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True Heroism

The following was sent to me by R' Mordechai Eliyahu Hillel ben Yosef Halevi:

During World War Two, countless Jewish parents gave their precious children to Christian neighbors and orphanages in the hope that the latter would provide safe havens for them. The parents expected that they, or their relatives, would take these children back if they survived the war. The few parents who did not perish in the Holocaust, and were able to reclaim their children, often faced another horror. While the parents had summoned the strength to survive the slave labor and death camps, or had hidden out for years, those who took their children were busy teaching them the ways of other religions.

[Additionally,] many Jewish children who were taken in by orphanages, convents and the like, had no parents or close relatives left after the Holocaust. When rabbis or distant relatives finally tracked down many of these children, the priests and nuns who had been their caretakers insisted that no children from Jewish homes were in their institutions. Thus, countless Jewish children were not only stripped of their entire families, they were also stripped of their souls.

In May, 1945, Rabbi Eliezer Silver from the United States and Dayan Grunfeld from England were sent as chaplains to liberate some of the death camps. While there, they were told that many Jewish children had been placed in a monastery in Alsace-Lorraine. The rabbis went there to reclaim them.

When they approached the priest in charge, they asked that the Jewish children be released into the rabbis' care. "I'm sorry," the priest responded, "but there is no way of knowing which children here came from Jewish families. You must have documentation if you wish me to do what you ask."

Of course, the kind of documentation that the priest wanted was unobtainable at the end of the war. The rabbis asked to see the list of names of children who were in the monastery. As the rabbis read the list, they pointed to those that belonged to Jewish children.

"I'm sorry," the priest insisted, "but the names that you pointed to could be either Jewish or Gentile. Miller is a German name, and Markovich is a Russian name, and Swersky is a Polis name. You can't prove that these are Jewish children. If you can't prove which children are Jewish, and do it very quickly, you will have to leave."

One of the rabbis had a brilliant idea. "We'd like to come back again this evening when you are putting the children to sleep."

The priest reluctantly agreed.

That evening the rabbis came to the dormitory, where row upon row of little beds were arranged. The children, many of whom had been in the monastery since the war started in 1939, were going to sleep. The rabbis walked through the aisles of beds, calling out, "Shema Yisrael - Hear, Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One!" One by one, children burst into tears and shrieked, "Mommy!" "Maman!" "Momma!" "Mamushka!" in each of their native tongues.

The priest had succeeded in teaching these precious Jewish souls about the Trinity, the New Testament, and the Christian savior. Each child knew how to say Mass. But the priest did not succeed in erasing these children's memories of their Jewish mothers now murdered - putting them to bed every night with the Shema on their lips.

-From Miriam Swerdlov

There are no words evil enough, no images graphic enough, no imagination sick enough, to possibly depict what our grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, infants and unborn children, endured at the claws of their murderers.

Six million Jews were murdered for one reason and one reason only. Because they were Jews. To our enemies, it didn't matter if the Jew cared that he or she was Jewish. It didn't matter if the person was the most assimilated or the most religious. A Jew was a Jew was a Jew.

Our enemies were able to rip off beards, torch skin, brand arms, pull teeth, and gas bodies. But they were not able to penetrate minds, hearts, souls and spirits. The Jewish neshamah was never diminished and only strengthened.

Remarkably, perhaps miraculously, there were Jews who clung to the Torah--the moral and legal code that has instructed our lives since Sinai--throughout their ordeal. In the ghettos, in the concentration camps, in the midst of the death marches, they continued to refer to the Torah for guidance, posing questions to their rabbis and spiritual leaders. From practical to moral to philosophical, the questions demonstrate the faith these martyrs had in their Creator, and the length they went to fulfill His will.

Most of the questions and responses were never recorded, and of what was, virtually all was lost in the rubble and the ashes. Fortunately, a few precious volumes survived, testament to what our people endured.

[One such work is Rabbi Ephraim Oshry's Responsa from the Holocaust.]

These Jews cared to know what they should do or not do, according to the Torah. When the world made no sense, they still sought to ensure that their actions, their words and their thoughts were pure and holy. When the world ignored G-d and His commandments, they determined that they would not.

Reading these questions and answers, one is struck by the sensitivity, the caring and the thoughtfulness of the responses. But perhaps even more remarkable than the answers themselves is the very fact that the questions were ever asked, and the way in which these precious souls seem to see nothing "heroic" in the fact that they're asking them, regarding themselves simply as Jews living as Jews.

A woman in the ghetto who had just given birth wanted to know if she could circumcise her newborn baby boy before the eighth day, since she feared he would not live even a week. This loving mother wanted to ensure that at least he die a circumcised Jew.

People asked whether or not they should recite blessings over food when the food was not kosher, or if they could recite the morning prayers before the sun came up since it was the only time they wouldn't be noticed.

A very sick man who was told that he was too weak to fast Yom Kippur, and thus forbidden to do so according to Torah law, begged to know if he could nonetheless refrain from eating. Though he had been completely non-observant his entire life, he wanted to die knowing he had fasted for his final Yom Kippur.

A father needed to know if he was permitted to save his only son, slated for certain death, through bribery, when he knew that if his child was saved, another innocent child would be taken in his place.

A mother asked if she could painlessly kill her own baby, since the next day they were coming to take all the children, and would either throw her three-month-old daughter off a rooftop or directly into the fire.

There were Jews who asked for the most proper wording, and then carefully practiced reciting and memorizing the blessing which is recited as one is being murdered al kiddush hashem, sanctifying G-d's name.

These questions were not answered on the basis of personal opinion or feeling. These Jews wanted to know what Torah law had to say on these matters, and it was the rabbis' duty to find the answers. This was not the first time these questions had been asked or answered. We are a people who have known much suffering and persecution. And we are a people who have always wanted to do what was right, what was holy, regardless of our circumstances.

With each year that passes, we must remember the horror, and how our people died. But more importantly, we must remember how they lived. And in doing so, we honor the dignity, the power and the faith that these Jews had.

Our enemies tried to make us untermenschen--sub-humans. They tried to annihilate us, to rid the world forever of the Jews. But they didn't know who they were dealing with. They didn't know what it means to be a Jew. For the Jew is not one who merely strives to be human. The Jew is one who strives to be G-dly. And that can never, never, be destroyed.

-from Sara Esther Crispe

wow, wow... amazing

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About me

  • I'm Rabbi Ally Ehrman
  • From Old City Jerusalem, Israel
  • I am a Rebbe in Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh.
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