Communism & Coronavirus

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By request, I’m posting my article that was published last week in the Yated Ne’eman.

In Mao’s Shadow

Coronavirus is on all our minds these days. It’s been discussed by physicians, politicians, clergy, laymen and everyone in between. It’s shut down or interrupted school districts, airlines, food industries, sporting leagues and more. We’ve heard about it from almost every conceivable angle.

One angle that’s arguably not been discussed as much is its connection to and origin in communism – not the country of China as much as the ideology upon which modern China is formed. Yes, ideas can kill, and communist regimes have killed more people in the past century than the combined death tolls of World War I and World War II. Interestingly, coronavirus too has its origins in a decision rooted in the perverted idealism known as communism – specifically communism’s Chinese founder, Mao Zedung.

This needs a little explanation.

China’s Wet Markets

I was in China in 2013 as a lecturer for Legacy Kosher Tours. Despite visiting memorable sites such as the Great Wall, my revulsion at viewing all the foods offered in the numerous outdoor markets we encountered in every major city remains indelibly etched on my mind. These included such “delicacies” as skewered scorpion, spiced centipede, spider kebab, silk worms on a stick, fried pig’s feet, sautéed cuttlefish (a shrimp-like creature), raw clams, pickled sea cucumbers, minced iguana tails, glazed dung beetles, fried sparrows, grilled snake, turkey vulture schnitzels, skewered seahorse, fried cicada – pretty much everything on two legs… four legs, eight legs, one hundred legs and more.

While visiting a silkworm factory, someone asked the Chinese woman giving us the tour if it was true that the Chinese ate silkworms. Before anyone could stop her, she popped one in her mouth and said “Yes.”

This experience gave me a particularly deep appreciation of the Rashi in Makkos (23b) which states that, to increase our merits, Hashem gave us not only Torah and mitzvos in abundance, but “many admonitions, warnings and commandments about crawling things and carrion that everyone refrains from anyway — all so that we should receive reward for abstaining from them.” How great is Torah! We get rewarded for not eating things we would never want to eat!

At one point, I asked one of the Chinese guides if the people had always eaten such a variety of creepy-crawling things. He told me that they hadn’t — it began after the Great Famine. “Back then,” he said, “you would have been glad to have had what’s on today’s menu.”

Cracking a Few Eggs

“The Great Famine” was the greatest manmade famine in history. It began as an economic crusade initiated by Communist China’s founder and dictator Mao Zedung. Mao called it “The Great Leap Forward.” It was to be a massive mobilization of China’s population with the goal of turning China into an industrial power overnight.

In Western Europe, the Industrial Revolution developed gradually over more than a century. Even at that pace, it created a social upheaval of untold proportions. The transition from a world where most people lived on farms and tilled the soil to one where most lived in cities and worked in factories was wrenching, chaotic and the cause of much turmoil. (It was particularly wrenching to Jewish life, where for centuries Jews had lived in small, isolated communities – shtetls – but now relatively suddenly had to expose themselves to the moral challenges and dangers of urban life.)

The Industrial Revolution did not penetrate Russia in the 1800s. It remained technologically backward even into the 1900s and beyond, including the beginning the Communist Revolution there in 1917. In the 1930s, however, the Soviet Union’s leader, Josef Stalin, decided to impose industrialization on his population – and to do so in a few short years. He did it not only to modernize Russia but to secure communist rule by eliminating private ownership and crushing millions of peasants who might dare resist his policies.

Imagine, one day, officials coming to your farm without warning and confiscating all food products —potatoes, wheat, barley, oats, peas, beans, carrots, onions and every kind of fruit, geese and cattle. Not only that but they also seize farming tools such as wagons, horses, oxen, cars and trucks. The communists called it “collectivization” but it was just another name for massive government theft. In effect, it turned farmers into slave laborers on what was once their own land. Although Soviet authorities promised to return a portion of the food they confiscated, they gave them back very little to eat.

That was by design. When told his policies were killing millions, Stalin didn’t flinch. He justified it saying, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The “broken eggs” would turn out to be an estimated six to eight million human beings who starved to death. The “omelet” was the communist dream of a utopian society where no one owned land. If millions of people had to die to achieve that dream, so be it.

