In the midst of the most intense suffering during the Holocaust, some Jews displayed spiritual fortitude that almost defies belief. Countless Holocaust chronicles testify to heroic actions the authors witnessed by so-called “ordinary” believing Jews.
Who were these Jews? Very likely they were people like ourselves, people who in their formerly peaceful lives might have been derailed by a traffic ticket, a leaky roof, aggravation over parnassa, difficult in-laws, neighbors or children, stress over shidduchim, and other issues that mark the ebb and flow of life.
The war changed all that. The Holocaust forced people to redefine priorities and to dig into their deepest reserves for the courage and faith to go on. In the crucible of great suffering, a shining nobility of spirit often emerged. Let us reflect on a few glimpses of this spiritual grandeur.
The Secret Tefillin Shel Rosh
An elderly Holocaust survivor left the following request in his tzava’ah. “I request that you place in my grave the tefillin shel rosh (lying in my closet in a special case, next to my tallis and tefillin). Place it next to my head, so that it will bear witness that under the most excruciating conditions I risked my life to perform the mitzvah of tefillin…Your faithful servant, Tzvi Greenstein, son of Shemaya and Sara Pessil, z”l, Hy”d.”
“These moving words were written by a Jew whose entire family except for one brother had been murdered by the Nazis,” Rav Tamir Granot, Rabbi Greenstein’s grandson, related to an audience. “He lost both parents, four brothers, his wife and young son.
“My grandfather’s request regarding the tefillin astounded the family,” Rabbi Granot continued. “We hadn’t known about the old tefillin shel rosh,which was found in his closet after his death, exactly as he described. We were clueless about its history. My grandfather would speak about the Holocaust quite a bit, but never in first person.”
Only after Rabbi Greenstein’s petirah did his family discover that some of the events he had related to them about the war, intimately concerned himself. They learned from other survivors that the tefillin he had safeguarded in his closet for so many years had been with him in the death camps.
“He had had smuggled these tefillin into Auschwitz, and later into Buchenwald,” related Rabbi Granot. “Risking his life, he had put them on every day. Near the end of the war, my grandfather was caught wearing the tefillin during his prayers as he hid behind one of the barracks. An SS officer began strangling him with the straps. He would have choked him to death had not Hashem performed a miracle, causing an air raid siren to go at that very moment. Allied bombers were about to strike and the German dashed off to a shelter, leaving my grandfather alive with the straps still around his neck.”
Although Rabbi Greenstein chose never to speak of the incident, or of his extraordinary mesiras nefesh for the mitzvah of tefillin, he obviously had a profound attachment to the tefillin shel rosh and what it represented to him.
“His wonderful declaration of faith at the end of his tzava’ah was not an outlook that arose from the Holocaust or even in spite of it,” mused his grandson. “This wellspring of faith, as I understand it, is the real reason he survived the trials of the Holocaust and had the strength to start a new family in Israel.”
Tefillin in the Death Camps
As Jews disembarked from the death trains, they were forced, under the watchful eye of brutal guards, to throw all religious items into a pile at the camp gates. Any attempt to smuggle in a siddur, tallis or pair of tefillin, or retrieve any of these items from the pile carried the risk of a ferocious beating.
Nonetheless, Jews like Rabbi Greenstein swallowed their terror and took the risk. By doing so, they thwarted the Nazis’ determination to strip them of their identity; to dehumanize them.
In one of the labor camps comprising Gross-Rosen (a network of 100 slave labor camps in Germany where 125,000 people were murdered), “a Jew redeemed the only tefillin around in exchange for his last piece of bread. Some fifty Jews prayed with these tefillin one after another; behind a living wall [of people] that hid the worshipper,” writes survivor Bella Gutterman in Gesher Tzar El Hachaim.
She cites a case where tefillin were seized by a kapo who ordered the Jews to publicly burn them. Some quick-thinking Jews managed to save the tefillin by stealthily replacing them with similar-looking boxes, which they then set aflame in a pretense of compliance.
In the camp at Dornhau, writes Farbstein in her encyclopedic Hidden in Thunder, “the demand for tefillin was so great, the rabbi decided to separate the tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh, saying it was better to fulfill a partial mitzvah than none at all.”
Not Hunger For Bread
Rav Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, the rav of Sanniki, Poland, was deported with his community in 1942 and went through a long, agonizing string of ordeals. One of the very few Polish rabbonim to survive the war, he kept written records of events during his captivity, at a perpetual risk to his life.
His testimonials are all the more precious as they open a window on the inner world of a Torah leader as he suffered the crucible of the Holocaust, and how he personally viewed events as they were happening. Farbstein encapsulates some of this powerful material in Hidden in Thunder.
