Apr 21, 2009

Yom HaShoah - the survivors

The opening ceremony commemorating, with the focus this year being on the 1.5 million children who were murdered, Yom HaShoah at Yad Vashem can be seen at the Yad Vashem website.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a powerful speech at the ceremony. You can read it in English in this word document from the PMO website.

[...] Yurek was only 14 when the Warsaw Ghetto was established. He turned from child into adult overnight. He smuggled food into the ghetto and his life was under constant threat. Yurek survived. He immigrated to Israel, fought in the War of Independence, started a family and built a home at Kibbutz Meggido. He lost his son Eitan during the Yom Kippur War, but found the fortitude to overcome this tragedy as well. He continued living, continued building and continued inculcating his legacy into thousands of youngsters.

His life story and activities are, to a large extent, a mirror of the Jewish people's transition from exile to liberty – a story of suffering, supreme heroism, construction and renaissance; a story of bereavement, faith and independence.

Yurek may have survived the inferno, but close to a million and a half Jewish children did not survive and perished in the Holocaust. I think the human mind cannot grasp this fact. We always see before us the famous picture of the frightened Jewish child, raising his hands in front of the barrels of German rifles. But this child was only one out of a million and a half children, a million and a half pairs of frightened eyes. Each one of them was an entire world of hopes and dreams, a mother's love and a father's concern, a world transformed instantly into one of terror, suffering and death.

Some of them survived for months and years, hiding in dungeons and forests, freezing in the snow, or starving to death. Children of ten or twelve years-old, escaping like persecuted wild animals from the Nazi hunters hunting them down in order to kill them. Some of these children found shelter in churches and convents, separated from their parents, torn by their longings, sometimes found shelter in the homes of the best of humanity, non-Jews, Righteous Gentiles who risked not only their lives, but also the lives of their families to rescue them from death.

Some of the children, like Yurek, in a reversal of roles became children defending their parents. Children of eight or nine years-old who risked their lives daily to bring food into the starved ghetto and a piece of bread for mommy and daddy. Little heroes, awarded a medal by no one. The majority of them left behind them neither a name nor a trace. The Nazi beast devoured them and their parents, and there is no one to tell of their tale of heroism.

However, even in moments of the most terrible despair of our people’s history, in the final moments of the Warsaw Ghetto, Jewish youngsters from all streams fought an unparalleled war of heroism against the Nazi oppressor. By doing so, they marked the great transformation that was about to occur in the fate of our people several years later, with the establishment of the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces.

Distinguished Guests,

"In every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand". He saves us through the living spirit in our people and its representatives – judges, prophets, kings, Maccabim.

However, in the case of the Holocaust, the rescue came late, too late for six million of our people, and a new flame was rekindled in our remaining survivors only with the establishment of the State of Israel in the Land of Israel.[...]

Survivors chosen to light the torches, including the twin sisters who suffered under Mengele, spoke briefly of their stories.

Rav Lau spoke as well, comparing to Moshe being thrown into the Nile. Batya, the first "chasidei Umot HaOlam" saw him crying - saw rather than heard, because Jews have a natural instinct to cry silently so as not to give up those around him in hiding. And Batya knew that he was Jewish because he was crying like that. Rav Lau decribed how when they were in hiding and the Nazis were looking for them, his mother put cookies in his mouth as a child to make sure he would be quiet and not give them up. Rav Lau says he told his mother that there is no need because he knows that he must be quiet.

Rav Lau says our children need to appreciate what we have here - a national house, a country, freedom, the ability to stand tall. We should kiss the ground of this land that gives us the merit and Jewish identity and full life in our own home.

The ceremony concluded with the army chazzan chanting the Kel Moleh.