To cover up their atrocities, Soviet authorities barred peasants from traveling to cities, and city dwellers were kept away from the countryside. Stalin even had the census chief arrested when his report showed a population decrease. Whoever was left alive after the terrible winter of 1933 quickly joined the communist cause.

Mao modeled much of his behavior after Stalin – and would end up breaking even more “eggs” in an attempt to create his communist “omelet.”

The Great Famine

The Great Leap Forward

Mao wanted his to country leap into the modern era and industrialize within an even shorter time that the Soviet dictator’s.

The Great Leap Forward began in 1958 in the countryside with a huge reorganization of farming. In less than 12 months, some 700 million peasants — almost four times the population of the United States at the time — were pushed and cajoled into enormous collective farms. The government expected grain production to quadruple. Indeed, from the beginning reports poured in that there were fantastic increases in output!

The only problem was that they were outright lies.

This is the pattern of communist states. In the process of promoting an ideology that almost invariably makes life worse for people it promotes the lie that it is the best life for people. They can get away with it because invariably communist authorities control the press, are masters of propaganda and oppress – often brutally — anyone who opposes them.

Even as communist leaders told Mao they could produce 20 million tons of grain, they knew the truth was maybe half that or even just one-tenth the amount. However, since Mao wanted to hear good news, nobody dared to contradict him or dampen his optimism. If he said grain production would quadruple, it would quadruple — even if it would not. Even if it was only a fraction of the normal output.

The murderous part of this fraud was that the communist government used those completely inflated numbers to project its ability to feed the entire country. When only a percentage of the predicted crop actually came in, many people were left without food — starting with the farmers who labored to produce it!

By the winter of 1959, as a result of communist social engineering, whole villages died of starvation. One survivor described how at first his very elderly great grandparents passed away and were buried. But as the rest of his family died of starvation, the others were too weak to even bury them. The bodies were just there in the open and the survivors lay listlessly, waiting for death. Out of 36 family members, only he survived.

Estimates suggest that 30-40 million Chinese died of hunger between 1959 and 1961. It was the worst manmade famine in history.

Incredibly, the scale of the disaster was concealed from the country. In a communist country the façade is paramount. It must be maintained at all costs or the masses might rebel. Therefore, the only ones in Mao’s China who knew of the horrific reality were the farmers who were starving and the Communist Party leadership who were starving them. The masses in the cities had no clue. When Mao smiled and clapped, they joined him.

The Shadow of Mao

When I visited China in 2013, it was remarkable to me that it was still living in the shadow of Mao. Literally. Tiananmen Square – big enough to hold around 600,000 people and visited by 14 million people each year – even today is dominated by huge pictures of Mao. Long lines snake around a mausoleum where people wait sometimes two hours to get in to see his embalmed body on display.

(Witnessing this and other examples how the Chinese tend to revere the highest – even most corrupt – human authority, it struck me that perhaps China looks the way that the Western world would have looked if Avraham Avinu had never defied Nimrod; and if Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah had never defied Nevuchadnezzar; if there had never been any Jews, people willing to sacrifice their lives for the idea that man is not G-d.)

Be that as it may, when our Chinese guide said that after the Great Famine people first began eating all the repulsive creatures on display in the markets, it resonated with me. What began as a necessity became a habit and was even billed as a delicacy. Indeed, eating exotic creatures is considered a symbol of wealth because they are more rare and expensive. 

On one hand, I said to myself, “To each his own.” On the other hand, the Sefer HaChinuch mentions that one reason Hashem forbade us from eating non-kosher creatures was because they have something physically (not just spiritually) unhealthy about them (see Mitzvos 73, 147, 148, 154).

It turns out that some of these creatures the Chinese love so much potentially carry viruses that can jump into humans.

Communist Capitalism

After Mao’s death in 1976, China was falling apart. In 1978, on the verge of collapse, the communist regime decided to do something very un-communist — give up control and allow private farming. This set China on a dramatic new course and would have made Mao turn over in his grave (or in his mausoleum).