In his sefer, Alei Merorot, Rav Aronson describes an astonishing scene: long lines waiting patiently behind the barracks of prisoners who had a pair of tefillin. Standing in line meant passing up an hour of desperately needed sleep and a hot drink, for people who were exhausted, frozen and starving.
Even though tefillin is a mitzvas asei from which people are exempt in a time of life threatening danger, a special effort was made by scores of Jews to perform the mitzvah, the rov notes.
From Alei Merorot: “Let this be an enduring remembrance of how Jews were moser nefesh for a mitzvah in Auschwitz,” Rav Aronson wrote shortly after the war. He went on to describe the morning routine in the camp as people dragged themselves from their wooden planks for another day of slave labor, beatings and abuse.
“Immediately after we wash, while it is still dark, we start the day…We hear police shouting orders, clubbing people for absolutely nothing. Long lines form [behind the barracks] as people hurry to perform the mitzva of putting on tefillin.
“One of us has the job of making sure no one tarries so say an extra tefilla—just the first posuk of Shema Yisrael is allowed. The person then removes the tefillin and passes them to someone else. Another “sentry” stands guard to save us from the Gestapo.”
Remembering those dark days, Rav Aronson marveled at the enormous sacrifice the starving Jews had regularly made. “While we stood on line waiting our turn,” he wrote, “the piece of bread meant for an entire day, was being distributed in the camp. [Whoever remained on line waiting for tefillin risked missing his food ration.]”
“We were thus mekayem the posuk, lo ro’ov lalechem velo tzoma lamayim, ki im lishmoah es divrei Hashem, “neither hunger for bread nor thirst for water, only [hunger] to hear the words of Hashem.”
The Auschwitz ‘Siddur’
Farbsetin in Hidden Thunder cites wondrous stories of ordinary people clinging to faith in the camps, risking their lives to utter a tefilla b’tzibur.
She quotes from Kuntres Ein Dimah by Rabbi Yehoshua Grunwald of Chust who tells of a siddur written on a piece of paper, based partly on a siddur smuggled into Auschwitz and partly on memory. “I recited the Shmoneh Esrai from the written text and everyone—some two thousand people—repeated after me in a whisper, weeping bitterly,” he wrote.
There were also remarkable women who were able to dictate the text of the tefillos as they remembered them from home. Gutterman in Gesher Tzar writes of “an elderly woman from Warsaw, the wife of chazzan, who reconstructed the Rosh Hashana tefillos from memory. On the first night of yom tov, after a long, exhausting day of labor, this elderly woman recited the prayers aloud and the women around her repeated them word by word.”
Pages from many of these makeshift “siddurim” can be viewed in the Yad Vashem archives, the Ghetto Fighters House Archives, Ginzach Kiddush Hashem and in the private hands of survivors’ families.
Pages of Testimony
For many Jews caught in the Nazi deathtrap during the Holocaust, suffering broke their spirit and shook their faith. They felt that G-d had abandoned them.
Others however, clung tightly to faith in the midst of the worst horror. They refused to demand answers that they believed transcended human understanding. Their faith was so deeply ingrained, it was the essence and bedrock of their humanity.
Faith was also the highest form of rebellion against the enemy. When excruciating ordeals had so crushed the soul, simply holding on to one’s sanity and one’s identity as a believing Jew was an act of great heroism.
Vehoyisa meshuga memareh ainecha, “You will go insane from the scenes you witness,” one of the curses in the Tochacha predicts. Survivors say these words capture their horrific experiences in the ghettos and camps.
Resistance under these conditions meant not going insane, not allowing one’s humanity to disintegrate in the bowels of Nazi depravity.
It meant finding the strength somewhere deep within to keep alive the ability, even in the midst of hell, to care about one’s fate and to have compassion for fellow Jews. To make moral choices at the risk of one’s life. To keep whatever mitzvos were possible. To turn to Hashem as a Father even in this bitter period of hester panim.
In Yad Vashem, Israeli’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, the visitor finds a file of eyewitness accounts describing the heroism of “ordinary Jews” in this rare category. These accounts are essentially one-page questionnaires (called Daf Eid—Page of Testimony) that ask for names, biographical data, the actual events and the circumstances surrounding them.
On each questionnaire, Prison/deportation/ghetto/death camp/death march/hiding/escape/resistance/ combat is followed by a single line for the writer to describe in a few words the heroic action(s) he or she witnessed.
