Wednesday, Dec 8, 2021

Dragon Slayer

Don’t be fooled by the title of this story — it’s not the tale of an imaginary hero fighting an imaginary beast. In this story, the heroine is Rebbetzin Pearl Benisch, author of ‘‘To Vanquish the Dragon,’’ and the dragon in question is a very real beast: the murderous Nazi regime. To read her memoirs was to be utterly amazed by the scope of her rock-solid emunah and in awe of her eternal Jewish spirit. One truly feels that the Jewish spirit can over­come anything that comes its way; this is the kind of eternal truth that even the Nazis were unable to destroy. Countless bodies were broken, but our spirit remained intact. This spirit is in the heart of every Jew, past and present.

• • • •

It was the night after Yom Kippur, 1983, and exciting news reached Israel from New York: my grandson had just been born. What a great feeling it was to become a grandmother again!

Holocaust-survivor grandmothers, who had once stared death in the face on a daily basis and who had been fed chemicals in their watery soups meant to destroy their reproductive systems, can best value the marvelous gift of motherhood — and grandmother-hood — that Hashem has bestowed upon them.

Who could have imagined, while lying on a dirt floor in Bergen-Belsen, gripped by typhus, burning with fever and dying of thirst, that one could live through that hell, become a normal human being, marry, and bear children?

But a miracle happened. I and others recovered. G-d blew a spark of life into our desiccated bodies, and we began to breathe, walk, live. We fanned that tiny spark into a flame of hope, and we planned for the future and encouraged others to do the same. Wonder of wonders: the dry bones acquired a mantle of flesh and began to resemble human beings again. We married and bore chil­dren. Baruch Hashem, Klal Yisrael was reborn.

Another child had been born that night after Yom Kippur. Another soul to love, hug, enjoy, worry about, and pray for. The bris was scheduled to take place the morning of the first day of Chol HaMoed Succos. I rushed to arrange a flight to New York. Two days before Succos, I happily boarded a Tower Air flight that would take me to this joyous occasion.

The first portion of the flight was quiet and relaxing, and I let my mind dwell upon the happy event of my grandson’s birth. Then, the captain’s voice came suddenly over the loudspeaker.

‘‘We are sorry, but we are experiencing technical difficulties and we must make an emergency landing in Hamburg, Germany. Please stay calm — everything will be all right, and we will do our best to minimize your discomfort.”

Some passengers showed signs of panic, and the crew rushed to reassure us: ‘‘Don’t worry, there’s a slight crack in the windshield that needs to be fixed, and then you’ll be able to reboard the plane and continue to New York.”

After our landing, we were advised to take our belongings and a blanket with us. We were then directed to the airport’s waiting room, which was large enough to accommodate the nearly 300 of us who now had to wait. People tried to settle in comfortably, but I wanted to find out exactly what was going on. The woman who had booked this flight for me was actually on the same plane, but neither she nor any crew members were in sight to answer my questions.

It was late at night, and the cafeteria was closed. We all spent the rest of the night unguarded, and it wasn’t until early the next morning that the German representative for the airline showed up to apologize for the inconvenience.

‘‘The cafeteria will open in a couple of hours, at 8 o’clock,” he in­formed us. ”You will be allowed to have coffee and a snack, what­ever you choose.” How generous!

Eight o’clock finally arrived, and the exhausted passengers queued for coffee. There were sneers on the faces of the early-rising German travelers who began arriving to catch their planes. I overheard several anti-Semitic remarks about Jews, about Israel. I was shaken. I was back in Germany, decades after their defeat, and we were still the dirty Jews.

Oh, G-d. Of all the places in Europe You could have had me land in, why did it have to be Germany? I had sworn never to set foot on German soil again, and there I was. But then, I realized that Providence must have a purpose for bringing me here. Providence wished for me to see the same old hatred on the German faces, the same anti-Semitism, the same Germany. Providence meant me to understand that Germany has not changed, and never will.