While large companies increasingly dominated the production of popular foods like pork and poultry, some smaller farmers turned to catching and raising wild animals as a way to sustain themselves. Since it started to feed and sustain people, the Chinese government backed it.

Then in 1988, the government made a decision that changed the shape of animal trade in China. They enacted the Wildlife Protection Law which designated the animals as “resources owned by the state” and protected people engaged in the “utilization of wildlife resources.” With that, an industry was born. Small local farms turned into industrial-sized operations. While this helped the economy, bigger populations also meant greater chances that a sick animal could spread disease.

Moreover, farmers were also raising a wider variety of animals. These included exotic reptiles such as snakes and crocodiles; and mammals such as Himalayan palm civets, raccoon dogs, wild boars and pangolins (the latter being illegal because it is considered endangered). A wider variety meant more viruses on the farms. Despite that, these animals were funneled into the wet markets for profit.

By the early 2000s, these markets were teeming with wild animals when the inevitable happened – an animal-borne virus jumped into the human population. In 2002, the deadly SARS virus outbreak was traced to a wet market in southern China. Scientists found traces of the virus in farmed civet cats. Chinese officials quickly shut down the markets and banned wildlife farming.

However, a few months after the outbreak, the Chinese government declared 54 species of wildlife animals, including civet cats, legal to farm again. By 2004, the wildlife-farming industry was worth an estimated $100 billion yuan. By 2018, it had grown to $148 billion yuan. With those numbers it’s been a challenge to put human safety first.

Soon after the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government shut down thousands of wet markets and temporarily banned wildlife trade again. It remains to be seen how long this will last.

Communist Coverup

Arguably the most infuriating part of this tragedy is the coverup. The communist regime initially repressed the news of the outbreak and by doing so contributed to its spread.

Li Wenliang, 34, was an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital. In December 2019 he sent a warning to other physicians about the potential of a respiratory illness he had seen in several patients. Chinese authorities ordered him and other doctors to stop promulgating “rumors” about the SARS-like cases. On January 31, he confirmed he contracted the disease in a social media post. A week later he was dead. The authorities moved aggressively to squelch any protest over his death.

Similar tactics were applied to journalists and amateurs who reported on the virus. They have been told to stop and some have even disappeared. That includes a member of the government — Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken government critic.

All this is par for the course in the communist paradise. Since the times of Lenin and Stalin, dissidents in communist lands have been disappearing, many sent with a one-way ticket to the “gulag” — forced labor camps hidden from the public. China is said to have between one and three million prisoners in their gulags, or as they call them “re-education camps.”

In case of coronavirus, the classic communist coverup not only harmed the native population, but contributed to the rapid worldwide spread of the virus. US National Security adviser Robert O’Brien said that an initial cover-up of the coronavirus in China “cost the world community two months” and exacerbated the global outbreak. If teams from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been invited in early on, he said, “I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened in China and what’s now happening across the world.”

The Power of One

What’s done is done, you say. What practical value is there in exposing this?

At the root of it all is a communist ideology that is diametrically opposed to the Torah. Rabbi Berel Wein explains this beautifully it in one of his lectures on Jewish history:

“In the 18th century, the world was infected by the Marxist idea that human beings don’t count. There are forces, economic and social, that govern all of history. They are immutable forces that no one can change under any circumstances. The collapse of capitalism and rise of communism are historic forces, and human beings do not play a role.

“The corollary to that is that the individual has no worth. The only thing of worth is the state… the idea… the party. Not surprisingly, Chairman Mao killed tens of millions of Chinese to bring about the great, new utopian China. Stalin also killed tens of millions of people to achieve his communist utopia. All those people died because the individual did not exist in the Marxist ideology.

“On the other hand, if you look at the stories in the Torah they are not stories about nations and empires; they are stories about people. The backdrop is the empire, but the story is about the person. The story is about Abraham. The story is about Yitzchak. The story is about Yaakov. The story is about David. Where they lived, what went on — that’s the backdrop. In the Torah, people are important.

