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.
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.
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.
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.
the many unfortunate souls in that camp, there was a very 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 during the
prompted him to ask Chaim for an explanation. Chaim, who had been the Rav of a (shtetl)
small community 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 from the Torah.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Shaya settled in Brooklyn after the war. One
Shabbos more than thirty years later, a visiting guest sat down next to him in
shul. After davening, he introduced himself to the visitor, who did not
appear to be very religiously 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.
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.
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 number of years later he married a girl from the kibbutz
and they had one son. Twenty plus 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.
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.
his promise, after the war the young commander left the irreligious kibbutz
where he had been raised and went to Yerushalayim to begin learning how to keep
started living a life of Torah and observing the commandments, he asked his
father and mother if they would also begin by keeeping the laws of Shabbos and
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
(Admor) Grand Rabbi while in America. Their appointment with the Rebbe
was scheduled for the next day of this “chance” meeting with Reb. Shaya.
Chaim’s son, then with tears in his eyes, added that now he knew why he had to
come to New York and why he had come to pray in this 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.
this astonishing experiencing, Rav Chaim’s son and daughter-in-law left the
secular kibbutz and move to a religious community, where they were able to lead
a Torah-observant life along with their son. 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 then his
wondrous are the ways of Hashem!
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