in the Book of Esther’s words, “from sorrow to gladness and from mourning to festivity.”

 © 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Purim in the Valley of Tears

The below is by my esteemed father-in-law, R’ Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps, who lives in Toronto. It is adapted from his  book “Destined to Survive” (ArtsSroll.com).

 

We sat listlessly on our bunks, waiting impatiently for the high point of our day – our meager ration of bread.  It was my seventh month in Dachau’s Death Camp #4.

“Do you know that tomorrow is Purim?” I asked, trying to distract my brothers in suffering, and myself, from our painful hunger.

“How do you know?”

“It’s freezing! Purim can’t be for another month.”

“No, no!” some protested. “Srulik doesn’t make mistakes like that! He has a good memory.”

“Crazy Chassidim!” others grumbled. “You’ve nothing else to worry about besides when Purim falls this year? What’s the difference any more between Purim and Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? Isn’t it always Tisha B’Av?”

The debate gathered force among the block’s “mussulmen” – the eighty living skeletons crammed tightly into a virtual wooden tomb overgrown with grass.

It was the hour before nightfall.  We lay in the camp infirmary on wooden boards covered with a thin layer of straw, our eyes riveted on the curtain separating us from the block elder’s spacious quarters.

Suddenly the curtain parted, and the block elder stood there with his henchmen, bearing our bread rations; it had been nearly twenty-four hours.  Each inmate measured his ration wordlessly with his eyes, and compared it to his neighbor’s, each convinced that the other had received more.  At such times, best friends became bitter rivals and within minutes the stingy portions were devoured.  But our stomachs felt as empty as before, the gnawing hunger made all the more intolerable by the realization that it would be a full day before the next piece of bread.

Having just suffered through a bad bout of typhus, I fell back on my board, and fast asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt dizzy; my head was like a leaden weight.  I began to conjure images of my past, of my parents and my sisters, Gittel and Mirel… how I used to study in the study-hall of the Chassidim of Ger.   Mostly, I remembered my grandfather, Reb Herschel, who loved me and would take me, his only grandson, along whenever he went to the Gerer Rebbe. I pictured the Chassidic leader’s face, his eyes overflowing with wisdom and love, penetrating my very soul.

Will I ever have the merit, I wondered, to press myself once again into the crowd of Chassidim gathering around the Rebbe, to learn from him how to be a good Chassid and a G-d-fearing person?

“Time to pray, Srulik.”

My friend’s voice shook me from my reverie.  The memories vanished.  I was back in the pit of hell.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Let’s wash our hands and daven.”

Then it struck me.

“But it’s Purim!” I exclaimed.  “We have to organize a minyan!”

My pain and pangs receded.  Summoning strength, I went to wash my hands and face and then to find some others to complete our minyan. Perhaps, I thought, I might even find someone else who could recall a few more verses from the Megillah so that we might fulfill something of our sacred Jewish obligation to publicly read the Book of Esther.

G-d responds to good deeds undertaken with dedication.  A copy of the second book of the Bible, with the Book of Esther appended, was discovered by my friend, Itche Perelman, a member of the camp burial squad.

We were elated.  Such a find could only be a sign that our prayers had been received in Heaven and that the redemption was near.  Our excitement grew.  Who remembered the hunger, the cold, the filth, the degradation?  No one gave a thought to the dangers involved in organizing our prayer group, to the possibility of a German or kapo deciding dropping in unexpectedly. Even those who the day before had scoffed at the “crazy Chassidim” seemed excited.

“Who will read the Megillah?” someone asked.

The lot, so to speak, fell on me.  Within moments, volunteers managed to locate some clothing for me since, like all the inmates of the infirmary, I had been assigned nothing more than a blanket with which to cover myself. And so, dressed in a camp uniform, a towel wrapped around my head in place of a yarmulka, I read the words: “and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.”

When I read of Haman’s downfall, and that “the Jews had light and happiness, joy and honor,” the spark of hope that glimmers in every Jew’s heart ignited into a flaming torch. “Dear L-rd of the Universe!” I know each of us was thinking, “Grant us a wondrous miracle too, as you did for our forefathers in those days. Let us, too, see the end of our enemies!”

When I finished, everyone cheered.  For a brief instant, the dreadful reality of the death camp had been forgotten. Having exerted the rest of my strength on the reading, I sat breathless, but my spirit soared.

When people’s actions are pleasing to G-d, even their enemies are reconciled to them.  The block elder, who usually strutted in with a scowl, smiled as he entered that day, ladling the soup without cursing at anyone. And the ever-present jealousy among us inmates seemed to turn into generosity.  Instead of complaints that someone else had received more potatoes, I heard things like “Let Srulik get a bigger portion of soup today!”

Instead of bemoaning the present, we dreamed of the future, of when the German demon would inherit his due, when this Jewish suffering would end.  And like a river overflowing its banks, thoughts of redemption burst forth from broken hearts.  One mitzvah led to another, to further acts of spiritual heroism. Someone decided to forgo the small piece of bread he had saved from the previous day, and offered it to his comrade. Another made a gift of a piece of potato, and these two “portions”, which only yesterday would have caused ill will, now became the means by which the inmates could fulfill the mitzvah of “sending gifts of food, one to another.”