“The Sages (Sanhedrin 37a) ask, ‘Why was only one person created to begin the world?’ Why didn’t G-d begin the world with 50 million people? One of the answers is that each of us is obligated to say that the entire universe was created for the sake of one person — and that one person is me! The fact that there are others doesn’t change anything. It was created for me.

“The whole world was created for you! That’s how the Torah looks at people. Judaism is about the power of the individual, the power of one.”

In search for the spiritual roots of this event unprecedented in our times, perhaps we can point to the lesson of the “power of one.” Do you know that the world was created for you? Do you really know it? Do we know that each of us is made b’tzelem Elokim, as a reflection of Hashem? Do we treat others accordingly? Do we treat ourselves accordingly?

Let’s ponder that during some of the quiet moments of the increased opportunity for self-reflection this virus min hashamayim forces us to take.


My Mother-in-Law: Jewish Heroine and Nazi Killer

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This was published on Aish.com

Rachel Blum around age 20, about five years after surviving the Holocaust.

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.

Nothing Bad Ever Happens (retitled: Run Rachel Run) tells the thrilling, true story of Rachel Blum’s struggle to survive in a world bent on destroying her. Click here to order.


Off to China!

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Summer 2013

I’m off to China from July 21 through August 1.

Flyer for China trip

My Mother-in-Law’s Passing

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The Last Witness

With a Heavy Heart…

I write this introduction with a heavy heart… since as we prepare to go to print this month, Menachem Av, my mother-in-law has just passed away.

She was a Holocaust survivor, as some of you may know from my book The Hidden Hand – The Holocaust and from lectures I have delivered as part of my work for Torah Umesorah’s Holocaust education branch, Zechor Yemos Olam.

In many ways, her story is no different than numerous other Jewish men and women who went through the worst imaginable times but emerged as beacons of faith, immersing their energies into rebuilding their lives and establishing new generations. On the other hand, how many people can say that their Bubby caused the deaths of 1,000 SS soldiers at the height of the war in an effort to save her life and the lives of the righteous non-Jewish family that had hidden her?

I hope to publish an article about her incredible story, and perhaps even a book, but the thing that stands out most about her is that she always said with a full heart, “Nothing bad ever happened to me.” This from a woman who as a teenager watched each member of her family killed one by one, a little girl alone against the Nazis and an insane world bent on killing her. Yet, she not only said regularly, “Nothing bad ever happened to me,” but lived it — expressed as an unshakable positive attitude toward everything in life and her total involvement in chessed for others (family and otherwise), even winning an award from the governor of New York for her community work.

I cannot understand or approach my mother-in-law’s emunah peshuta, her simple faith. I cannot comprehend how she came out of her experiences intact physically, mentally and spiritually. Yet, she did.

Of course, she was not the only one. There were many, including Yudel Weinstein whose dramatic story is told in this month’s issue; how he survived 17 hellish days in the Treblinka death camp. Treblinka – the place that began murdering Jews en masse on Tisha B’Av 1942. Treblinka – the death factory no larger than two football fields where 875,000 or more Jewish men, women and children perished. Treblinka – where only a handful of eyewitnesses survived to tell about it.

Some people find Holocaust stories depressing. I find them just the opposite. If one approaches the Holocaust correctly, it is not just another subject. It is the most powerful vehicle to inspire us with the greatest Torah ideals such as ahavas Yisrael; to be more kind and do more chessed; to give us an appreciation of the power of Torah to provide hope in the darkest of circumstances; to impart belief in the eternity of the Jewish people; and, ultimately, to value what it means to be alive.

May the memory of my mother-in-law and the lives of all who went through the Holocaust continue to be a blessing and an inspiration.

Yaakov Astor, Editor-in-Chief

Speaking engagement on Tisha B’av

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I will be speaking on Tisha B’Av, iyh, at a Hakhel event.

See attachment for details: Hakhel – Tisha B’Av 5773


The Hidden Hand: Lessons and Teachings From the Holocaust

Including A New Audio-Visual Presentation

Time: 5:45PM

1323 East 32nd Street (Between M & Kings Highway)

Zman – Nuclear Giants and Ethical Infants

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Cover Zman-41Nuclear Giants and Ethical Infants

“The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

Those words were not uttered by a pacifist, but by a legendary World War II general, a man who commanded 1.3 million men, the largest body of American soldiers ever to serve under a US field commander. They are the words of General Omar Bradley.