I couldn’t bring myself to queue up for coffee on German soil, along with everyone else. What painful recollections the very idea brought to mind! It was only my husband’s foresight that prevent­ed me from experiencing serious hunger; he never allowed me to travel without sandwiches and fruit. (”You never know what could happen,” he’d caution.) I was able to refresh myself with this food that had been lovingly packed in my carry-on and, what’s more, I was even able to help several more people who wouldn’t eat the snacks in the cafeteria.

Several hours later, the German representative returned. The passengers had designated a young man to speak to him, and the news was not good.

‘‘So far, I haven’t heard anything from Tower Air about their plans to fix the windshield or replace the plane. Let’s be patient, as I’ve asked them to inform us of any new developments.”

I did not like this information and I expected no ”developments” that would get me to New York before the holiday. I was deter­mined to leave Germany as soon as possible. I began approaching every airline in the airport to determine which had flights to New York.

After a lot of searching, I discovered a Pan-Am flight that was leaving at 2 o’clock that afternoon. I explained my predicament to the woman at the desk, and asked her to save a seat for me. She informed me that there were seventy available seats on this flight, and instructed me to show up a half-hour before boarding time with whomever else wished to use that flight to reach New York. I was overjoyed and grateful to Hashem for the hashgacha pratis that would allow me to reach New York on time, albeit at a double fare. In a relaxed state of mind, I returned to my co-travelers.

Shortly before 1 o’clock, the German representative returned. ‘‘I’m sorry to inform you,” he said, with the cold German indiffer­ence that I remembered so well, ‘‘that we will not be able to fly today. I have made the necessary arrangements for you to stay in a fine hotel, and I’ve asked the Jewish community of Hamburg to provide kosher food and a succah for whoever requires it. We regret the inconvenience, but this is the most we can do under the circumstances to minimize your discomfort.”

Our liaison translated this oration into Hebrew for us, and I noticed that the crowd was not reacting. Realizing that our young delegate was not representing the religious Jews among us, I asked for the floor and then turned to the German official.

‘‘I know that there are seventy available seats on a Pan-Am flight to New York,” I announced. ‘‘Now, there are forty Sabbath observers among us who are not satisfied with your arrangements and need to get to New York immediately, to be on time for the holiday. I suggest that those forty be placed on that flight at your airline’s expense, along with mothers and children, and all emer­gency cases.”

The agent countered me. ‘‘I’m not allowed to do that, ma’am. I’m responsible for the welfare of all the passengers, and I can’t help just seventy of them at everyone else’s expense. What about the others? They’ll attack me! I’m not looking for trouble.”

The last words were spoken with finality. ‘‘Sir,” I persevered, ‘‘let me talk to them about it. Maybe I can convince them to follow my plan.”

He laughed, a joyless sound that was accompanied by a small sneer. ‘‘Ma’am, in all my experience, there is never cooperation among passengers in a case like this. I wish you luck.”

The floor was mine once again. I took a deep breath and turned to the passengers.

‘‘My dear fellow travelers. As I’m sure you heard, the plane will not be leaving today and probably not tomorrow, either. The fes­tival of Succos begins tonight, and I and all the other Sabbath-observers on this flight will not be able to travel tonight, tomor­row, or the next day. We will be stranded here, and we are not even permitted to travel anywhere that isn’t within walking distance. We would need food, a synagogue and a succah, and we would be unable to celebrate the festival properly.

‘‘On top of this all, I am traveling, thank G-d, to the circumci­sion of my grandson, which I wouldn’t miss for all the money in the world. I’m sure you can all understand the joy of a grandmoth­er at the birth of a grandson. Especially we Holocaust survivors, who watched our children being thrown into the back of black vans like rag dolls to be taken to Auschwitz; we, who, immedi­ately after liberation, combed the camps desperately for children, Jewish children, and found none, because all one million and a half of them had been tortured, gassed, or killed. We survived in an empty world — one without parents, children, grandparents, or grandchildren.

‘‘But then, miraculously, G-d revived our people. He filled the world with children and then grandchildren. All of us here are ei­ther children or grandchildren of survivors. We can all understand the joy of every Jewish child born, because we are all products of that great Jewish tragedy, and we all know the miracle of the re­birth of our nation.

