LIVING IN THE PRESENT, KEEPING THE PAST ALIVE
Recently, I attended the bar mitzvah of a son of an old, dear friend who is the youngest son of a Holocaust survivor. He and his son, the bar mitzvah bochur, had the dual zechus of having their father and grandfather attend the bar mitzvah and even address them.
As a child, I knew him as Mr. Cohen, a soft-spoken, refined, ehrliche Yid from the old school, an amazing baal kriah and baal dikduk, and the father of a close friend. I did not know then what he had been through in the Lodz Ghetto, in Auschwitz, and in the other death and slave labor camps where he spent more than five years.
Years later, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen chronicled his experiences in the book “Destined to Survive,” published by ArtScroll. Iron-clad emunah in Hashem and in Hashgocha Protis resonates from virtually every page of the book.
Since then, nearly every time I have spoken with him or heard him speak, he has mentioned the churban of Europe. It is clear that the memories of that horrible period never leave him. Physically, he is living among us in the year 2012, but, more often than not, his mind resides in those anguish-filled years of 1939-1945 together with his friends, both those who survived and those who didn’t.
At the bar mitzvah, he got up and spoke about his Holocaust experiences. He pointed out that as Jews, whenever we hear about Jews being persecuted or suffering, even in countries that are far off, we should feel compelled to do something about it. If Jews are being bombed in Turkey, we should act. He explained, “When we were in the concentration camp, being gassed and tortured, we wondered, ‘Why aren’t the Jews in America doing anything?’”
RETAINING EMUNAH DESPITE ASKING “WHY?”
Reb Yisroel Yitzchok recalled what it was like to conduct a Seder on Pesach night in the concentration camp.
“I and several other Chassidishe bochurim sat together in our barracks,” he recalled. “We had nothing – no matzoh, no maror, no Haggadah Shel Pesach. Nothing. We said the Mah Nishtanah to each other and then each of us tried to say over the snippets of the Haggadah that we remembered by heart.
“I remember,” he continued, “how, while we were conducting our ‘Seder,’ a fellow Jew passed by. Seeing what we were doing, he exclaimed, ‘Are you all crazy?! You are conducting a Seder? Don’t you realize that Hashem has forgotten you?’ I replied to him that I believed that our Seder, with nothing, no matzoh, no maror, no Haggadah, but a Seder performed with mesirus nefesh and love, is more beloved in the eyes of Hashem then the Seder being performed by Jews in America with matzoh, maror, recitation of the entire Haggadah, and fish and meat.
“To us, however, such a question as the one asked by that Yid in the concentration camp had never even entered our minds,” said Reb Yisroel Yitzchok. “The chinuch that we received in our homes was so strong that although we had no idea why Hashem was doing this to us, we understood that we don’t understand and we cannot fathom His ways. That being said, we must still believe in Him with emunah sheleimah. Throughout the harrowing years, this was the way I and my likeminded chaveirim felt.”
Reb Yisroel Yitzchok went on to say that, nowadays, he is often asked to speak for baalei teshuvah. There is a tremendous thirst to hear firsthand experiences of the Holocaust from those in the increasingly dwindling survivor population. They want to hear how a person was able to retain his emunah during the greatest crucible our people have experienced since the churban Bais Hamikdosh.
He ended his speech by thanking Hashem that after all he went through, he had still been zocheh to have numerous children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all going on the proper path. He bentched his grandson, the bar mitzvah bochur, that he will iy”H absorb the hallowed chinuch and emunah that will stand him in good stead for the rest of his life.
A BAR MITZVAH LESSON
At the end of the affair, I went over to Mr. Cohen to wish him mazel tov and thank him for his inspiring speech. The soft-spoken man began to speak with passion that belied his octogenarian status. He said, “I want to tell you something. I am often asked to speak about my experiences in the Holocaust for baalei teshuvah. It is also fairly common that girls schools, both elementary and high schools, ask me to come and speak to the girls. I always find that they are strengthened in their Yiddishkeit by the experience and gain a better understanding of what churban Europe was and what the modern-day Amaleik did to us.
“For some reason,” he wondered aloud, “I am never asked to speak in yeshivos. I always wonder, do boys not need to understand what Hitler did? Do bochurim not need strengthening in emunah? Some of today’s young people are so far removed from the Holocaust that they really don’t have a solid understanding of what happened.”
Mr. Cohen agonized, unable to disguise the pain in his voice.
“I know that there is always a cheshbon of bittul Torah when it comes to yeshivos. Certainly, we should not do this on the cheshbon of seder, but what about during the summer, when the schedule is looser? What about on the afternoon of a taanis tzibbur? Is that not an appropriate time to hear the lessons of the Holocaust as only a survivor can tell it?
“There is so much emunah that can be learned. There is so much hashkofoh. There are so many stories about mesirus nefesh and about Jewish suffering from which today’s bochurim could gain so much. It is especially important when they hear these things from a survivor who came out of the churban with emunah. Let them know. Let them fulfill the commandment to remember what Amaleik did to us.”
I have known Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen for decades. He is not a person who toots his own horn. He is a quiet, humble, soft-spoken individual, a true nechboh el hakeilim, but I believe he is right.
KNOWLEDGE OF THE HOLOCAUST…AND THE LACK THEREOF
About a decade ago, I had the zechus to teach Jewish history to eighth grade bochurim. During the years that I taught, I was absolutely flabbergasted how children in our own schools, the vast majority of whom were grandchildren of survivors, knew next to nothing about the Holocaust other than the fact that six million Jews were killed. I cannot say that they were overly enthusiastic and interested in some of the early periods of Jewish history that we learned about, but when it came to the Holocaust, they were fully engaged and focused. I recognized their deep thirst both for historical facts and the hashkofoh outlook of how to understand this from a Torahperspective.
I am certain that this still exists among numerous older children and bochurim. We need people, ehrliche Yidden suffused with emunas Hashem and emunas chachomim such as Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen and his peers, to speak to them. We must daven that these last seridim, these firebrands saved from the conflagration, remain with us in good health so that they can continue to serve as the walking source of kiddush Hashem and the living link to churban Europe, for it is that source of kiddush Hashem, that living link to the churban of Europe, that represents the enduring manifestation of netzach Yisroel lo yeshaker.