Bradley’s warning echoes through time and reverberates throughout this month’s cover story, where we interview a grandson of Harry Truman – who authorized the dropping of the atom bomb — and the grandson of a Jewish air force lieutenant who flew on both atom bomb missions. The larger purpose here is not to question Truman’s decision, which was made under unique, arguably once-in-history circumstances. Rather it is to give context to current events that haunt us today.

As rogue states with unstable leaders guided by fanatical ideologies brandish their nuclear arsenal or are very close to coming into possession of them, r’l; as terrorist groups vie to get – or get more — weapons of mass destruction; as terrorist attacks strike closer to home, we feel increasingly concerned and helpless. Even if we turn back a threat from one quarter there always seems to be another madman waiting in the wings.

The world appears to be edging closer to the very last navuah in Tanach: “Hinei anochi sholeach lachem… Behold, I will send you Eliyahu HaNavi before the coming of the great and fearsome day of Hashem… lest I come and smite the Earth with utter destruction.” (Malachi 3:23-24)

Can we do anything about it? The last words of Tanach indicate that we can: “And he [Eliyahu] shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler suggests that the deeper meaning here is that there will be a gilui Eliyahu – a “revelation of Eliyahu” – that will precede the “great and fearsome day of Hashem.” Gilui Eliyahu refers to a deeper and more profound level of Torah knowledge. The proliferation of Torah will counter the proliferation of WMDs.

How apropos, then, that we go to print with this story just before Shavous, the day commemorating the giving of the Torah, emphasizing generations returning to Torah. Sadly, far too many Jews do not see the connection between proliferation of Torah and the proliferation of peace. If only we had the opportunity to tell them that it is not just a Jewish perspective, but also the perspective of men who knew the meaning and horrors of war, men like General Omar Bradley, who said at the same speech quoted above, “We have too many men of science, too few men of G-d.”

In the post-atomic world, the urgency for every Jew to discover and fulfill his portion of Torah is more pressing than ever.

Yaakov Astor, Editor-in-Chief

New Zman – Nekomah and Nechamah

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Rabbi Marvin Hier recalls Simon Wiesenthal telling him about a transformative moment in his life. It was 1946. He was spending Friday night with a group of fellow Holocaust survivors who could not understand why he decided to become a Nazi hunter.

“Enough with the past,” they argued. “Focus on the future.”

Then, as Wiesenthal looked into the glow of the Shabbos neiros, Rabbi Hier relates, he suddenly saw “the neshamos of the six million listening to their conversation.”

“My dear friends,” Wiesenthal said, “there will come a time when we’ll go up to shamayim and the six million will come to each of us and ask, ‘What have you done?’ You, my dear friend, will tell them that you went into construction to build homes. And you will say you went into the jewelry business. And you became a manufacturer of clothes. But I will have the privilege of saying to them, ‘I have never forgotten you.’”

Of course, survivors who quietly went about rebuilding their lives and raising families loyal to Torah are the greatest heroes. They never forgot their families and friends, or the six million, as they rebuilt Klal Yisrael in the most concrete fashion.

Nevertheless, Simon Wiesenthal was unique in the way he honored the memory of the six million, as an article this month details. Moreover, his life’s work inspired the creation of a center named after him, as conveyed in our cover story.

I feel particularly close to this topic now, as I write this introduction 30,000 feet above ground, returning from a week in Poland where, with a group of mechanchim and mechanchos from Torah Umesorah, we visited the concentration camps, ghettos and mass graves — the tombstone of a vibrant Jewish world that is no more. The most moving part of the trip took place just outside the town of Tarnow, at the site of a mass grave containing the bodies of 800 Jewish children, hy’d.