“In the Warsaw ghetto,” reads one such testimonial by Zahava Rechels from Ramle, Israel, “a young woman named Miriam Rzetelny was ordered by the Nazis to remove a sefer Torah from a shul and bring it to the street. The Nazis then instructed her to pour fuel on it and burn it. She refused.
“Az shafchu haNazim aleha neft v’sarfu otah chaya, im haSefer Torah,” the writer testifies. In retaliation for Miriam’s defiance, “the Nazis poured gasoline over her body and burned her alive with the sefer Torah.”
On another page of testimony, Yehuda Metzner from Kiryat Chaim chronicles the heroism of his relative Getzel Metzner who broke the law by performing kosher shechitah on a cow so that starving ghetto Jews would have food. He was caught in the act by the Nazis and killed on the spot.
“Ordinary” Jews whose sublime actions should be memorialized.
Across the blood-soaked landscape of the ghettos and camps, the most frequently recited tefilla , not surprisingly, was the Kaddish. Before the ghettos were liquidated, debates had raged over the fate of deported Jews, with some believing the German lies that their loved ones had been “resettled,” and others certain that they were killed.
People received conflicting halachic advice over whether to say Kaddish over those who had disappeared. Once people arrived at the death camps themselves, the terrifying reality of the gas chambers and crematoria removed all doubt.
Some of the Sonderkommando (inmates forced to burn the gassed Jews in ovens and dispose of their ashes) recited Kaddish daily, writes historian Farbstein.
She cites an interview with Auschwitz survivor Yaakov Friemark in which he recalls the following: “After the Sonderkommando had completed the cremation of each day’s shipment of thousands of Jews, Zalman Gradowksi would return to the block, wrap himself in a tallis, put on his tefillin and say Kaddish for the souls of the victims. He wept for the sifrei kodesh, talleisim and tefillin that had gone up in smoke.”
Mendel Steinmetz was a young boy at the time. In his Holocaust chronicle, Eidut Chaya, he wrote that he once attempted to quell his hunger by begging for food in the Sonderkommando barracks. (These workers received extra food rations due to the “crucial” nature of their work—hiding the evidence of Nazi atrocities.)
Steinmetz witnessed an astonishing scene as he crept into the barracks. “I saw about ten of the adult men who worked in the crematorium standing among the bunks,” he recalled. “One of them was saying Kaddish with a broken heart.” (Farbstein, Hidden in Thunder)
Similar descriptions were provided by prisoners in the Ninth Fort in Kovno who were ordered to destroy the bodily remains of the victims in the major Aktions, and by the few survivors of Treblinka and Chelmno.
Survivor and historian Yitzhak Arad in Treblinka writes that as the ghettos were emptied and people felt the end was near, “many who had not been observant in the past joined in the Kaddish with those who were praying.”
Others seemed alienated and torn apart watching people pray. Arad tells of one Jew turned on the worshippers in bitter anguish, screaming, “To whom are you saying Kaddish!?”
Some people, sensing impending doom, were impelled to say Kaddish for themselves. Survivor Refoel Olevski in Hadimah, describes one such individual.
“In Monowitz [forced labor camp], there was a Jew by the name of Mendel Hager…He came to the conviction that he should say Kaddish for himself each day. He felt that every day we went to slave labor, we were going to our own funerals.” [Indeed, many inmates never returned. They were shot, beaten to death, or succumbed to starvation, illness or despair.]
“Mendel Haber’s heartrending Kaddish shocked our broken hearts…One day, he could no longer hold the hoe in his hand, but he still managed to say Kaddish for himself. At the end of the day, we carried his corpse back to the camp with us and I whispered Yisgadal VeYiskadash the entire way.”
“There were millions of such Mendels,” Olevski adds. (Farbstein, Hidden in Thunder)
In The World of Truth….
In Seridei Cherev, Efraim Dekel, one of the organizers of Bricha (an organization that facilitated the emigration of survivors from Eastern Europe to DP camps and to Eretz Yisrael) wrote of a moving scene a fellow activist described to him as he was guiding hundreds of Polish children across the border.
Most of them had been in hiding for several years, either with the families of Polish gentiles or in convents. They had emerged from their hideouts after liberation to learn that they would never be reunited with their parents and families. Everyone had been killed.
“My comrade told us that before setting out to cross the border, the children huddled together in a remote farmyard and recited Kaddish for their families,” wrote Dekel. “My comrade, who was not religious, watched in amazement as these children prayed. Their childish voices rang out tearfully over the open field, Yehei Shemei rabbah mevorach l’olam…!
“As he described this scene to us, he choked up,” Dekel wrote. “We all cried with him.
“In the World of Truth, their parents’ tortured souls had surely found peace.”