On another note, The Jewish Week published an article by Isaac Steven Hershkopf about growing up among survivors and how they lived, concluding with a fascinating, very personal, story about Rav Moshe Feinstein.
I could not have been more than 4 or 5 when I asked her. It seemed to me, at the time, to be an innocent, straightforward question: “Mommy, when do I get my number?”
I was, of course, upset when she burst into tears and ran out of the kitchen, but I was also confused. This was Washington Heights in the 1950s. It was an enclave of survivors. Every adult I knew had a number. Even my teenage sister had one in blue ink tattooed on her forearm.
They were as ubiquitous on the benches of Riverside Drive as they were on the footpaths of Fort Tryon Park. If you saw an adult with some sort of hat on his head, he invariably also hada number on his arm. In the summer, when the community traveled en masse to Catskill bungalow colonies, or to Rockaway beaches, the numbers came too.
I presumed it was a ceremonious part of becoming bar mitzvah, or perhaps graduation from Breuer’s or Soloveichik, our local yeshivas. No one appeared to be embarrassed by their number. ARG! I never saw anyone try to cover it up when they went swimming. It seemed to be a matter of fact part of life.
When, as children, we would ask our parents why there was a “Mother’s Day” and a “Father’s Day,” but no “Children’s Day,” the automatic response was “Every day is ‘Children’s Day’!” In Washington Heights, in the ’50s, every day was Yom HaShoah.
Ironically enough, at the same time, no day was Yom HaShoah. The commemoration, as it exists today, was not around then. Breuer’s and Soloveichik consisted almost exclusively of children of survivors, yet neither school had any assembly, or recognition of any type, of the Shoah.
[...] One summer I was spending a week with my aunt and uncle in upstate Ellenville. Uncle David and Aunt Saba, survivors themselves, as the doctor and nurse in charge of the concentration camp infirmary, had managed to save the lives of innumerable inmates, including my mother and sister. After “the War” they had set up a medical practice in this small Catskill village, where, I discovered, to my amazement, they had one celebrity patient — Rav Moshe.
My aunt mentioned casually that Rav Moshe had an appointment the next day. Would I like to meet him? Would I? It was like asking me, would I like to meet God.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I agonized over what I should wear. Should I approach him? What should I say? Should I mention that his son-in-law was my rebbe? Should I speak to him in English, or my rudimentary Yiddish?
I was seated in the waiting room, in the best clothing I had with me, an hour before his appointment. It seemed like an eternity, but eventually he arrived, accompanied by an assistant at each side. He didn’t notice me.
I was frozen. I had intended to rise deferentially when he entered, but I didn’t. I had prepared a few sentences that I had repeatedly memorized, but I sensed that my heart was beating too quickly for me to speak calmly.
My aunt had heard the chime when he entered and came out of the office to greet him: “Rabbi Feinstein, did you meet my nephew Ikey? Can you believe a shaygitz [unobservant] like me has a yeshiva bochur [student] in the family?”
Rav Moshe finally looked at me. I was mortified. My aunt was addressing him irreverently. She was joking with him. She had called me Ikey, not Yitzchok, or even Isaac.
Then it got even worse. She walked over to him. Surely she knew not to shake his hand. She didn’t. She kissed him affectionately on the cheek as she did many of her favorite patients. She then told him my uncle would see him in a minute and returned to the office.
Rav Moshe and his attendants turned and looked at me, I thought accusingly. I wanted to die. In a panic, I walked over to him and started to apologize profusely: “Rabbi Feinstein, I apologize. My aunt, she isn’t frum [religious]. She doesn’t understand...”
He immediately placed his fingers on my lips to stop me from talking. He then softly spoke two sentences in Yiddish that I will remember to my dying day: “She has numbers on her arms. She is holier than me.”
Rav Moshe had understood what I had not. Our holiest generation was defined by the numbers on their arms.


  1. What a beautiful story! Thanks for sharing it.

  2. moving article!

  3. Beautiful.

    [tearful] Mark [who spent his earliest years in Washington Heights not too long afterwards]

  4. Beautiful, moving and educational story.

    If his aunt would try that on a gadol today his assistants would kick her to the ground.

    The world needs more Rav Moshe Feinsteins.


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