This was published on Aish.com
It was a daunting assignment: speaking to 120 eighth grade girls about the Holocaust in the last hour of the last day of their school year. Compounding my challenge, it was gloriously sunny outside. The girls would be anxious to take leave for their summer vacation.
In my favor, I was going to tell them a remarkable story: that of my mother-in-law, Rachel Blum, may her soul rest in peace – a story I have told to spell-bound audiences and have recently published in book form under the title Nothing Bad Ever Happens.
I told these teenage girls that my mother-in-law was roughly their age during the war years, beginning in June 1941 when the Nazis invaded her town, until July 1944 when the Russians liberated Lublin where she had been hiding with a non-Jewish family.
Then I dove into the story, which is truly incredible and gripping – including a Hollywood-worthy climax as Rachel rides in the caboose of a speeding train transporting a thousand SS soldiers to Germany. Fearful an SS officer is about to discover she is Jewish, she convinces the conductor – Ivan Roluk, husband of the non-Jewish couple who took her in – to overturn the train by speeding up around a sharp bend and blowing the horn just beforehand to allow her and his family to jump. (It worked, the family survived and many Nazis were killed; 15-year-old Rachel was responsible for the death of more SS Nazis in one shot than the combined efforts of all the legendary fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising!)
Despite the dramatic nature of that story, I will save the details for the book and instead share another story, one which is in some ways even more incredible.
Rachel’s childhood town, Ludmir, was home to about 22,000 Jews before the war. On Rosh Hashanah 1942, the Nazis, with the help of local collaborators, began marching columns of bedraggled Jews to a spot outside town and machine-gunned them to death into open pits. Between 15,000 and 18,000 Jews lost their lives that way. And Ludmir was just one of countless Jewish towns in Eastern Europe; all told, some million-and-a-half Jews suffered a similar fate under Nazi domination (even before the gas chambers started operating).
Rachel and her family survived thanks to an ingenious attic hideout. And for the next year, she survived by staying in hiding, smuggling in food for her family and ultimately joining the few thousand survivors in the Ludmir ghetto who had been conscripted into brutal slave labor battalions. Over the year, though, each family member was killed or died of starvation.
Finally, on December 25, 1943, the Nazis came to finish off everyone left in the ghetto. In miraculous fashion – Rachel found a hiding place beneath a wooden porch. A few days later she emerged and made her way to a Polish woman her family knew before the war.
This woman risked her life to keep Rachel – until one day when an anti-Semitic neighbor discovered her. Frightened for her own life now, the Polish woman told her she had to leave by the early morning.
It was January 1944. A fresh layer of deep snow lay on the ground. The air was biting cold. And a little girl, improperly dressed, was alone and on the run again.
She wandered the streets of non-Jewish Ludmir for a while before entering a barn. Her entire body chilled to the bone, she found a spot at the far end and stuck her feet into a stack of hay to warm them up.
Suddenly, a woman walked in. Their eyes met. Rachel pleaded with her to be quiet, promising she would be gone by the next morning. The woman said nothing, gathered some items and left.
As the day turned into evening, Rachel prepared to leave. The night before she had experienced a powerful dream where her recently-deceased father appeared to her and told her everything would be alright. Drawing courage from the dream, she exited the barn and approached the house next to it.
She knocked on the door. The woman she had seen earlier in the day opened it and invited her inside. The woman then introduced husband and their seventeen-year-old son (who Rachel later found out worked in the local SS office!). They offered her a bowl of soup. During conversation it emerged that this family, the Roluks, knew Rachel’s father. They praised him for being a very righteous and honest man they had had business dealings with. If they did not have money to pay for the items he gave them on consignment, he did not pressure them to pay.
At this point in the war, both Rachel and the Roluks knew the Nazis would kill any family caught harboring a Jew. Understanding the predicament, Rachel asked Mrs. Roluk if she and her family were religious. She answered affirmatively. Rachel then asked her if they had a Bible. Again affirmative. Rachel next requested that she take the Bible and place it on the table. She did. Finally, Rachel said to the entire family, “I want all of you to place your hands on the Bible.” They complied.
“Now, promise me the following,” the 14-year-old recently orphaned Jewish girl said. “I have nowhere to run. I’m tired and I’m alone. After this, I will go outside to your backyard and lie down in the snow. There I will freeze to death. You will bury me. Now, promise me on this Bible” – and it is difficult to convey the quality of conviction in my mother-in-law’s voice even as she retold it decades later – “that after the war you will find Jewish people and tell that there is a little Jewish girl buried in the backyard. Promise me that you will tell them that her last wish was that she be reburied with other Jews in a Jewish cemetery.”