Read the rest of this entry »

New Zman – Eichmann

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Fifty years ago, on May 31, 1962, Adolf Eichmann was executed after the most public trial in history (it was the first time a trial had been televised). It changed so many things about the world’s understanding of Holocaust — as well as Jewish life in general — that today we take these monumental changes for granted.

Today, for instance, Holocaust survivors are widely viewed as heroes, even among non-Jews. Before the Eichmann trial, however, Israeli society in general despised survivors for not standing up to the Nazis and fighting back. Israelis had been propagandized by the persona of the “New Jew,” a street fighter created in the Zionist image.

Hearing survivor testimony firsthand as the “Architect of the Holocaust” listened in a glass booth a few feet away created in the public eye a different perception of the victims. In the words of Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, this perception was the “polar opposite to this Zionist Weltanschauung.” For the first time, many Israelis and Jews understood the impossibility of directly confronting the Nazis, the complexities involved in choosing to physically resist and the Holocaust survivors’ spiritual heroism. The Eichmann trial, she concludes, was a “catharsis not only to the survivors, but to Israelis and the Jewish people at large.”

Of course, the Eichmann trial also dealt a serious blow to Holocaust deniers. Here was testimony by the man arguably most responsible for orchestrating it, who was quoted as saying he would “jump” into his grave “laughing” in the knowledge that the death of five million Jews was on his hands, and who testified to important aspects of it, including personal visits Auschwitz, Treblinka, gas vans and mass graves in Russia. Despite his incredible denial of any personal guilt associated with his actions, his public testimony makes it that much harder for Jew-haters to deny the Holocaust (the denials of the President of Iran, as well as academics in the Muslim and Western world notwithstanding).

Therefore, as we read about the capture, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, let’s remember that the Holocaust is a treasure trove of Torah lessons. At least six of those lessons were enumerated by the Novominsker Rebbe:

  • Elicit in students sympathy for the victims and others in distress;
  • Inspire them with ahavas Yisrael — to be more kind and do more chessed;
  • Instill them with a love of Judaism;
  • Give them an appreciation of the power of Torah to provide hope in the darkest of circumstances;
  • Imbue them with a sense of hashgachah, i.e. that God runs the world, as well as a closeness to God, and a sense of our responsibility to do His will;
  • Impart to them belief in the eternity of the Jewish People.

Eichmann’s capture and trial is a gift we can use to strengthen our emunah. It is a grand central station of Torah lessons. May we merit taking it to heart and securing these lessons for ourselves and our children.

Yaakov Astor, Editor-in-Chief

The Last Ghetto Fighter

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Leon Weinstein, the last surviving Warsaw Ghetto fighter

On Physical And Spiritual Resistance

The story of Leon Weinstein, last surviving Warsaw ghetto fighter, has a little bit of everything: drama, history, heroism, escape, discovery, life, death, etc.

Be that as it may, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising itself became a controversial topic almost immediately after the war when many anti-religious Jews hijacked it to promote their values. We address the controversy in a sidebar (“Spiritual Resistance”).

I got a taste of the controversy last summer when I visited Warsaw and saw the large monument that the Communists dedicated to the uprising. It was disturbing to see that whereas the west side of the monument boasts a raised sculpture of young, physically strong, heroic-looking Jewish fighters, the east side displays caricatures of old, weak, long-suffering religious Jews.

The message was clearly meant to promote the ideal of the “New Jew,” the term Zionist-Socialists/Communists used to contrast with what they believed to be its polar opposite: the old ghetto Jew. Whereas the latter was downtrodden, stooped and weak, the “New Jew” was strong, aggressive and free; he was not beholden to halachah, the rabbis or even G-d. In short, he was the epitome of kochi v’otzem yadi (Devarim 8:17).

In the Post-Zionism world, culture clashes like this have simmered somewhat. Nevertheless, it still needs to be hammered home that while not denying bravery in a physical sense we do not glorify it at the expense of spiritual bravery and resistance, which the Holocaust produced in quantities and with a quality arguably unmatched in history.

