The day the rabbi ate grass

As the day of liberation approached, the Nazis sent us westward from Auschwitz.

auschwitz 298.88 (photo credit: )
auschwitz 298.88
(photo credit: )
As the day of liberation approached, the Nazis sent us westward from Auschwitz. On the train they gave us nothing to eat or drink, and the hunger and thirst were excruciating. On the verge of total collapse, we went outside and plundered the grass growing freely in the fields, eating it on the spot. Uncooked. This grass nourished our bodies and souls, and gave us the strength to live until the liberation. Only then did I fully understand the deepest meaning of the passage from Genesis: 'Thorns and thistles the earth shall sprout for you, and you shall eat the weeds of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread.' Thus writes Zvi Hirsch Meizlish, a Hungarian rabbi describing the run-up to the liberation of the concentration camps. When he worked opposite the crematoria in Auschwitz he vowed that if he survived he would publish the writings of rabbis who were not so privileged, and he made good on his promise by publishing their works in the book Mekadshey HaShem. In the introduction he describes moral conundrums faced by those who tried to observe something of Jewish law in Auschwitz. As liberation approached, upon what did he ruminate? On grass - literally, and also spiritually - an analysis of the spiritual and medicinal significance of grass in Jewish tradition. Rabbi Meizlish next describes the day of liberation and the sermon he gave inmates at that time. Of what was he thinking? Not revenge, not food, not safety. "The guards fled and we were left on our own. We inmates fell on each other's necks, hugged each other. They hoisted me up on their shoulders and said that I had buoyed up their spirits during the worst and most dangerous moments. I shouted: Friends, we must now say Shema Yisrael. God has seen us through to liberation. We must accept the yoke of Heaven in freedom." The rabbi sees himself as a link in the chain of those who said the Shema, going back to the biblical Jacob who fell on the neck of his son Joseph and, according to commentators, pronounced that very Shema declaration at that critical moment. AUSCHWITZ WAS liberated on January 27, 1945. The United Nations decided two years ago to designate that date as world Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is officially observed in England, Italy and Germany. As we remember the period beginning January 1945 when one by one the concentration camps were liberated, we have now a new source of information about the liberation, and indeed about the entire period before, during and after Holocaust. That new source is a database that includes the above episodes and thousands of others. It is the result of a unique Holocaust research project which will be presented to the public on Sunday January 28 in Jerusalem. A previously overlooked source of information turns out to be a gold mine of information in the form of autobiographical writings by rabbis who lived, fought or died during the Shoah, and who wrote about themselves in the prefaces to their books, an unusual step for rabbis since autobiography is not a genre utilized often by rabbinical scholars. The historian Esther Farbstein, wife of a Jerusalem yeshiva head, initiated the project. She began hunting down rabbinic works that had Holocaust information in the introductions by rabbis to their books. Together with Dr. Nathan Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, she discovered over 100 such volumes and compiled the dozens of prefaces into a database called "Rabbis' Memoirs" on a CD released this week by the Michlala Jerusalem College. Whereas a rabbinic scholar will write in a more guarded manner in the body of a work, in the preface he shares aspects of himself usually hidden. A case in point is the preface to an important book by Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss, who was well known after the war as a fierce opponent of Zionism. When he comes to write the preface, he drops his political persona. There is not even a whisper of politics in what he writes here. This treasure trove was ignored by Holocaust historians because the actual books, in contrast to the prefaces, often have nothing to do with the Shoah. But in printing or reissuing a book a rabbi has a chance to tell his own story discreetly in the preface. Take for instance a work on circumcision by Rabbi A. Romi Cohn. In the preface of Brit Avraham he explains that the difficulty of this mitzva during the Holocaust made him realize the meaning of self-sacrifice to keep tradition. This rabbinic tome would not have been considered a source for historical research were it not for the single-minded perseverance of Esther Farbstein, who included the preface in the collection that constitutes the new database. The preface fills in parts of the story of Rabbi Cohen who, as he details in another work, The Youngest Partisan, was only 15 in 1944 when he joined the partisans and posed as a German after studying and hiding in yeshivot in Central Europe. Typical of his fierce boldness is the episode he tells of seeking shelter for the night by non-Jews while he was on the run in the forests: "'Please, let us stay here and tomorrow morning we will leave.' They refused shouting, 'No, out!' I saw that we can't reason with them, I started to cry and I begged. Still the answer was, 'No!' I went into the kitchen, opened a drawer, and picked out the biggest butcher knife. I took that knife in my hand, and walked into the room to confront him. 'You want to kill me? Here's the knife - you kill me in front of your father, in your father's house, but you're not going to turn me over to the Nazis. Here's the knife - you can do it now.' When he saw that, he mellowed. 'Stay.'" WHY DID the scholars append the prefaces? Many state explicitly that this is their yad vashem - memorial for those parents, children, community members and yeshiva colleagues who were murdered. There is something poignant and particularly Jewish in books being the vehicle to eternalize their spirit. The Rabbis' Memoirs Project will be launched Sunday January 28 at Jerusalem's International Convention Center at 7 p.m. for women and girls (in Hebrew). Former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Esther Farbstein are scheduled to participate.