A deathly silence fell upon the room. The Roluks looked at each other. One by one, they rose from the table and walked into the next room. Rachel could hear them talking. After a while, they returned and said to her, “You will stay with us. We will tell people that you are our niece from another village.”
What the Roluks did not know at the time was that in saving Rachel they were saving themselves – not only in soul but in body too. (This is detailed in the book. Hint: it has to do with the train story above.)
By the end of my lecture, the 120 girls were mesmerized. The most amazing part of Rachel’s story is that – despite the fact that by war’s end she had no family, friends or money – she became the happiest, most active, most loving and helping human being; someone who regularly said with absolute sincerity, “Nothing bad ever happened to me.”
The story of my mother-in-law inspires on many levels. She is a genuine heroine. As Jews, her story impresses upon us an added message: the value of what it means to be Jewish. Perhaps most of all, we learn from her that even if very bad things happen to us, we have within ourselves an astonishing, mysterious, inextinguishable untapped capacity to love; to be truly happy, active, focused and a magnet of joy for others. God knows, the world needs more of that.
The 1972 Olympics was to be a new Olympics symbolizing a new Germany with a new feeling of universal brotherhood. Then Arab terrorists seized 11 Israeli athletes, sparking memories of the Holocaust in the land that perpetrated it. Zman interviews Israeli Olympic delegate Shmuel Lalkin who was only a few feet away in the neighboring apartment at the time of the attack. He provides a fascinating yet harrowing and chilling insider’s account of this terrifying event.
“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt….” Slavery in modern times has been strongly denounced and much effort has been made to uproot it. Despite that, there are — shockingly — more slaves today than perhaps ever in world history! Zman takes a look at modern slavery and how we can use it as an opportunity to appreciate the words of the Haggadah telling us how fortunate we are that we are not enslaved.
King Tut – Not One To Say “Tut Tut” To
The discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, a relatively minor pharaoh, with its fabulous treasures virtually intact, took the world by storm. Everyone could now see for the first time the unbelievable wealth that surrounded the monarchs of the ancient world’s most famous and imposing empire. Read about the discovery of the tomb and learn about its significance in the annals of history and in the eyes of the Torah.
Airliners Gone AWOL
The news this past month was full of the story of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared on March 8. More than two dozen countries searched from land, air, space and sea for any visible sign of the plane. Two weeks of intense searching produced nothing. The plane simply disappeared. But this was not the first time in history that such an event caught the world’s attention. Read the stories of other airplanes that mysteriously vanished.
Apollo 13: Disaster In Space!
The entire world was transfixed. Many said it was the first time they prayed. It all began when the Apollo rocket heading toward the moon experienced a major malfunction. On the ground, specialists worked feverishly to develop a plan to return the astronauts to Earth. It was a race against time. Oxygen, heat and electricity on the craft were fast running out. A series of risky maneuvers were initiated in the slim hope of returning them alive. Would they succeed in time?
Kids Who Made The News
It isn’t every day that children are featured in the news, but when a child does make headlines the circumstances are bound to be extraordinary, if not completely bizarre. Here is an array of curious reports about children that have captured the interest of the media and the public all over the world.
Raised By Wild Animals
Although there are many myths, legends and fictional stories depicting children reared by wild animals — such as dogs, wolves, apes and bears — modern day cases suggests that at least some of those legends may have been based on true accounts. As surreal as this may seem, there have been documented instances even today where children have been adopted and raised by animals.
Humble First Jobs… Of Some Not-So-Humble People
The only truly predictable thing about life is its unpredictability. Nowhere is this more evident, arguably, than in the lives of the most famous (and infamous) world leaders who had the most humble beginnings. Be it the billionaire who once waiting on tables… to the dictator who began as a peasant… to the current President of the United States who used to scooped ice cream, history (past and present) proves time and again that anything can and does happen.
NASI – Anatomy Of A Crisis
It has been called the shidduch crisis. In order to shed light on the nature of it and its possible causes, Zman interviewed Rabbi Moshe Pogrow, the director of NASI, the North American Shidduch Initiative. To provide a more complete picture, we also interviewed several shadchanim who have been involved in NASI shidduchim, including Mrs. Libby Lieberman, and mother of “older singles” who would potentially benefit from the program.
