Stories entice. They excite. They teach and offer comfort. This is especially true with respect to the Shoah, which contains no answers.
There is no light, no adequate prayer, no place to go to pour out our hearts since, by and large, we do not even know where the remains lie of each of the six million individuals we have lost. There are only stories.
For this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I offer some stories I heard as a teenager from my father, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Weiss, who recently celebrated his 96th birthday at his home in Jerusalem.
My father was raised in Oswiecim, Poland, the little town that later became notorious by its German name, Auschwitz. When he grew up there, two-thirds of its 12,000 inhabitants were Jewish. Jews fondly called their home Oshpitzin – a play on ushpizin, the word we use on Succot as we invite guests into our succah. The name Oshpitzin fit perfectly in those days because hospitality was always warmly extended to travelers passing through.
My father was one of 10 children.
Three, along with their families, remained in Poland and were murdered during the Shoah. The remaining seven, along with their parents – my paternal grandparents – immigrated to America before the war.
In 1959 my father was one of the first Jews to revisit Poland after the Shoah, effectively pioneering a movement that he characterized as “the act of return,” which has become a widespread Jewish rite of passage in our time. He was devastated by what he saw, recording and later collecting his experiences and impressions in his 1995 book, From Oswiecim to Auschwitz: Poland Revisited, which has since become a classic still used today by visitors returning to the centers of Jewish life that had existed before the Shoah.
In his book, my father describes how, at one point, worn out and depressed, he sat down by the bridge that spans the Vistula River near Krakow and wept over all the desolation he had witnessed: “I wept as our ancestors wept by the waters of Babylon two and a half millennia ago over the destruction of our Temple and our exile from the Holy Land. I wept as I remembered the Poland before the catastrophe of the war. Like the prophet Jeremiah, who had witnessed the services in the Holy Temple, I, a simple man, Moshe the son of David, also grieved. Like Jeremiah, I asked: ‘How does the city sit solitary, like a widow, that once was so full of people?’ The great cities of Poland – Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz, Lublin, Tarnow, Bialystok, even my hometown Oswiecim – where Jewish life had once flourished and thrived, were now desolate, forsaken like childless widows.”
Of course, Poland had never been without anti-Semitism, even when Jews flourished there. Poland is not Israel. My father, an ardent Zionist who made aliya decades ago, serving for years as the rabbi of Shikun Vatikin in Netanya, was certainly aware of this reality when he wrote those words. Still, he wept.
And he returned from his trips to post-Shoah Poland with countless stories – stories that even then, when I was a youngster interested mainly in basketball, influenced me profoundly and, I believe, in so many crucial ways shaped my vision as a rabbi and activist.
One of these stories teaches the lesson of hakrava atzmit – self-sacrifice.
It’s the story of Reb Chaim Ring of Sanz in Southern Galicia. Chaim was 74 when my father met him during one of his return visits. Although still in excellent health, trim and vigorous, Chaim always walked with a cane. When my father asked him why he had remained in Poland after the war, he responded: “I have one task in life, to visit on a daily basis the grave of the Sanzer Tzaddik, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam.” Chaim Ring explained that even when the Nazis destroyed the cemetery, they feared touching the Sanzer’s grave. But as for the Poles showing even this modicum of restraint, Reb Chaim sighed and remarked, “Who knows?” Reb Chaim’s personal dedication to the Sanzer Tzaddik was especially meaningful to my father as his own grandfather, my great grandfather, Reb Asher Anschel Pearlman, at a very young age, was the gabbai of the Sanzer. Indeed, Chaim Ring vividly remembered Reb Anschel, who grew up in Sanz.
My father then writes: “And when I cautioned him [Chaim] that the Poles might try to harm him, the feisty old man declared, ‘Mit mein shtecken vel ich zey derlangen die anti-Semiten!’ (I will beat those anti-Semites with my stick!) Then I understood why he always carried a cane.”
Another story that affected me deeply imparts the message of et achai anochi mevakesh – I am in constant search of my brothers and sisters. It took place in Wieliczka, about 50 kilometers from Oswiecim, where my grandfather Reb Anschel had moved.
My father visited the owner of the fruit store, Mrs. Sobel, one of the few remaining Jews there.
“Why have you come?” she asked.
“Et achai anochi mevakesh,” my father responded.
“If that’s the case,” Mrs. Sobel said, “go home, there are no Jews here.”
Just then the door opened. In strode a young gentile, a giant of a man.
“Dzien dobry, Pan Yuzek” (“Good morning, Mr. Yuzek”), Mrs. Sobel said. “I want to introduce you to a rabbi from America.”
My father then writes: “Yuzek walked over to me, all seven feet, six inches of him, placed his massive hands on my lapels, lifted me from the ground, and shook me like a lulav, all the while spewing filthy curses against the Jews. Naturally, I was alarmed. When he finished with me, he set me back down on the ground and left the store.
“Mrs Sobel,” I said, “I have a wife and children. Hut rachmanos! Have pity! Why did you do this to me?” “Rabbi Weiss,” said Mrs. Sobel, “I simply wanted to introduce you to the son of the rabbi of Wielicszka.
Yuzek is no gentile. He is a Jew, the son of the former rabbi of the town, Rabbi Pinchas Halberstam. His face is identical to that of the late rabbi, and the Polish family that raised him admits he’s not their son.”
Yet another story my father tells that occurred during his visit to Auschwitz had a major impact on my activism, reinforcing the imperative of “Never Again.” Standing in Auschwitz, my father’s guide, unaware that he was Jewish, said, “Too bad you’re here in the winter, with snow on the ground, you can’t see the Auschwitz grass.”
“I’ve seen grass before,” my father retorted. “Is the grass in Auschwitz any different?” “Yes,” the guide said. “The Auschwitz grass is not just green but blue, as it uses the remains of human beings as fertilizer.”
In 1959, as he came to the end of his first trip back to Poland, my father was scheduled to return to the United States. Overcome by what he saw in Poland and seeking a measure of comfort and healing, he changed his travel plans and visited Israel for the first time. It was in Israel that he composed a powerful poem that closes his book.
In his poem, my father pictures himself standing on a hill in the Auschwitz death camp overlooking the barracks, surrounded by white snow, ash, and bone. Recalling the question of the prophet Ezekiel, my father also asks, “Can these bones live?” As if in a vision, there is a great noise and shaking. Bones come together with bones, covered by sinew and flesh and skin. Breath enters them and they live. They stand up on their feet, come out of their graves, and are brought to the land of Israel.
The scene then shifts from darkness to light, death to life. My father now finds himself standing on a mountaintop in Jerusalem. Below, the vast host of the Jewish people is spread out – in schoolrooms, cities, factories, villages – in peace, and yes, also in battle. My father concludes his poem with this prayer: “God, remember the souls of the departed, and guard over the resurrected children of Israel in the land of Israel.”The author is senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, New York. His most recent book, Open Up the Iron Door: Memoir of a Soviet Jewry Activist, was just published by Toby Press