By Rabbi Meir Goldberg
While in the Janowska Road Concentration Camp, Nazi SS officers forced the Bluzhever Rebbe and fellow prisoners on a death march. The Rebbe walked with a maskil (free thinker) whom he befriended, a man who did not believe in G-d. As they approached several huge ditches, the prisoners were ordered to jump across, an almost impossible feat. If they landed in the ditch, they would be summarily shot.
“Well Spira,” said the maskil to the Rebbe, “It looks like we’ve reached our end.” “Just hold onto my coat and we’ll jump across together” replied the Rebbe. They closed their eyes and jumped. They opened their eyes alive on the other side. Shocked, the maskil turned to the Rebbe and asked, “Rebbe, we’re alive, we’re alive because of you! There must be a G-d! How did you do it Rebbe?” The Rebbe replied, “I had zchus avos (ancestral merit). I held on to the bekeshe of my father and his father and all of my ancestors. But tell me,” asked the Rebbe to the maskil, “how did you reach the other side?” The maskil answered, “I was holding on to you!”
I related this story to my students during an inspiring Shabbos in Krakow, Poland, while on a tour of old Polish towns and concentration camps. We had been singing and speaking words of chizuk for hours on that cold January Friday night and nobody wanted to go to sleep. We thought we came to Krakow and would inspire the town. Yet it was 600 years of kedushah from some of the most notable names in the Jewish world whose bekeshe we were hanging on to.
When living in the large frum population centers, we sometimes have the tendency to think that there are so many frum Jews, who view life and our surroundings much the same as we do. Yet we all realize that Torah Jews are but a minute fraction of the world population. What are the odds that out of the close to 7 billion people in the world, we are one of the 14 million of Hashem’s chosen people? And out of those 14 million, what are the odds that we would be one of the 1 million Jews who observe his Torah? How did each of us get here? Why are we frum, while so many of our estranged brothers and sisters are not?
The answer is that each one of us has a great grandfather and a great grandmother who made a conscious decision at some point in their lives, that living as a Torah Jew was the most important thing in their lives and they would pass it on to their children. And whether they lived in Frankfurt or Warsaw, Pressburg or Casablanca, Vilna, Allepo or Munkacz, they swam against the tide of assimilation that surrounded them on all sides. They chose to remain shomrei Shabbos, though they were in the minority. Many had to make these decisions after they came to these prosperous shores, while faced with the pressures of providing for their family, while some have made this decision on their own, after growing up in already secular households. This is why each one of us is here today, keeping Shabbos, going to a shiur, living as a Jew should, and passing these ideals on to our children.
The monotony of life has a way of breaking us down. Words, actions, life choices, often seem to be trivial. We subconsciously convey these messages to our next generation. They take note of our deeds and foibles, what we look at and whom we praise. Everything we do matters and will leave an impression on the next generation. The decisions we make now, however small they seem, echo in eternity.
A friend of mine is well known in the Kiruv world for his incredible success in inspiring hundreds of Jews to Teshuva. I often wonder what it is that makes him so successful. While he does speak beautifully and has a certain dynamism that creates an aura of life and vitality around him, he isn’t much different than many others who have not nearly made quite such an impact on Klal Yisroel. It was when he told me his grandfathers story that it all made sense.
His grandfather grew up in Germany and instead of spending his years in Yeshiva, he fled the Nazi’s. By war’s end this man was half dead, barely surviving the camps; 70% of his stomach needed to be removed. He was nursed back to health by his wife, my friend’s grandmother, who was determined to make a new life for both of them.
The couple moved to America and this German survivor, who knew not much more than how to daven, set out to find employment. During his first year here, he had 39 W2 forms, as he got fired almost weekly from his job as a tailor, because he refused to work on Shabbos. This simple man, educated in almost nothing other than the horrors of life, would not budge when it came to shmiras Shabbos. He finally found steady work which allowed him to keep Shabbos and he raised his family as Torah Jews.
When I heard this story, I understood the secret to my friend’s kiruv success.
Poland, the land inhabited by so many of our ancestors whose Torah life we cling to, is a land of paradoxes. It has a certain old world charm in its rolling, green pastures and quaint European small towns. Yet its big cities look something like the Bronx, with its throwback communist buildings and infrastructure. It is a land so rich in history, with nearly a millennium of a rich and varied panorama of Jewish life. Yet its soil is so saturated in Jewish blood that the ground nearly cries out wherever one goes. Is this land one of kedushah due to the presence of so many great Rabbinic luminaries and millions of Jews who died al Kiddush Hashem or is it a land of tumah because of the hate, murder, death camps and crematoria?
This is what brought 46 secular college students and their frum kiruv staff to the ultimate paradox. As we marched out of Auschwitz-Birkenau we walked along the old train tracks on which millions of Jews were brought in to death or misery. Yet unlike those Jews of 70 years past, we marched out singing Yaakov Shweckey and Yonatan Raizel’s classic, V’hi Sheamda. We gathered underneath the archway entering the camp, this archway of death, singing the words, “V’hakadosh Baruch Hu matzilainu miyadam.” 70 years ago they tried to annihilate us, yet here were 46 college students seeking life. Not merely in the materialistic sense, but more so, yearning for something real; for a fresh, spiritual vitality.
We sang together for a half hour and when we finished singing, we looked up at another paradox. During the Polish winter it is almost always cloudy, dreary and overcast. Yet on this evening a full moon shone. This same moon to which the broken inmates looked to in eager anticipation during Kiddush levana, one of the only Mitzvos they could perform; the moon of which they knew that although it may be small now, it will someday become full and complete again, just like themselves and the Jewish people. Now, 70 years later, it shone on us in all of its wholeness, on a group of 46 students looking to become spiritually whole once again, who were treading down the path of life of our great grandparents.
Rabbi Meir Goldberg is the Director of the MEOR Rutgers Jewish Xperience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to the Lakewood Scoop for permission to republish this tribute to Jewish survival.