The New Seminary
Seventeen years ago, Rebbetzin Sora Bulka, along with Rabbi Yeshaya Levy, envisioned an educational institution that would achieve two different but related goals. The first was to provide young women with the proper values, skills and knowledge to become professionally involved in quality Jewish education. The second was to allow women to obtain degrees from respected universities while remaining in an environment committed to tzniyus and yiras shamayim. Thus was born The New Seminary.
The Munich Massacre
Munich, Germany – the birthplace of Naziism. The year is 1972, more than 27 years after the end of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. This was to be a new Olympics, symbolizing a new Germany with a new feeling of universal brotherhood and peace for all mankind. Then Arab terrorists infiltrated seized 11 Israeli athletes, sparking memories of the Holocaust in the land that perpetrated it. The world literally watched the horrific events unfold and wondered: Would negotiators and commandos be able to save the Jewish athletes in time?
Hi Tech Veggies
Vegetables and greens are an important part of Pesach tradition, and take a prominent role at the Seder. In this month’s special food section, Zman explores the wild world of insect infestation, and how to have your broccoli and eat it too!
This book highlights the spiritual activism which took place both inside and outside the Soviet Union between 1975 and 1992. Although a movement to help Soviet Jewry began in the United States and elsewhere in the 1960s, its focus was essentially political, not religious. Its goal was to get the Soviet authorities to allow Jews to immigrate to Israel, not necessarily teach them what it meant to live a Jewish life. For the most part, many of the intellectuals and scientists who became activists in the sixties and the seventies never embraced an observant life. They saw their return to Jewish identity in mostly secular terms. There were a handful of old Jews who miraculously held onto their beliefs and observance even from Lenin’s time, but by Soviet design they had no influence on the younger generations. From a Torah perspective, the Soviet Union was a vast spiritual wasteland.
Then a spark was lit – albeit among a handful of young Jews who were alone, scattered, persecuted, under constant surveillance by the KGB and without books or teachers. Fanning their spark into the fire of a spiritual revolution required Jews from outside the Soviet Union to get involved. And, indeed, a few such Jews stepped into the breach.
One of them was was couple: R’ Mordechai Neustadt and his wife. From husband-and-wife travel agents trying to make a small difference there eventually grew this vast network called Vaad Lehatzolas Nidchei Yisrael (Organization to Rescue Dispersed Jews) that dispatched hundreds of shlichim (emissaries) to the Soviet Union to teach and encourage members of a budding baal teshuvah movement. Moreover, as the Soviet Union began collapsing and started letting its Jewish population emigrate, the Vaad helped already-freed Soviet Jews make the transition to life in Eretz Yisrael and America. It would set up yeshivas, kollels and educational institutions geared specifically for them. In short, the Vaad turned a trickle into a torrent. It changed the course of history.
The Vaad’s shlichim were particularly noteworthy in that many of them were prominent roshei yeshiva, venerated mechanchim and acclaimed talmidei chachamim. This cadre of distinguished emissaries placed themselves in the line of fire, risking arrest, detention and hostile interrogations from the KGB just to teach Torah to a lost generation. They were frontline participants and living witnesses to one of the greatest miracles in recent history – the resurrection of Torah-true Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. Their testimonies not only tell the story but tell it with an especially high dosage of Torah perspective.
The hope is that this book becomes the source for young and old, novice and maven, who want an in-depth firsthand account of what happened to Jews in the Soviet Union, the miracle of how Torah sprouted from behind the Iron Curtain, and why, for all its tragedy, the story of Soviet Jewry turned into an incredibly inspiring chapter in the unparalleled ongoing story of the Jewish people.
Bowing To No Other
As background to this month’s cover story, let me share a thought told by Rav Shlomo Brevda, zt”l.
One of the key moments in the Purim story is when Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman (Esther 3:2). Haman was the second most powerful man in the Persian Empire, which ruled the entire civilized world, including all its Jews. Everyone bowed to him — except Mordechai. When Haman found out, he vowed to kill Mordechai.
That set in motion the events that led to the royal decree to exterminate all Jews – as well as the miracles that thwarted the decree, ending with the execution of Haman, his sons and thousands of other anti-Semites throughout the empire.
