Reb Shaya came to our door one evening and asked if he could tell us a story. He knew that we “collect” incidents that reveal the amazing intricacies of Hashem’s hashgachah pratis and we are especially inspired by examples of outstanding emunah and bitachon.
When we heard Reb Shaya’s account of what he lived through and witnessed during the Holocaust, we wanted to ensure that this amazing tale of mesirus nefesh does not suffer the fate of many other stirring stories of incredible heroism in the service of Hashem that no doubt took place in the raging inferno of Europe in World War II but are lost to us.
We hope that this story of how one Jew’s extraordinary courage and sacrifice reveal the wondrous workings of the Creator’s awesome master plan will serve to illuminate the path for succeeding generations.
At the tender age of fifteen, Reb Shaya was deported to Auschwitz and from there to a work camp in Eastern Germany. He considered himself relatively fortunate because, unlike many others, he found himself in a camp where the guards did not beat the prisoners senseless or awaken them cruelly in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, they were fed little and suffered constant hunger, while enduring long hours of back-breaking labor in bitter cold with a minimum of clothing.
Among the many unfortunate souls in that camp, there was one righteous Jew by the name of Chaim. He was an older man, yet he volunteered to work with a group of five strong, young men who were assigned to tote heavy metal rails to build a railroad loading station. Young Shaya also noticed that Chaim never ate his soup, which was the only hot dish given to the prisoners all day.
Shaya’s curiosity prompted him to ask Chaim for an explanation. Chaim, who had been the Rav of a shtetl before the war, explained that to save a life, a Jew is permitted to work on Shabbos, and any of the assigned jobs were permitted because their lives were in danger if they refused to do them. However, carrying the heavy rails on Shabbos would only infringe a prohibition of the Rabbanim rather than the stricter prohibition of the Torah. Performing other tasks like cutting or digging on Shabbos, which were less back-breaking, but they would involve the severer prohibition of de’Oraisa.
As for the soup, Rav Chaim explained, he gave his daily portion of soup to bribe the camp “barber” to shave him with a hand-operated shaver rather than a straight-edged razor. Indeed Rav Chaim tried to avoid being shaved whenever possible. To avoid calling attention to his unshaven face during the daily roll call, he tried to stand in the middle of the four hundred plus prisoners.
On one occasion this strategy failed and the commandant noticed him for the first time. He called Rav Chaim forward and asked him where he worked. The commandant, seeing that he was an older man, questioned the overseer why this man was assigned to the hardest work detail. The overseer informed the commandant that Rav Chaim not only volunteered but that he never took a day off, and was also one of the very best workers. The commandant insisted that he be transferred to a less demanding assignment.
Rav Chaim admitted to Reb Shaya that he took no time off because he didn’t want the other five men on his team to bear the extra burden his time off would have entailed.
Moreover, Rav Chaim whispered a nightly Torah lesson in the bunk that he and Shaya shared with six other men. Those softly spoken words of Torah that Rav Chaim had so lovingly committed to memory in a different time and place provided solace and inspiration through the long dark nights in the camp.
Rav Chaim also carefully and clandestinely and at great risk kept track of the Jewish calendar by marking the days on pieces of paper that came in the bags of cement and were smuggled into the bunkhouse. He informed all the Jewish inmates of the arrival of Rosh Chodesh and the Yomim Tovim. The behavior of this tzaddik not only heartened and strengthened Reb Shaya, but remained with him as a lifelong example.
They were separated when most of the prisoners, Rav Chaim included, were taken on a forced march of hundreds of miles to flee the oncoming Russians before liberation. Reb Shaya, too ill to move, remained behind and miraculously survived. Now, more than sixty years later he told us the epilogue to this story.
Reb Shaya settled in Brooklyn after the war. One Shabbos more than thirty years later, a new man sat down next to him in shul. After davening, he introduced himself to the visitor, who did not appear to be very observant, and asked his name and from where he came. The man said that he had lived most of his life in Eretz Israel but was born in a shtetl in Europe. Reb Shaya gasped as he recalled that this was the town where Rav Chaim had been the Rav. Reb Shaya began to recount Rav Chaim’s unforgettable acts of tzidkus and mesirus nefesh in the camp during the war.
The visitor listened intently to each word and began to cry. When he regained his composure, he revealed that Rav Chaim was his father and that this was the first news he’d had of him since they were separated during the war. The two men embraced warmly and emotionally.
As a young man with no surviving relatives after the war, Rav Chaim’s son had been sent to an irreligious kibbutz in Eretz Yisrael by an organization that rescued orphaned survivors. A few years later he married a girl from the kibbutz and they had one son. Twenty-some years later, that son served as a tank commander during the Six Day War. In the first few days of the war, under intense shelling, the young commander lost a number of tanks and men under his command. During a quiet moment in the night, exhaustion overcame him and he slept. While he slept, he dreamed that he saw a pious-looking man who said that he was his grandfather and assured his grandson that he would survive the war if he began keeping Shabbos and the other mitzvos.
Awakened by loud shelling and still under the spell of his dream, he decided to commit himself to learn what it meant to be an observant Jew. By the end of the next day’s intense battle this young man’s tank was the only one of his entire command that was not destroyed.
True to his promise, after the war the young commander left the irreligious kibbutz where he had been raised and went to Yerushalayim to begin learning about Yiddishkeit.
When he started living a life of Torah and observing the commandments, he asked his father and mother if they would also become shomer Shabbos and keep the laws of kashrus. His parents were in a quandary. His mother had learned absolutely nothing about Judaism in her atheistic kibbutz and his father has stopped observing anything long before. They consulted some rabbis in Israel and listened to what they had to say. They happened to have a trip scheduled to the States at that time, and they decided to seek the guidance of one of the renowned Admorim while in America. Their appointment with the Rebbe was scheduled for the next day.
Rav Chaim’s son, with fresh tears, told Reb Shaya that now he knew why he had to come to New York and why he had come to pray in that shul and had sat down next to Reb Shaya. This was clearly the Hand of G-d, pointing him along the way to a renewed commitment to his Jewish heritage.
After this astonishing experiencing, Rav Chaim’s son and daughter-in-law agreed to leave the secular kibbutz and move to a religious community, where they were able to lead a Torah-observant life. Perhaps Rav Chaim’s extraordinary devotion to the sanctity of Shabbos and keeping the mitzvoth was the spark that remained hidden for many years and later ignited the souls of his grandson and his son.
How wondrous are the ways of Hashem!
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