Let me share just one small sample of spiritual resistance, from the Holocaust book, Sisters In The Storm (CIS), whose author lived through the horrors of the Lodz ghetto:

I remember one time when my mother prepared seudah shelishis for the entire group [of her brother’s friends]…. They sang Shabbos zemiros to the haunting chassidishe melodies. Their enthusiasm kindled a spiritual light in our house. For a moment, as I listened to their voices sweeping upwards and praising Hashem for all His good works, I forgot my own hunger….

The bachurim lifted themselves out of the ghetto darkness. They spontaneously jumped up from the benches to dance around the table…. They were in a transcendent, spiritual realm, much closer to heaven than to earth. That seudah shelishis will forever be one of the few bright spots in the memory of my life in the ghetto.

After Binyamin and his friends left the apartment to go to Maariv, I realized that their gathering had actually been an act of rebellion. They had completely defied the Nazis. The suffering, the fear, the pain and hunger that we all felt did not drive them to despair…. Instead of following the orders of the Germans, they followed the orders of the Torah. They were able to find strength, meaning and light in the darkness that enveloped us….

Similarly, Leon Weinstein’s story is remarkable not only for its feats of incredible physical bravery, but for the spiritual bravery that ultimately led Leon to become a baal teshuvah, making his story combination of the best of all worlds.

Light in the Kingdom of Darkness

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Aushwitz-Birkenau. The main Nazi guard tower is the highest point, offering a view of virtually the entire camp. In that tower, we davened mincha…

Last month, I joined a group of 24 educators visiting the concentration camps in Poland. It was the culminating leg of a year-long fellowship program sponsored by Zechor Yemos Olam, the Holocaust education branch of Torah U’Mesorah. Its director, Rabbi Sholom Freidmann, and I worked all year with these highly experienced and accomplished teachers helping them to become in effect the vanguard of a new generation of Holocaust educators.

From the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps at Treblinka and Majdanek to the Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin (presently being rebuilt) to the kevarim of the Remah, Sfas Emes, Chozeh of Lublin, Maharal and others – none of us came back the same.

Undoubtedly, the most moving experience was Auschwitz…

Auschwitz – its name alone sends a chill down the spine.

Peering through the barbed-wire fence for the first time, the thing that struck me was its size. Nothing had prepared me to grasp the sheer expanse of Birkenau, Auschwitz’s main death camp. Besides the unimaginable numbers murdered there, it housed 80,000 slave laborers.


That’s larger than most Jewish communities today; think of a medium-sized town.

Row after row of barracks stretched almost as far as the eye could see. Straight ahead, the infamous railroad tracks extended into the distance further than I had imagined until they veered off to the equally infamous disembarkation point where Dr. Mengele conducted the Selektion, deciding who would live and who would die….

A chilling thought as we head into the days of Elul and Yemei HaDin….

It took hours to tour the camp. Terrifying… horrifying… yet uplifting don’t properly convey the emotions… especially by the “Pool of Ashes,” a marsh-like area of human ash next to the tangled concrete and metal of the now destroyed gas chambers and crematoria, listening to Rabbi Shmuel Klein talk about Kiddush Hashem… which was followed by a rousing kaddish.

Kiddush Hashem – it’s hard to explain to the uninitiated the connection between Auschwitz and Kiddush Hashem. But, nowhere more than the depths of the deepest darkness can the brightest light of spiritual heroism emerge.

By day’s end, we were the only group remaining in this Empire of Evil. That was eerie enough. But then we were given special permission to ascend the main Nazi guard tower. And there, high above Hitler’s Valley of Death, we turned east, bowed and poured our hearts out to Hashem.

After mincha, the guard tower became engulfed in a supernatural orange glow of the now set sun. Spontaneously, we formed a circle and danced — silhouetted against heaven’s glow — singing Aleh Varechev, Ani Ma’amim and L’shana Habah b’Yerushalayim.

View from atop the guard tower where we davened mincha. (View is west; we prayed facing east.)

It was a flash of light in the Kingdom of Darkness. A moment of triumph. A proclamation! The Thousand Year Reich is dead… Om Yisrael chai….

Elul is a time for introspection… and inspiration… to make light, not darkness… to choose life… to live lives of Kiddush Hashem… for the six million kedoshim… for ourselves.