‘‘Now, you’ve all heard me presenting my plan to the agent just before, but now I present it to you, my people, for your consider­ation.”

Our liaison translated my plea into Hebrew, but many seemed to have already understood the English. I was sensing a warm, friendly response from the crowd and, hardly daring to hope, I appealed once more.

‘‘Would those who are opposed to my plan please raise their hands?”

There was a weighty moment of silence, but then not one hand was raised! Thrilled, I continued. ‘‘Thank you, my fellow Jews, for not letting me down. First, for being so warm and understand­ing toward my predicament. Second, and more importantly, for strengthening my belief in the greatness of our people. Third, and most importantly, for showing others here that yes, we are differ­ent.

‘‘I know some of us have a plane to catch now, but I’d like to tell you a little story.”

• • • •

On September 3, 1943, the Nazis liquidated the Tarnow ghetto. Ten thousand people were brutally murdered by being loaded into boxcars on the pretext of relocation to a labor camp. As it later transpired, the boxcars never left the Tarnow vicinity. Instead, the Nazis pumped deadly chemicals into them, after sealing the doors and windows, and the fumes killed everyone within. All the lead­ers, rabbis, and our precious children were killed that day.

Some 2,000 of us, those who were made to work in Madritch’s Tarnow factory, were left in the city square under the guard of Tisch, Madritch’s assistant. The Nazis wanted to make sure that we resumed working at the plant in Plaszow. After waiting in that square for two days, we, the fortunate few selected for life, were marched five abreast to the railroad station, guarded by shouting, two-legged beasts and barking, four-legged ones.

However, we had a problem. One mother in our column had concealed her little boy under her trench coat. Luckily, we some­how passed Amon Goeth, the expert liquidator, who was busily pulling women with suspicious bulges or rucksacks out of the crowd and extracting the youngsters within to satisfy his lust for the blood of children. We were packed tightly into the cattle-cars

— about 120 per car — and it felt like we might suffocate, but we were happy to have helped the mother hide her child. Suddenly, the doors to our car flew open, and there stood a fuming Goeth. ‘‘Mother and child out,” he barked. ‘‘Hand over the boy imme­diately, or I’ll shoot you all!” Silence. Hearts were pounding, but no one gave up the mother

and son.

‘‘There’s no child here,” someone dared to say.

‘‘I saw him entering the car,” Goeth retorted, his face flushed with hatred. ‘‘Hand him over, or I’ll blow up the entire car!”

He was capable of it, we knew. Many of us had worked at the Plaszow camp before, and had seen him exact collective punish­ment. Trembling, I scanned the faces of my fellow passengers. Many were people I had worked with, but there were many unfa­miliar faces, people from all walks of life with all sorts of political and religious affiliations. We were young, chosen for life because we could work. No one surrendered the child. At that moment, we were all simply Jews.

‘‘Move the child out!” screamed Goeth. ‘‘Smugglers! Dirty pigs!”

He was determined, but so were we. We clustered together into a knot of bodies, one gigantic heart beating with love. Nobody moved, and nobody betrayed the boy. The little flame of G-dliness roars to the surface at crucial moments like this, radiating love and mutual responsibility. We had all just gotten away with our lives, but we would give it all away to save one Jewish child.

In the suffocating blackness of that boxcar, my heart’s eye could see a brilliant light, aglow with 120 flames, blazing against the profound benightedness of man’s animal side, his unbridled killer instinct, his unquenchable thirst for human blood. Indeed, the beast did not give up. Desperate to lay hand on mother and child, he ordered his assistant to climb into the boxcar and seize them. Brutally, the SS thug shoved us to one side of the car, made us cross to the other side one by one, and scrutinized us, lest we were concealing the wanted boy. Eventually, inevitably, no more shelter was left. Triumphantly, the SS man seized these great enemies of the Third Reich, a helpless woman and her son, who trembled with fear as he tendered them to his boss, Goeth.

Goeth stood on the steps, an arrogant smile of victory on his lips.