Those precious “Mishloach Manos” were passed around from one to the other, until they finally landed on my lap. Everyone decided that I should be the one to keep them in the end as compensation for my services.

I thought to myself, “Dear G-d, behold Your people, who in an instant can transform themselves from wild creatures to courageous, caring men and faithful Jews…”

And a verse welled up inside me: “Who is like you, Israel, a singular nation on Earth?”

“Precious Jews!” I said to the others. “Brothers in suffering!  Let us make but one request from our Heavenly Father: Next year in Jerusalem!”

Ice and Fire: A Different Sort of Holocaust Story

It wasn’t the most exciting or terrifying tale of the war years I had ever heard, or the saddest or the most shocking. But somehow it was the most moving one.

The man who recounted it had spent the war years, his teenage years, in the chilling vastness of the Siberian taiga.  He and his Polish yeshiva colleagues were guests of the Soviet authorities for their reluctance to assume Russian citizenship after they fled their country at the start of the Nazi onslaught.

He had already spoken of unimaginable, surreal episodes, fleeing his Polish shtetl with the German advance in 1939, of watching as his uncle was caught trying to escape a roundup of Jews and shot on the spot, of being packed with his Jewish townsfolk into a shul which was then set afire, of their miraculous deliverance, of the long treks, of the wandering refugees’ dedication to the Torah’s commandments.  And then he told the story.

We were loaded onto rail cattle-wagons, nine of us, taken to Novosibirsk, and from there transported by barge to Parabek, where we were assigned to a kolchoz, or collective farm.           

I remember that our first winter was our hardest, as we did not have the proper clothing for the severe climate     

Most of us had to fell trees in the forest. I was the youngest and was assigned to a farm a few miles from our kolchoz. The nights were terribly cold, the temperature often dropping to forty degrees below zero, through I had a small stove by which I kept a little warm. The chief of the kolchoz would make surprise checks on me to see if I had fallen asleep, and I would recite Psalms to stay awake. 

One night I couldn’t shake the chills and I realized that I had a high fever. I managed to hitch my horse and sled together and set off for the kolchoz.  Not far from the farm, though, I fell from the sled into the deep snow and the horse continued on without me. I tried to shout to the animal to stop, to no avail. I remember crying and saying Psalms for I knew that remaining where I was, or trying to walk to the kolchoz, would mean certain death from exposure. I forced myself to get up and, with what little strength I had left, began running after the horse and sled.

Suddenly, the horse halted. I ran even faster, reached the sled and collapsed on it.

Looking up at the starry sky, I prayed with all my diminishing might to G-d to enable me to reach the relative safety of the kolchoz.  He answered me and I reached my Siberian home, though I was shaking uncontrollably from my fever; no number of blankets could warm me. The next day, in a daze, I was transported to Parabek, where there was a hospital.           

My first two days in the hospital are a blur, but on the third my fever broke and I started to feel a little better. Then suddenly, as I lay in my bed, I saw a fellow yeshiva boy from the kolchoz, Herschel Tishivitzer, before me, half frozen and staring, incredulous, at me. His feet were wrapped in layers and layers of rags – the best one could manage to try to cope with the Arctic cold, without proper boots.  I couldn’t believe my eyes – Herschel had actually walked the frigid miles from the kolchoz!

“Herschel,” I cried, “what are you doing here?

I’ll never forget his answer.      

“Yesterday,” he said, “someone came from Parabek, and told us ‘Simcha umar,’ that Simcha had died.  And so I volunteered to bury you.”

The narrator paused to collect himself, and the reflected on his memory:

The dedication to another Jew, the dedication… Had the rumor been true there was no way he could have helped me. He had immediately made the perilous journey – just to see to my funeral! The dedication to another Jew …such an example!…

As a shiver subsided and the story sank in, I wondered: Would I have even considered such a journey, felt such a responsibility to a fellow Jew? In such a place, at such a time? Or would I have justified inaction with the ample justification available? Would I have been able to maintain even my humanity in the face of so doubtful a future, not to mention my faith in G-d, my very Jewishness…?

A wholly unremarkable story in a way, I realize. None of the violence, the tragedy, the horrors, the evil of so many tales of the war years. Just a short conversation, really. Yet I found so valuable a lesson in the story of Herschel Tishivitzer’s selflesness, unhesitating concern for little Simcha Ruzhaner, as the narrator had been called in those days: what it means to be part of a holy people.

The narrator concluded his story, describing how Hershel Tishivitzer, thank G-d, had eventually made his way to America and settled in New York under his family name, Nudel. And how he, the narrator himself, had ended up in Baltimore, where he married the virtuous daughter of a respected Jewish scholar, Rabbi Noach Kahn.  And how he himself had became a rabbi (changing many lives for the better, I know, though he didn’t say so) and how he and his rebbetzin had raised their children in their Jewish religious heritage, children who were continuing to frustrate the enemies of the Jewish people by raising strong Jewish families of their own.

And I wondered – actually, I still do – if the slice of Simcha Ruzhaner’s life had so affected me only because of its radiant, blindingly beautiful message – or if perhaps some part was played by the fact that he too, had taken on a shortened form of his family name, Shafranowitz, and had named his second child Avrohom Yitzchok, although everyone calls me Avi.

© 2006 Rabbi Avi Shafran