Rav Brevda, quoting the Vilna Gaon in his commentary on Aggados Megillah, says that Mordechai’s act served as a tikkun for an old communal transgression that had never been properly expiated. When the Jews were first sent into exile by Nevuchadnetzar he erected a huge statue and called all the leading dignitaries of all the peoples in his domain to meet in the valley where the statue resided. At the designated moment, everyone was supposed to bow. Those who refused would be thrown into a furnace.
Everyone bowed, including all the Jews, except for three brave youths, Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah, who were miraculously saved.
The Gemara (Megillah 7) tells us that those Jews who bowed to the idol of Nevuchadneztar did not intend it to be an act of avodah zarah. Rather, they acted out of fear of Nevuchadneztar. However, it had the appearance of avodah zarah, and thus was a chillul Hashem.
It was several generations after Nevuchadnetzar when Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. “Why are you defying the royal decree?” the royal servants asked him.
Mordechai informed them that he was a Yehudi (a Jew), and avodah zarah was forbidden; he would never bow down to Haman, who had made himself into an object of worship (Megillah 10b, 19a; Sanhedrin 6Ib).
Mordechai’s kiddush Hashem served as rectification, tikkun ha’chet, for the chillul Hashem of bowing to Nevuchadnetzar’s idol. In so doing, he undid the earlier wrong and thus set up the deliverance of the Jewish people.
Rav Brevda goes onto explain that the real sin here was that the Jews had come to rely on a power other than Hashem. They looked for help from foreign powers, from persons of great influence or on their own ingenuity and efforts. The tikkun was to absolutely disregard all powers on Earth; to turn only to Hashem for a salvation through prayer and teshuvah.
That is one of the great lessons of Purim: our reliance on Hashem and the primacy of tefillah and teshuvah.
The situation in our cover story was not exactly the same, but there are striking similarities. As such, perhaps it is meant to drive home the point that this lesson is still very current, and one of the primary challenges of our times.
Yaakov Astor, Editor-in-Chief
“Rebbe, please pray for me not to be drafted into the army,” a young man beseeched the Viznitzer Rebbe in the years before World War I. Although non-observant, he knew the Rebbe to be a miracle worker, a man whose prayers were really answered.
The Rebbe’s method was to have the person in need tell him one mitzvah, one good deed, they had done; then the Rebbe would say in his prayers, “Master of the Universe, this person is keeping kosher… or Shabbat, etc. – in that merit please save him.”
The Rebbe looked at the young man now asking him to pray he not be drafted in the army. “Do you pray every morning?” he asked.
“No,” he said, “I don’t wake up till long after noon and then I go to play soccer.”
“Do you keep the Sabbath?”
“How can I? Saturday is reserved for the most important soccer games.”
“Do you eat kosher?”
“It’s cheaper to eat pork.”
The Rebbe persisted, but time and again received the same answer. The young man did not have one single point of merit. Finally, the Rebbe said to him, “I envy you.”
“Yes. Can you imagine, in one moment you can become a greater tzaddik (righteous person) than I.”
“Yes. You see, anyone who does teshuva (repentance) out of fear of God has his sins erased. But anyone who repents out of love of God has his sins turned into merits. And you definitely have more sins than I have merits. In one minute, you can turn everything around and end up with more merits than I.”
A reflective, thoughtful look flashed across this young man’s face. Without batting an eyelash, he said, “Rebbe, wait another year and you will envy me even more!”
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According to Judaism,1 each of us undergoes three different types of Days of Judgment Days:
- Rosh Hashanah, which is an annual review of one’s actions over the previous year used to determine one’s material circumstances for the upcoming year;
- Day of death, which reviews the deceased person’s life and determines whether it is ready for Paradise;
- The Great Day of Judgment, which is an event in the future, at the end of history as we know it, when all who lived are resurrected, and are judged whether they are worthy of everlasting life in a spiritualized renewed physical world (according to most authorities) to frolic in the splendor of God’s Presence.
All this judgment strikes the contemporary mind as backward, even offensive. It only reinforces the stereotypic image of “Old Testament” Judaism as a religion of fear, not love.
Well, yes, judgment — whether on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Death, or the “Great Day of Judgment” — contains the general air of awe and seriousness. There is no sense trying to sugarcoat or diminish the magnitude of these events.
Nevertheless, what’s often lost to the contemporary mind is the liberating experience judgment entails. Perhaps the best illustrations of this are found in a surprising place.
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