“I told you the Jews were smugglers. I saw them smuggling that kid into the car,” the beast of beasts remarked as he kicked the victims down the boxcar steps.

Again, the doors were sealed tightly. Again, darkness and utter silence reigned inside. Instead of a hoped-for miracle, we heard two terrifying gunshots, one for the mother and one for the little boy.

Nobody spoke. There were no words of consolation. We all felt the gnawing pain of helplessness; that massive, loving body of humanity was heartbroken and deeply wounded. More than a hundred people, ready to sacrifice their young lives on the altar of love and responsibility, could not save even one Jewish child. How painful, how sad.

Even then, having seen evil triumph, I was proud to be part of this wretched, tortured yet great and noble people.

• • • •

‘‘My dear fellow Jews,” I concluded, ‘‘know that there is a little flame of G-dliness in each of us. Sometimes it lies dormant and invisible for a while. But when Jews are in danger or in dire need, it surfaces and shines brightly for all to see. A Jew, any Jew, every Jew, is willing to sacrifice his convenience and sometimes even his life to save or help another Jew. I am proud of you, my dear ones. May G-d bless you all. We are all Bnei Yisrael, the favored children of the Al-mighty.”

We made the Pan-Am flight and landed at Kennedy Airport an hour before sundown. It being our “good fortune” to have no lug­gage to claim, we rushed home and arrived just before Yom Tov began.

On Sunday morning, I proudly attended the bris of my new grandson, who was named after his great-grandfather, Yechiel Menachem. May he grow to become the Menachem, the com­forter and the pride of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people.

• • • •

When I called Rebbetzin Benisch to discuss this remarkable story, I posed a question. “From all your experiences in the camps and throughout the years, what instance of emunah would you say stands out most in your mind?”

Rebbetzin Benisch replied, “Let me share a little story with you. Two weeks ago, I went to a woman doctor, a specialist — she is Jewish, but far from religious — and, when I was there, I asked her the following question:

“‘Do you believe in G-d?’

‘‘She said, ‘No.’

‘‘‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘‘‘Because, if there is a G-d, how could He have let so many Jewish people be killed in the Holocaust? Why didn’t He save them?’

‘‘I replied: ‘I want to share with you an experience I had in Auschwitz: We had just arrived, beaten and broken. As we were heading toward our barracks, we passed the dreaded gas chambers and began shaking with fear and revulsion. Suddenly, we heard a friendly voice call out our first names. My friends and I looked up with puzzlement, and there was Tzila Orlean, a woman who had been our teacher in Bais Yaakov. She was appointed as head nurse of the camp, and used her position to help as many Jews as possible. When Tzila approached us, she smiled and said, with warmth, ‘Gut Shabbos, girls.’

“Gut Shabbos? How do these two words sound in front of a tow­ering chimney belching fire and clouds of black smoke? I asked her how she could say Gut Shabbos. Didn’t she know that we were in Auschwitz?

‘‘She answered: ‘It’s Gut Shabbos, girls, because even here you’ve never stopped being a heilige Yid. You remained a Jew, and never became a beast like them.’

‘‘Tzila reminded us that even in Auschwitz, among the death, starvation, and Nazi beasts, Shabbos still reigned. She reminded us that it remains a ‘gut Shabbos’ as long as one feels hope and faith and the Divine spark within. I breathed freely for the first time and answered, ‘Gut Shabbos.’ I will never forget that encounter with true faith for the rest of my life.

‘‘When the doctor heard these words, she said, ‘If you still be­lieve in G-d after going through all of that, Mrs. Benisch, then I also believe in G-d.’”

• • • •

There is so much to learn from this special woman. Always believe in G-d, no matter what the situation. Keep that spark of G-dliness burning within you forever. Believe in Am Yisrael. And, most importantly, believe in yourself. Never give up, because we are never, ever alone.

• • • •

Rabbi Pruzansky is a noted author, look out for his latest work “Night Of Emunah” Haggadah Shel Pesach. He can be reached at revach613@gmail.com

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